What is a Disciple?


There’s an interesting conversation beginning in The United Methodist Church about the definition of “discipleship.” It’s important because the church says its mission is to make disciples. Disciple-making is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. In the Gospel of Matthew, in his final instruction to the eleven remaining disciples (Judas has betrayed him), he tells them to go into the world and make disciples of all nations. (Matt. 28: 19) In Christian theology it’s known as “The Great Commission” and it’s a basic tenet of Christian teaching. Its importance for Christians cannot be understated.

While the word “disciple,” (or its equivalent in the language of the day), may have been understood more clearly in Jesus’ time, in the modern day lexicon of faith “discipleship” is less clearly understood and according to research by United Methodist Communications, this lack of clarity leads to confusion, lost communication and a weakening of the connectivity of the United Methodist community of faith.

Because the word discipleship and the work of making disciples is so central to the mission of the church, lack of clarity about what it means is a crucial issue. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote definitively on the subject of discipleship in 1937, but his work is not widely known today.

In response to a report on this research that I gave to the Connectional Table yesterday, Bishop Michael Coyner of the Indiana Episcopal Area offered a definition the Indiana Conference developed that’s an excellent overview.

“A DISCIPLE is a person who

experiences the

forgiveness and acceptance of God,

follows the life and teachings of Jesus Christ,

demonstrates the fruit of the Spirit,


shares in the life and witness of a community of disciples,

including Baptism and the Lord’s Supper,

serves in some form of ministry every day,

participates in God’s suffering and transformation of the world,

anticipates a future life in the presence of God,


yearns to lead others to become disciples.”

Do you have a definition? Does the Indiana Conference definition capture your understanding of a disciple and the work of discipleship?


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