On De-Privileging Discipleship

Should the word “disciple” take precedence over other New Testament terms when talking about what it means to be a Christian? Can the word by itself carry the full weight of the Christian life?

The New Testament contains a wide variety of images when describing the people of God. “Disciple” is only one term among many. Body, temple, priesthood, holy ones, chosen ones, seed of Abraham, believers, assembly, communion, people, nation, citizens, sojourners, new creation and Christian are but a few of the others.

In a recent series on early Christian group identity, Ben Witherington said this about the word “disciple“:

The term ‘mathetai’ is used some 261 times in the NT, being by far the most common designation in the Gospels for Jesus’ followers, but it is used nowhere outside the Gospels and Acts in the NT for the followers of Jesus. . . . The term mathetai only rarely comes up in the Apostolic Fathers. Basically it is only found in Ignatius except for 2 references in the Martyrdom of Polycarp, which makes clear that this term was not much used beyond the time of the ministry of Jesus in Christian communities. … The term does not seem to have been used much if at all in some cases by Christians as a self-designation after Easter.

Links to the entire series is here:

In general, the word “disciple” is reserved for the mendicant, itinerant community that followed Jesus from town to town during the period between his baptism and his crucifixion.

One notable – and important – exception to the rule is found in Matthew 28:16-20, commonly known as the Great Commission.

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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.”

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus commands his disciples to make disciples from every nation (i.e., ethnic group) on the face of the earth. The prohibition against going among the Gentiles is lifted (Matthew 10:5). The mission is no longer confined to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24).

Matthew probably uses the word “disciple” here to emphasize the continuity between the pre-resurrection community and the post-resurrection church. In A Great Commission Church, I noted that:

In Ben Witherington’s Smyth and Helwys commentary on Matthew (and in Jesus the Sage), Witherington argues that Matthew sees Jesus as a sage or teacher in the line of Israel’s wisdom tradition, and yet greater than anything that had come before. Jesus is the Son of David in the sense that he is wisdom greater than Solomon. He is the Son of God and Immanuel (God with us) in the sense that he is the wisdom of God personified. Matthew sees his own role to be one of a Christian scribe who faithfully transmits and applies the teaching of the master sage. Being a disciple, in Matthew’s community, means to learn the teachings of Jesus, to live them and to faithfully transmit them to others. No wonder, then, that Matthew’s gospel culminates with Jesus calling his disciples to “make disciples” and “teach them to keep everything commanded.” Jesus’ teaching is central to Matthew’s understanding of Jesus’ identity.

Certainly, then, “disciple” is an appropriate word to use when describing those who belong to Christ. But is it the only word? Or even the most important word? Is it the one word by which we should understand all the other words?

For most of my life, I have simply used the word “disciple” broadly as a synonym for “Christian.” There are some Christians, however, who define discipleship more narrowly. For them, discipleship consists of imitating the itinerant disciples who followed Jesus through Galilee and Judea. One might describe this approach as the “Anabaptist” or “Red Letter” understanding of discipleship.

There are a host of problems with this approach, but let me just focus on the one highlighted above. The post-resurrection Christian community used a wide variety of metaphors and images to describe itself.

The New Testament church did not attempt to replicate the conditions of pre-resurrection discipleship.There is both continuity and discontinuity between the pre- and post-resurrection communities. An overly narrow focus on “discipleship” tends to over-emphasize the continuity and under-emphasize the discontinuity.

Privileging the word “disciple” also silences the New Testament’s other, equally important ways of describing the life of the church. In some ways, Christians who see everything in the Christian life through the lens of pre-resurrection discipleship are like Christians who see everything related to salvation through the lens of substitutionary atonement. In both cases, the New Testament provides us with a multi-color spectrum of meaning; some people see only in monochrome.