Friday, January 14, 2011

Defining “Disciple” #1: Our Task

When defining biblical terms, I usually combine two approaches. I examine the meaning of the English term and its derivation so that I can understand the nuances in the contemporary usage and in the proper definitions of the word. I also probe the meaning of the word from its Hebrew or Greek origins, examining both the lexical and the contextual aspects of the word’s meaning. Most exegetes and theologians seem to think that we should begin with the biblical language and move toward the contemporary expression of the biblical term. Occasionally, however, I find it appropriate to begin with our English word and to “correct” its meaning in the specific biblical context. In reality, words whether in English or in a biblical language have a range of meanings that only can be deciphered in their specific contexts.

In defining “disciple,” however, we run into a not uncommon problem. Our English word derives from a Latin root and has no connection with the original biblical languages. This generally means that we have to build an interpretative bridge that focuses on the distinguishing nuances between the languages. In such cases our English word can also have both continuity with and disjunction from its original root in its derivation. These issues open up a gold mine for biblical exegetes, but they often become onerous for the layperson who just wants to know “what it means.”

At the risk of becoming onerous, I think it is appropriate to explore the meaning of “disciple” thoroughly, especially since I have posed “making disciples” as the central and defining task of the church. In addition, the “Making Disciples” Chart has “disciple” in the center of the five stages through which we pass in developing the integrity of our faith. It is the central expression of how we respond to God’s grace. My next few posts will tackle the task of defining “disciple” and will seek to gain an understanding of what discipleship means for us as individuals, for the church, and for our personal relationship with God.

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