Being a Disciple
Rev. Dr. John Fullerton
Recently, Christian pastor and blogger Carey Nieuwhof wrote an article on the changing culture of America. He began the article by quoting the opening line of the movie trilogy, The Lord of the Rings: “The world is changing. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the air.” This, he explained, is the reality we live in today. The world is changing, and understanding those changes will benefit us as Christians. It will help us understand how to be faithful to our mission in context. “As church leaders, we have to think like missionaries into this different world. We are literally dealing with cross-cultural missionary thinking.”
Nieuwhof is not the only one talking about the changes. A few years ago, I read Thomas Friedman’s book, Thank You for Being Late, which explained and responded to the increasing pace of the modern world. He wrote how the world is accelerating at a pace that feels out of control, and it has left many people unsettled and feeling like there is an impending doom. One of Friedman’s conclusions of what to do is to learn, or, rather, re-learn, how to work together at the personal and community level. This, as it turns out, is what the Church does best.
Both of these writers are saying that we need to think like people on a mission and make sure that connecting with one another at the personal level is central. Disciples of Jesus Christ are made for this type of thinking. We want to impact our world. We do work together at the personal level. But is that everything disciples do? What exactly is a disciple? Or the better question, who is a disciple? That is the topic of this post.
Who is a Disciple?
To answer the question, I want to unpack some issues that affect how we answer. The first is the relationship of the words “Christian” and “disciple.” Talbot School of Theology professor Dr. Michael Wilkins speaks of confusion on the question of who is a disciple. He often asks people in groups, “How many of you can say, in the humble confidence of your heart, that you are convinced you are a true disciple of Jesus Christ? Please raise your hand.” When he asks this question, few hands go up. Some are hesitant. Their hands go up, they are uncertain, and then their hands go down. Then Dr. Wilkins asks a second question, “How many of you can say, in the humble confidence of your heart, that you are convinced that you are a true Christian? Please raise your hand.” The hands go up with confidence. No hesitation. They are sure about being a Christian but confused as to whether they are disciples of Jesus.
Can you be a Christian and not be a disciple? Can you be saved but not be serving Jesus Christ? Does the Scripture know any such separation? Different people have different answers, and an overview of those answers will help bring clarity to who is a disciple. Here are different answers to the question of who is a disciple.
- Disciples are learners. The essence of this idea is that a disciple is a follower of a teacher and his teachings. In New Testament times, it often meant literally traveling with that teacher wherever they went, as the followers of Jesus did. The difficulty of this understanding is it does not recognize the defining nature of the relationship between Jesus and the disciple.
- Disciples are committed believers. There are Christians and there are real Christians. It is a matter of commitment to the cause, and disciples are those who, in modern terms, are “all in.” The difficulty of this understanding is that it creates a two-tiered class system within Christianity. While there was the inner committed group seen around Jesus, this did not mean that they alone were the disciples of Jesus.
- Disciples are ministers. The idea is that disciples are a set-apart class. It is related to the last one only in this case the distinction is on those who lead in ministry and service. Those, some say, are the true disciples. Similar to the difficulty in the last one, this too creates a value distinction and a two-tiered class system.
- Disciples are converts and discipleship comes later. Evangelism is the first step by which people come to Christ, and living out that faith as a disciple comes later. The difficulty here is that this answer separates evangelism from discipleship rather than seeing evangelism as an invitation into the life of discipleship, which begins immediately upon accepting this invitation.
- Disciples are converts who are in the process of discipleship. These are people who raise their hands when asked if they are Christians and disciples. They have responded to the call to follow Christ and are working out what that means. The difficulty with this one is what to do with all of those who are nominal or consumer Christians.
I have come to the conclusion that the final definition is most satisfying. The core truth I have come to believe is that any person who is a true Christian is also a true disciple of Jesus Christ. Here is my understanding of a true Christian:
“A true Christian is a person who has been spiritually awakened by the power of the Holy Spirit to the truth and joy about Jesus as Master of life and the one and only means of salvation to eternal life with God the Father, and as a result of that awakening has entered into a personal relationship with Jesus. The effect of that awakening is all-encompassing—it changes everything from one’s attitude toward the world, other people, and self, to how one acts and what one says. Even the thought world is shaped by this awakening. Sin becomes a burden, right living becomes an ambition, and gratitude for God’s grace becomes a way of life.”
This definition covers those who have had a sudden awakening to know Christ as well as those who have had a gradual awakening as they grew in a family and community of faith. It also helps make sense of my definition of a disciple I used in my doctoral coursework: “A disciple is a person who has been awakened to faith in Jesus Christ and begun a personal journey with Christ in life.”
If you are a Christian, you are a disciple, and you have begun a life of discipleship. We have begun using a fuller version of this definition at our church:
“A disciple is one who responds in faith and obedience to the gracious call to follow Jesus Christ. Being a disciple is a lifelong process of dying to self while allowing Jesus Christ to come alive in us.”
But What About…
Two main critiques exist with this definition. The first is what about church members who claim to be Christians but don’t act like disciples? The second is that this definition does not include that there must be a visible, meaningful commitment to live differently from before, which true disciples show.
What about church members who claim to be Christians but don’t act like it? Here are several responses.
- They are not Christians. The reason they don’t act like devoted disciples of Jesus and exhibit a low level of discipleship is because they are not true Christians and therefore not true disciples in the first place. It is all a charade put on for some reason or another.
- They are not good disciples. Author Dallas Willard once wrote, “One can be a very raw and incompetent beginner and still be a disciple.” The reasons for not being a good disciple can often be traced back to a number of issues of the modern church ranging from pastors being distracted by good and worthy things that cause them to fail at “equipping the saints” (Ephesians 4:12) to the fact most churches have no clear pathway to maturity in Christ. That is, they have no discipleship model.
- They are “stuck” on their spiritual journey. It happens sometimes that people get bogged down on their spiritual journeys like getting stuck in the mud. Something happens—a crisis hits, an unknown future is faced, negative memories arise, fears or pain surface—and spiritual growth stops.
The second problem with the definition is that it rests on public and visible commitments. I find this critique shallow. The implied message is that if you are not begging God and others for forgiveness for the sins of your past, or if you do not stand and confess your sins publicly, or if you remain friends with “sinners,” or if you do not sell all of your possessions as a form of penance (or some other equally dramatic act), then your conversion cannot be genuine. Some big, dramatic, visible act must accompany conversion in order to be counted a disciple and friend of Jesus. That’s just not true.
In the beginning of a faith journey, it may be that the biggest, most dramatic act that accompanies our conversion is not visible to others. It may be that we give up our most prized possession—our lives. It may be that “denying ourselves, taking up our cross and following Jesus” (Luke 9:23) means, as with Jesus, realizing that our lives are not our own. That is the profound and fundamental commitment that takes place.
Discipleship as the Answer to the Changing World
To end where I began, if in fact we are to think differently about this world, and if in fact we are to see ourselves as missionaries to our own culture, then we need to recover the ministry of discipleship. We need to build a culture of disciple-making.
If we get this right, if we help not just a few individuals, but our entire church become mature disciples of Jesus, then we will impact and influence this world for good, restore kingdom values to the culture, and regularly invite people into a life of discipleship in the kingdom of God on earth.
I’m saying that taking care of being and making mature disciples will affect everything. Imagine the impact on the world if every person in every church in this world were legitimately on a “lifelong process of dying to self while allowing Jesus Christ to come alive in us.” Concentrating on maturing as disciples will affect the depth of our worship, the commitment to love one another, our desire to help and support one another, and pour gas on the fire of our passion to make a positive impact on the world. We will be committed to proclaiming truth, showing great mercy and compassion, and working as advocates for social and institutional change to help the most vulnerable around us.
If we want to be a force for good in the world, let’s go deep in our personal and collective faith.
Rev. Dr. John H. Fullerton, Jr.
Dr. Fullerton has served as our senior pastor since September 2019. Prior to Lakeland, he served churches in Scotland, Ohio, Tennessee, and, most recently, in Dunedin, Florida. While serving local churches, he has also taken leave to teach in theological seminaries in Madagascar and Russia. After earning his Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Dr. Fullerton has served as our senior pastor since September 2019. Prior to Lakeland, he served churches in Scotland, Ohio, Tennessee, and, most recently, in Dunedin, Florida. While serving local churches, he has also taken leave to teach in theological seminaries in Madagascar and Russia. After earning his Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Florida, he worked in business for nine years. God then had other plans for his life that led him to Princeton Theological Seminary for a Master of Divinity and then ordination as a pastor. In 2010, he received his Doctor of Ministry degree from Fuller Theological Seminary. He grew up in a military home that took him all over the United States but considers Palatka, Florida, his hometown. He and his wife, Cile, have been married since 1983 and are proud parents of three daughters who have given them five grandchildren. His hobbies include reading, running, golf, and spending time with family.