Is there a difference between being a disciple of Jesus and being a Christian? That’s an interesting and important question. It’s important because it’s easy to misunderstand discipleship and think it is something different from being Christian. If it was true, the implications would be absurd. It would mean that a person could be a disciple without being a Christian or the other extreme, a person could be a Christian without being a disciple of Jesus.
In the New Testament, the two words are used synonymously. Both referring to people who are striving to follow Jesus Christ of Nazareth. To reinforce this idea, we should look at the usage of the terms. Did you know that the word “Christian” is only used 3 times in the entire New Testament (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16) while the term “disciple” is used 269 times[i]. Simply from the usage and number of words, we should conclude that they both refer to Christians. It is humbling to learn that far more often, the word “disciple” is used to describe Christians.
So, what is a disciple?
The original word is “Gk. mathetes” and refers to a pupil, apprentice, or an adherent. It describes “a person who engages in learning through the instruction of another.”[ii] In a first century context, it was someone who literally followed a teacher from place to place, learning from them in words and example. For example, in John 1:35-42 we have a beautiful picture of two potential disciples who, after hearing John’s description of Jesus as the Lamb of God, literally started following Him. In Acts 22:3, we are told that Saul was trained at the feet of Gamaliel with the implication being that he literally followed him. In Luke 10:39, we have a scene where Mary is sitting at the feet of Jesus, learning from Him. Discipleship is typified in each of these examples.
So, what’s the point?
While it is true that there will always be differing degrees of love and commitment among disciples, we are all still disciples. The point is that every Christian is a disciple of Jesus. Every Christian has made the decision to follow Jesus.
It means that we should be striving to act like disciples. A disciple has made a clean break with the past (Mark 1:16-20) and followed Jesus. A disciple has entered a lifelong relationship (Mark 3:14) where we share our whole life with Him without reservations. A disciple has entered a lifelong relationship with Jesus himself, not merely his teachings (Mark 2:18-22).
We are all disciples of Jesus Christ. We should love and follow Him while being gentle and patient with each other.
[i] These numbers are based on the English Standard Version Bible.
[ii] Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., Bauer, W., & Gingrich, F. W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 609). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.