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Are You a Christian or a Disciple?

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Church planting in West Africa brings many challenges. Some of these challenges come directly from the nature of the gospel: taking up your cross and following Jesus will always require reorienting your life—both personally and socially. Other challenges are external to the gospel; they come from our different cultures and the unique history of Christianity and the majority religion in West Africa.

For example, you and I know what we mean when we say “Christian,” but that’s not the case in the country where my family works. Instead of thinking of someone who loves Jesus and does his best to follow Him, in our context “Christian” could mean the French or the Pope or George W. Bush or Barack Obama or someone who eats pork and drinks alcohol.

We could discuss at length who or what is and isn’t “Christian,” and we often do. However, these discussions rarely bear the kind of fruit for which we hope. If anything, they reinforce the idea that Christianity is a disjointed mess. What we really long for is to show our neighbors the beauty and brilliance of Jesus.

A New Identity

Early in our work as missionaries, we knew we needed to find a better way to present who we are and who we are inviting others to be. We needed something that would help us get around all the baggage carried by this term “Christian.”

There were a number of ways we could have done that. As we looked at the various options, we landed on the concept of being disciples of Jesus. That’s who we are and who we invite others to be as well. In fact, if those we minister to never become “Christians” (i.e., pork-eating, immodestly dressed Westerners) that’s OK.

At the time, this decision to present ourselves as disciples was more of a methodological decision than a theologically principled one. Fortunately, we landed on an idea that had a lot to teach us.

As we presented ourselves as disciples, I began to internalize that identity more and more. I began to think of myself as “on the road with Jesus,” watching Him, marveling at Him, emulating Him, and sometimes—just like Peter, James, and John—really missing the point.

As I thought of myself more as a “disciple” and less as “Christian,” it significantly impacted my spiritual life and my understanding of who I am as a follower of Jesus. I found this new paradigm both challenging and refreshing.

Back to the Bible

“Christian,” despite our fondness for the word, is not a particularly important biblical term. Twice it shows up as a way for outsiders to refer to Jesus’ disciples (Acts 11:26, 26:28), and once in 1 Peter 4:16 we’re told “if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.”

It’s not that the term “Christian” is bad or that we need to get rid of it. Rather, as we look at the New Testament, we can see it’s not our primary identity. In comparison to “Christian” appearing 3 times, the word “disciple” appears nearly 300 times.

Yet, for many of us, if asked to describe ourselves, we usually latch onto “Christian” as our primary identity. What’s more, just as “Christian” can mislead the people we work with in West Africa, it can also cause us to misunderstand who we are as followers of Jesus.

I’m still growing into my identity as a disciple. I haven’t yet got it all figured out (and maybe disciples never do), but I have learned a few lessons along the way. As I see myself primarily as a disciple and secondarily as a Christian, some things have changed.

1. Knowledge and Obedience

When I think of myself as a Christian, I think of myself as mostly needing to grow in knowledge, and that knowledge is pretty much all predetermined. It sits in theology books in my bookcase. Yes, it would be good if I had it all in my head, but if not, I can always go pull my Packer, Calvin, or Grudem books off the shelf and get the knowledge I need.

Yet when I see myself as a disciple, I find myself primarily needing to grow in application and obedience to the words of Jesus, and this can be done only outside, walking the streets, meeting with people, and entering into their lives. This is far more challenging than merely growing in knowledge and far more fulfilling.

2. Savior and Lord

In a similar vein, as a Christian, I find it easy to think of myself as a finished product. I’ve prayed the prayer; I’m saved; I’m now part of the right group. Sure, I need to grow and keep going to church and reading my Bible, but I’m mostly done and just waiting to get to heaven.

As a disciple, I find a far more compelling trajectory to this life. Where will my Master lead me today? Who will we meet? And what about tomorrow? In many ways it’s the difference between having Jesus solely as “Savior” and having Him also as “Lord” and “Teacher.”

3. Follow the Crowd or Jesus?

When I think of myself as a “Christian,” I find that I’m prone to look around at other Christians and try to align with them. They’re my group after all, so I begin looking, talking, and thinking like them. This isn’t always bad, especially when we find mature believers who follow hard after Jesus.

But every church can have its own culture and own emphases that may not align very closely with Jesus’ agenda. In some churches, I might feel like I need to drink fair-trade coffee or shoot deer or use cloth diapers or take a certain political stance to really be “in.” These things might have their merits, but they’re not the definition of being spiritually mature.

As a disciple, I find it easier to cut through the clutter because my eyes are focused on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of my faith.

4. Make Converts or Disciples?

The previous three points apply to how I see myself, but the concept of being a disciple also reshapes the way I see those who aren’t following Jesus.

As a Christian, I find myself inviting others to my religion. I argue for the virtues of my faith and try to prove that it is more rational or better than other belief systems. Yet these discussions are so easily pulled into the cultural and political realms and away from the center of our faith.

I don’t want to be on the hook for everything that is said and done in the name of Christianity. What I want is for my friend to see Jesus, what He did and what He said, and how good He is and what that says about who He is. When I start from the perspective of a disciple, it’s far easier to go in the right direction.

Similarly, as a Christian, when I engage an outsider, my goal is often to make a convert. I’m not opposed to presenting the gospel in a succinct method to a stranger and leading him through a prayer of committing his life to Jesus. It’s always a miracle when this happens and is often the result of God doing a lot of cultivating work prior to that moment.

Yet as I look at Jesus’ own disciples, it’s hard to find this same pattern. Even though they said “yes” to His call to follow Him, it’s hard to know when they understood who He really was.

When could the disciples have passed a basic theology exam? Most likely it wouldn’t have been till Jesus “opened their minds to understand,” post-Resurrection. That’s three years after they got on the road with Him! And yet we often demand that people sign off on all of the theology before we even think about discipling.

Instead of making converts, I now focus on discipling people to Jesus. In many traditional methods of evangelism, if the person isn’t ready to pray “the prayer,” we’ve arrived at an impasse. Yes, I can marshal more arguments for Christianity or send them home with something to read, but in many ways the conversation has reached an end point.

When we disciple people to Jesus, we invite them to get started on the road with Jesus. If they’ve seen anything good or miraculous about Him, we encourage them to go ahead and apply His teaching, see if it works, and get to know this amazing Teacher. Of course we know He is much more than a teacher, but we let that realization dawn on our friends much the way it dawned on Jesus’ disciples. They encountered the resurrected Christ, and their hearts burned within them, and they understood the full meaning of the Scriptures.

There’s no silver bullet that resolves all the difficulties of following Jesus, but for me, recapturing the mentality of a disciple has reinvigorated my faith and practice in significant ways. I invite you, too, to leave behind the label of Christian and try living life on the road, getting covered in the dust of the Rabbi.

6 responses to Are You a Christian or a Disciple?

  1. Thanks for this wonderful article.
    Jesus’ last word’s personally given on Earth before going back to be with His Heavenly Father were:

    Matthew 28:18-20 NKJV
    And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. [19] Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, [20] teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.

    Breakdown
    . “All authority in Heaven and on earth”, was given to Jesus.
    . Because all authority in Heaven and on earth is given to Him, “there Go” (and do what?) “make disciples” (where?) “of all nations” and “baptize them” (in whose name?) “in the name of” the Father [God] and of the Son [God] and of the Holy Spirit [God]”, (doing what?) “teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (What did Jesus command the disciples? (and therefore us?) – Phyl – here I am finding, along with Scripture, a great book called “The Commands of Christ” – What it really means to follow Jesus. By Tom Blackall (available on Playrooms) a very helpful tool.
    Then He reminds us that “lo, I am with you always; even to the end of the age”. Amen

    To me this says That Jesus the Son of God has told us (His disciples) to Go in His all encompassing Authority to make disciples (for God) of all nations. Baptizing them in the Name of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey all that Jesus commanded them. “He then assures them of His constant presence as they go on their divinely commanded mission”.(thanks to New Spirit Filled Life Bible notes Matt 28:20)
    I pray that you will be fruitful in your obedience and Love.

  2. AW,

    Thanks also for the thoughtful article describing your journey and how to articulate your faith in a difficult place. I pray that the Lord’s miracles will be manifest in your life and the lives of those you are living to share with.

  3. Our generation has simply lost the heart of true religion and the path that our father’s trod. We have redefined Christianity and the way of the cross and settled for that which cannot endure the test of eternity.

    Surely, we must stand in the ways and ask where the good way is. We must seek the ancient path and walk in it.

    We must seek the spirit and not the letter, and reality in our Christian experience.

    We must be followers of Christ and disciples indeed.

  4. Worker in West Africa,

    I appreciate the heart of your article in dealing with error, as well as the point made by Marcus about the Gnostics and knowledge.

    The Bible is clear that we should view Jesus Christ as our measuring stick. Spiritual maturity is to be as He was. The followers of Jesus are to have a life of unity and oneness with Him and the Father. This is what Jesus prayed to the Father for in John 17.

    John 17:9 I am praying on behalf of them. I am not praying on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those you have given me, because they belong to you.
    John 17:16-23 They do not belong to the world just as I do not belong to the world Set them apart in the truth; your word is truth. Just as you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world. And I set myself apart on their behalf, so that they too may be truly set apart. “I am not praying only on their behalf, but also on behalf of those who believe in me through their testimony, that they will all be one, just as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. I pray that they will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me.
    The glory you gave to me I have given to them, that they may be one just as we are one — I in them and you in me — that they may be completely one, so that the world will know that you sent me, and you have loved them just as you have loved me.

    Satan has been at work, big time, since the crucifixion, as most of the writers of the New Testament letters tell us, to deceive and cause division. Today the Gospel is majorly twisted and obscured by the World, its philosophies and redefining of words. Darkness is being spread as Light, …” for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.”

    Why would the doctrines of man place the doctrinal emphasis of John on the first chapter and what it means to be one, without any thought given to the Heart Prayer of Jesus himself and what He, Jesus defines as oneness and who should be one, and why there should be oneness? …”so that the world will believe that you (the Father) sent me (Jesus).”

    Maybe the redirected emphasis was to make being ‘saved’ or a ‘Christian’, simple and easy way to get a ticket to Heaven, rather than understanding the importance of the example for us to follow; to be one with Jesus, even as Jesus is one with the Father. Why one? In order to have the same sweet, intimate relationship with Jesus that He had with His Father. People would then experience the miracle of a real ‘salvation’, the deliverance from the power of sin?

    People do not need to know more about Jesus, they need to know about a life of union with Jesus, that bears good fruit, because the Sprit of Jesus is living within them, instead of the spirit of the world.

    As for Knowledge, I find it interesting, that Jesus seems to consider His knowledge of us as more important than anything that we do or know. In Matthew 7:23 and Matthew 25:12, as He rejected different groups of people, He clearly said that He did not know or never knew them, even though, according to the current generation’s Bible teachings, those that Jesus rejected, would have been most likely considered superior “Christians” by our modern churches.

    We need to be “witnesses” to the life changing ‘deliverance’ of Jesus Christ, rather than making converts, receiving a supposed, fruitless ticket to Heaven called “salvation” which carries no concept of deliverance from the bondage to this world, it pleasures and sin.

    Jesus is coming for a pure bride, bearing the fruits of righteousness, and all that righteousness means, in the eyes of Jesus.
    Jesus said, “If you love Me you will keep my commandments.”

  5. Sir,

    1. Gnostics want knowledge. Christians want to live by what their God TOLD them to do. We don’t live in a gnostic world, nor a world where Christ-lite applies. Read your four Gospels, the ones written in the lifetime of those who witnessed him, and were found later to be so by the council of Nicea.

    2. Talk about your first world problems. Where were you when the Buddhists crucified, burned, and boiled alive those Christians that were there at Kagoshima, Japan in 1622? Were you just “saved, and waiting to go to heaven?”

    3. There’s exactly one Bible, onr gospel. Christians don’t “fit in”. You either accept the burden of your beliefs as a descendant witness to what Christ taught, or you don’t. What are you waiting for? You want the next motivational speaker with a suit and a mansion to tell you what you want to hear? You could start by going to a real Christian church. When’s the last time you had a consecrated communion? Why is that important to the apostles? Might be worth looking up.

    4. The apostles, and the disciples, invented Christian theology. They did it by simply bearing witness to what they’d seen and heard. The conversion process after the resurrection was so rapid, and so revolutionary, that it spread throughout an empire that outlawed it to the point of agonizing death. Don’t try to make him what you want him to be for you. Just bear witness and live as he asked you to.

  6. Thank you for sharing this thoughtful message. You must be heaven sent. Hope to be covered in the dust of the Rabbi soon! Joy and Peace, In Messiah Jesus.

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