I once had a Christian coworker who was sending his oldest son off to college. Well, it wasn’t really college, he explained, but rather a discipleship program that his son would be participating in over the next year. It was based at a Christian college, but had little resemblance to any post-secondary program I was familiar with. It was seen as a good fit for the young man because he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life and this line of education would help him figure it out.
I was intrigued by what a formal discipleship program might include, so I asked several questions as my friend described the curriculum. “Will he be studying the Scriptures?” No, that wasn’t really part of the plan; it was more about learning how to be a Christian. “How do you learn to be a Christian?” I asked. Well, by learning to be a disciple. You also need to learn to do evangelism, know some history, and a little about the kind of work a Christian can do in different churches or ministries.
I later learned this course of study required learning how “spiritual disciplines” can improve a person’s relationship with God. They were also given instruction in theological, theoretical, and practical ways of integrating Christian beliefs into academics, careers, culture, relationships, and even art. I went to regular college so I had no idea what any of that meant or how you could learn it sitting in a classroom.
“Why not just learn about Christ?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” my coworker returned. In his view, someone really needed to learn to be a Christian and this program would teach his son what he needed to know. There were new and better ways of being a Christian and he wanted his son to be prepared for whatever life may hold.
I thought it sounded like his son was just going to learn how to navigate properly within the many lanes available on the freeway of popular expressions of “church” today. He was going to learn to thrive in the Evangelical Christian world, and that was something to be excited about as far as his father was concerned.
I mentioned the path that the Apostle Paul took in learning to serve Christ, as detailed in the book of Acts. My friend expressed that it was a different world today and Paul’s example wasn’t really relevant anymore. I realized my thoughts were not being well-received so I dropped the discussion and wished his son well.
Knowledge of the Person of Christ
I think we often confuse the idea of “discipleship” with being a Christian. We cannot simply say that a Christian is a disciple of Christ. A disciple is an adherent to a school of thought or to an individual, one who embraces the teaching or practices espoused and heralds the message of the movement. But mere discipleship can be fleeting if there is no effectual change in the follower.
There were many called “disciples” who followed Christ for a time, only to leave Him when circumstances became too much or His words too hard to accept. Consider those who were written of in John 6. Jesus knew there were in that group many who pursued Him with hope in relief from their earthly burdens, yet never believed in Him as the Christ. When pressed, they left and walked with Him no more. He then turned to the twelve, asking if they would leave as well. Their reply signals a major hallmark of a Christian: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God (Jn. 6:68).”
Whereas a Christian is decidedly a disciple of Christ, not all disciples of Christ are necessarily Christians. One can be drawn to many of the teachings of Christianity and even embrace them wholeheartedly. But the Christian knows and fully accepts who Jesus Christ is and what He has done in suffering the righteous judgment of God on their behalf. As such, they recognize that their eternal hope is in Him. The believer’s life is forever changed due to this faith and there is no turning back. In a world of options, there is no other hope for the Christian.
The one calling himself a Christian is not simply learning from some school of thought or pursuing coursework for a benevolent vocation. He has fully committed to the person of Jesus Christ and will be satisfied to sit at His feet to learn of Him (Mt. 11:29).
How do you think we can best “learn to be a Christian”?