Brendon R. Witte
Some who are reading this may understand the following statement intimately: of the dozens of classes I took in seminary, the language classes—Hebrew and Greek—were the most difficult and time-consuming. It is very challenging to learn a new language, which is the reason why electronic helps like Rosetta Stone sell so well. But when you succeed, you not only understand how the new language works, you also have a better understanding of your native language. That is why my English skills were poor until I completed my Hebrew and Greek courses (though, I must admit, I still have plenty of room for improvement).
It was in my first Greek class that I learned the difference between “stative” and “dynamic” verbs. Stative verbs are used to refer to a condition or state that is typically static or unchanging. Dynamic verbs (sometimes called “action verbs”), on the other hand, are used to refer to actions. Greek is not the only language that has verbs under these classifications; English has stative and dynamic verbs as well.
As you can see, verbs like “to love” and “to like” are stative because they describe the state of a person, place, or thing, whereas “to throw” and “to hug” are dynamic because they refer to the action of a person, place, or thing.
What does this discussion of grammar have to do with discipleship? I suggest that this understanding of the difference between stative and dynamic verbs can help us comprehend better the difference between “Christians” and “disciples.”
“Christian” was not a title of which the members of the first century A.D. Church were fond. The appellation is only used three times in the New Testament (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Pet 4:16), all on the lips of outsiders. It was a derogatory term used to cause division not only between Christians and Jews, but also between Christians and the Romans who inflicted capital punishment on Christ (worshipping as God someone who was crucified insulted the Roman legal system).
Ironically, though, the word “Christian” is a designation of which modern believers are proud. It appears in the names of our churches, schools, and sports associations. We display it on our shirts, cars, key-chains, and social media “walls.” We want people to know, first and foremost, that we are Christians. The negative nuance of the designation has faded away; “Christian” is simply a verbal way to make public one’s belief that Jesus was and is God, the Savior of man and the Lord of the universe.
Therefore, “Christian” is a stative label. That is, it describes one’s state of being; a Christian is in the state of believing Christ is Lord. No progressive actions are implied by the designation. A Christian merely is a Christian.
“Disciple,” meanwhile, is a term that implies action. The English word “disciple” is a translation of the Greek mathetes, the word from which we have derived the term “mathematics.” It could also be translated “learner” or “student.” In a secular sense, it designates one who actively learns, through hearing and practice, the teaching of his or her teacher. The biblical understanding of the appellation, however, is much more complex. To borrow from Dr. Gallaty, with minor modification, a disciple is one who “is intentionally equipped with the Word of God through accountable relationships that are empowered by the Holy Spirit in order to produce Christ-likeness.” At the core, a disciple is not one who is in a static state of being, but one who continually grows and develops.
As Christians, we believe Christ is Lord. As disciples, we live in light of his lordship and are actively conformed to the image of Christ through our actions and the sanctification of the Holy Spirit. Christ is our teacher, and by interacting with him through the written Word and prayer we identify ourselves as more than mere followers—Christians—but as disciples like the Twelve. Hence, “Christian” is a stative term, whereas “disciple” is a dynamic term. To put it in the most simplistic form: a Christian believes, whereas a disciple does.
I sincerely hope that my readership is made up of Christians. But I’m sure that there are several reading this post that are not disciples. Are you a static—or perhaps stagnant—Christian? Or are you more than a mere Christ-follower? Are you a disciple who is actively conforming yourself and being conformed through the Spirit into the image of Christ, and, just as importantly, are you teaching others to do likewise?
Go, therefore, and be a dynamic disciple rather than a stative Christian!