Descriptive Terms of Christians

Mike Willis
Indianapolis, Indiana

Throughout the history of the American restoration movement, the term "disciple" has been a popular one both in the description of the individual members and of the congregation. Indeed, the most liberal segment of the groups historically related to the restoration movement has called themselves the Disciples of Christ. The usage of this term was not accidental; it was taken from a biblical source: ". . . and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch" (Acts 11:26). But, what are the particular characteristics which are supposed to manifest themselves in the life of a Christian who is referred to by the word "disciple"?

Definition of the Term

The Greek word from which "disciple" is translated is mathetes. Here are several definitions of it:

"Lit., a learner (from manthano, to learn, from a root math-, indicating thought accompanied by endeavor), in contrast to didaskolos, a teacher; hence it denotes one who follows one's teaching . . . all who manifest that they are His disciples by abiding in his word . . ." (W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Vol. 1, p. 316).

"A learner, pupil, disciple: univ., opp. to didaskolos.. . . one who follows one's teaching" (Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 386).

"Learner, pupil, disciple" (Arndt and Gingrich, A GreekEnglish Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, p. 486).

. . . The emphasis is not so much on the incompleteness or even deficiency of education as on the fact that the one thus designated is engaged in learning, that his education consists in the appropriation or adoption of specific knowledge or conduct, and that it proceeds deliberately and according to a set plan. There is no mathetes without a didaskolos . . ." Mittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. IV, p. 416).

"(1) ... The word is found in the Bible only in the Gospels and Acts. But it is good Greek, In use from Herodotus down, and always means the pupil of someone, in contrast to the master or teacher.... In all cases it implies that the person not only accepts the views of the teacher, but that he is also in practice an adherent.... (2) .... The disciple of Christ today may be described in the words of Farrar, as `one who believes His doctrines, rests upon His sacrifice, imbibes His spirit, and imitates His example' " (International Standard Bihle Encyclopedia, Vol. II, p. 851).

There is nothing in the word to denote of whom the person is a disciple. The New Testament refers to disciples of John the Baptist (Mt. 9:14), the Pharisees (Mt. 22:16), Moses (Jn. 9:28), and Jesus (Mt. 12:1). Our interest lies only in the last of these. Sometimes the word "disciple" is applied to the Twelve; all apostles were disciples but not all disciples were apostles.

Emphases of the Term

The primary thrust of the word is this: Christians must be learners. The person who is a disciple acknowledges his ignorance and his need for a teacher. The disciple of Jesus recognizes "that a man's way is not in himself; nor is it in a man who walks to direct his steps" (Jer. 10:23). Obviously, not all men are willing to acknowledge this need for revelational guidance. The acknowledgment that one is a disciple implies his desire and willingness to learn. A disciple does not possess a lackadaisical attitude toward Bible study. Therefore, to be a disciple also implies progress is being made in one's knowledge.

Actually, no one can be a Christian without possessing these attributes. The Great Commission commanded the apostles to "go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them (i.e. those who have become disciples-MW) in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit" (Mt. 28:19). No one who lacks the characteristics of a disciple is a proper subject of baptism. The "making disciples" (from the verb cognate of mathetes) emphasizes that one is drawn to Christ through teaching; Christianity is a taught religion. Jesus said, "No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, `And they shall all be taught of God.' Every one who has heard and learned from the Father comes to Me" (Jn. 6:44-45). The teaching and learning process is to continue throughout one's life as a Christian. The newborn Christian is to "long for the pure milk of the word, that by it you may grow in respect to salvation" (1 Pet. 2:2); all are expected to "grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (2 Pet. 3:18). The blessings of God abide on "he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it" (Rev. 1:3).

Anytime a Christian ceases to be a learner, he is in danger of falling from grace. God has never been pleased with a Christian's quitting his study of God's revelation. The author of Hebrews rebuked some with these words: "For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for some one to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food" (Heb. 5:12). Paul warned that those who lost their love for the truth were inevitably headed toward apostasy. For this reason, Paul wrote Timothy saying, "Until I come, give attention to the public reading of Scripture" (1 Tim. 4:13). The disciple is a learner.

Secondly, a disciple is a follower. The man who knows the Christian religion revealed through Jesus is not necessarily a disciple; he must be an adherent to it. Jesus left a perfect example with the expectation that we should try to follow it (1 Cor. 11:1; 1 Pet. 2:21-25). "Jesus said to His disciples, 'If any one wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me" (Mt. 16:24). The redeemed in heaven will be those "who follow the Lamb wherever He goes" (Rev. 14:4). The disciple of Christ will try to imitate the life of Christ in his daily living.

Thirdly, a disciple of Christ recognizes the authority of his teacher. " `There are three senses in which men are sometimes called "disciples" of any other person: (1) Incorrectly, from their simply maintaining something that he maintains, without any profession or proof of its being derived from him. Thus Augustine was a predestinarian, and so was Mohammed, yet no one supposes that the one derived his belief from the other. It is very common, however, to say of another that he is an Arian, Athanasian, Socinian, etc. which tends to mislead, unless it is admitted, or can be proved, that he learned his opinions from this or that master. (2) When certain persons avow that they have adopted the views of another, not, however, on his authority, but from holding them to be agreeable to reason or to Scripture, as the Platonic, and most other philosophical sects-the Lutherans, Zuinglians (sic), etc. (3) When, like the disciple of Jesus, and, as it is said, of the Pythagoreans, and the adherents of certain churches, they profess to receive their system on the authority of their master or Church, to acquiesce in the "ipse-dixit," or to receive all that the Church receives. These three senses should be carefully kept distinct' " (McClintock and Strong, Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, Vol. II, p. 815). The true disciple of Christ is the one described in number three. (The disciple must maintain loyalty to Jesus and not to the teachings of a religious institution.) He accepts as truth things which he cannot verify simply because his teacher Jesus said they were true. What possible manner do we have to verify whether there is one God or many, a good God or a bad God, etc. except through the revelation communicated through Christ?

Being a follower who recognizes the authority of his teacher, a disciple will submit to Christ's will even if he disagrees with it. If I follow Christ's teaching only where I am able to logically verify it and reject it at points which I do not like what it teaches, I am not a disciple. Abraham was a faithful follower of God because he submitted to God's will to sacrifice Isaac even though his better judgment told him not to sacrifice him. Some are followers of Christ to a point; they follow him until He says something which they do not like (e.g. divorce and remarriage, dress codes, submission to the civil authorities, etc.). Such a person is not a disciple of Christ.


Jesus summed up these aspects of discipleship when He said, "If you abide in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (Jn. 8:31-32). If you profess to be a disciple of Jesus, you need to be involved in some kind of regular, systematic study of His revelation, you must be an adherent to the principles revealed therein, and you must be an imitator of the One who revealed God's word to us. If you are a Christian, you are a disciple; are you a disciple?

Truth Magazine, XX:11, p. 9-10
March 11, 1976