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Are Christians and Disciples the Same?

by Bill Hull

Given that for decades the church has separated discipleship from salvation, we need to ask the question: Are Christians and disciples the same? At first, this question seems to be about the meaning of words, but it is really about expectations. A disciple is a learner, a student of someone. The term implies action and obedience. 

The term Christian, however, tends to refer to a status or position. Early skeptics used it largely as term of derision to describe followers of Jesus, and it occurs only three times in the New Testament.[1] For many, the primary requirement for being a Christian is agreement with Christian doctrine.

A Christian is expected to be something; a disciple is expected to do something. When Jesus invited people to follow him, he asked them to “come and see” (John 1:39 NLT), and then later to “come, follow me” (Matt. 4:19). When Jesus chose the twelve disciples, his invitation was to come and be with him (Mark 3:13). These calls required an active response. The term disciple has a built-in expectation that Christian does not. Scottish writer George MacDonald explained this difference well: “Instead of asking yourself whether you believe or not, ask yourself whether you have this day done one thing because he said, do it, or once abstained because he said, do not do it. It is simply absurd to say you believe, or even want to believe in him if you do not do anything he tells you.”[2]

What We Can Say

We can biblically say that all who actively follow Jesus (disciples) also believe in him, and that their belief is sufficient to save them. Therefore I think it is safe to say that every disciple of Jesus is a Christian. But it is not always safe to assume that every person labeled Christian is a disciple, because a professing “Christian” who does not follow Jesus is no Christian at all. Some use the term “nominal Christian,” meaning one who is Christian in name only, to describe such people.


[1] The first is Acts 11:26. The literal rendering is “the disciples were for the first time called Christians.” The other references are Acts 26:28 and 1 Peter 4:16. Some extra-biblical evidence indicates that “Christian” was used by non-believers describe followers of Jesus. But the term did not originate with Christ’s followers.

[2] George MacDonald, Creation in Christ, in Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants, Rueben P. Job and Norman Shawchuck (Nashville: The Upper Room,. 1983), 60.


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This excerpt has been adapted from Conversion and Discipleship.

Image credit: Shutterstock.

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