What Do We Mean by “Disciple,” “Disciple Making,” and “Discipleship”?
Words matter. Definitions matter, especially with regard to words and concepts we find in Scripture. A particular word may carry different definitions and meanings, depending on one’s perspective, and this is true for discipleship language.
That means we can use the same language about discipleship as someone else, and each of us be talking about totally different things.
But what does God’s Word say? And how do our definitions line up with his realities? This is an important discussion for discipleship and disciple making, so at Discipleship·org, we worked with our partners to agree upon specific definitions for important words in the church.
We have to be clear on definitions so that we can be clear on our success.
That’s why we offer these four key definitions for the church today:
- Disciple – someone who is following Jesus, being changed by Jesus, and is committed to the mission of Jesus (Matt. 4:19).
- Disciple making – entering into relationships to help people trust and follow Jesus (Matt. 28:18–20), which includes the whole process from conversion through maturation and multiplication.
- Disciple maker – a disciple of Jesus who enters into relationships with people to help them trust and follow Jesus.
- Discipleship – the state of being a disciple.
- Disciple – someone who is following Jesus, being changed by Jesus, and is committed to the mission of Jesus (Matt. 4:19)
What do we mean when we talk about being a disciple. We are indebted to Jim Putman who encouraged us to frame our definition of a disciple around Matthew 4:19 [(Jim Putman and Bobby Harrington, DiscipleShift: Five Shifts to Help Your Church Make Disciples Who Make Disciples (Zondervan, 2013)].
The words are easy to reference and memorize:
And He said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (ESV).
You can easily divide this verse so that it becomes a framework for the three key parts we find in the rest of the New Testament on what it means to be a disciple. These three parts include:
- “following” Jesus (head)
- “being changed” by Jesus through the Holy Spirit (heart)
- “fishers of men” being committed to the mission of Christ (hands)
Based on these three parts, check out our definition:
A disciple is following Jesus, being changed by Jesus and committed to the mission of Jesus.
We always come back to this definition when we talk about disciples. If the people are following Jesus, being changed by Jesus, and committed to the mission of Jesus, then they are biblical disciples, as we understand it. Clarity on these points is essential for disciple makers and churches.
Disciple Making – entering into relationships to help people to trust and follow Jesus
We prefer the expressions “making disciples” or “disciple making” because these words are found in the Bible [the following is from the book by Bobby Harrington and Josh Patrick, The Disciple Makers Handbook (Zondervan, 2017)}. “Making disciples” describes what Jesus meant in Matthew 28:19-20:
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
These verses provide a surprising amount of clarity on disciple making. Within the Greek text of these verses, there is one imperative command, make disciples, and three participles describing how we do it: go, baptize, and teach.
We do not use the exact words from this text as we explain disciple making for everyday Christians, but we use the teaching, concepts and principles of these texts in a way that makes it easily applicable today. We simply tell people that disciple making is entering into relationships to help people trust and follow Jesus.
- Entering into relationships – We are told by Jesus to initiate and be intentional—because we are to “go” and “make” disciples (vs.19). Jesus modeled how to do that – he entered into relationships with his disciples.
- Help people – we are told to make disciples (vs.19). Following Jesus we make disciples of people by coaching, teaching, listening, counseling, etc. The expression “helping people” communicates these principles in a warm manner, as an expression of love, which is the underlying motivation.
- Trust – Disciple making is about repentance and conversion with the accent on grace—baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (vs.19). This also applies to those parts of spiritual growth that just require trusting God.
- Follow – Disciple making is about obedience and sanctification (increasing holiness)—“teaching them to obey everything I commanded you” (vs. 20). This applies to those parts of spiritual growth that require obedience. And it naturally includes and leads to the command to make other new disciples (multiplication is built in).
- Jesus – He is the object and focus in discipleship; disciples are to become His “apprentices” and “live life” as He would live—“make disciples” (vs. 19). Jesus promises to also be present with us in the process (by his Spirit) to the end of the age.
With these five components from Matthew 28 in mind, we define disciple making this way:
Disciple making is entering into relationships to help people to trust and follow Jesus.
This is a simple definition, but not a simplistic one. The full meaning of it is wonderfully life altering.
Usability – If we were seeking to emphasize a theologically profound statement, we would add more words and say something like this: disciple making is entering into relationships to help people trust and follow Jesus in the power of the Spirit to the glory of God the Father. That definition would reflect a strong view of the Trinity and be very accurate to what we believe and practice. But it would not be very usable by the everyday Christian. The New Testament teaches us to focus on Jesus (Colossians 1:15-20; Galatians 2:20), even while teaching us about the Spirit and glorifying the father through him.
We have found the simpler definition naturally usable in a local church context, where ten year olds, high school students, and adults all easily adopt it as their language. Again, it encompasses all the teachings in the Bible telling us to do nothing and just rely on God—His grace, His promises and His power. And it encompasses all the teachings in the Bible where we must act—obedience, faithfulness and resisting sin. Both parts are essential to the Great Commission in Matthew 28. And we have found that both parts are essential to balanced disciple making.
Ties in with a Definition of Faith – This definition nicely ties in with a biblical understanding of faith. Faith, in the Bible, is the key, fundamental response to everything God is doing through Jesus. It is the fundamental response to God’s grace in Jesus (Ephesians 2:8-9; Romans 3:20-25), including his life, his cross, his kingdom, and his present reign as Lord of heaven and earth.
We find it helpful to summarize a huge amount of biblical material by using the expression “to trust and follow” instead of faith. Faith includes not just mental assent, but affections and the will – the whole person – as it transforms my head, my heart, and my hands. It is the living, breathing focus of our lives. From the angle of faith, we are describing what the Christian life is all about.
Faith in Jesus = trusting and following Jesus in all things.
Evangelism and Spiritual Growth – Our definition (and Jesus’ example) encompasses reaching lost people and raising the saved to maturity – it is for those who do not yet know Jesus and those who have known him for years. We make disciples by leading people to baptism (conversion) and obedience to everything Jesus taught. We reach lost people and help those who are in the kingdom to become fully obedient.
But we find it easier and more biblical to think of disciple making as something we do for both non-Christians and for Christians. Jesus was making disciples of Peter, James and John (and the others) before they truly believed. In fact, it is fun, or intriguing, to ask yourself: “When were the disciples truly converted?” Follow the storyline of Peter in the Gospel of Luke and try to pinpoint the exact moment when he was fully converted (Good luck with that!).
We like to say that disciple making begins at hello and ends in go and do likewise! It begins, as Jesus showed us, with the invitation to just “come and see” and it leads to the commission to “go and repeat” what the disciple has learned from the disciple maker, multiplying the process.
It Expresses Love – Disciple making is an expression of love. Disciple making is helping people. This is a natural, loving expression that is grounded in relationship – as Jesus showed us – and includes love, instruction, guidance, and coaching and more. In a postmodern world this word communicates the sensitivity that making disciples today requires. We are not imposing something on other people. Instead we are helping – with life on life sharing, patient explanation, guidance, modeling, and support for all of truths Jesus expects his disciples to obey.
It is empowered by the Holy Spirit – Disciple making assumes the power of the Jesus. By his Holy Spirit, Jesus will be with us until the end of the age in the disciple making process (Matthew 28:20). We will continually encourage one another to remember this promise and rely on it. We make disciples, but Jesus makes them through us.
Disciple maker – a disciple of Jesus who enters into relationships with people to help them trust and follow Jesus
Our definition of a disciple maker is simply based upon our definition of disciple making. A disciple maker is a disciple of Jesus who simply acts on the teaching of the great commission personally. Please note, this is NOT a person who helps the church make disciples. This is a person who is actively involved personally in making disciples as Jesus made disciples.
Discipleship – the state of being a disciple
Our last word is “discipleship.” What does that word mean? The word “discipleship” cannot be found in the Bible (and neither can the word evangelism be found in the Bible). For a lot of people “discipleship” means “learning doctrine,” or “gaining understanding,” or “becoming more like Jesus.” Which one is it? Different people use it in different ways. So just saying the word, “discipleship” to people may not be effective.
But there is help.
When you add the expression “ship” to a word, you are simply using it to describe “the state of something.” So the word “discipleship” itself simply means, “the state of being a disciple.” That is how we use the word.
When we ask, how is discipleship at your church, we are asking, “what is it like to be a disciple in your church?” Or if we state that we want to help you with discipleship in your church, that means we want to help you “with the state of being a disciple in your church.”
I hope that these definitions help bring clarity.
We believe that it is best to refer to Bible things by Bible expressions. If we use the words and concepts of the Bible, we are most likely to be thinking about what God wants us to think about and doing what God wants us to do!
By Bobby Harrington
Bobby Harrington is the point-leader of Discipleship.org, a collaborating ministry of disciple–making organizations, a host for National Forums, and a distributor of free content. It is a ministry that advocates for Jesus’ style of disciple making. He is also the founding and lead pastor of Harpeth Christian Church (by the Harpeth River, just outside of Nashville, TN) and the point-leader of Renew.org (a ministry that renews the teachings of Jesus to fuel disciple making). He has a Doctor of Ministry degree in consulting and has spent years as a coach to church planters and senior pastors. He is the author of over 10 books on discipleship, including DiscipleShift (with Jim Putman and Robert Coleman) and The Disciple Maker’s Handbook (with Josh Patrick), and Becoming a Disciple Maker: The Pursuit of Level 5 Disciple Making.
Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash