“For at least several decades the churches of the Western world have not made discipleship a condition of being a Christian. One is not required to be, or to intend to be, a disciple in order to become a Christian, and one may remain a Christian without any signs of progress toward or in discipleship. Contemporary American churches in particular do not require following Christ in his example, spirit, and teachings as a condition of membership – either of entering into or continuing in fellowship of a denomination or local church. Any exception to this claim only serves to highlight its general validity and make the general rule more glaring. So far as the visible Christian institutions of our day are concerned, discipleship clearly is optional.”
GREAT OMISSIONS FROM THE GREAT COMMISSION
A different model was instituted in the Great Commission Jesus left the Church. The first goal he set for the early church was to use his all-encompassing power and authority to make disciples without regard to ethnic distinctions – from all “nations” (Matt. 28:19)… The Christian church of the first century resulted from following this plan for church growth – a result hard to improve upon.
But in place of Christ’s plan, historical drift has substituted: “Make converts (to a particular faith and practice) and baptize them into church membership.” This causes two great omissions from the Great Commission to stand out. Most important, we start by omitting the making of disciples or enrolling people as Christ’s students, when we should let all else wait for that. We also omitted step of taking our converts through training that will bring them ever increasingly to do what Jesus directed.
Though costly, discipleship once had a very clear, straightforward meaning. The mechanics are not the same today. We cannot literally be with him in the same way as his first disciples could. But the priorities and intentions – the heart or inner attitudes – of disciples are forever the same. In the heart of a disciple there is a desire, and there is decision or settled intent. Having come to some understanding of what it means, and thus having “counted up the costs,” the disciple of Christ desires above all else to be like him. Thus, “It is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher” (Matt 10:25). And moreover, “After he has been fully trained, he will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40).
Given this desire, usually produced by the lives and words of those already in The Way, there is yet a decision to be made: the decision to devote oneself to becoming like Christ. The disciple is one who, intent upon becoming Christlike and so dwelling in his “faith and practice,” systematically and progressively rearranges his affairs to that end. By these actions, even today, one enrolls in Christ’s training, becomes his pupil or disciple. There is no other way.
In contrast, the non-disciple, whether inside or outside the church, has something more important to do or undertake than to become like Jesus Christ. He or she has bought a piece of ground, perhaps, or even five yoke of oxen, or has taken a spouse (Luke 14:19). Such lame excuses only reveal that something on that dreary list of reputation, wealth, power, sensual indulgence, or mere distraction and numbness still retains his or her ultimate allegiance. Or if someone has seen through these, he or she may not know the alternative – not know, especially, that it is possible to live under the care and governance of God, working and living with him as Jesus did, seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.
LIFE’S GREATEST OPPORTUNITY
…“Am I a disciple, or only a Christian by current standards?” Examination of our ultimate desires and intentions, reflected in the specific responses and choices that make up our lives, can show whether there are things we hold more important than being like him. If there are, then we are not yet his disciples. Being unwilling to follow him, our claim of trusting him must ring hollow. We could never claim to trust a doctor, teacher, or auto mechanic whose directions we would not follow…
Nothing less than life in the steps of Christ is adequate to the human soul or the needs of our world. Any other offer fails to do justice to the drama of human redemption, deprives the hearer of life’s greatest opportunity, and abandons this present life to the evil powers of the age. The correct perspective is to see following Christ not only as the necessity it is, but as the fulfillment of the highest human possibilities and as life on the highest plane. It is to see, in Helmut Thielicke’s words, that “The Christian stands, not under the dictatorship of a legalistic ‘You ought,’ but in the magnetic field of Christian freedom, under the empowering of the ‘You may.’”
The above are excerpts from Dallas Willard’s article “Discipleship: For Super-Christians Only?” which appeared in Christianity Today, October 10, 1980.