What is a Disciple?

I recently read a brilliant article titled Christianity Without Commitment? by a Moorlands College theology student regarding Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s definition of “discipleship”. (If you don’t know who Dietrich Bonhoeffer is, get to know him. He’s awesome). In this student’s message, he essentially asks the question, “What is a Disciple?”

I will pose that question now to you:

After reading a bit further in “Christianity Without Commitment?”, the author (as well as Bonhoeffer himself) mentions that Christian discipleship must entail commitment–to be a disciple without being committed is to not be a disciple.

Regarding commitment to Christianity–and perhaps because I’m a former athlete who loves sports analogies–discipleship can be likened to an athlete who just won a championship. People see the joy and excitement of the athlete as he or she hoists the championship trophy and think, “Man, that looks awesome! I want to hoist that trophy, too!” When the champions are interviewed, however, they talk about all the hard work that has gotten them to that point–all the time, dedication, sweat, pain, struggles, and tears that eventually helped them take home the hardware. There is a daily commitment involved, even on the days when it’s not fun or pleasurable. When the aspect of commitment comes into play, those fans who sit so comfortably on their couch start doubting whether they really want that shiny reward.

“You mean I have to run 5 miles today?” they ask, incredulously.

“Yes,” the coach replies. “And tomorrow you’re going to have to lift weights and do sprints. When the season starts, we’ll have practice every single day and you’ll need to attend those, too.”

Suddenly, that trophy looks a lot less appealing.

“Maybe that trophy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” the bystander thinks as dreams of a championship begin to wither.

Yet, within Christianity, we must remember that we are not working towards a shiny gold trophy. The golden idol that athletes aspire to attain will not–and cannot–satisfy them fully. Sure, they may be proud to have achieved such a lofty goal, but in the end, their lives will remain the same and the trophy itself will gather dust. After all, at the end of the night, even champions find they’re still the same people they were when the day began. Perhaps those who don’t know Christ would think the same thing about Christianity. Why put in so much commitment and effort when nothing will really change? But this view likens Christ to a golden trophy–something that cannot change us or fill us up. As Christians, though, we must believe, trust, and show others that Jesus is, in fact, life-altering in a way that satisfies more than anything this world can offer. Thus, the “reward” of following Jesus is much greater than any hardship or struggle we may go through to acquire Him. “‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man” (Acts 17: 28-29). If we are willing to put ourselves through nauseating, muscle-weakening sprints for a chance to win a golden trophy, what more should we be willing to endure to obtain the divine?

So, how and when did we begin believing Discipleship was something passive–something we could do out of obligation and other times never at all? Everything else in the world demands commitment–athletics, education, and relationships, to name a few. Why should faith be any different? I know people who call themselves Christian simply because they have heard the name Jesus. They have no personal attachment to who that man was and neither have they any desire to examine who He really is. And yet, as a twenty-something on that desperate quest to gain a professional foothold in the world, a handful of words echo in my ears: “It’s not what you know, but who you know.” Do we think this applies only to our search for jobs? Or does it also ring true in our search for Christ? In my opinion, a superficial knowledge of Christ is a halfhearted cover letter to God. It won’t get you far in faith. However, knowing God–as opposed to just knowing about God–will continue to push you forward in the constant and continual pursuit of Him.

So how did Discipleship become so distorted? It certainly wasn’t performed or preached this way by the original Twelve. They remained active even in the face of persecution. Similarly, in other areas of our world today, the terms “Christian” and “disciple” are heavily weighted. In countries where Christianity is illegal, citizens put themselves in life-threatening situations simply so they can praise and glorify the Lord. Is it merely danger that forces us into genuine action? Or can we bring that whole-hearted discipleship to our nation–a nation where Christians are allowed to pray and praise freely? After all, as Paul mentions, “all the runners run, but only one receives the prize. So run that you may obtain it.”

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