Discipleship is fundamentally relational. Jesus gathered the twelve disciples to be with Him (Mark 3:14). They spent every day with Jesus learning what it means to be His follower. By spending time with Jesus, they learned about prayer, ministry, compassionate service, and many other valuable lessons. Jesus commissioned His disciples to go and make more disciples (Matthew 28:18–20). In response, they implemented a relational disciple-making process similar to the one they experienced (Acts 2:41–45). Just as the twelve disciples grew in discipleship within the context of relationships, their converts did the same.
Early Christianity took on the fundamentally relational character that was modeled by Jesus. The relational nature of early Christian discipleship is seen in Romans 16. There, Paul personally greets men and women by name. His personal relationship with so many people in a city he had never visited demonstrates the relational nature of early Christianity. Paul knew Phoebe, Priscilla, and Aquila because they partnered together in ministry at other churches (Romans 16:1–5; Acts 18:1–3). Paul knew Epaenetus because he was one of his converts (Romans 16:5). Paul knew Andronicus and Junia because they had a reputation for outstanding apostolic ministry (Romans 16:7).
The relational nature of early Christianity is also displayed in the way the early Christians related to one another. They called each other “brother” and “sister” (Romans 16:1, 23). This wasn’t just a meaningless title. It embodied the relational character of the early Christian church and the discipleship culture Jesus created. The early Christians understood that they were God’s children and were family (Romans 8:14–16). The early Christians treated each other like brothers and sisters, greeting one another with a holy kiss (Romans 16:16) and treating each other with tender affection (Romans 12:10). They even risked their lives for each other (Romans 16:4). The relational character of the early church is evinced by Paul’s desire to go to Rome so that he could enjoy their company and be refreshed together with them (Romans 15:24, 32).
The early Christian relational model of discipleship, empowered by the Spirit, produced authentic Christians whose faith and obedience were known throughout the world (Romans 1:8; 16:19) and who would continue Jesus’ mission by crushing Satan under their feet (Romans 16:20). This doesn’t mean that early Christianity wasn’t without its problems. Some acted contrary to the teachings of Jesus and the apostles and caused division and offenses (Romans 16:17). These people served their own passions rather than Jesus. Through their smooth talk, they deceived the simple (Romans 16:18). Part of discipleship is learning how to avoid these disruptive people (Romans 16:17). Discipleship is relational, but it doesn’t make us gullible. It teaches us to love like family but also to know that sometimes the loving thing to do is to avoid spiritually toxic people.