Simple Church: Definition of a disciple

Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger’s book Simple Church argues that churches need to cut away much of what they do. The authors say the key to vital churches is building everything the church does around an intentional process of creating disciples.

The first step in this process is to define in explicit terms what a disciple looks like.

John Wesley’s pamphlet “The Character of a Methodist” has a historic Methodist definition of a true disciple, which for Wesley was just another way of saying “a Methodist.”

A disciple is one who loves God and neighbor and therefore is

  • happy and God and constantly rejoices that his sins are forgiven and he is adopted as a son of God
  • thankful for whatever condition he finds himself in – ease or pain, sickness or health, life or death
  • always at prayer
  • purified from vengeful thoughts, envy, malice, or wrath
  • crucified to the world
  • obedient to the law of Christ so that everything Christ commands he does and everything Christ forbids he avoids
  • serving God with all his strength and in all he does and with all he has
  • immune to the customs and pressures of those around him
  • doing good to all people at every possible opportunity

This list is longer than Rainer and Geiger suggest, but it appears to be Wesley’s definition of a disciple. It is in fostering people who fit this description that the authors say every aspect of the local church should be geared.

I’m not sure what to make of this list and description. It strikes me as too high a target. It was in Wesley’s day as well. He noted that by his definition of Christian, most of the people in England had never seen – much less been – true Christians.

If the marks of a true Methodist are not within reach of most Christians, except perhaps at the close of life, then what is a good definition of a disciple for the United Methodist Church?

What does a disciple look like? What specific marks does a disciple bear?



2 thoughts on “Simple Church: Definition of a disciple

  1. Another excellent post. However, I disagree that Wesley’s description of a Methodist/disciple is too high a target. It seems to me that if we take Scripture seriously, as Wesley certainly did, the goal Wesley describes is spot on. It’s important to see this as a goal towards which to strive. It’s equally important to understand that none of it is possible without our dependence upon grace and the power of the Holy Spirit at work in the world and in our lives to heal and transform our character into the image of Christ. Finally, we can become disciples/Methodists only as we participate in the life and mission of the Church and the support and accountability provided by small groups shaped by the rule of life-The General Rules.

    Being and becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ is very much like being and becoming a musician. We must submit to the discipline of music and our chosen instrument. We must also place ourselves under the care of teachers/masters along the way. Through discipline and practice, listening and learning musicians get themselves out of the way and allow the music to play them. In the same way disciples are women and men who put themselves aside and allow the music of God, which is love, to flow through them for the world; they become channels of grace and fully the persons God created them to be, in the image of Christ.

    1. Good push back, Steve.

      By “too high a target” I was perhaps a bit clumsy in my phrasing. Your point about it being a goal and aspiration touches on the concern I have.

      I am grateful for the musician metaphor as well.

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