A Problematic Dichotomy

Many argue that the church in North America is facing a discipleship deficit. We are “a mile wide and an inch deep,” as far as spiritual formation is concerned. If you’ve been kicking around the church the past five years (especially if you’re a Conservative Protestant), you may have heard this broken record skip one too many times. Maybe you’re asking, “What’s all the fuss about Chicken Little? Is this really such a big deal?” Here’s why it’s a big deal. Car manufacturers make automobiles. Computer companies build desktops. The church is supposed to make disciples. In fact, Jesus commanded us to do it (Matthew 28:18-20). It’s our raison d’être, our purpose and our calling, but it seems we’re not very good at it. How would Apple shareholders respond if they discovered their computer company started making bath soap?

There’s a common misunderstanding about discipleship that contributes to this malady. Here it is, simply put: we assume being a believer is distinct from being a disciple. It’s the assumption that putting your faith in Jesus is enough, that if you just trust him for his free gift of salvation, you can get on with running your own life, on your own terms. It’s the notion that discipleship isn’t for everybody. It’s for those serious Christians. Those spiritual high-achievers. At the end of the day, it’s optional. It’s more like a feature app, but it’s not your OS. Christianity thus becomes a two-tiered system, divided between believers and disciples.

Here’s the problem – the Bible doesn’t support this distinction. In the biblical view, every believer is a disciple, and every disciple is a believer. In the early church, when a person became a believer in Christ (put their faith in Christ), they became a disciple. This is clear when you read the book of Acts. Jesus’ followers were referred to as believers (Acts 2:44; 4:32; and 5:14), and the same group of people were also called disciples (Acts 6:1). They were synonymous terms. Every believer is a disciple and every disciple is a believer.

So to say, “I’m a believer, but I’m not a disciple,” creates a problematic dichotomy that Scripture won’t sustain.

One of the causes of this false distinction is a misunderstanding of saving faith. Salvation is God’s free gift, which is given to us through faith. So belief is the linch-pin, the catalyst. This begs the question…what then is faith? And this is where the problem pivots. Believing is important, but so is what you believe. You might believe in unicorns and three-eyed ravens, but will that lead to salvation? The object of your faith matters. The Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 10:9 (NIV): “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Saving faith requires trusting in Jesus as Lord. The Bible reveals Jesus as the crucified Saviour, who rose victorious over sin, death and the grave, and who is seated at the right hand of the Father. He is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. If this is true, then the implications for saving faith are far-reaching. If we truly believe that Jesus is Lord of all, then shouldn’t our natural response be to fall on our knees and cry out, “Command me!”?

Jesus didn’t pull his punches when he called men and women to follow him. He taught that being a disciple means denying oneself, taking up one’s cross, and following him completely. This call didn’t change after his resurrection. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

Now, to be clear, being a disciple doesn’t mean you are perfect, or that you have everything figured out. A disciple isn’t an elitist category of spirituality. A disciple is a learner, a student, who is committed to a lifetime of growth. At their core, disciples are submitted to the Master and willing to be led. They gladly give up their lives, because their Lord did the same for them.

Faith in Jesus, as Lord, naturally gravitates to discipleship. So it all comes down to how you see Jesus. Is he the Lord, or someone else? If you believe in the former, then it changes everything. But when Jesus is reduced to someone less – perhaps a get-out-of-jail-free-card, genie-in-a-bottle, or sleepy, disinterested grandfather – there is only a weak gravitational pull toward discipleship.

Every believer is a disciple and every disciple is a believer.

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