This is the second post in a series aimed continuing to increase our clarity as a church around what it means to grow as Jesus’ disciples. You can read part one here.
When We Don’t Define
Because Jesus’ central calling to his church is to make disciples who make disciples (Matt. 28:16-20), this is an area around which we should have great clarity. How do we actually know that we’re “making” what Jesus called us to “make”?
Some object to trying to put too fine a point on defining who a disciple is, because such an effort can feel forced, mechanical. I can understand and resonate with this concern. The biblical picture of what it means to follow Jesus is so rich and nuanced! Wouldn’t we be oversimplifying things by trying to “pin down” what he is talking about?
While a one-sentence definition can never do full justice to the richness of Jesus’ call to “make disciples”, I believe that—for the sake of faithfulness to Jesus—we need to try. In fact, without a shared, workable definition of a disciple, the result is typically not greater nuance and richness in our understanding. To the contrary, it’s usually an unbalanced—and often unbiblical—free for all, that helps nobody. We end up filling in our own mental definitions of what it means to be a disciple and assume everyone else is operating with this same definition. This usually happens at a subconscious level, but here are some of the most common mental definitions we have:
• A disciple is someone who has prayed a certain prayer, publicly identifying themselves with Jesus at some point
• A disciple is someone who frequently attends church activities
• A disciple is someone who likes to study God’s word deeply (think study bibles, highlighters, moleskin notebooks, etc)
• A disciple is someone who endorses the political causes that I (and of course Jesus!) endorses, and rejects the ones that I reject
• A disciple is someone who has moved beyond the “normal” Christian experience and has become more in touch with the “supernatural” elements of Christianity (think speaking in tongues, performing healings, etc)
If these are the working definitions we employ, we will obviously be imbalanced (and sometimes even unbiblical) in our attempts to disciple people.
A Working Definition
The word disciple (mathetes in Greek) literally means “learner” or “student”. So, at the simplest level, a disciple of Jesus is a student of Jesus. But that of course takes further unpacking—and such unpacking has filled volumes throughout church history! But here is our attempt to unpack it just a bit further as a church, with a shared definition of a disciple. It is by no means perfect, but we do feel that it is helpful:
“A disciple is someone who is created by the gospel to learn Christ and lead others to do the same, by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Each part is significant:
“Created by the Gospel”: Emphasizes that we only become “learners” of Jesus when he first calls us (Eph 2:1-10). God takes the initiative in empowering and enabling us to respond to the good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for us (the gospel). The New Testament also makes it clear that when a person becomes a disciple of Jesus, they have not merely selected a new lifestyle option. Rather, behind the scenes there has been a decisive work of God, creating us anew (2 Cor. 5:17) to trust and follow Jesus. Recognizing this should make us deeply humble, and grateful.
“To learn Christ”: Emphasizes that what we are learning is ultimately a person—Jesus—not merely a set of principles, practices, or ideas. To learn Christ is to learn his heart, his desires, his character, the lifestyle he calls us to, his plan for the world. To learn Christ is to bring all of who we are—our intellect, our emotions, our actions—into vital relationship with all of who Christ is for us: learning to rest in his finished work as our Savior, obey his commands as our Lord, live in his kingdom as our king, and enjoy his companionship as our friend. This should make us deeply surrendered to him, in a lifelong, multifaceted learning journey.
“And lead others to do the same”: Emphasizes that the call to make disciples is so close to the heart of Jesus that it’s actually inherent in Jesus’ vision of what it means to be a disciple. When Jesus called his first disciples in Matthew 4:19, he called them to follow him and become “fishers of men”. When the love of Christ is operative in our lives, it leads us outward, compelling us to invest in others as a core part of the identity and calling we receive.
“By the power of the Holy Spirit”: Emphasizes that all of our growth as disciples comes from a power outside of ourselves. A disciple is not someone who has started “trying harder” for God, but who daily being renewed by a supernatural power to look more and more like Jesus Christ.
That is our basic understanding of who a disciple is. You still might be wondering: “What does this look like concretely in the lives of people, then?” In the next several posts, we’ll look more closely at specific marks of growing disciples.