The simple answer is “No.”
Discipleship should take place among born-again believers.
In order to understand the concept of discipleship, we must go back to the first century A.D. Would-be disciples would seek out rabbi’s with whom to study. The rabbi would quiz them on the Torah, the Nevi’im, the Ketuvi’im, and oral traditions of previous scribes and rabbi’s. If he thought the potential pupil could make the cut, the rabbi invited the student to live with him for a few years to learn how to mimic what his teacher did and said.
Jesus, by the way, is the only recorded rabbi to seek out his own disciples. Every other rabbi sought out prospective disciples. In the same manner, he seeks out us today.
Follow this Logic: a disciple is a student—it is through the Scripture (i.e., spiritual coursework) and by the Spirit (i.e., the spiritual Professor) that a disciple is taught—Scripture sets forth Christ as the supreme example of discipleship—the goal of the Spirit’s working is to conform us to the image of Christ. So, if, as a student, our textbook is the Bible, our teacher is the Spirit, and our example is Jesus, how can we disciple someone into the image of Christ without this one believing in the power of the Gospel and having the inner-working of the Spirit?
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t meet with people over coffee, lunch, or dinner for the purpose of evangelization. I’m not saying we shouldn’t look for opportunities to share the Gospel with unbelieving friends or cease teaching the Bible to those who need wisdom. What I’m saying is that we shouldn’t confuse discipleship with evangelism.
The only thing in which you can disciple an unbeliever is moral issues. Maintaining moral purity is a portion of what it means to walk with Jesus. But maintaining one’s morality is ultimately pointless if there is no relationship with Christ. The first step toward biblical discipleship begins with salvation.
Ephesians 2 explains why we are unable to disciple Unbelievers:
“And you were dead in your trespasses and sins.”
“But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.” (1 Cor. 2:14)
“And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” (2 Cor. 4:3-4)
Here is the primary obstacle to discipleship: there is no way for you to truly discern whether someone is a believer or unbeliever when you begin your group. The only birth-marks a person has is their works:
Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil.” (Matt. 12:33-35)
We are not saved by works, but our good works validate our salvation:
“But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” (Jam. 2:18)
Six weeks into one of my first D-groups, a man who’s father was a pastor stopped me in our discussion of faith and belief in Christ and said, “I don’t even think I am a believer. I have been raised in church, but I haven’t owned my faith.” You have to press “pause” and rewind.
Let me explain it another way. What is the goal of discipleship? Paul said in Romans 8:29, “ For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” How can we disciple people into the image of someone they don’t know? At the outset of every D-group, I outline the goal of our time together.
I would love to know what you think?
Should Believers Disciple Unbelievers?