What is a Disciple?

What is a Disciple? June 2, 2023

Some years ago, I sat in the office of a pastor discussing discipleship. His perspective echoed what I hear from many pastors: discipleship occurs from the pulpit. I get it. Throughout their four to six year seminary education, the prevailing model placed the attention on the person in front of the classroom. In essence, pastors become “disciples” of professors.

Yet, such a puzzling comment begged for further probing even though I knew where the discussion would end. Pastors, as they learned in seminary, frequently defend the pulpit as a sacred space where one rightly expounds God’s word resulting in changed lives. I’ve even heard a pastor teach that Paul preached from behind a pulpit!

I don’t argue with lives changing by the preached word. Although, I do wonder if the pulpit has been so reified in evangelical culture that no one dare challenge its position, not to mention the position of the one behind it. Certainly, the current climate of declining North American Christianity challenges the veracity of the claim that discipleship occurs from the pulpit. Indeed, with rising numbers of people believing that Jesus is simply a good teacher and God’s first created being, one might wonder about the lessons learned from those speaking from the pulpit.

However, perhaps the term has become confused with other unrelated ideas about being a disciple in today’s church; common ideas like volunteering at VBS, inviting people to church, attending the parking lot, taking out the garbage after a service. These aren’t bad ideas. In fact, some feel necessary for the system of the church we formed in our time.

Yet, these actions might seem strange to a first century disciple. Naturally, the question for the leader behind the pulpit is, “What kind of disciple are you making?” In other words, what are you doing that those in your church are imitating?

Toward a Definition

Sure, times are different and words can change their meaning — or we change their meaning. So, a first order question regarding discipleship must be, “what is a disciple?” Every pastor and church leader knows he or she should make them (Matt 28:19). Still, if we cannot or if we incorrectly define “disciple” then we risk creating a system of “discipleship” that reflects what we do more than who Christ called us to be.

In it’s simplest understanding, a disciple is a learner or imitator. For millennia, the Greek word, mathetes, has consistently been defined as someone who studies and imitates the character and life of a teacher. Writing in the first century AD, Seneca captures the qualitative aspect of mathetes,

Plato, Aristotle, and the whole throng of sages who were destined to go each his different way, derived more benefit from the character than from the words of Socrates” (Ep 6.5).

By its very nature, “disciple” communicates a qualitative character measured according to the character of the one imitated. For instance, Paul would exclaim, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). So, in first century Christianity, mathetes meant,

…someone who grows in their knowledge of God, fellowships with other believers, worships in a community, and prays like those assembled in a house in Acts 4. Then, empowered by the Holy Spirit, [the disciple] would boldly declare the word of God and more and more people would become followers of Jesus. (Ephesiology, loc 795)

Qualitative Character of a Disciple 

No doubt that in the early church such a qualitative character drew others into the orbit of the disciples. In these orbits of relationship we see lives transformed more in a centered-set paradigm than in a bounded-set one. So, in this context, Jesus’s command to make disciples (the imperative for all Christians) is naturally qualitative (Matt 28:19). We do this by going (to the workplace, grocery store, next door, world, etc), teaching them to own/possess all He commanded, and identifying them with the community of the Godhead. And we do this everywhere: Jerusalem AND Judea AND Samaria AND the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).

In Ephesiology: a Study of the Ephesian Movement, I outline 11 qualitative characteristics of a disciple in the church of Ephesus. Discipleship, if taken out of the context of the first century Ephesian movement and viewed through the lens of the failures of the American evangelical church (Mars Hill, Harvest, Willowcreek, Hillsong), would feel like a pressure tactic to perform as a leader dictates. 

Doing Jesusy Things

Yet, put in its first century environment, discipleship means imitating Jesus and doing “Jesusy” things: gossiping about the Kingdom; caring for the marginalized; having compassion for those in need; calling people to follow Christ; living sacrificially for the sake of God’s mission; loving our neighbor; and welcoming the stranger.

Leaders, then, empower disciples to imitate Jesus. Rather than dictating their own vision for ministry, they inspire us to follow Jesus’s vision for His body. They know only one head of the church: Christ. And He, as the single head, animates all the disciples, each one of us.

Over the next 11 blogs, I’ll add some clarity to the New Testament understanding of a disciple through the lens of the Ephesian church. I hope you’ll find these helpful.  

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