The English word, disciple, is derived from the Latin, discipulus, meaning “a learner or pupil; one who accepts and follows a given doctrine or teacher” (The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 1:845). A disciple of Jesus Christ, therefore, is a person who accepts and follows his teachings. All who are baptized in the name of the Triune God and confess Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord are Christians and, by definition, disciples.
Our Wesleyan tradition gives some further help answering the question “Who is a disciple?” A disciple is a person who has faith in Christ and their faith bears fruit through keeping the General Rules (see The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church – 2004, pages 72-74): doing no harm by avoiding evil, doing good to all as often as possible, and practicing the instituted means of grace (prayer, worship, the Lord’s Supper, reading and hearing Scripture, fasting/abstinence). Christian faith is exhibited by a life that strives toward holiness of heart and life (1 Thessalonians 3:11-13; Galatians 5:16-26; Ephesians 4:1-3; Philippians 2:12-13); perfection (maturity/ wholeness/ completeness) in love (Matthew 5:48; 1 John 2:3-6); “having the mind of Christ” (Philippians 2:5). A disciple is one whose life in the world is “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). A disciple’s life seeks wholehearted love for God through loving service in the world, especially with the poor, those who are sick, prisoners, lonely, tired, and lost (see Matthew 22:37-39; 25:31-46).
The General Rules are for all Christians. They are a simple, general, guide for living in the world as followers and friends of Jesus Christ. They are a rule of life intended to help Christians to be mindful of the basics of loving God, loving neighbors and loving one another. They help disciples to attend to all of the teachings of Jesus and not only those that suit their temperament. A disciple, therefore, is a Christian who does his or her best to follow Jesus’ teachings every day of the week.
Two Kinds of Disciples
John Wesley provides some help with identifying types of discipleship in his sermon, “The More Excellent Way.” Here he reflects on the nature of Christian discipleship. He acknowledges a long held belief that there are two kinds of Christians:
The one lived an innocent life, conforming in all things not sinful to the customs and fashions of the world, doing many good works, abstaining from gross evils, and attending the ordinances of God. They endeavoured in general to have a conscience void of offence in their outward behaviour, but did not aim at any particular strictness, being in most things like their neighbours.
The other sort of Christians not only abstained from all appearance of evil, were zealous of good works in every kind, and attended all the ordinances of God; but likewise used all diligence to attain the whole mind that was in Christ, and laboured to walk in every point as their beloved Master. In order to this they walked in a constant course of universal self-denial, trampling on every pleasure which they were not divinely conscious prepared them for taking pleasure in God. They took up their cross daily. They strove, they agonized without intermission, to enter in at the strait gate. This one thing they did; they spared no pains to arrive at the summit of Christian holiness: 'leaving the first principles of the doctrine of Christ, to go on to perfection'; 'to know all that love of God which passeth knowledge, and to be filled with all the fullness of God'. (§5)
The first group composes the vast majority of Christians. They attend worship in varying degrees of frequency, give money to the church, may attend a Sunday school class, send their children to Sunday school, and do their best to be good, decent people. Their appearance and behavior is virtually indistinguishable from that of their non-Christian and non-religious neighbors. These are the majority of disciples present in any given congregation.
The second kind of Christians described by Wesley are those women and men who have made an intentional, deeply personal commitment to following and serving Jesus Christ in the world through loving obedience to his commandments. They are more disciplined in practicing the means of grace, both the works of piety and the works of mercy. These disciples are deeply committed to Christ and exhibit a way of life that leads to holiness of heart and life.
Wesley is very clear in this sermon to say that both groups are equally “saved.” They all are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8). Each is following Christ in the way that best suits them at the time. That being said, Wesley also asserts that it is the responsibility of the community of faith and its leaders to encourage and equip the first type of Christians to desire to mature and move toward the second.
I would be far from quenching the smoking flax, from discouraging those that serve God in a low degree. But I would not wish them to stop here: I would encourage them to come up higher, without thundering hell and damnation in their ears, without condemning the way wherein they were, telling them it is the way that leads to destruction. I will endeavour to point out to them what is in every respect a more excellent way. (§ 7)
He wants them to know that there is more to Christian discipleship and that God wants them to become more fully the persons God created them to be. The “more excellent way” is the way of whole-hearted love that leads to holiness of heart and life, to having the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:5), which is perfection in love (1 John 4:17-21).
The Apostles & The Crowd
Is there Scriptural support for this two-tiered discipleship? We find it in the gospel accounts of Jesus and his relationship with the disciples and the “crowd.” One of the clearest examples is found in the accounts of Jesus feeding the five thousand. Look, for example, at Mark 6:30-44.
30 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34 As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. 35 When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; 36 send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” 37 But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?” 38 And he said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” When they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” 39 Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. 40 So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. 41 Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. 42 And all ate and were filled; 43 and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. 44 Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.
We see in this story the two types of Christian discipleship. The first is represented by the crowd who were drawn to Jesus and his disciples. They came to be healed and to hear the good news of the coming kingdom of God. They need to hear the good news that sins are forgiven, that God loves them unconditionally, that God will give them the faith needed to heal them of their brokenness (body, mind, spirit, and relationship). Jesus has compassion on them. He gives them all that he has to offer. They come to him with an emptiness in their lives that the world cannot fill. Only Jesus can satisfy their longing for hope, healing, and meaning in their lives.
The second type of discipleship is represented by the “apostles.” They are the ones who have committed their lives to walking with, following, and serving alongside Jesus in the world. They are also the ones whom Jesus equips to feed, care for, and heal the crowd. Jesus takes what they give him and multiplies it in order to meet the needs of the others who come for healing, forgiveness of sins, and to hear the good news of the coming kingdom of God.
Baptized & Professing Disciples
This model of discipleship is also found in our understanding of baptism and church membership. We now have two types of members in The United Methodist Church: Baptized and Professing. The roll of the Baptized contains all those persons who have received and accepted the sacrament of Baptism. God has marked them as God’s own children and welcomed them into God’s household, the Church. The Church, in turn, promises to surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness. It promises to all in its power to increase their faith, confirm their hope and perfect them in love.
The Professing members are those persons who have accepted God’s gift of forgiveness, acceptance and faith. They promise to follow and serve Christ in the world as his faithful disciples and to support the ministries of the church through their prayers, presence, gifts, and service. The expectation is that Professing members are those persons who are regularly present and participating in worship, Bible study, and other ministries of the congregation. Ideally, they are in a small group with other professing members for mutual support and accountability for following and witnessing to Jesus Christ in the world.
The task of the church, of course, is to welcome all people who are seeking a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, to nurture them in that faith and life, and to support and equip them for growth in holiness of heart and life. In this ministry the church helps persons to grow and mature in faith, hope and love that they may live as professing members and faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.
A disciple is a person who has been baptized in the name of the Triune God and welcomed into the fellowship of the church. A disciple is any person who responds to the eucharistic invitation:
Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another. Therefore, let us confess our sin before God and one another.
A disciple is one who comes to the Lord’s table with open heart and hands, receives Christ’s body and blood and goes into the world to live as a servant of love and justice. A disciple goes into the world to live the prayer after communion:
Eternal God, we give you thanks for this holy mystery in which you have given yourself to us. Grant that we may go into the world in the strength of your Spirit to give ourselves for others, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
A disciple believes that “to know [God] is eternal life and to serve [God] is perfect freedom” (from the Collect for Peace found in The Book of Common Prayer). Disciples renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent of their sins. They accept the freedom and power God gives them to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they encounter. And, they confess Jesus Christ as their Savior, put their whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as their Lord, in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races (The United Methodist Hymnal, page 34).
Discipleship is a journey. It is a deeply personal experience of self-discovery, struggle, service and growth. While it is personal, the journey of discipleship is not private. Disciples do not walk alone with Christ. They walk with him and the others he chooses for them (see John 15:16). Some are more seasoned while others are new, fresh disciples. Christ brings them together to teach them how to become like Christ to one another. As they become more and more like Christ for each other, they become able to be like Christ to their neighbors in the world. The writer of the Gospel according to John puts it this way, “… to all who receive [Christ], who believe in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13). The journey of discipleship, therefore, is a process of “becoming” the human beings God created them to be; fully human in the image of Christ; channels of grace for the healing and redemption of planet earth.
The journey of discipleship has a destination. The Wesleyan tradition believes this destination to be, “perfection in love,” “holiness of heart and life,” and “having the mind of Christ.” Disciples of Jesus Christ take responsibility for one another as they strive to live out his commandment:
… love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:34-35).
Jesus gives disciples the grace they need to encourage one another through mutual support and accountability for believing, obeying, and loving him and his commandments. In the process they help each other along the way towards maturity, or “perfection in love.”
What does this “perfection in love” look like? Paul describes the marks of Christian maturity in Galatians 5:22-23
… the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
and Colossians 3:12-17
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
All this is God’s gift and work in, with, and for those who desire to be and live as disciples of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. The disciple’s task is to participate and cooperate with the work that God is doing and promises to do through the indwelling grace of the Holy Spirit.
Finally, a disciple is a person who strives to live into the Covenant Prayer. Knowing that few are there yet, but that, with much love and support, all are seeking and running toward the goal trusting in the grace of God given to all through faith in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit:
I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things
to thy pleasure and disposal.
And not, O glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.
Come, let us use the grace divine,
And all, with one accord,
In a perpetual covenant join
Ourselves to Christ the Lord.
Give up ourselves, through Jesu's power,
His name to glorify;
And promise in this sacred hour
For God to live and die.
(The United Methodist Hymnal, #607 & #606)