Pastoral Perspectives

Christians Used to Be Known as Disciples

In our churches today, it is not uncommon to find people who identify themselves as Christians but not necessary as disciples. To a large extent, this is an unfortunate result of us being brought up with a mistaken two-tiered understanding of the Christian faith. According to this worldview, all who responded to the Gospel and accepted Jesus as their Saviour are Christians. Such a person would go to heaven when he dies and would have received all the benefits of the Christian faith. However, only those who are serious about their faith, those who read their Bibles faithfully, attend worship service regularly and are active in church ministry, only those are considered as disciples.

Although the Bible is clear that we can never earn our salvation (Eph 2:8-10), there is no doubt that good works should be a natural outcome of our life in Christ. Indeed, for those of us who identify ourselves as Christians, discipleship is not an option.

After all, at the heart of Christianity is a call to follow Jesus by denying ourselves and taking up the cross (Mark 8:34-35). If we say we are Christians, it is only right that we should live our lives in such a manner that would demonstrate our commitment to Christ. Furthermore, since the Bible teaches that those who are born again and have believed in Jesus have the Holy Spirit in them (Eph 1:13-14), it would be unimaginable that in the course of our lives, God’s grace would have had no visible impact upon us, bringing transformation to our worldviews, priorities and behaviour.

In Acts 11:26, we learn that interestingly enough it was only at Antioch that the followers of Jesus were called “Christians”. Before that, they were generally referred to as disciples or as “people belonging to the Way” (Acts 9:2). Here it is helpful to note that “Christians” was not a term that the believers used for themselves. Instead, this was a term that society used on them and some historians have suggested that this term probably came from the Romans who labelledthe followers of Jesus in Antioch as “little Christs”. Though it was likely intended as an offense, the label is actually an honor insofar that it indicated that the disciples were living Christlike lives. To put it simply, their testimony to Jesus as the Risen Saviour and Lord was so strong that those around them took notice and recognised that they were more than just as a motley bunch of individuals professing a different religious belief.

Perhaps, it is time to regain the proper use of the words “disciples” and “Christian” and not to perpetuate this two-tier division of the Christian community. If we understand Acts correctly, all followers of Christ are disciples. And since the word “disciple” basically means a learner, or apprentice, a disciple of Jesus Christ is essentially someone who has responded to the good news of Jesus Christ and is committed to learning from Him and living in obedience to His teachings. And as we do so sustained by God’s grace and the empowering of the Holy Spirit, we will become more and more Christlike.

To be sure, we are all at different stages of our discipleship journey. But let us be clear that we cannot be a Christian and not be a disciple, at least not in the same sense that the term “Christian” was used during the time of the early church. The important question is whether we are making progress in our discipleship, whether we are stagnating or worse, deceiving ourselves that we are really Christians.

Some of us who are immature will need to take heed of what God’s Word instructs us through passages such as Hebrews 5:11-6:3 and 1 Peter 2:1-2. For others, it could mean taking that step of faith and not hesitating in going forward for baptism. After all, in the time of the early church, baptism was the first sign to publicly profess that you have decided to follow Christ. And for us today, it would be most ironic if we have no qualms about wearing a cross or telling others we are Christians but have yet to consider baptism.

Many of us have heard that Singapore is sometimes referred to as the “Antioch of Asia”. If we are to truly reach the nations with the Gospel, Christians need to live out their lives as disciples. And what a joy it would be when those who are mature show the way and by God’s grace bear much fruit, raising up disciples one generation after another.