Here at Life on Life, we help local churches around the world follow Jesus’ model of discipleship. In order to understand his model, however, we must first answer the question, what is a disciple?
Many people today would identify as Christians, but how many Christians would identify as a disciple?
We would guess that the number of people who consider themselves disciples is much smaller than those who consider themselves Christians. This comes from a lack of clear understanding of what it means to be a disciple.
It is important that we learn a good definition of a disciple, however. After all, the Greek word for Christian is only used in the Bible 3 times, but the word for disciple is used 269 times!
In this article, we will provide a Biblical definition and answer the question, what is a disciple? Let’s get started:
Christian vs Disciple: Is there a difference?
Many people today have been taught that there is a difference between a Christian and a disciple. A disciple is a super committed, disciplined, even an elite Christian. We get this picture in our minds of a disciple being the kind of person who wakes up 3 hours before dawn to pray or who reads through the Bible 4 times each year.
On the flip side, we’re tempted to think that a Christian is merely someone who is saved, but may or may not be committed to walking with Jesus every day.
Certain organizations and books may promote this dichotomy, but there is a major problem: it’s not Biblical. In fact, the Bible never distinguishes the words disciple from Christian. Not once.
This false dichotomy is one of the reasons we see such a huge gap between the clergy and the laity in a church. We see the full-time, vocational ministers as the most spiritual while the rest of us are just getting by. But this idea goes against the priesthood of all believers we see in 1 Peter 2.
Another failing comes from the evangelical idea that we need to share the gospel just to get people in the door. They can hear the gospel, accept Jesus and their fire insurance, and then go on living as if nothing else changed.
This idea also goes against scripture. When Jesus gave the Great Commission in Matthew 28, he said,
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
To be a Christian is to be a disciple. We’ve often missed this in the church and as a result, we’ve missed what Christ has called us to. So, what is a disciple?
Definition of Disciple
Put simply, a disciple is a follower or student.
Dr. Michael Wilkins provides a few similar and relevant definitions in Following the Master:
A disciple, in the general sense, is anyone who is a committed follower of a great master.
In the specific sense, a Christian disciple of Jesus is one who has come to him and acknowledged their need for a savior, trusting fully in the finished work of Christ on the cross for redemption. The life they then live, by faith, is one of following The Lord who is both with them and sending them.
Some other definitions that might help our understanding of the word disciple (also from Dr. Wilkins):
- Discipleship: the ongoing process of growth as a disciple; becoming like Jesus in every area of life.
- Discipling: the responsibility of disciples helping each other to grow as disciples.
- Disciplemaking: In the broadest sense this includes evangelism/conversion (“go…make disciples”) and then the ongoing process of growth as a disciple (“baptizing…teaching them to obey everything I commanded you”).
Here at Life on Life, we have a more specific definition of Life on Life Missional Discipleship (this one from Randy Pope): Laboring in the lives of a few with the intention of imparting one’s life, the gospel and God’s Word in such a way as to see them become mature and equipped followers of Christ, committed to doing the same in the lives of others.
What is the goal of discipleship?
We love programs in the modern world, which is why we’re so tempted to limit discipleship to a simple program of groups meeting together.
If being in a group of people to talk about God was the goal of discipleship, then the discipleship movement would die in a couple of generations. Instead, groups meeting together in growing numbers are the result of loving, intentional discipleship, but not the goal.
The true goal of discipleship is to be conformed into the image of Christ. This comes from 2 Corinthians 3:18, which says, And we all, with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
In the beginning, we were created by God in His own image. The fall in Genesis 3 caused this image to be broken or distorted. Through the work of redemption, we are being restored as we look on Christ.
The final goal is complete restoration of the image of God, where we will have no sin. As 1 John 3:1-3 says,
See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.
What is a mature disciple?
Another way that the Bible describes the goal of discipleship is to develop mature and equipped believers. This is what Paul says in Colossians 1:28-29, “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.
What does maturity mean for the Christian disciple? It certainly does not imply a consumeristic view of Christianity. Instead, a mature Christian is outward-focused and will naturally move toward others.
A consumer asks “what can I get out of this?” A mature Christian learns and grows in their walk with God, but asks a second vital question: “how can I give this away?”
11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
What is a disciple? Disciples are not just the spiritually elite. Discipleship is not just a term for seminarians. A disciple is anyone and everyone who follows Christ. If you have put your faith in Christ, if you belong to him, then you are a disciple.
When Jesus gave the great commission, he called us to make disciples. We have all received the mission to become more like Christ, to share what we’ve learned, and to help others become mature and equipped so that they may also share what they’ve learned.
If you’re new to the idea of discipleship, this may sound scary, but it doesn’t have to be. We provide training and coaching for leaders who are looking to start a discipleship movement in their church. We’ve seen this model propel discipleship movements all across the globe.
If you’re interested in starting a discipleship movement in your church, then consider joining one of our Info Calls to learn more about our training and coaching process.