Last Sunday we began a series about discipleship called Follow Me: Jesus’ Call to Authentic Discipleship. We are thinking together about what it means to be a disciple. One of the reasons for this is that the terms “disciple” and “discipleship” are familiar to many Christians, but not always well understood. We know Jesus had 12 disciples, we know he commanded them to go and make disciples, but what exactly is a disciple?
One way to get at this is to define our terms, so we’ve proposed this simple definition: A disciple is someone who knows, loves, and obeys Jesus, and who encourages others to do the same. Another way to get at this is to look at misunderstandings, which is what I’ll do in this post. Here are five myths about disciples.[i]
Myth 1: A disciple is someone who has made Jesus his or her Lord and personal Savior.
You can’t read far in the New Testament without encountering the reality that Jesus Christ is in fact both Lord and Savior. He is Lord of all the earth and all the rulers of the earth, and the only mediator between God and mankind. What’s problematic here is the way this word “personal” gets used by well-intended Christians as they explain the gospel. The dramatic call to a whole-hearted repentance and faith is sometimes watered down into a consumeristic explanation that makes it sound as if you can acquire Jesus through a transaction not that different from acquiring a new car. He comes complete with all the options, including forgiveness, the Holy Spirit, eternal life. The unintended effect of this is to trivialize the Lord of Glory and turn salvation into just another purchase in the life of a consumer. A disciple is someone who hears Jesus’ call to “take up your cross and follow me.”
Myth 2: Disciples can do whatever they want because Jesus always forgives.
Do Christians need forgiveness in an ongoing way? Yes! Jesus teaches us to pray constantly for forgiveness. In the Lord’s prayer we’re instructed to pray for daily bread, then to ask for forgiveness (presumably needed as often as the bread!) as we commit to forgive others. The problem here is with the cavalier, careless approach to sin. Disciples aren’t free to “do whatever they want” because to be a disciple is to be a learner, an apprentice of the Lord Jesus, so disciples desire to live in a way that pleases him. Disciples can’t do whatever they want because they’ve been filled with God’s Spirit, who is holy. Do Christians sin? Yes, of course. But the response of a healthy disciple is to fight sin, not ask, “How much can I get away with and still be forgiven?”
Myth 3: A disciple is a highly committed Christian.
The thinking here goes something like this: If I live my life in the normal way, I’m living as a Christian. But if I get really fired up, really committed, if I’m ready for the advanced level of the Christian life, then I’ll be a disciple. Disciples are sort of the Navy SEALs in the body of Christ. But this goes against the simple and clear testimony of Scripture. Jesus’ followers are disciples, all of them. For example, it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians (Acts 11:26). Here we see that to be a Christian is to be a disciple; they are synonyms.
Myth 4: Since disciples have Jesus, church is optional.
It is the privilege of every Christian, every disciple, to be filled with the Holy Spirit, to have access to Scripture, to be in a right relationship with God, and more. With all these resources, who needs the church? And isn’t the church full of hypocrites anyway? This myth is powerful because it plays into the individualism that is so characteristic of our age. Sometimes the gospel is presented in ways that are shaped by that individualism and so it is no wonder that in our country we have many, many people who identify as Christians but who are not part of a church. But we must remember that salvation is not only from something, it is also into something.
We are saved into God’s family, which is why we pray, “Our father.” We are saved into the body of Christ. We are saved into a spiritual temple made up of living stones. Authentic discipleship cannot occur without the community of the church.
Myth 5: Discipleship is about helping other Christians grow.
When Lesley and I were in college we were each in wonderful campus Christian ministries which helped us grow spiritually. There was lots of talk about discipleship yet, as far as I can recall, almost all of it related to helping existing Christians grow. When we talked about ministry to non-Christians, that was called evangelism. This idea, that discipleship is for Christians and evangelism is for non-Christians, stuck. From time-to-time I’d be reminded that in the Great Commission, Jesus stretches the definition further. When he says to make disciples of all nations, clearly he means that making disciples starts with calling unbelievers to become disciples. But I’ve tended to keep forgetting that and slipping back into my old way of thinking. I hope this round of studying discipleship will help me get and hold the fact that discipleship is about calling non-Christians to become disciples, then it is about helping them grow as Christians.
[i] My thoughts here have been helpfully influenced by the little booklet, What is Discipleship? and we’re glad to be able to give that away to any who would like one. They’ll be in the bookstore beginning this Sunday, September 15.