What the heck is DISCIPLESHIP?

This may be a pet-peeve of mine, but I find myself endlessly frustrated by the words that Christians have invented – this little private language we have. Sometimes these words convey huge ideas (like the word Trinity which has been a part of our faith since the 4th century although it does not appear anywhere in Scripture), but often they are simply substitute words for things that we already have perfectly good words for.

The current word that is annoying me is discipleship. Beside the fact that this is a very awkward compound which literally means “the shape of a learner”, this word just does not feel right. To me, it gives the impression that people must be pounded into the form of a disciple. It is probably my own experiences with “discipleship programs” but it is not about exploration but rather information. Discipleship often means “indoctrination” rather than “conversation.”

I think the reason it gets under my skin is that we have taken a perfectly good noun – disciple – and turned it into a verb – discipling – and then into a process – discipleship. These are essentially Protestant, English words for catechumen and catechism.

Disciple comes to us from the Latin – through French – word discere meaning “to learn.” This word entered English vocabulary from the Latin Vulgate when William Tyndale translated the New Testament into English.

When he sawe the people he went vp into a mountayne and when he was set his disciples came to hym [Matthew 5:1]

There’s nothing wrong with the word disciple and I want to be very clear about that. We are disciples. It is our recent permutations of the word that bother me.

  • The verb form of disciple is discipline, not disciple. You cannot disciple someone because a disciple is a person who is being taught. You can discipline them, but not disciple them.
  • Likewise, the process of becoming a disciple is not discipleship or discipling. If anything, it is development or training. There is no reason for inventing a word just to be different.

Now, all of this may seem like an etymological rabbit trail, but it does have a rhyme and reason. Somewhere along the line, we separated the idea of a disciple from the concept of a Christian. We turned the maturing process inherent to every believer’s journey into a process to be completed with curricula and catechism. The division was necessary because in recent years, we have had such an emphasis on moments of conversion that we do not allow for the development of one’s faith. Since a person “gets saved”, they have to turn into something, right? So, we have separated “becoming a Christian” from “becoming a disciple.” I think Jesus would have a problem with that – since it is clear his disciples were not yet Christians, and certainly had some real development issues even after they were called into ministry.

What we should call it is “growing” and “maturing” – which are two Biblical words. We do not become Christians. We become disciples. We develop in our faith over our entire lives. Our entire existence is growth in faith.

For my two cents, I believe that blurring the lines between “salvation” and “discipleship” as well as “evangelism” brings us much more in line with what happened with Jesus’ disciples during his ministry.


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