What is a Disciple?

Before we explore what it means to develop disciples, it is important to first define the concept of a disciple. What exactly are we trying to produce? What does a disciple look like? Your answers to these questions are crucial — they will determine the development strategy that you pursue.

I thought of two traditional descriptions that accurately reflect what a disciple is, but they do not fully define the profound quality of life made possible by reconnection with God. By looking at these definitions, however, perhaps we can see what lies beyond them.

1. A disciple is someone who does certain things.

2. A disciple is someone who understands certain things.

A disciple is someone who does certain things. This view of a disciple emphasizes discipline and obedience. You demonstrate that you are a follower of Christ by trying to live as He lived and by carrying out His commands. A disciple does “good things,” such as quiet times, evangelism, involvement with other believers, and social justice work. We feel deep concern for righteousness, whether personal or cultural. Moral choices and behavior matter deeply and are of more ultimate importance than emotional hardship. For example, I should remain moral even if friends reject me for not participating in their kind of behavior.

A disciple is someone who understands certain things. This view of a disciple emphasizes accurate thinking and insight concerning God, people, salvation, and so on. The theory is that if you think correctly about the important things, then the rest of your life will assume the proper prospective. A disciple must understand that God is both holy and loving; that people, though sinners, are made in the image of God; that Christ’s death was the substitute payment for our sin; and that because of Jesus’ payment, we are granted access to the heart of God.

This view holds that we can acquire a substantial understanding of God’s redemptive work, which enables us to correctly see Him and our position in Him. An extension of this view is that we can also gain a substantial understanding of our own lives, our personal history and family background. This understanding enables us to make progress in our relationship with Christ. For instance, understanding that your father’s past ridicule has hobbled your self-image helps you begin to confidently give yourself to others.

The Dilemma of Defining Relationship

The dilemma with defining a disciple is that you are not defining a static object that stands alone and possesses such and such properties. Rather, you are defining a person who is in relationship with another person. A disciple is defined by his or her relationship with God.

The two traditional descriptions discussed above do reflect some of the work and fruit of a disciple, but they are incomplete. A disciple should never be described in terms of things, even if those things are behaviors and ideas. It is possible, after all, to do right things and have accurate answers, and yet be very far away from God. A disciple is best described not in terms of relationship with things, but in terms of relationship with God Himself.

If this is still too static a definition for you, consider the dilemma of defining anyone who is in relationship. For example, try to define a husband. You could say that a husband does certain things (acts kindly toward and cares for his wife) and understands certain things (the commitment of marriage, the psyche of his wife).

If you are the wife, however, I think you would want something better and deeper than that. A wife wants her husband to define himself not just in terms of what he does or thinks, but in terms of his relationship with her. It is one thing to have a dutiful, sensible, and even-tempered husband; it is quite a different marriage to be passionately pursued by a man who wants to be intimately involved with and committed to you.

And so it is with God. God desires our passionate love — this is the great appeal and command of the whole of Scripture, and the endpoint of the Gospel. As a result, our definition of a disciple should be no less.

Yes, a disciple does and understands certain things. Yet far more fundamentally and profoundly, a disciple is someone who loves a certain Someone. A disciple is someone growing in adoration of and love for God, and subsequently in love for other people. Such a person is other-centered because his or her focus is on God.

Succinctly put, a disciple loves. (John 13:35)

If love for God is the definition of a disciple, then how do we develop love for God and others? All the implications of our strategy for “developing disciples” stem from the answer to that question. The better we can answer it, the better we will be in helping others to mature in Christ.