In my first post on this subject I wrote about the need to ask a different question of ourselves, something other than “What benefits do I accrue as a Christian?” I presented the idea that the real concern for a follower of Jesus would be his/her walk and not the perks of salvation. I want to explore the implications of the Church’s failure to be concerned about discipleship in greater depth in this post, and for one vital reason:
I’ve come to believe that most Christians don’t have a clue as to what it means to be a true disciple of Jesus Christ. I know I don’t. And I am sure that we, as a church, don’t know what being a disciple meant to Jesus and the Jews of the first century. In Mt. 28:19–20, Jesus gave his disciples, and the subsequent church, its Great Commission:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
Makes Disciples, Not Converts
I attend a Methodist church, and the motto of the UMC is Making disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world. But as I observe the activities of my denomination, I can’t see them making the first attempt to do so. Instead, I see a lemming-like headlong rush to become society’s sycophantic sounding board. And when I look at other denominations and churches, I’m not much heartened there, either. We Christians, whether mainline or evangelical, are good at making converts to our churches, but disciples of Jesus? Not so much.
Converts, CSL? Aren’t they one and the same? No, not even close.
One of my favorite Christian albums of all time is Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming, and on that album is one of Dylan’s best songs ever, as far as I’m concerned: Gonna Change My Way of Thinking. I love that song; it’s got a hard-driving beat that doesn’t quit, phenomenal guitar work, and, of course, spot-on Dylan lyrics. I mean, who wasn’t shocked back in 1979 when, upon putting that album on the turntable, hearing such lyrics as this come from a Bob Dylan song:
Jesus said, “Be ready,
For you know not the hour in which I come.”
He said, “He who is not for Me is against Me,”
Just so you know where He’s coming from.
While I think that Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking is a great song, I believe the title is indicative of the Christian mindset as to what constitutes becoming a disciple. We change our thinking, not our actions.
Converts are merely convinced of the truth of a proposition; their minds are changed into giving mental assent to a theological premise that they may or may not have agreed with previously. Quite often, such assent will prompt converts to become adherents to a church and certain practices, maybe causing them to go so far as to adopt lifestyle changes to be part of the new group.
But Lifestyle Christianity isn’t discipleship, is it? It is merely accessorizing.
Gonna Change My Way of Livin’
Disciples and discipleship are not a new phenomenon, created solely by Christianity. Teachers and leaders, ancient and modern, have had disciples whether they be religious, philosophical, political or otherwise: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Confucius, Lao Tze, Joseph Smith, Ellen White, Freud, Saul Alinsky, Jean Rousseau, etc., have all had their followers, devotees and practitioners.
But Judeo-Christian discipleship has a different ring to it. Based on a morality revealed from above, sages and rabbis both present a life AND live a life, based on the holiness that God calls us to. Disciples, both Christian and Jewish, followed their rabbis/teachers because they not only wanted to know what the rabbi knows but be what the rabbi is.
This desire to be like the rabbi, to live as close to God in following him, is the distinguishing characteristic of a disciple. The heart of a disciple isn’t satisfied with “receiving” the rabbi, or “accepting” the rabbi, as we say in our common Christian parlance. Instead, if I am a disciple, the realization that my ordinary live-for-myself life is far from the love and desire of a holy God drives me to be so close to the rabbi that I learn how to live like him.
“Walk After Me”
That was Jesus’ call to Matthew to leave his taxing booth and to come and learn how to live by God’s righteousness. “Come and see” he replied to two of John’s followers when they asked him where he was staying. “I will make you a fisher of men,” Jesus told Peter when he called him from his boat. In every instance, Jesus told his would-be disciples to follow him, to be close to him, in order to learn to walk in God’s holiness.
What was Jesus doing when he called these people to follow him? When he called to all, “Come to me, all who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest,” was he issuing a radical call that was totally unheard of before? No, he was doing what Hebrew rabbis and sages had been doing for many years; in fact, what rabbis and sages were supposed to do, which was to “raise up many disciples.” (Pirke Avot 1.1)
The role of a rabbi/sage was to imprint his life on his disciples. According to the very first verse in the Teachings of the Elders (Pirke Avot), creating disciples was one of the three things a rabbi was supposed to do. Rabbis believed it was their religious obligation to live for the glory of God, and to teach their disciples how to do the same.
And what were disciples supposed to do? Learn from their rabbis how to live a life holy and pleasing to God, and then to share this same teaching and life with those around them. This is what I believe that we fail (abominably so!) to do. Today, we teach people that Jesus loves them just as they are, and that he didn’t come to change their way of living. Instead, Jesus came to be their fire escape.
Back in the 1930’s, Richard Niebuhr (Reinholt’s younger brother) described the essence of the liberal Christianity of his day, in his The Kingdom of God In America:
“A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”
Today’s church goes Niebuhr one better–we invite people to come to an indulgent God who looks out upon his children and chuckles at the playful shenanigans of the little rapscallions. As a church, we today ignore Jesus’ life-encompassing emphasis on the need for discipleship, obedience and devotion to God and His ways.
We want to think about being a King’s Kid, a child of the King. The truth is that kingdom living isn’t beer and skittles. Jesus wasn’t concerned that we live as “King’s kids”; instead, his concern was that the kingdom advance in the lives of his disciples.