What's the Difference? Christian vs. Disciple

One of the first things kids learn about are shapes. They’re quickly taught the difference between circles, squares, triangles, and rectangles. It’s kids stuff, right? Easy peasy! So, let me ask you, are squares also rectangles?

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The difference between squares and rectangles aren’t as clear as you were taught. In fact, every square is also a rectangle. So what’s the difference? A square is a quadrilateral where all four angles are right angles and all four sides are the same length, but a rectangle is a quadrilateral where all four angles are right angles. So, every square a rectangle, but not every rectangle is a square.

This small geometry lesson should remind us that sometimes we think we know something that we don’t really know. It’s not until we think deeply about two words or concepts that we uncover the real difference.

Today we continue our “What’s the Difference?” series. Last time we looked at the difference between mentoring and disciple making. Now, let’s investigate the difference between a Christian and a disciple.

"Christian", is a word with a long history. Used sparingly in Scripture, the first time was Acts 11:26. It appears to have been a derogatory term that outsiders used to describe early Christ-followers. Literally meaning, “little Christ,” or “follower of Christ”, the term’s usage grew with Christianity.


Today this well-traveled word arrives with lots of baggage. It’s now a term of belief more than behavior. It no longer indicates someone who looks and acts like Jesus, but is more commonly used of someone who has intellectually accepted the tenets of Christianity. Instead of being recognized by their actions, today’s Christian is someone who has accepted Jesus as their personal Savior and who identifies with the Christian religion. The evangelical movement’s focus on sin, repentance, and conversion has played a huge role in how we understand who is really a “Christian".

As a result when it’s used in Dayton, Ohio, and throughout the world, it can refer to someone who believes in God or Jesus, but who doesn't identify as Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, etc. It can refer to someone who never goes to church or to someone who’s there every week. “Christian” began as a highly helpful and descriptive word, but today it’s become old and rusty like another oft-used word.

While “Christian” is the most popular term in our culture to describe a person who follows Jesus, “disciple” was the most popular term in the New Testament. "Disciple" is used 281 times in the NT, compared to “Christian” which is used just three times. But what exactly is a disciple?

It’s a key question. If we want to make disciples we need to know what a disciple is. More than that, if we want to make a disciple then we need to be a disciple. As I help church leaders build disciple making cultures an early step is to define exactly what we mean when we use the word, “disciple”.

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Though an uncommon term in our culture, “disciple” has an even longer history than “Christian”. First written down by Greek historian Herodotus, nearly 500 years before Jesus walked the earth, it referred to a learner or apprentice. The master/apprentice, teacher/student paradigm was the one that Jesus called the Twelve into. His training was immersive and holistic. Jesus traveled with His disciples, ate with them, and lodged with them. In my twenty years of ministry, I have yet to see a teacher reproduce His model. So what does it mean today when we say that we are a disciple of Jesus?

The clearest definition I know is rooted in Scripture and popularized by Jim Putman and discipleship.org. In Matthew 4:19 Jesus says, “Come follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” In this relatively short sentence, we see the three essential elements of a disciple.

1. “Come follow me” First, a disciple is someone who follows Jesus. In order to follow Him, we must put aside our agenda. Just as the disciples set aside their lives to follow Him, so do we. To follow Him means to submit to Him.

2. “And I will make you” Second, a disciple is someone who is being changed by Jesus. As we follow Jesus and submit to Jesus we are changed by Jesus. Not only is our direction changed, but so are our actions and beliefs. When we follow we act, but here Jesus is active in changing us. Transformation is a cooperative work when we are a disciple of Christ.

3. “Fishers of Men” Third, a disciple is engaged in the mission of Jesus. We aren’t being transformed to embark on a mission of our choosing. We are changed to join Jesus in His mission. A disciple becomes like the teacher (Luke 6:40), not just in morals, but also in mission and methods.

Though a sufficient definition of the word "disciple", it’s not a complete description of the word. This definition allows us to incorporate all true Jesus-disciples regardless of their age or spiritual maturity. A brand new disciple fits within this definition as easily as the most experienced and mature Christ-follower. But, at the same time, it weeds out those who have stopped following, being changed by, or engaging in the mission of Jesus. It speaks to belief, decision, and outward aim.

So, what about you? Are you a square or a rectangle?

All disciples (squares) are Christians (rectangles), but not every Christian is a disciple.