Should we stop using the term “disciple”?
My attention was recently drawn to a book by Alison Morgan called “Following Jesus” with the interesting subtitle, “The Plural of Disciple is Church.”
Morgan emphasizes the importance of discipleship. She says, “If the church is not about making disciples, it is not church. Discipleship is not something the church does; it is what the church is; the church is the community which supports and directs our discipleship in the world.”
But she also notes that that while the word “disciple” occurs frequently in the Gospels and in the Book of Acts, it is not used in the letters of Peter, Paul, James and John.
The question arises: Why is the word “disciple” only found in the Gospels and in the Book of Acts?
According to Morgan, “The difference is that the emphasis is now not on the individual, responding to the call of Jesus, but on the group, learning to reshape their lives in the light of that call.”
She concludes, “The plural of disciple is church. A church is a community of disciples, a gathering of people who have been called individually and collectively into relationship with God.”
Having read what Morgan had to say in what is essentially a popular guide to Christian discipleship, I thought I would see what New Testament scholars have to say.
In particular, I consulted Paul Trebilco, “Self-designations and Group Identity in the New Testament.”
“Jesus transformed and radicalized the meaning of ‘mathetai’ (disciples), so that it was particularly associated with his call to follow him, which involved literal itinerancy and breaking ties with family and livelihood, as well as danger, hostility and cross-bearing,” he asserts. “This means that ‘disciples,’ as used by the historical Jesus, was a narrow and restricted concept … It was difficult for Paul and others to apply it to Christians in their own day.”
As a result, Paul used other expressions such as “believers,” “saints,” “in Christ” and the language of Jesus as Lord.
Furthermore, like Morgan, Trebilco notes that the word “disciple” need imply nothing about community. Indeed, in the Greco-Roman world, a disciple would be entirely independent of other disciples.
Given the very strong sense of community in the early Christian churches, the term “disciple” said too little with regard to horizontal relationships.
So the question arises: If the early church gave up on the term “disciple,” are we wise today to use a term that does not really belong to our culture?
According to Luke, it was in Antioch that the “disciples” were first called “Christians.” But the “term” Christian is only found in two other places (Acts 26.28; 1 Peter 4.16).
The most common word used as a term of “self-designation” in the New Testament is “brothers” (Greek: “adelphoi”), which in those days was an inclusive term referring to “brothers and sisters.”
This term used in the metaphorical sense of being a “follower of Jesus” is found some 271 times in the New Testament.
Significantly, it was also a term that Jesus used a good deal; indeed, one could argue that “brothers and sisters” was the key term Jesus used for his followers.
For instance, there was the occasion when his mothers and brothers came to see him (see Mark 3.31-35, with parallels in Matt 12.46-50; Luke 19.21). They sent a message to him saying that they were outside waiting for him.
But Jesus replied, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” The Scripture goes on to say, “He looked at the people sitting round him and said, ‘Look! Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does what God wants him to do is my brother, my sister, my mother.'”
This was radical stuff. It is not exaggeration to say that at this point Jesus redefined the family. For him, family was defined by a new relationship with God, in which blood relationship could no longer take precedence.
Furthermore, although in our context today it sounds frightfully old-fashioned, the fact that “we are family” is the glory of the church.
Unfortunately, however, the expression “brothers and sisters” is not a very distinctive term to describe a group of Christians.
Trebilco argues that if we wanted to use a more distinctive New Testament term, then we should probably opt for “believers,” or perhaps even for “saints.”
If I am honest, I am not smitten by the term “disciple” – but I do like the term “church.” For togetherness is of the essence of the Christian faith.
As Morgan says, Christian discipleship is about “setting out on a shared journey.” But what we call ourselves individually, that is perhaps open to debate.
Paul Beasley-Murray retired after 21 years of ministry as the senior minister of Central Baptist Church in Chelmsford in the United Kingdom. He is currently serving as the chairman and general editor of Ministry Today U.K. and as the chairman of the College of Baptist Ministers. He is the author of numerous books and articles, including “Living Out the Call,” a four-volume series on pastoral ministry. His writings can be found at PaulBeasleyMurray.com, where readers can register to receive his weekly blog post. A version of this article first appeared on his website and is used with permission.