(Photo: Dan Delzell)
There is plenty of talk these days about which term or terms to use when defining those who belong to Christ. I know it can be tempting to want to define "disciple" differently than you define "Christian." I was actually toying with that idea myself a number of years ago. But as Scripture details what it means to be in relationship with God through faith in Christ, I don't believe it is wise or beneficial to make this distinction and end up with two different categories of believers.
Some are tempted to do it because of the bad rap that certain "Christians" have given to our faith. Others are tempted to separate them because they believe that a "disciple" is someone truly living it....whereas a "Christian" is not really putting in the work. Those are valid concerns and it is certainly understandable why it would then seem to make sense to distinguish one from the other. Having said that, I don't believe Scripture allows us to make this distinction.
There was an occasion where Paul and Barnabas were preaching in Derbe. God's Word tells us, "They preached the good news in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith." (Acts 14:21,22)
Notice what specific message they preached....it was "the good news." It was the message of the cross and the empty tomb which "won" a large number of disciples. They were not preaching to Christians in an effort to now make them "disciples." They were preaching the good news to lost people. When lost people in Derbe accepted the good news, they immediately became disciples. They didn't become "Christians" first, and "disciples" at some later point.
Notice that when Paul and Barnabas returned to the other cities, they strengthened the "disciples." There was no distinction between "believer" and "disciple," or between "Christian" and "disciple." Paul and Barnabas didn't strengthen just some of the believers, and then call those select ones "disciples." They strengthened all of the believers, that is, all of the disciples.
Paul and Barnabas encouraged them to "remain true to the faith." Why? Because when you hold fast to faith in Christ, the life of Christ gets produced in you and you live out the resulting life of discipleship. Faith in Christ produces good works. "Faith without works is dead." (James 2:20) No one who is born again has a "dead faith," which is really no faith at all. Disciples are those who believe in Jesus as their Savior, and one of the results of their faith is that the Holy Spirit produces His fruit in their lives.
If you are born again through faith in Jesus, you are a disciple of the Lord. There are no "second string" disciples in God's family. You are either born again, or not. If you are saved, it was the good news which God used to grant you salvation. "Faith comes from hearing the message." (Romans 10:17) It is not a message telling you what you must do in order to work your way into the position of a disciple. No one has ever been made a disciple by his works. Disciples do good works because they have been brought into God's family by the power of the Gospel message.
If we make a distinction between "Christian" and "disciple," we end up doing irreparable damage to both words. A person who is a Christian did not become one on his own. He was "born of God." (John 1:13) To say that some "Christians" are not yet "disciples" is to greatly minimize the work of the Holy Spirit in conversion....as well as minimizing the Presence and benefits of having Jesus "dwell in your hearts through faith." (Ephesians 3:17) There are no "second class" Christians in God's family.
Are there some disciples who could be living more like Christ? Yes indeed. In fact, every disciple who has ever lived fits that description. There is not one of us who couldn't be living more like Christ. But that doesn't mean that some born again people are disciples, while others are "only Christians." The Bible does not teach such a division.
To separate "disciple" from "Christian" places the emphasis upon what the believer is doing....rather than upon what Christ has done at the cross. Leave it to sinful man to find a way to try to place the focus on what he brings to the table. In our zeal to motivate people to live like Christ....and perhaps in our self-righteous tendencies as well....we are tempted to pull out the old "disciple vs. Christian card." I believe we would be wise to leave well enough alone.
The next time you are tempted to play that card, you should just fold your hand. Let it go. Get your focus back on what Christ has done....and encourage and build up believers with the good news and with the entire Word of God. That is how disciples remain empowered at a high level to live out the Christian life in all of its beauty and fullness. Every Christian has been "raised up with Christ and seated with Him in the heavenly realms." (Ephesians 2:6) This elevated position is due to Christ's work on the cross....and not man's work to try to live a better Christian life.
We are told in Acts 6:7, "So the Word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith." When God's Word went out, people were saved. Immediately, they were referred to as "disciples." It doesn't say they started out in the "minor league" of salvation as only "Christians," but later advanced to the "major league" of the faith by making enough spiritual strides to become "disciples."
The clincher on this issue of not separating "disciple" and "Christian" is Acts 11:26, which says, "The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch." It is there that the Holy Spirit seals these two words together once and for all. To separate them into two classes of believers is to violate the clear teaching of the New Testament. Again, I must admit that I was leaning that way at one point. I suspect that many pastors are tempted to drift that way at times in an effort to "ramp up" the works which they spur believers to carry out.
God has given us an amazing tool to produce these necessary works. He has given us the Word. The Holy Spirit inspired these words to be written for the benefit and spiritual growth of Christians. "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work." (2 Timothy 3:16,17) Preach and teach the Word, and you will have more good works than you can handle.
By the way, many of those good deeds go beyond working with programs of the church. The majority of good works done by disciples have to do with Christians loving those people in their web of relationships among family, friends, and co-workers. What better work is there than that?
If you want to help the people you love grow in faithfulness to the Lord, then don't divide "Christian" and "disciple." Instead, give them God's Word in the love and power of the Holy Spirit. God will do the rest. We cannot make Christians any holier by creating separate categories for "first class" and "second class" believers. Only God can equip and empower disciples to live like Jesus and experience the fruit of the Holy Spirit. It is all His doing.
God is good at what He does. He knows how to produce fruit in His children. (see John 15:1-17) He was doing it way back when "the disciples were called Christians first at Antioch." (Acts 11:26) What makes us think we are any different or any better than those first Christians?