Discipleship 101: What is a Disciple?

discipleWhat is a disciple? The answer may not be as easy as it might first appear.

First, there is a shift in the meaning of the term ‘disciple’ from the Gospels to the book of Acts. For instance, in John 6 many of Jesus’ ‘disciples’ leave him. These are the ones who followed him to hear his teaching and to eat his bread, but when he calls them to eat his flesh and drink his blood, they cannot stomach their teacher any longer.

In this situation, disciples are simply those who followed and learned from Jesus, but were not converted by him. You could use this label to describe Judas. He was a disciple in one sense, but not in another. He followed and learned from Jesus, but because he failed to follow Christ until the end he proved to be a false disciple. Thus, in the Scriptures themselves, there is some ambiguity in the term.

But it is not just in the Bible where our labels fail us. In popular Christianity, there are also various definitions of discipleship. And this difference comes before we begin to discuss discipleship programs and practices. So how do we decide what a disciple is?

Not All Definitions of “Disciple” are Equally Biblical

Two rich studies on discipleship can be found in Michael Wilkins, Following the Master: A Biblical Theology of Discipleship and Jonathan Lunde, Following Jesus The Servant King: A Biblical Theology of Covenantal Discipleship. Gleaning from their observations, I would summarize three different ways “disciple(s)” might be defined. Nota Bene: These definitions are not equally biblical.

1. Disciples are committed believers.

Salvation is one thing, discipleship is another. There are Christians and then there are disciples. This posits a two-tiered system in the Christian life—with the saved in the first category and the sanctified (i.e., disciples) in the next. The problem with this dichotomy is that it rips apart the unified work of salvation, and it does not fit with biblical language. In Acts 4:32, the church is described as a band of believers; but Acts 6:2 describes the church as “the full number of disciples.” Disciples, therefore, are believers; believers are disciple. No tiers!

2. Disciples are ministers.

Like the twelve, disciples are called to a special ministry of service. This results in a view where churches have clergy and laity, disciples and congregants. This separation is often found in special dress for the clergy, or unhealthy veneration of church leaders.

By contrast, the Great Commission calls all people to discipleship and to disciple others. Church work is for everyone. In this way, disciples are ministers, so long as we keep Ephesians 4:11–12 in mind: pastor-teachers are to equip the saints (disciples) for their work of service. Christianity is not a spectator sport. Jesus calls all his disciples to learn his trade and join him in the work.

3. Disciples are Christians. Christians are disciples.

While every follower of Christ is at a different phase in their spiritual pilgrimage, Christianity is not two-tiered. While wisdom cautions against young disciples leading, there is no two-stage approach. Rather, as in any family, there are babes, children, young adults, and mature adults. The same is true in the church. Every member of the church should be considered a disciple of Christ, and every disciple should be passionate about making disciples.

A Definition of Discipleship

In light of these previous observations, here is an provisional definition:

A disciple is a man or woman who is a new creation in Christ that no longer lives for self, but who has (1) believed on Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and (2) lives to learn, follow, and imitate Christ in all areas of life.

To say it another way, if we take our cues from the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19–20): disciples (a) identify themselves with Jesus Christ in baptism; (b) labor to learn and apply all the commands God has given; and (c) serve our Lord with their various gifts in the process of heralding the message of Christ and reproducing disciples. Put simply, this is Great Commission Christianity. And this is what the twelve did, what Paul did (Acts 14:21), and what Paul called his followers to do (2 Tim 2:2).

For followers of Christ, discipleship is not an optional extra for interested Christians. It is certainly not a program churches can add or subtract. It is at the heart of what Christ is doing in the world. And it is at the center of what it means to be a follower of Christ—to be a disciple who makes disciples.

In the weeks ahead, we will consider this topic more. For now, let us pray and ask God to give us a vision for seeing God raise up disciple-making disciples. This after all was God’s good command to his followers.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Five Questions on Discipleship: (4) How Do You Make Disciples?

As a sophomore in college, I was introduced to a little book called The Master Plan of Evangelism. After an eight week study with our Campus Crusade leadership team, I was convinced that Jesus’ pattern of disciple-making and spiritual multiplication is the way to do ministry.  More than ten years later I am still convinced.

In his book, Robert Coleman outlines eight steps for making disciples: Selection, Associatin, Consecration, Impartation, Demonstration, Delegation, Supervision, and Reproduction).  If you have not read Coleman’s insightful little book, get it today.  All the hype about The Trellis and The Vine a few years ago was simply a helpful reformulation of The Master Plan of Evangelism.

And Coleman is not alone in looking to Jesus for methods of disciple-making.  More than one-hundred years ago Scottish pastor and professor A.B. Bruce wrote the lengthy treatment The Training of the Twelve, in which he scoured the pages of Scripture to see how Jesus trained his disciples and this is what he had to say,

These twelve . . . were to be something more than travelling companions or menial servants of the Lord Jesus Christ. They were to be . . . students of Christian doctrine, and occasional fellow-laborers in the work of the kingdom, and eventually Christ’s chosen trained agents for propagating the faith after He Himself had left the earth.  From the time of their being chosen . . . they were to learn, in the privacy of intimated daily fellowship with their Master, what they should be, do, believe, and teach, as His training of these men was to be a constant and prominent part of Christ’s personal work (p. 30).

Following in the footsteps of Jesus, how should we make disciples? Let me suggest three commitments that are required for being a disciple-maker.


You cannot invest in everyone, so you need categories for making decisions on how you will use your precious, limited time. While you should never reject anyone in need, when it comes to making disciples, you should prioritize those who Faithful, Available, Teachable–otherwise known as FAT people.

Faithful.  Paul instructed his faithful disciple to find faithful disciples.  In 2 Tim 2:2, Paul said, “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”  With great wisdom, Paul did not say, “Go chase down the sheep that are running away.”  He told Timothy to invest his life in “faithful men” who are able to reproduce themselves.  As you focus on the faithful, the fleeing will be found.

So too Jesus was selective in his disciple relationships (Mark 3:13-19). While we should love everyone, we should be strategic in the way we reach out to others.  If you are making disciples, you will have closer relationships with some and not others.  Look for the faithful ones!  Be a faithful one.

Available.  There are lots of sincere people who have good intentions to know God, but when push comes to shove, there are very few who are available.  Many start off strong, but the weeds of the world enslave them.  Busyness erodes faithfulness, and their schedules limit availability.  But a good disciple is one who is not enslaved to sports, family, work, school, hobbies, or sleep.  They may be deeply invested in these things–and should be–but they are carving out time and making themselves available.

Focus on those who available more than those who are able.  Take a lesson from Jesus.  He did not choose the powerful, well-off, or important people.  He invested in those who heeded his call.  He discipled those who would follow him.  One way to test this is to call people to hard tasks.  Don’t lower the bar on discipleship.  Like Jesus, make the call challenging and see who is left.  These are the ones to disciple.

Teachable.  In Matthew 7, Jesus warns us of throwing pearls before pigs.  This strange statement is essential for understanding disciple-making.  You have a short span of life.  Use it well.  Invest your time and energy well.  Don’t throw your energy at those who are unwilling to be taught.  Focuse on those who are submissive to God’s word.  Christopher Adsit, founder of Disciple-Makers International, is helpful: “Most of us are poverty-stricken when it comes to time. It’s a foolish extravagance to squander precious time teaching a person something he will never apply or pass on! It’s pearls before swine.”


There is no substitution for just getting out and doing the work, but as you disciple be sure to include three key elements.

Time.  Discipleship is not complicated.  It is time-consuming, but not complicated.  Do life with other, younger believers in Christ.  Invite them into your home, into your families.  And as you walk through life talk about Christ.  Ask questions about God.  Read the Bible.  Pray.  Discuss a book together.  Serve together.

Truth.   Discipleship is only Christian in as much as the gospel is present.  Christians spending time together is not discipleship.  It must have intentionality, and more than that it must be infused with biblical truth.  It can look like a regimented Bible study, a weekly time of Bible reading and discussion, or bi-monthly commitment to do evangelism.  It can also be less formal.  But whatever it is, it must center around Jesus Christ.

This is what Jesus did.  With a band of disciples, he preached, ministered, and made his way in and order Palestine all the while teaching his disciples about what he was doing.  Paul did the same thing.  Everywhere he went, he was taking Timothy, Titus, Silas, or other young men.  He gave them a model to follow and truth to learn.

Johnny Hunt is right when he says that every Christian needs a Paul, Timothy, and a Barnaba—a Paul to disciple us, a Timothy to disciple, and a Barnabas to encourage us. Personally, I consider it a failure, if I am doing ministry by myself.  I want to do everything with someone else, because I want to pass what I have learned to others.

Training.  Truth revolves around the gospel.  Training revolves around practical applications of ministry.  In church contexts, this means older men and women teaching younger men and women, respectively, the skills of ministry.  This could look like learning how to drive the bus route, preparing a funeral meal, teaching a Sunday School lesson, sharing the gospel, or planning a mission trip.

Every person in a ministry position should be looking and preparing there replacement.  Passing the baton is a necessary part of ministry.  The alternative is a latent self-centeredness that places all the weight of ministry on an individual.  When that individual leaves, dies, or moves, the work of that ministry goes with them.  By contrast, leader who trains another generation prolongs the work of the Lord for the edification of the local body of believers.

But this raises a serious question: Are you worthy of imitation? Paul constantly pointed to himself as a one who sought Christ, and he said, as he followed Christ, you could follow him.  Can you say the same thing?  Disciple-makers must first be genuine and growing disciples.  If you cannot call someone to imitate you why not?  What would it take to become a model disciple?  What is keeping you from growing in that way?

Do not be Charles Barkley Christian, who denied his role as a role model. If you are a Christian, you are a role model.  If you have taken the name of Jesus Christ, you are now one of his witnesses.  Witness him well.

Help those who come behind you by giving time, truth, and training.


Modeled Demonstration.  When Jesus called the twelve, he called them to be with him.  Long before sending them out, he called them simply to follow, listen, learn.  They observed their Master in action, and when it was their time to lead they had years of experience to learn from.  Jesus was the model.  So too commanding others to do something, you should show them how.  And not just once–many times.

I was in conversation the other day with a family who after their conversion was immediately thrown into ministry.  Sadly, today they are having to pull back from ministry to retool their personal lives. Why?  They were too hastily thrown into ministry.  We need to be slower to commission, and quicker to model.  As church leaders we need to avoid the gap theory, where we see a gap and find a guy or gal to fill it.  Instead, we need to be people oriented, putting good people in places, instead of simply finding a warm body to fill a need.

Measured Delegation.  Following demonstration, Jesus’s disciples were called to action.  In his presence, the disciples were enlisted to baptize, they were sent out two-by-two, they were given errands.  In Jesus presence, the disciples tried and failed.  He gave them tasks and missions, that he could then use to teach and correct them.  This is wise strategy for parenting, pastoring, and for disciple-making.

It requires more than barking orders.  It requires that you know those whom you are giving spiritual leadership—their gifts, passions, abilities, and readiness.  It also means that we should be modeling for others everything we expect them to do.  Too often we move straight from instruction to delegation, without demonstration and supervised evaluation.

The result of activity without evaluation is a generation of workers who do more harm than good.  Imagine a surgical doctor given all the tools of the trade without years of residency.  The same is true with soul doctors, disciples, who are called to encourage and edify other Christians.  Just as doctors need training and correction in their surgical techniques, so disciples need the loving, hope-giving, correction of older Christians to help them grow into Sunday School teachers, small group leaders, outreach coordinators, and deacons.

All in all, the Great Commission is a vision for church ministry that never grows old.  It calls us to simply make disciples.  This is goal worthy of our entire attention, and it is a process that takes years to develop.  May we consider some of these priorities listed above, and go forward looking to find disciples who are FAT, with whom we can share life and the gospel, and who are willing to observe and receive correction as they become disciple-makers themselves.

May God give us great aid as we seek to make disciples, dss

Five Questions on Discipleship: (3) Who Makes Disciples?

Yesterday we considered what a disciple is, today we answer the question: Who Makes Disciples?  And I would suggest that there are two ways to answer that question.  First, churches make disciples; second, mature believers make disciples.  Let’s consider.

Churches Make Disciples

At the institutional level, God has created the church to be a disciple-making community.  This is not to say that parachurches, camps, publishing houses, or Christian radio cannot be involved in the process, but in his wisdom, the church is the ordained means of defending the gospel, proclaiming salvation, and making disciples (Eph 3).

Accordingly, churches would be served by asking: If Jesus came today and evaluated our church, on what would he evaluate?  What are his expectations?  I think the answer and expectation is simple.  Jesus would inquire “What are you doing to make disciples?”  I don’t think he is very impressed with all sorts of activities, fellowships, and programs that make us busy but fail to make disciples.  He has not called us to be active, but to be active in making disciples.  Since Christ is in the business of making disciples, that is what he expects of us.

God’s word on this is clear.  As the body of Christ, we are to be the hands, feet, mouthpieces of our Lord.  Accordingly, if God is going to make disciples in this age, it is through the church, by his Spirit.  If his greatest passion is to see the lost converted into disciples, then he expects that his body would be about the same work.  The Great Commission is the explicit statement of this truth. “Go into all the world and make disciples.”   Churches that excel in ministry but do not excel in making gospel-centered, word-saturated disciples who are able to reproduce themselves are not excelling as much as their numbers might indicate.

Big or small, churches are called to make disciples.  That is the first level.

Mature Believers

At the individual level, it is mature believers that make disciples. As in life, mature adults have babies, so adult Christians “give birth” (or rather, serve as attending nurses to the birth from above) to new Christians.  While young Christians, infants in the Lord, can and do witness with great zeal and effectiveness, it is mature believers who are in a position to “disciple” newborn Christians.

The Great Commission includes a call to teach all that the Lord has instructed.  New believers rarely know all there is in Scripture, or how to apply it.  This is why Scripture repeatedly demonstrates older believers mentoring or discipling younger believers (think of Paul with Timothy, Titus, and Silas, or Barnabas with Paul or John Mark).  Titus 2 gives clear instruction that older women are to teach younger women, and older men are to be models for younger men.

Thus, all disciples should strive for maturity such that they can disciple others.  This is not an optional calling, this is part and parcel of being a growing disciple.  Sadly, as Hebrews 5 laments, many who should be teachers are in need of learning the elementary truths again.

As a way of evaluation, we can say that mature believers are those who exhibit Christlike character and who are able and actually discipling younger believers.  Discipling others shows Christian love, an understanding of God’s purposes in the world, and a self-sacrificing, others-centeredness that behooves a mature believer.  By contrast, maturity should not be measured by the number of years a person has gone to church or even by how many studies they have led, how many committees they have chaired, or even by the number of Bible certificates or degrees they hold. Maturity is measured by ones personal Christlikeness and their reproduction.

May God continue to raise up disciple-makers in this generation, that more and more disciples would be born, raised, and sent out.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

A Growing Disciple: The Eighth Mark of a Healthy Church Member

The essence of being a Christian is to be a disciple. 

“Disciple” and “discipleship” are not words that get much “air time” today, and when they are used in secular parlance, it often conjures up thoughts of cults or sects.  However, in the pages of the New Testament, God’s Word speaks of discipleship with great frequency (over 260 times).  So what does it mean to be a disciple? 

The best way to answer that is to simply look at the lives of Peter, Andrew, James, John and the other apostles–because these men exemplify discipleship.  They were those who left their fishing nets, tax collecting booths, and families to follow Christ; they worshipped Jesus, learned from Jesus, proclaimed the gospel of Jesus’ kingdom, and went to their own bloody deaths for his sake.  As disciples, however, they did not simply imitate Jesus, they also trusted in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for eternal life and justification on the last day.  In short, as disciples, the followers of Christ found every area of their life transformed by the one whose name and cross they now identified.  And so do Christ’s disciples today.

In What is a Healthy Church Member?, Thabiti Anyabwile marks growing discipleship” as the eighth characteristic of a healthy church member.  From our study at Calvary Baptist Church in Seymour, Indiana, here are five points of application for growing as a disciple:

1. Baptism & Church Membership.  The first thing Jesus said after giving his Great Commission to “Make Disciples” was to baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Therefore, if you have made Jesus Christ your Lord and Savior–that is that he has made you a new creation in Christ.  The first thing you should do is to be baptized by a local church who believes the gospel and teaches the Word of God.  Concurrent with this baptism should be your request for church membership.  Hopefully, your church has an informative/instructive process where new members are instructed in the history, doctrine, and practices of the church.  This would be a first step as a growing disciple.  For an excellent and brief treatment of this subject, with a funny cover, see Bill James revision of  Erroll Hulse’s Baptist and Church Membership.

2. Abide in the Word of God.  Next, as a growing disciple, it is imperative that you grow.  The second thing Jesus said to his would-be disciple(maker)s is to “teach them to obey all that I have instructed you.”  In other words, in the Christian life, knowing the Bible matters.  In fact, Spiritual growth DOES NOT HAPPEN WITHOUT IT.  Consider John 15:7-8, “If you abide in me, and my word abides in you, ask for whatever you want, and it will be given unto you.  By this is my Father glorified, and so you prove to be my disciples.”  The core of discipleship is an abiding relationship with Jesus founded on and mediated by the Word of God.  Moreover, discipleship is proven by this.  So the second step in growing as a strong disciple is to abide in the Word of God.

3. Pursue Older Discipleship.  Since discipleship is not an individual effort, it is important to learn from older, wiser, more mature believers in Christ.  Titus 2 frames this well.  It begins, “Teach what accords with sound doctrine…” and then instead of moving into a systematic theology, a lecture on doctrine, it focuses on relationships.  It says for older men to train younger men and older women to instruct younger women.  This is not an accident or a backup plan.  This is the very wisdom of God.  As Paul tells the Corinthians, “Follow me as I follow Christ” (11:1).  This is not an optional component of the Christian life.  Too many believers remain immature because they have never had anyone model for them a godly example.  If you don’t have anyone like this in your life, pray that God would bring someone into your life.  At the same time, ask God to shape you to be faithful, available, and teachable, so that such a disciplers’ example might not be lost on you.

4. Pursue Younger Discipleship.  Whether you have had a mentor/discipler in your life or not, if you have walked with Christ in obedience to his Word for any amount of time, you should begin looking for ways to share that with others.  Again let me challenge you– “The Christian life is not an isolated/individualized/introverted event.”  It is a lifetime of abiding in God’s word and being sharpened by others who are seeking Christ with you–ahead of you and behind you.  If you have the opportunity to share your life with a younger believer and to help show them how to walk more closely with our Savior, why wouldn’t you do it?  Honestly, is there anything better?  Doing life together should be the motto of the Christian life and is required for growth as a healthy disciple.  For an excellent resource on discipleship, see Robert Coleman’s The Master Plan of Evangelism and Michael Card’s The Walk.

5. Make Disciples.  Finally, the Great Commission impels us to go outside the church and to call others to Christ, to literally take the Word of God seriously and to make disciples.  God calls us to do something that in truth, we cannot do.  He is asking us to see to it that converts/new creations/kingdom citizens are made.  We cannot do that!  But his Word and His Spirit can, and as we carry forth the message of the gospel, he promises to bear fruit and draw many into the kingdom.  Thus if we are to truly know Christ, to walk with him, and to grow up in him, sharing the gospel and living to make-disciples must be a regular part of our lives.

None of these things are novel, but all of them are easily overlooked and undercooked.  May we strive to pick up our respective crosses and to press on towards Christ-like conformity as Baptized, Word-saturated, Maturing Disciples of Christ who love to share the gospel with others.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss