Friday, October 2, 2009

True Disciples

Michael Wilkins, professor of New Testament and dean of the faculty at Talbot Seminary, regularly asks two questions to groups he is addressing.  The first question is, "How many of you can say, in the humble confidence of your heart, that you are true disciples of Jesus?" 

Would you be able raise your hand?  Not sure?  Don't worry, Wilkins says that most people are unsure whether or not to raise their hands.  Some people start to raise their hand hesitantly, then, seeing few others raising theirs, quickly lower it.  I mean, most of us consider ourselves to be disciples of Jesus, but true disciples?  A true disciple sounds like one who is on the job pretty much full time, and we are aware of how little Christ enters our thinking and how inconsistent, if not shallow, is our commitment to following Jesus.

Then Wilkins asks the 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?"  Hands are raised without question or hesitation.  I'll bet yours is up right now.

Now why is it that it is easy for Christians to identify themselves as true Christians but  that they are hesitant about calling themselves true disciples of Jesus?  Probably it is because being a true Christian, in most people's minds, has nothing to do with the quality of their Christianity or the depth of their commitment to Jesus and his way of life.  True Christians are ones who have accepted Jesus as their savior, prayed the sinner's prayer, and received the free gift of salvation by grace.  Calling oneself a true disciple, however, is a personal evaluation as to how consistent or committed a person is in following the one you claim as your Lord.  (Plus we all know that humility is characteristic of a true disciple; therefore no true disciple would ever call themselves a true disciple.  "Only you know, Lord" is the only proper response of a true disciple.)

In other words, there are Christians, and there are Christians.  There are Christians, and there are committed Christians.  There are Christians, and there are True Disciples.  It's easy to become a Christian, but to be a disciple takes time, energy, discipline, sacrifice, and the willingness to endure long meetings at church.  (OK, I threw in that last one just for fun.  Nobody really believes that, right?  RIGHT?)

Thing is, this two-tiered understanding of discipleship just doesn't hold up when you look at what Jesus said about it.  Jesus never talked about a person becoming a Christian-he never used the word, and in fact it's only used 3 times in the entire New Testament.  But Jesus said a lot about following him, about being his disciple.  The term "Christian" was originally used of people who were his disciples.  True disciples, as it were, because there wasn't any other kind.  It was a binary state: you were either a follower of Jesus, or not.  Which meant you actually followed him-amazing how that works-or you didn't.  You were either a disciple, or you weren't.  If you were a disciple you were a true disciple, and you knew it and so did everyone else.

When Jesus said, "If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me," was he setting a standard for all Christians or just a subset of Christians who were really committed to being true disciples?  Well, the evidence from Scripture favors the former, but the empirical evidence in our churches is that people have clearly made a distinction between being a Christian and being a disciple, true or otherwise.

And while it is true that Paul made a distinction between new Christians just learning the basics of the faith and mature Christians who should have already moved beyond the rudimentary elements of the faith-eating meat instead of just drinking baby formula-that is a long way toward building into our practice--or our theology--that there are two (or more) classes of Christians.

So if you hesitate to raise your hand if you're a true disciple of Jesus, don't change the definition of "true disciple" to fit your practice; change your practice--your followship--to fit Jesus' definition of any disciple.

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