Disciple: Endangered Word or Extinct Ministry Model?

Our language betrays us. It is interesting to me how much of the language we use as the children of God is not used in the Bible and what language the Bible does use, we do not. As much as I would like to think of myself as a Biblical thinker, the words I use sometimes reflect a different set of ideals.

Luke, as an historian, gives us an account of the first 30 years of what he called “The Way”. It seems to me that he would use words that reflected the language and thinking of the first century followers of Jesus. One example of the disparity between our language and that of Luke is seen in the book of Acts, what we would call a “Christian” Luke calls a “disciple”. Here are some examples:

  • In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”  (Acts 9:10)
  • When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple.  (Acts 9:26)
  • In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (which, when translated, is Dorcas), who was always doing good and helping the poor.  (Acts 9:36)
  • He came to Derbe and then to Lystra, where a disciple named Timothy lived, whose mother was a Jewess and a believer, but whose father was a Greek.  (Acts 16:1)

Think about how foreign it would be to our ears to hear someone say, “There is a disciple in St. Louis I would like for you to meet” or “I am having coffee today with a new disciple”. Never does Luke refer to a individual follower of Jesus as a “Christian”.

When referring to larger groups Luke’s word of preference is “disciples”. Luke uses “disciples” 26 times in contrast to what we would call “Christians” and the term “believers” he uses 11 times. He does say in Acts 11:26 that the disciples were called “Christians” first at Antioch, but Luke never refers to disciples as Christians. Below are a couple examples of Luke’s usage of the word “disciples”:

They preached the good news in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith.  (Acts 14:21-22)

We landed at Tyre, where our ship was to unload its cargo. Finding the disciples there, we stayed with them seven days. Through the Spirit they urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. But when our time was up, we left and continued on our way. All the disciples and their wives and children accompanied us out of the city, and there on the beach we knelt to pray.  (Acts 21:3-5)

A mystery is why Paul never uses the word “disciple” and only uses the word “disciples” one time in Acts 20:30, “Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.” The word “disciple” or “disciples” never appears in any of Paul’s writings even though the book of Acts was written after Paul’s writings.

Paul uses the word “believer” only 4 times in his writings and “believers” 9 times. We have no record of Paul ever using the term “Christian”.

A couple possible explanations have been suggested:

  1. Paul wrote in letters. Letters are understood when placed into the context of a larger story. A letter written by me to my mother would have little meaning to someone who is not familiar with our family story. Luke provides the backdrop of the larger story through the book of Acts and Paul’s letters then fit into that story.
  2. Paul uses the language of making disciples in his writings. (See Oct 3rd, 2007 Post, “Paul Church Planter or Ardent Disciple Maker?”). Although Paul might not use the word “disciple” or “disciples” in his writings he does use the language of disciple making. For instance, Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.”  (1 Corinthians 11:1)

The question before us is this:

  • Are we not making disciples because the word “disciple” has been removed from our vocabulary or have we removed the word “disciple” from our usage because it does not fit our present ministry methodology?

Whatever the answer, we need to get back to both a Biblical model and Biblical language fulfilling the great commission of Jesus.

One thought on “Disciple: Endangered Word or Extinct Ministry Model?

  1. I was just thinking about this very thing today. I was wondering about your language of disciple making then what Perspectives (a world missions course) teaches about planting a church in every unreached people group in the world. I thought, you know its just semantics; they both teach and do the same thing. But, no, you’re right. When we change the word, we change the focus.

    Some of the Perspectives literature used the word “church planting,” but interestingly most of the missionaries who taught during the course talked more about life-changing relationships, family, community, healings, and other miracles that occurred in Mongolia, India, etc. I believe all of these words point to discipleship.

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