Gospel Gazette, Bible Articles

Vol. 2, No. 6 Page 20 June 2000

Gospel Gazette, Bible Articles

Definition of Discipleship

By Louis Rushmore

Both English and Greek definitions for disciple lend insight to the meaning and proper application of Christian discipleship. According to Merriam-Websterís Collegiate Dictionary, disciple means: "One who accepts and assists in spreading the doctrines of another."1 Two other sources further define the word thus: "A follower of a particular teacher: an adherent of the principles of some leader of thought"2 and "One who professes to have learned certain principles from another and maintains them on that other's authority."3 Greek definitions of disciple include: "To learn, be taught, to learn by practice or experience, acquire a custom or habit"4 and "To learn, to understand, to know, to be informed, to comprehend."5

Disciple(s) appears in the Old Testament once (Isaiah 8:16) and about 221 times in the New Testament. A biblical portrait of a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ is depicted by Scripture to include adherence to the Lordís teaching, practicing the same until it becomes a daily habit. To be a disciple of Christ is to understand and be informed of his divine will in order to present oneís body as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1-2) and to disciple the nations (Matthew 28:19, ASV). True discipleship is maintained only by the divine authority of Christ (John 8:31) and not by the human authority (Matthew 15:9). Furthermore, effective disciples of the Lord are fruitful workers (Matthew 7:15-20; John 15:1-8) and good stewards (Matthew 25:14-30), who have anticipated and acknowledged the cost of discipleship (Luke 14:25-35).

Cost is also variously defined: (1) "That which must be given to acquire, produce, accomplish or maintain anything"6 ; (2) "The outlay or expenditure (as of effort or sacrifice) made to achieve an object. Loss or penalty incurred in gaining something. To stand firm, constant. To require effort, suffering or loss"7 and (3) "To devour, hence expense, as something which eats up resources."8 Cost appears in the New Testament once (Luke 14:28).

The Cost of Discipleship by definition intimates a fuller, deeper meaning than one might expect from a casual or passing consideration. That many Christians never carefully examine the ramifications of faithful discipleship is self-evident from the absence of fruitful activity among large numbers of professed disciples. It is commonly estimated that about 25% of any congregation are the most upon whom the church and the Lord can rely for both financial support and physical activity. Excepting those who may lack either financial or physical capacity to do otherwise, many Christians assemble regularly but do not even take any active role in the worship services. They do not attend the business meetings; they have no time for Christian activities such as taking food to the needy or distributing Gospel literature. Many are the Christians who neither lend themselves to the church to teach nor even vocally participate in a Bible class nor work around the church house. Unfortunately, some Christians are unaware of the difference in definition between deadwood and discipleship. Contrary to the condition of many disciples, there will be no driftwood in heaven!

Generally, the word disciple could be applied to the follower of any man or doctrine. Hence, disciples of Karl Marx are styled communists; disciples of Darwin are called evolutionists; and disciples of Jesus Christ are Christians (only). Disciples of denominationalism, though, are not followers of Jesus Christ. They follow (or are disciples of) human doctrines, methods and men and are, therefore, Catholics, Methodists, Lutherans, etc. There are hundreds of different denominational bodies and thousands of contrasting religious faiths in America alone. Denominations are not only different from each other, but every denomination is different from the Christianity about which one can read upon the pages of the New Testament. Ask of oneís religious affiliation and his response will most often show of what or of whom he is a disciple.

Christian discipleship is not without its cost. The cost of discipleship mandates the investment of effort, labor, money and time in the service of our Lord and Savior. This is most easily and properly accomplished when Christians first give themselves fully to the Lord as the Macedonians did (2 Corinthians 8:1-5). Further, one is not a fruitful disciple who professes discipleship without actively assisting in the spreading of the teaching of Christ (Mark 16:15; Acts 8:4; 1 Thessalonians 1:8). True discipleship is maintained by faithful service (1 Corinthians 15:58) and is governed by the authority of Christ alone (John 8:31). It should be a habitual part of life and must be practiced (Luke 6:46). Discipleship does not simply happen, but is learned (Hebrews 5:12-6:2; 1 Peter 2:2). The basis upon which Christian discipleship rests and is built must be an intense familiarity with the Christ and his Word. This familiarity occurs as the calculated result of earnest study of the Bible (Acts 17:11; 2 Timothy 2:15) and imitation of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1, ASV; 1 Peter 2:21).

Fanaticism, however, is the consequence of excessive zeal which overshadows the authority of Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:18, ASV), the apostles (Matthew 18:18; 19:28) and the Scripture (2 Timothy. 3:16-17). Cultic tendencies constitute extremism that has gone beyond divine authority. Whenever and for whatever reason men go beyond the authority of the Bible in their teachings, it is both sinful and displeasing to the Lord (Matthew 15:9). On the other hand, the zeal with which first-century Christians practiced their discipleship would be today, if it was not then, considered extreme or fanatical. It is this zeal, though, that the early Christians demonstrated that we must adopt.

Disciple, though employed in both testaments referring to Godís people, is in the New Testament equivalent to Christian (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16), which itself is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy in which a new name for Godís people was promised (Isaiah 62:2). Disciples of Christ or Christians, however, may faithfully serve Jesus Christ or err (sin). An erring disciple or Christian may be guilty of sin through either commission of wrong or the omission of doing what is right (James 4:17). The more overlooked sin is probably that of omission, the dilution of discipleship (James 1:22). The apathy and indifference, which for many Christians has replaced dedicated discipleship, is the sin for which the Laodicean church was condemned (Revelation 3:15-16). Probably more of the church in this generation will be lost, not for overt commission of sin, but for omissions in Christian duty and careless discipleship.

Individual, self-examination of personal discipleship now (2 Corinthians 13:5) can save souls from the perils of an individual, divine examination (judgment) in which unprofitable disciples will be cast into hell (Matthew 25:30, 41, 46). Appropriate self-examination now will ensure that we do not enter eternity with a deficient or defective discipleship.


1"Disciple," Websterís Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, 1972 edition, p. 237.

2"Disciple," The Living Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language, p.  284.

3John MíClintock and James Strong, "Disciple," Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature, II, p. 815.

4The Analytical Greek Lexicon, p. 257.

5George Ricker Berry, The Interlinear Literal Translation of The Greek New Testament, p. 62.

6"Cost," The Living Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language, p. 230.

7"Cost," Websterís Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, p. 189.

8Marvin R. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, I, p. 381.


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