Do you know how many times the word “Christian” occurs in the New Testament? A measly three times. On the other hand, the word “disciple” occurs 269 times. Although the term “Christian” has been watered down, and many see discipleship as an optional matter, it is clear that this is not what Jesus intended (see previous post). After all, the early disciples were called Christians because they were learners, students, and apprentices of Christ. Thus, just as “being Canadian” is a part of the identity of a Canadian citizen, “being Christian” or “being a disciple” is an identity issue.
But what exactly is a disciple? What sort of definition should we use to understand our identity?
Here are six different definitions of a disciple by experts:
- A disciple is an individual who “desires above all else to be like him [Christ]” (Dallas Willard – Philosopher)
- A disciple is an individual who is “becoming just like Jesus, doing what Jesus did, and doing [those last two points] with the types of people Jesus liked spending time with (Hugh Halter – Church Planter and Missional Specialist)
- A disciple is one who adheres to Christ (Dietrich Bonhoeffer – Pastor and Martyr)
- A disciple is an individual who has encountered “Jesus as Lord and not merely as Rabbi” (Eric Geiger, Michael Kelley, and Philip Nation – Researchers)
- A disciple is one who is following Christ (head), being changed by Jesus (heart) and committed to Jesus’ mission to save people from their sin (hands) (Jim Putnam – Megachurch Pastor)
- “A disciple is rational (learner), relational (family), and missional (missionary)” (Jonathan Dodson – Pastor and Discipleship Thinker)
Each one of these previous definitions are nuanced differently based on the experience, training, and natural bias of each author. However, the common thread that holds them altogether is Jesus.
After all, “Christianity without the living Christ is inevitably Christianity without discipleship, and Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ” (Bonhoeffer)
After writing my masters thesis on the topic of discipleship and multi-site churches, here is what I’ve concluded to be the definition of a disciple: “A disciple of Jesus is an individual who is continually being transformed into the likeness of Christ, as he or she is learning and participating in the mission of God with others.”
When looking at Romans 12:1-2, it is clear why a disciple needs to be continually transformed into the likeness of Christ.
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will (Rom 12:1-2 NIV)
For one, the phrases “do not conform” and “be transformed” are both imperatives, which make them a clear command, but more importantly, the fact that they are also in the present tense points to the continual nature of these commands. Therefore, this passage is literally saying, “do not be conformed, not now, not tomorrow, not ever,” as well as, “be transformed and continue to be transformed – it is an ongoing process.”
Transformation happens in the life of a disciple as they are learning and participating in the mission of God with others – it is an ongoing and on-the-way process in community. Transformation is never complete through classroom knowledge, nor does it take place just through behaviour modification. Neither does transformation happen in isolation. Transformation happens when individuals are in community, learning all that Jesus commanded (Matt 28:20) and participating in the mission of God together (Matt 28:18-20). This is how the church can be a sign, instrument, and foretaste of the kingdom of God.
What do you think? What is your definition of a disciple?