What is a Disciple?

A friend challenges believers to use care in answering the question, “Are you a Christian?” We must respond with another question, “What do you mean by ‘Christian’?” Frequently when the inquisitor defines the term my friend says, “No, I am not a ‘Christian’ as you’ve used the word.” (For example, if you tell a person you are a Christian and that word means “hypocrite” to her, you’ve identified yourself as untrustworthy.)

What people mean when they use certain words is significant. So when you read or hear the word “disciple” what does this mean to you? How close is your definition to the way the word is used in the New Testament? A disciple is a learner, but even here we may attach cultural meanings that we need to re-think. Since the bulk of our learning has come in a school setting, we may transfer a mental image of a classroom to the word “disciple.” How much time do you think Jesus’ disciples spent seated in rows watching him teach? How did they learn from him?

An “apprentice” would probably be a better translation of the biblical ideas attached to the word “disciple.” An apprentice cabinetmaker will spend much time with a master craftsman learning the fine points of the trade. While I took three years of woodworking in high school, none of my class projects impacted me like one summer of working in an acoustic guitar factory. Even there I did not receive the prolonged close personal training of an apprentice.

Serving an apprenticeship under Jesus wasn’t focused so much on teaching content as it was personal character. James and John, “the sons of thunder,” were chided for their desire to call down the divine destruction on a Samaritan village. They needed to develop the heart of Jesus, not just memorize his latest sermon. Don’t misunderstand me, content is important, but separated from character transformation, it is often distorted.

Let me share some suggestions my friend, David Watson, makes for all who will take seriously Jesus’ command to make disciples:

  1. Never do ministry alone. Others will not learn from you if you do everything.  Their participation is the key.
  2. Never do anything you can equip someone else to do. A team can do more work. Others will learn to do some things better than you.
  3. Never do anything someone else can do. They learn as they do. They learn even better to follow Jesus when they teach someone else, too.
  4. Encourage the person you are discipling to teach what they are learning.  This will allow you to watch them working with another and help them correct areas they need to improve.
  5. Those you disciple must be involved in teaching others what they are learning. Replication is at the heart of the Great Commission.
  6. See one. Do one. Teach one. The more quickly people move through each of these stages the more quickly they are transformed by Jesus’ gospel.
  7. Use every situation to learn and/or teach. Much discipling can happen on the way to other activities.
  8. Mistakes are never hidden, but learned from. Some of our greatest growth comes when we confront our mistakes as opportunities to learn.

Do you want to become more like Jesus? Intentionally pour what you know of his heart into another person. As you obey Jesus’ command you will be changed. The person you disciple will be changed. And as she imitates your example the disciple becomes a discipler and the multiplication principle kicks into effect.

One Comment

  1. I, too, like “apprentice” as a translation–or at least a dynamic translation–of the term “disciple.” When speaking in Russia, I was told they had no word for “disciple.” But they understood “apprentice.”


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