What is a “Disciple”? – This is a HUGE question!
This is the question before us in our eighth of a series of nine studies on the topic of a healthy church. And this one is a biggy! If we get this question wrong, it will misdirect our lives as Christians, it will convolute the church’s understanding of its mission and it will misdirect our ministry to a lost world. Suffice it to say, the stakes are high!
The Bible presents a uniform testimony of disciples and discipleship. But this biblical testimony must be properly understood. The Scripture always distinguishes between true disciples and those who are disciples in name only.
- A true disciple abides in Christ’s word (John 8:31-32), loves the brethren (13:34-35) and bears fruit (15:8). All of this comes from the new life imparted in the new birth by the Spirit (3:1-15).
- Matt. 28:16-20 makes it clear that all Christians are disciple-makers as well as disciples.
- In Acts the term “disciple” is used as the earliest synonym for a “Christian” (11:26). The expressions “those who believe” and “the disciples” are used to describe the same group of people (6:7; 9:26; 14:21-24). The church is variously called the “full number of those who believed” (4:32) and the “full number of the disciples” (6:2). This means any person who is percieved to have experienced the new birth is called a “disciple.” It refers to the average, run-of-the-mill believer.
The New Testament letters teach us the doctrines of Christian discipleship. As J. I. Packer says, “The doctrines on which our discipleship rests are clearest in the epistles, but the nature of discipleship itself is most vividly portrayed in the gospels…We should think, rather, of the theology of the epistles as preparing us to understand better the discipleship relationship with Christ that is set forth in the gospels…”
- The term “disciple” does not appear in the NT epistles. The NT epistles do, however, use discipleship language to describe the Christian life: “learn,” “follow,” “walk,” “imitate,” etc. (1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1; Gal. 5:16-25; Eph. 4:20-21; 5:1; Phil. 3:17)
As Dallas Willard has said:
“The disciple of Jesus is not the deluxe or heavy-duty model of the Christian—especially padded, textured, streamlined, and empowered for the fast lane on the straight and narrow way. He stands on the pages of the New Testament as the first level of basic transportation in the kingdom of God.”
But notice, that while a disciple is not a special kind of elite Christian, every Christian truly is a disciple. In other words, this does not minimize the biblical teaching on discipleship. A Christian is a person who is truly following Jesus in the world. This simply means that if you are not following Jesus as a disciple, then you are not a Christian.
Next question…What form does discipleship take today?
In the NT, and today, a disciple is a regenerate believer in Jesus Christ who is joined with the church and follows Jesus in the world.
Discipleship is a church thing.
Everything that the church is, it is as disciples of Christ. Everything the church does, it does as disciples of Christ. The life of the church, whether gathered or scattered, is the life of discipleship. Michael Wilkins, who has written the most helpful book that I have ever read on biblical discipleship, helpfully summarizes it this way:
“The primary point for us to keep in mind is that discipling today is always undertaken as an outgrowth of the life of the church, whereas prior to Pentecost it occurred with Jesus personally. Let me clarify those points. When we say that the discipling process today is always undertaken as an outgrowth of the life of the church, we emphasize the church as the body of Christ, with the local church as the particular employed in the process. We may go so far as to say that in many ways discipleship is the overall goal of the church, including evangelism, nurturing, fellowship, leadership, worship, etc. Since all believers are disciples, and believers constitute the church, all that we do in the church is somehow related to discipleship and discipling.”
Discipleship ministry happens one-on-one, in small groups, and in large group settings. It happens in more formal ways and in less formal ways. But Christian discipleship is always an outworking of the life of the church.
- Even before Pentecost discipleship was thought of in the context of a variety of accountable relationships in the church (Matt. 18:15-20).
- In the church, individual saints are everywhere bound in real relationships together in Christ (Eph. 4:11-16; Rom. 12:3-8)
What are some false views of discipleship? Briefly, here are three. If you are in any way exposed to North American forms of Christianity, you will likely be familiar with these:
1) individualistic: “lone ranger Christianity,” “me-and-Jesus Christianity”
2) elitist: super-spiritual Christianity (or sometimes second-blessing Christianity) vs. carnal Christianity
3) para-church ministries that undermine the role of the local church
I have personally watched all three of the afore-mentioned perspectives hinder the life and ministry of Christ’s church in the world. But these errant perspectives can be chipped away at as we again look to Scripture for our understanding of the Christian life. The calling on the church then is to live as disciple of Christ who make disciples of Christ. May God find us faithful in our calling!
“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.” (Matt. 28:19-20)
 J. I. Packer Keep in Step with the Spirit p. 71.
 Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives, p. 258.
 Michael Wilkins, Following the Master: A Biblical Theology of Discipleship, p. 279.