When Did We Separate Being a Christian From Being a Disciple?

Acts 11:26…the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.  

When did God’s people get the permission to separate the idea of being a Christian and being a disciple?  If we consider the Great Commission Jesus gave His people in Matthew 28 the idea of discipleship is at its core.  Jesus’ call was to “make disciples who are learning to put into practice everything He said.”

Matthew 28:19-20  “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,  (20)  teaching them to observe (put into practice) all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always.

Unfortunately, the church has substituted the idea of making disciples with making decisions.  The church has separated believing in Jesus from following Him as a disciple.  We tend to measure the success of any evangelistic effort, crusade, or event with the question, “how many decisions were made” or “how many people believed or attended?”  What about discipleship?

We must be careful that we are not substituting the idea of making a decision with becoming a disciple. Click To Tweet

What is a disciple?  Bible dictionaries define the word disciple with ideas like “a follower, learner, or an adherent.”  If you look at discipleship in light of the Great Commission it is following Jesus and learning how to put into practice everything He has said.   It is a way of life following and learning to obey Him. This is way different than simply deciding to believe in Jesus. Consider some of the Biblical statistics concerning discipleship.

  • Jesus called people to “follow Him” 25 times in the Gospels while calling them to “believe in Him” only 4 times.  The emphasis is clearly on being a disciple.  Even James despairingly says that “you believe God is one, that’s fine, but even the demons believe that and tremble” (James 2:18).  God’s people should have a little more faith than demons.
  • The New Testament refers to God’s people as “disciples” 269 times while it uses the designation “Christian” only 3 times.  One of the 3 says, “the disciples were first called Christians at Antioch” Acts 11:26.  The Biblical emphasis is clearly on discipleship.

All through the Bible God asked people questions to get at the root of false ideas they had embraced.  Here are some crucial questions we need to ask ourselves to get at the heart of God’s design for discipleship.

“Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ.”  Bonehoeffer

  1. When did we separate the Matthew 28 Commission into two completely separate parts, being baptized and being made a disciple who follows Him? 
  2. How did we arrive at a salvation that makes room for believing but not following and obeying? 
  3. How do we think that we can be servants of Jesus without following Him? Jn 12:26 “If any of you wants to serve me, then follow me. Then you’ll be where I am, ready to serve at a moment’s notice. 
  4. When did we allow for a state in which we believe in Jesus but do not continually follow and seek to put His word into practice?  Jesus seems to indicate that this produces false disciples instead of true ones.  John 8:30-32  As He spoke these things, many came to believe in Him.  (31)  So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine;  (32)  and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

Christianity that doesn’t follow Jesus

Over the past 200 years, American Christians have fostered a brand of Christianity centered around offering programs in order to attract people to a meeting.  The Sunday service is the main point of attraction.  This approach fosters a mentality that church is an audience of spectators and consumers rather than a group of people who are following Jesus and seeking to put His word into practice.

Attractional Christianity fosters a consumer mentality that is always looking for the best deal for personal interest.   Commitment is rare in this model.  The focus becomes the consumer’s needs, wants, and desires rather than Jesus’ desires.

…Christ did not appoint professors, but followers. Soren Kierkegaard

In the consumer model, people attend in order to have a better week, better life, better family, better finances, and more feelings of satisfaction and happiness.  They rarely live or serve in the sacrificial way that Jesus consistently called His people to.  He wasn’t looking for members who casually join an organization or attend meetings, but people who would “lay their life down to follow Him together with others.”

Mt 16:24-26 MSG Then Jesus went to work on his disciples. “Anyone who intends to follow Me has to let Me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self. What kind of deal is it to get everything you want but lose yourself? What could you ever trade your soul for?( Mk 8:34-37 Lk 9:23-27)

We need a revolution of discipleship

One of the greatest Ameican theologians of the past 150 years, H Richard Niebuhr said something very important that we need to seek God for today.

“The great Christian revolutions came not by the discovery of something that was not there before. They happen when someone takes radically something that has always been there.”  H Richard Niebuhr

As I have studied church history for almost 40 years I have seen this played out over and over among God’s people.  One generation discovers something in a fresh way that had previously been neglected and God brings about great advancement through it.   I believe we are in need of a fresh revolution of discipleship.  Without  God’s design for discipleship being in the fabric of the church then Great Commission will become the great omission that leaves discipleship out. The 21st-century church desperately needs a restoration of God’s calling for everyone to be disciples.

What would the church look like if all of its members were following Jesus and seeking to put into practice everything He said?  This may sound like a pipe dream but it really is God’s design!  What would the church look like?  Just like what Jesus said it would, the salt of the earth, the light of the world, a city set on a hill that radiates the glory of God.



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