Bill Hull: I find no biblical evidence for a separation of Christian from disciple.

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Some months back, I came across this book “The Complete Book of Discipleship: On Being and Making Followers of Christ” by Bill Hull and decided to add it to my library. It is, after all, positioned as “the definitive A-to-Z resource on discipleship”.

Learning more about discipleship is always good. However, my main objective was to see what Bill Hull’s position was with regards to believers and disciples. Simply: Are believers and Christians one and the same? or Is there a separate decision believers have to make to move on to being disciples? Do Christians get to choose whether to be or not be disciples? If you have read my posts on this topic and issue, you would know my view and position. If not, here are the links for your easy reference:

Whilst I used to think that there was a difference, I am today solidly (and biblically) convinced that all believers are automatically disciples. The question for me is no longer whether we are disciples or not, but if we are faithful or unfaithful ones. Unfortunately, not everyone agrees with this position. In fact, what is more commonly taught and propagated across churches is that discipleship is a separate and distinct decision a believer makes.

Given my schedule and priorities, it would be a while before the book made it to my bedside table. I finally read the first pages and I didn’t have to get too far to be encouraged.

The Introduction opened with a bold quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ.” Hull notes that today, “non-discipleship ‘Christianity’ dominates much of the thinking of contemporary church” because “we evangelicals accept and even encourage a two-level Christian experience in which only serious Christians pursue and practice discipleship, while grace and forgiveness is enough for everyone else.” Hull goes on to state that “we can’t truly follow Christ without desiring to become like Him. Following Him requires regeneration or new birth. If we’re reborn, we’ll follow Him – unless we’re taught that we don’t need to.” (pp15-17, emphasis mine)

In Chapter One: Biblical Foundations of Discipleship, in defining a Disciple, the author writes, “A disciple, then is a reborn follower of Jesus. I’ve already mentioned my distaste for the teaching that a difference exists between being a Christian and being a disciple. The common teaching is that a Christian is someone who by faith accepts Jesus as Saviour, receives eternal life, and is safe and secure in the family of God; a disciple is a more serious Christian active in the practice of the spiritual disciplines and engaged in evangelising and training others. But I must be blunt: I find no biblical evidence for a separation of Christian from disciple. In answer to the age-old question, ‘Are disciples born or made?’ I contend they are born to be made.” (pp32-33, emphasis mine)

Hull then clarifies, As a new Christian, an individual doesn’t take a ‘second step’ toward becoming a disciple. Instead he embarks on a seamless journey of growth that passes through spiritual childhood, adolescence, and adulthood to maturity.” Hull believes that “When the distinction between disciple and Christian disappears, so does the damaging belief in a two-tiered church. A disciple, then, is the normal Christian who follows Christ.” (p33, emphasis mine)

I love this guy! And I believe that I’m going to enjoy reading the rest of the book too 🙂

That said, it is not about winning an argument about believers and disciples. So what if I am right positionally but totally miss it relationally. I do not want to merely talk or teach discipleship and not be engaged in the lives of others. There is already enough for that in our churches where we run discipleship programmes but do not really disciple anyone at all. My prayer is that the Lord will enable me to be a faithful disciple who will in turn lead and impact others for Jesus. Amen!

I didn’t just take my hands off the plough; I burnt it.

By now, it should be open knowledge that I have stepped down from being a pastor in a church. Although it has been exciting and I am looking forward to what’s ahead, this move has also caused me to ponder the words of Jesus in Luke 9:62; or more accurately, my impression of what He said. In stepping down, have I taken my hands off the plough? And if I have, am I thus considered unworthy of the kingdom?

To answer these questions, I need to consider if Jesus did really say what I think He said in the first place. Impressions of biblical passages are convenient but can be rather dangerous too. If I suppose that something was said but in fact was not, I will end up mis-interpreting and thereby mis-applying it for myself; or even worse, for someone else. The right thing to do as a student of the Word is to check the Scriptures to see what this verse actually says and if there is a truth I need to heed. That was precisely what I did and this is what I found:

But Jesus said to him, “No one, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” Luke 9:62

To make His point of complete devotion and focus, Jesus used the Old Testament imagery of Elijah’s call of Elisha (1 Kings 19:19-21). The context of Luke 9:57-62 was discipleship or following Jesus; not the relinquishing or change of a position in ministry. There was no reference to the taking off of hands at all. Instead, the caution was that one should not look back when a decision has been made to follow Jesus and to serve Him. There it is: plain and simple, without any need to jump through hermeneutical hoops.

So, the more accurate question to ask is, “Have I looked back?” Humbly, my answer would be an emphatic “NO!” Since the Lord called me on 8 July 2000 to follow Him , there has been no turning back. When Elijah issued the call, Elisha “took a yoke of oxen and slaughtered them and boiled their flesh, using the oxen’s equipment.” Elisha cooked the oxen over a BBQ pit made up of the yoke and plough. In our language today, Elisha gave up any notion of Plan B. Similarly, when I stepped out of the family business, which was subsequently closed and liquidated, I knew I made the decision to rely totally on my Lord and Master, Jesus, and to do His bidding.

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Nothing has changed. When I said that I would follow Jesus, I meant it. When He first called, Serene and I had only two children. When I finally stepped out, the number had grown to four. Today, we have seven children. We are still following and serving Him and not looking back at all. We have no plan B. In a sense, I did take my hands off the plough … of my own agenda. Not only did I take my hands off that plough, I burnt it.

Today, I plough for Jesus and His Kingdom, always remembering that His yoke is easy and His burden is light (Matt 11:30). He determines which field I plough in and for how long. I am thankful for all I have experienced and learnt in the past ten years; and especially the lives I have been privileged to impact. Today, I am being moved to a different field to begin a new work. I will not and must not be distracted. I don’t look back but keep my eyes fixed on Him, the Author and Finisher of my faith.

So, does that make me fit or worthy for the Kingdom now? I don’t know. But that’s not for me to determine. The words of Luke 17:10 come to mind: “So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.’” Indeed, my part is only to serve Him as faithfully as I can as enabled by His grace. Jesus has already given me His all. Can I give Him any less? How I shall stand before Him when we finally meet, only Jesus knows.

All said, I am thankful for this little episode because God uses every situation to teach me and to open my eyes to His truth that sets free. As it has been demonstrated – and I have been guilty of it too – we must be careful not to use the Word of God based on an impression. This is indeed a good reminder to always get back to His Word to ascertain if what is said, quoted or preached has been done so accurately and contextually. And when rightly handled, the Word of God must always have the last and final say in our lives and ministry as we seek to follow and serve Him wholeheartedly as His disciples and servants.

Amen?

Non-Discipleship is Tragically Costly

Back in March 2011, I posted “The Cost of Non-Discipleship“. Of course, it was just another rambling thought of my searching heart and inquisitive mind. With all the talk about discipleship in church circles, it is rather surprising why there are so few true disciples of Jesus Christ. Perhaps, just perhaps, many hold the view that there is choice as to whether one decides to be a disciple or not.

Admittedly, I used to think that too, but that view has changed in recent times [Read “Seven Misconceptions of Discipleship“]. Today, I am very convinced and convicted that once we place our faith in Jesus Christ, we become His followers, His disciples. After all, we have been bought by His precious blood and we are no longer our own. Sadly, not everyone agrees with that view, thereby contributing to and propagating the more popular understanding that it is alright not to be a disciple. As such, non-discipleship continues to be the preferred option (not that there is one), and thus a major trend in the church.

And since I am a nobody, an unknown, with respect to being a discipleship guru, my little post (and messages) will only go that far. To this end, I was rather encouraged to stumble upon a short clip by David Platt (the current big name amongst other equally prominent ones where discipleship is concerned), entitled “The Tragic Cost of Non-Discipleship“.

In his words, “the cost is of non-discipleship is far, far greater than that of discipleship” and “many [who continue to sit comfortable in church] are eternally deceived.” And if those who call themselves Christians do not awaken to this, “the consequences of casual cultural Christianity in the world are tragic.”

Granted that Platt’s remarks may not have addressed my position on discipleship directly and are more evangelistically skewed, but they are no less relevant. Until Christians rise up to their positions as disciples of Jesus, the sacrifices and challenges notwithstanding, non-discipleship remains tragically costly — to each believer personally, and to the greater good of a world in desperate need of the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ!

Related Post: Seven Misconceptions of Discipleship

Misconception #5: Discipleship is a programme or ministry in the Church

Misconception 5When we promote discipleship as a programme and ministry in the Church, we encourage the mindset of CALL and CHOICE again. Think about it: Why isn’t there a programme or a ministry called ‘Acceptance-ship’, ‘Redeemed-ship’ or ‘Forgiven-ship’? That’s because when you believe in Jesus, you just are!!! So why should we have one called ‘Discipleship’?

This ‘programme/ministry’ mindset deceives (yes, deceives!) us into the wrong thinking that if I attend church faithfully, I am a disciple; if I do Quiet Time regularly, I am a disciple; if I memorise Scriptures, I am a disciple; if I attend bible study, I am a disciple. WRONG! WRONG! WRONG! You are a disciple, that’s why you do all these things. Don’t get it upside down! We must be duly cautioned that we can study all about discipleship and not be a disciple! Discipleship is not something we do; it’s who we are as disciples that determine what we do.

Allow me to borrow an illustration from Pastor Francis Chan, author of Crazy Love and Erasing Hell. As children, we must have all played the game “Simon Says”. What Simon says, we are to do. What about when Jesus says? Instead of doing what Jesus says, we gather on Sundays or huddle into small groups to study what He says, how He says it, and what He means when He says it. If my wife instructed my daughter to “Do the laundry”, she would expect the young lady to obey that instruction. Imagine if after three hours, my wife checks on the task and my daughter reports that she has not done the laundry, but she has memorised the instruction, can repeat it in the same tone and nuance and has even studied what ‘laundry’ means in Greek and Hebrew?

This might sound ridiculous but is this not what discipleship in the Church is all about? That’s what happens when we turn discipleship into a programme or a ministry. We do discipleship but we don’t do what “Jesus Says”!

Seven Misconceptions of Discipleship

Seven MisconceptionsIn offering scholarships to encourage school leaving youths to consider a career in the military, the recruitment office did not opt for the guts ‘n’ glory angle. Instead, they found that the following points proved more attractive and effective:

  • Academic Pursuit: get the paper and qualification you desire
  • Financial Perks: get paid to study when others borrow to pay their fees
  • Material Benefits: while your peers are begging their parents for more pocket money, get a car before they can even dream of it
  • Adventure & Exposure: get to experience extreme sports and life
  • Prestige: get honour and glory in serving the nation, plus your girl (who can resist a man in uniform?)

Catching up with a friend who signed on as a regular, we asked him if he was having a great time with all these promises. He answered, “Nonsense, la!” After all, no one said anything about being a soldier, tough training, and the possibility of dying in battle!

Is it not the same with Christianity? Very likely so, I’m afraid. Do we not advertise the good news, calling out to all, “Be a Christian and get your [fill in the blank]!”? Hardly, if anything is said about being a disciple of Jesus Christ. Little wonder then, that the Church has discovered a great disconnect between being a Christian and being a disciple.

As if a knee-jerk reaction (prompted by the Holy Spirit, I’m sure), there is now, of late, a sudden attention turned to discipleship. In the bookshops are so many titles and programmes on discipleship. Contained in every church mission statement is the word disciple or discipleship. Every church wants to be an intentional disciple-making church (IDMC). With the new buzzword of discipleship, another problem has arisen. Discipleship has become hip and cool; and in that, we have missed the mark again!

For sure, so much has been taught and written about discipleship. But why all the confusion still? What is a disciple? Who is a disciple? How is discipleship done? Why is discipleship so difficult a concept to grasp in our days?

In preparing for a series on discipleship, I asked the Lord to show me afresh. I knew what I had been told and taught about discipleship. But my desire was to approach the Word without any presupposition or preconceived notions about discipleship. And the Lord gladly obliged. When He opened my eyes with a fresh revelation and understanding, it rocked whatever I had previously held on to. Oh my! What have I been teaching the people?

That’s what this series of articles will be about – the SEVEN misconceptions of discipleship that are prevalent in the Church, in the hearts and minds of God’s people.

  1. Discipleship is a separate decision/event from believership: Part One & Part Two
  2. Believers must be called to be disciples
  3. Disciples are a special class of believers
  4. Discipleship is an optional add-on to salvation
  5. Discipleship is a ministry or programme in the Church
  6. Discipleship is one aspect of the spiritual walk
  7. Discipleship is about me

Of the seven misconceptions, the first two are the most controversial. You may or may not agree with me, and that’s fine. Since sharing these, I’ve had different responses and it’s been interesting. I’ve also found that people like to remain in their comfort zones. And Christians presume many things without ever checking the Scriptures.

Therefore, if you disagree with anything, don’t disagree just because it doesn’t sound nice to you, goes against what you have been taught, or rocks your cushy Christian walk. Be like the Bereans who “searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.” Finally, if we are still in disagreement, that is perfectly alright. My desire is not to win an argument about discipleship but that more would rise up to be faithful disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ! If this exercise provokes and spurs you towards this goal, I would have more than done my part.

A Disciple and a Parent

Family Pix at Sushi Tei Christmas 2012

In my short stint as a father, I have had many opportunities to dialogue with Christian parents.  Although the conversations take different forms, the issues remain the same – time, money and children – more specifically, how to have more time, more money and preferably less children.  And when the discovery is made that I am in fulltime ministry, with seven young children, and a wife who homeschools and manages the entire household (without a maid!), I am instantly asked, “How do you and your wife manage?!” to which I reply, “We don’t … we rely on God.”

But this is not the answer they want.  What they really want to know is how we afford our larger-than-normal family, how we find the time and energy to do all we need to do, and how we manage, nurture and train all the children.  Yet, the answer is still the same … “We don’t … we rely on God.”

Like everyone else, we face the same challenges and struggles of parenting.  On our own, we don’t and can’t manage anything.  It is only in Christ that we can do all things through Him who strengthens us (Phil 4:13).

We don’t stop being disciples. At this point, you may be wondering what this has to do with discipleship.  Let me say that it has everything to do with discipleship.  When we decide to follow Jesus, it is a commitment that stands regardless our position in life, single or married, with two children or ten.  We don’t stop being disciples!  To stop means to stop following Jesus, to stop abiding in Christ, to cease drawing from the true Vine.

As such, it’s not about finding more energy to pray or more time to read the Word, but critically recognising the need to pray and to constantly abide in the Word.  Serene and I have experienced this time and again – the moment we take our eyes off Jesus, things go crazy around the house and everything falls apart.  We have learnt that, truly, apart from Him, we can do nothing (John 15:5).

All that we have is from God.  How else can we but manage these for His glory?  How else can we manage but with His strength and power?  How else can we have strength and power but to draw from Him daily?  Discipleship is not about knowing how to manage, but knowing who we are in Christ, our Master, out of which flow our call and our priorities.

Disciples know their Master. If I am a disciple, I have a Master.  The question is, “Who is my Master?”  Jesus said that no one can serve two masters.  We will love one and hate the other.  Anything and anyone can take the place of Jesus – my wife, my children, my career, my worldly pursuits, even my church.  When that happens, I only serve Jesus on Sunday mornings.  For the rest of the week, I serve my other masters.

I have come to acknowledge that I need Jesus desperately.  My source and strength is Jesus.  If I don’t spend time with Him, I have nothing.  It is only out of my relationship with Him that I can relate with others. In loving Jesus, I love my wife and my children.  In trusting Jesus, I know that my best can never match His best for my family.  In following Jesus, my family knows that we are headed in the right direction for the right destination.

My Master is Jesus and I am His disciple.

Disciples know their Purpose. Not everyone may be called to fulltime ministry, but every believer is to be a fulltime disciple. When Jesus says, “Follow Me,” He is inviting men and women to give up everything to be with Him and to learn from Him.  And everything includes our families.

To follow Jesus means to have my eyes fixed on Him.  Problems come when my eyes are fixed on myself, my wife, my children and our needs.  When I yield to the call of these needs, I invariably miss the call of Jesus to walk with Him.  In Matt 10:37, Jesus says, “… he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.”  So do I stop loving my family?  No, I don’t love them any less.  It just means that I love Jesus more.

We are disciples first before we are husbands, wives, or parents.  And disciples are very clear of the purpose of following Jesus – to become more and more like Him.  With this purpose and promise of transformation, a true disciple of Jesus makes for a better husband, wife and parent.

Disciples know their Priorities. So many Christians struggle with discipleship because of misplaced priorities.  An over focus on needs will lead to a focus on money, job, self-improvement, and career.  Soon, worry and anxiety set in, and they wonder, “Where is Jesus in all these?”  I believe the Master is still there, patiently waiting.  It’s the disciple who has gone missing.

A disciple’s priority must be to do what the Master has called him to do – to declare, establish and manifest the Kingdom of God (Matt 10:7,8).  When Jesus sent His disciples out, He told them not to worry about anything for they will be provided for.  Their priority was to do His will and to please the Master.  The same applies to us today.  Matt 6:33 reminds us that between our needs and God’s Kingdom, we are to seek the latter that the former will be taken care of.  How often have we got it upside-down?  To be sure, the question is not whether God will meet our needs, but if we are seeking His Kingdom and His righteousness.

A disciple’s priority is to look after the Master’s business.  The Master will look after the disciple’s needs.

So how do we manage? We don’t … we rely on God.  As you can see by now, discipleship, as with parenting, is not merely about methods and how to’s.  There’s something more fundamental – it’s relationship.

If you are struggling with being a disciple and a parent, it’s not more steps you need.  Instead, you have to determine what is it you find difficult to let go of, for it is that cost of discipleship with which you are struggling.  Don’t struggle to be a disciple.  Strive instead, to know the Master.  For when you know who your Master is, and how faithful He is, you will gladly follow Him wherever He leads.  When that happens, priorities become clear and everything falls in place.

Jesus be the Santa of My Life?

I guess it’s safe to assume that everyone is familiar with the hit worship song by Israel Houghton “Jesus At The Centre”, or the slightly older one, “Jesus Be the Centre” by Michael Frye.

We sing it with gusto, and at times, with tears too. But really, is Jesus the centre? Or do we just want Him to be a Santa to us? Hey, in this day of commercial and convenient Christianity, I can’t assume anything. Of anyone. And of myself.

Is Jesus the centre of your life? Don’t say “yes” too quickly if all you mean is that you desire Jesus to be the centre. That wasn’t the question at all. Once again, the question is, “Is Jesus the centre of your life?” In case this appears or sounds confusing, consider the following …

Take me, for example. I am one who serves in a full-time capacity. As a servant of God. I teach, preach and lead a ministry. By all counts, in the eyes of many, I have given my all to Jesus, so He must be the centre of my life. Accurate? Not necessarily. If I neglect the needs of my wife and not love her as Christ loved the church, if I do not parent my children in God’s ways, then Jesus is not the centre at all! Ouch!

How about the faithful volunteer each Sunday morning? He or she comes consistently to church and serves dutifully. Is Jesus the centre of his or her life? Well, we’d have to see more of his or her life to know, wouldn’t we? How does he conduct his business? How does she relate to her peers or relatives? What does he do in his private time when no one is watching? How does she respond in times of difficulties and challenges?

Then, there is the Sunday Christian who appears each week – 30mins into the service. He is perpetually tardy. But when a crisis hits, or a need arises, this dear brother is quick on the dial (smartphone keypad) to contact a pastor for prayer or counselling and – surprise! surprise! – comes perfectly on time for the appointment. Hmmmm … is Jesus really the centre?

Of course, what is the Christian walk without faith? So, there is the faith-filled believer who asks so he will receive – after all, that’s his entitlement. So, Lord, give me a job, give me a promotion, give me a baby, give me a husband, give me a house, car, an iPad, … How nice, when Jesus is the Santa of your life.

As with most blogposts, I have observed and so I write. But more than a post that gripes against what I have observed in others, it is one that provokes myself to evaluate if there might the presence of something larger in my eye than the speck I see in theirs.

Is Jesus really the centre of my life, my marriage, my family, my ministry as reflected through my thoughts, my words and my actions? Or have I too approached Him with a long list of gimmes based on a self-righteous view of myself having been good and faithful, and deserving of all I have asked for? If so, I have only made Jesus the Santa of my life. And however loud I sing and declare, Jesus is not the centre of my life at all … I am.

Related Post:
Santa? Or No Santa? Can We Please Make Up Our Minds?
Jesus be the Corner of My Life?