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 #7: Discipleship is about me

Misconception 7Discipleship may concern, involve and affect you, but it’s not about you. Every disciple knows that he’s in it because of the Master. For the Christian, it is all about JESUS! Get this wrong and our personal agendas will jostle for top spot over and over again.

At Caesarea Philippi, Peter gloated after providing the right answer and promptly proceeded to rebuke his Master for talking about dying. In return, Jesus rebuked him with the title, Satan! Clearly, Jesus’ agenda was not according to “the things of men, but the things of God!” (Matt 16:13-23) Similarly, in Luke 9:51-56, James and John revealed their hatred for the Samaritans, all too ready to call down fire upon them. But Jesus’ agenda was not about destroying those who rejected Him, but saving those who are doomed for destruction. Later in Mark 10:35-45, James and John asked for prime positions and got their motives challenged. Jesus’ agenda was not that He be served, but that He would serve.

The multitudes were no different. They received healing and provision, saw signs and wonders, and enjoyed great teaching and revelation. All these served their needs and agenda, but did they follow Jesus as disciples? No, it demanded too high a cost! Are we not the same today?

But Jesus will not conform to our definition of discipleship, on our terms. We must submit to His standards! Jesus said what needed to be said, never lowered the bar, and never played to the crowds. Jesus was not afraid to lose the big crowds, but we are! He never lowered the standards of the Kingdom, but we are all too ready to do it in the name of love and grace, so that more will fill the pews.

When Jesus didn’t give His disciples what they wanted, Judas betrayed Him and the disciples left Him. When the multitudes did not get a Messiah according to their desire, their shouts turned from “Hail Him!” to “Nail Him!” Believers, you think?

Make no mistake. Discipleship is about JESUS! Does your idea of discipleship have a personal agenda or a Jesus agenda? What do you want Jesus to be to you, or to do for you? Do you not know that what He came to do, He has already done when He declared, “It is finished!”? If you believe in Him, do you not realise He is already your Saviour. Would you now acknowledge Him as your Master and start following Him as His disciple?

Misconception #6: Discipleship is one aspect of the spiritual walk

Misconception 6This misconception extends from the previous one. Those ‘called’ to the prayer ministry will focus on prayer. Those ‘called ‘ to the worship ministry will elevate the worship experience. Those ‘called’ to teach will emphasise the discipline of study. And the more we specialise, the more we compartmentalise. To be sure, these are all different aspects that contribute to our spiritual walk. However, when we consider discipleship on the same level as these, we make a grave mistake. Discipleship is not just an aspect of the spiritual walk. It is the spiritual walk.

Discipleship is the Christian life as we learn how to handle people and situations as Jesus did when He walked on earth, empowered by the Holy Spirit! Everything we think, do and say as a Christian is discipleship because we desire to think, do and say as our Master, Jesus, would. Every aspect of our lives is open for the Master’s inspection! Every word we utter is subject to His approval. What this means is that discipleship is not something that happens only in church but how we walk as followers of Jesus Christ in life!

How does this look in real life? Simply, I am first and foremost a disciple of Jesus before I am husband to Serene, father to my children, pastor to my congregation and dean to my students. I want to learn from Jesus that I may be more and more like Him in my relationship with my wife, my children, my congregation and my students. Walking in His ways is what discipleship is all about! Discipleship is not merely one aspect of my spiritual walk; it is everything my spiritual walk is supposed to be.

The right perspective and understanding of discipleship will radically change the way we live our lives and how we relate to one another. Husbands, as a disciple of Jesus, love your wives! Wives, as a disciple of Jesus, love your husbands! Parents, as disciples of Jesus, raise your children in the ways of Jesus. Fathers & Mothers, as disciples of Jesus, love and serve your children. Children, as disciples of Jesus, honour and obey your parents. Bosses, as disciples of Jesus, run your companies well. Employees, as disciples of Jesus, do you work well. Citizens of Singapore, as disciples of Jesus, stop complaining!

Stop seeing discipleship as only one component of your spiritual walk. This narrow view will cause you to minimise the importance of discipleship and what it truly means to be a follower of Jesus.

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”!

Misconception #4: Discipleship is an optional add-on to salvation

Misconception 4Sadly, we have made discipleship an optional add-on when it’s part of the entire package! We pick and choose what we want and leave out parts we don’t want. We want the rewards of discipleship but not the requirements of discipleship! This is not the case at all. When you believed and were saved, discipleship was included and thus expected of you. In case you didn’t realise, the moment you belonged to Jesus, you began learning and will go on learning until you meet Him. How else would you grow as a believer if you didn’t learn more about Jesus? And what’s another word for learner? Disciple!

Discipleship is not an add-on to salvation. It came with it. That said, you do have an option, and that is to OPT OUT. Before you select this option, thinking that’s your way out of being a disciple, do consider what it means.

After teaching about eating His flesh and drinking His blood, many of Jesus’ disciples were offended and complained (John 6:60-71). John 6:64 reveals something very interesting. These were referred to as disciples and yet Jesus said that these were not ones who believed. These so-called “disciples” must have once believed in what Jesus preached, but perhaps only what they wanted to hear. In other words, their beliefs were faulty beliefs. And when it got tough to swallow (pun intended), they promptly opted out. “From that time, many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more.” John 6:66

It’s not enough to simply believe. We’d better be sure of what we are believing in. In the last days, many will have faulty beliefs. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables.” 2 Timothy 4:3–4

Once again, we see the relationship between believing and following. When you cease believing in Jesus and His ways, you cease following. Conversely, if you are not living as a disciple should, it’s best to check what you believe, or do not believe. Don’t opt out without even knowing it!

Misconception #3: Disciples are a special class of believers

Misconception 3If you subscribe to misconceptions #1 and #2, this is how you will view disciples. You will consider mere believers as being inferior to disciples, as being lesser than those who have decided to follow Jesus. After all, these privileged ones received the call and have selflessly abandoned all to be with the Master. But not little ol’ me! Can you see what this is going?

Disciples are not a special class of believers! There is no one more special than another is God’s family! We were all undeserving of anything but have received everything by His grace. If we didn’t qualify to be saved, what qualifies us to be disciples? Nothing, except Jesus! If we understand this, we will not buy into the lie that some are more worthy than others to be disciples.

Of all the disciples, Jesus loved ALL the same. However, to prepare each for different assignments, He invested His time accordingly. As we have already noted, Jesus had more than 500 disciples, but He spent the most time with the 12 because these were chosen to be apostles, for specific assignments. Of the 12, His inner circle was three: Peter, James and John. Of the three, John was considered the beloved disciple, although Peter was de facto leader. In the early Church, disciples waited on tables and served the people. Others gave and shared their resources. Later, in the book of Ephesians, Paul clarified the roles of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.

In the army, one may serve as a storeman or a clerk. But he is still considered a soldier. Everyone who dons the uniform is a soldier. Likewise, when we believed in Jesus, we put on the uniform when we were clothed with His righteousness. This is standard issue and every believer is a soldier in the Lord’s Army, equally equipped with the armour of God!

Disciples are not a special class of super-spiritual believers! Every believer is a disciple and each has a distinct role. We are a body of different parts and every part must do its share according to the measure of faith given by grace.

Misconception #2: Believers must be called to be disciples

Misconception 2We have all been told that we must first be called before we can be considered for discipleship. After all, that was what Jesus did.

Everyone presumes that Jesus called the 12. However, the gospels only record seven – Peter, Andrew, James, John, Matthew, Philip and Nathanael (Matt 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20; Luke 5:1-11; John 1:35-51). The Bible is silent on the other five. And technically, Jesus didn’t call Nathanael; Philip did (John 1:48).

Another presumption is that Jesus had 12 and only 12 disciples (just like we presume there were three kings in the nativity story. It’s not in the Bible, by the way.). Quite obviously, Jesus had more than 12 disciples. Otherwise, there would have been no need to pray the entire night to choose 12 to be apostles (Luke 6:12-16). Luke 10:1 mentions 70 (or 72 NIV) others. After Jesus’ resurrection, He appeared to over 500 brethren at once. This means that there could have been a lot more before Jesus died but these stopped believing and following upon His death.

Numbers notwithstanding, Scriptures show us that Jesus invited (called) some and some invited themselves, as in Luke 9:57-62. When Jesus explained what it meant to follow Him, some stopped believing and thus did not follow. In Mark 10:17-22, Jesus told the rich young man that eternal life was found in Him. The call for him to follow was essentially an invitation for him to believe in that promise. The rich young man believed in his riches and good works and followed these instead of the One who could give him eternal life. Once again, discipleship is premised on faith in Jesus and what He promises. Discipleship is to put legs to our faith, to walk the talk.

From the above, we see that Jesus did not call each and every one of His disciples. As such, this notion of the call cannot be applied across the board. But that is what we have been taught! And this has resulted in too many waiting to be called, claiming they have not heard the call or rationalising that they are not called, that discipleship does not apply to them. Can this possibly be true? How can one say that they are followers of Jesus Christ yet be convinced that discipleship is not for them?

There is no need to wait for a call to be a disciple! Stop waiting to be called! If you truly know what you believe, you will follow!

Misconception #1: Discipleship is a separate decision/event from believership [Part One]

PART ONE: Is there a difference between believers and disciples?

Discipleship Title PixFirstly, we need to know what a disciple is. The Greek word matethes comes from the root verb manthano, meaning “to learn”. The English word disciple is derived from the Latin discipulus, which carries the same meaning of “pupil, learner or follower”. From this, we see that a disciple is one who follows another with the purpose to learn as his pupil. As such, a follower of Jesus Christ is thus a disciple of Jesus Christ.

This may look and sound obvious but is it? Ask a believer if he is a follower of Jesus Christ and he would very likely say ‘yes’ without any hesitation. But when asked if he is thus a disciple of Jesus Christ, and you might get a pause, a shrug or a vehement ‘no’. Why is this so? That’s because we have been told that we believe first and then decide later if we’d like to be disciples. We’ve accepted that believership is a separate and distinct event from discipleship.

As I pondered this, the Lord gave me an illustration: Imagine a stranger walks up to my 3 year old and says, “Uncle has ice-cream for you. You want? Come with me.” If my little girl believed that man, what would she do? She’d follow him! Immediately, the relationship between believing and following became clear to me — the one we believe, we follow.

We’ve heard countless sermons about Andrew, Peter, James and John, of how they dropped everything and followed Jesus. But have you stopped to think why they did that? Surely, they didn’t just jump at the words of Jesus because they were tired of their jobs. I believe it’s because they believed in who Jesus was and what He promised that they readily followed as His disciples. This must have been the same for Matthew. Otherwise, why would a tax collector leave everything to follow a Galilean carpenter? And as long as these kept believing, they kept following Jesus.

The one we believe, we follow. We cannot believe and not follow. Faith without works is dead. Conviction will always produce action. If I believe, I will follow.

When Jesus issued the Great Commission, the command was simple: Make disciples. He didn’t say to identify those who are willing and available, then call these and make them disciples. In other words, when anyone believes the good news of the Kingdom, make disciples of them! Put another way, the moment someone believes and becomes a subject of the Kingdom, he also becomes a disciple. Make no mistake: Jesus is both Saviour and Master!

This challenges the way we have been leading people to salvation. The sinner’s prayer is a great device but so many don’t even what they have prayed (repeat after me), much less what they have believed! What does “receive Jesus into your heart” mean anyway? And if one is told to believe in Jesus to go to heaven, where is the place of discipleship then?

Salvation is when we repent (turn from sin), believe in Jesus’ work on the Cross (forgiveness), be set free from sin’s dominion (redemption), and we now belong to Jesus (serve and follow Him). It scares me to discover how few Christians are able to talk about their own salvation! I am not advocating printing out a 500-page theological document for the prospect to peruse and sign on the dotted line. I am, however, convinced that there is an even more critical need for proper follow-up so that a new believer knows that believing Jesus means following Jesus. He is, after all, no longer his own, but one who belongs to Jesus.

This misconception weakens the Church because it gives us an excuse not to be disciples, or that we need a passage of time before we qualify to be disciples. How many do you know who have sat in church for 20-30 years and not budged at all? On the other hand, imagine a congregation who is fully convicted that they are disciples the moment they declare their faith in Jesus. I believe that’s how the church was in Acts, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and they literally turned their world upside down.