Decades back, I used to ask groups I came to teach whether anyone could define the word "disciple." As a rule, folks were fairly confident, and completely wrong. They'd never been taught about it. Probably the most common answer was "follower." After that came "apostle," or "disciplined person." None of which is true.
The Greek word translated disciple is perfectly straightforward and uncontroversial. It is μαθητὴς (mathētēs), and it means "student, pupil, learner."
What, you're waiting for some deeply-spiritual, mystical sense? There isn't one. And I think that in itself is really terribly important.
The way I've seen many folks approach Christianity in general, and church-selection and church-involvement in particular, has convinced me that they have no clue about this element. They do not see themselves as disciples, which is to say they do not see themselves as students, learners, pupils of Jesus Christ.
For instance, I taught one group of older (than I) folks back in the seventies. The focus was the book of Colossians. I introduced it, and I asked them in the intervening week to read the book. It's four chapters long, and reading it takes all of ten minutes or so.
The next week I asked (casually, friendly) for a show of hands as to who in the class in this long-standing Baptist church had read Colossians in the intervening week. Not a single hand went up. Smiling, I went on with the lessons. No one was caned or assigned sentences.
Yet after the class one brother took me aside and rebuked me. He felt I had been out of line. "You made me feel like I was back in school!" he complained, clearly expecting that I would see that as a bad thing that I would want to avoid at all costs. Because we surely don't want anything like that, right? Nothing where someone teaches, and someone else is expected to learn. Which is to say, we don't want anything like discipling going on.
Christians simply do not see themselves as students who are expected (by God!) constantly to learn and grow, and never to graduate. So when it comes to picking a church, the thought of selecting a church which above will (hel-lo?) teach them the Word of God simply is not a priority, or perhaps not even a factor. When they evaluate a church, its music or furnishings or programs or a thousand other elements are central, but its effectiveness in teaching them God's Word is not.
But once they have selected a Bible-teaching church, even then this concept seems to fall by the wayside. They sit and stand, sing and pray; they watch the pastor. They go home, they have lunch. They've already forgotten what happened. So how were they disciples? Surely, if they seriously saw themselves as disciples, they would have taken some steps to make sure that the service contributed to their growth as disciples?
Perhaps someone is thinking, "I don't see the Bible making the big deal about this that you're making." No? How about this?
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)"Make disciples" (mathēteusate) is the lone imperative verb in the Greek text, so it is the anchor-thought. The rest supports this activity. The presence of Jesus is guaranteed to the church as it engages in this activity — making disciples, pupils, students, learners.
"Oh, huh," you say. "I always thought that was about evangelism." Evangelism is included, but it's just the introduction to the whole enchilada, the discipleship enchilada.
But did you know that Jesus defined, in so many words, what it meant to be a genuine disciple? He did in a number of ways, but in our connection one passage stands out: John 8:31-32 —
So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”Break it down:
- The path to freedom lies in knowing the truth.
- The path to knowing the truth lies in being a genuine disciple/student.
- The path to being a genuine student is in continuing in Jesus' word.
Spread the word. Make it loud, plain, and inescapable: if you're a real Christian, you're a student. Your priority is to get taught, and to learn. It is to learn the words of God.
And if you're not being a student, you're not being a Christian.
And it should affect how we approach church selection, organization, and involvement.