I’ve been wondering recently what it means to be a Christian—who gets to call themselves a Christian? Do certain people call themselves Christians when they aren’t? And is there a way to tell them apart, without falling into “no true Scotsman” territory? Today I came up with a solution, and it’s not neat or particularly encouraging, but it may be helpful.
It’s actually very easy to be a Christian. Not very much is required. You can make a deathbed conversion, declare your faith in Jesus, never do anything else again, and you’re a 100%, honest-to-goodness Christian. So in that sense being a Christian imposes no moral, ethical, social or political strictures on anyone. The Bible talks about it like this: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Or like this: “And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Or like this: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.”
That’s all you need to do. And that’s the scandal of Christianity, that it’s radically inclusive. Everyone is welcome. Bonhoeffer was wrong; there is such a thing as cheap grace. Being a Christian is easy.
Being a disciple, a follower of Jesus, though—now that’s a different story.
I don’t know if Jesus himself had this distinction in mind; maybe he expected everyone who believed in him to be 100% sold out on following him. After all, there wasn’t anyone called “Christian” while he was about. Maybe it’s a distinction that’s come about through Paul, filtered through the kind of “lifeboat rescue” view of salvation that NT Wright so carefully dismantles. But I think it’s a distinction worth making today.
Whereas the option of faith in Christ is open to everyone, Jesus was very clear that discipleship is a difficult calling for the few. He talks about it as being a narrow gate, which would be an odd thing to say if you expected everyone to fit through. He demands that those who want to be a disciple must “deny themselves and take up their cross daily”. That doesn’t sound like an easy thing. Bonhoeffer was right—when Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die.
Jesus called some people “unfit for service in the kingdom of God”, simply because they put their family before serving him; others were whittled out because they put their money before serving him. Disciples can’t serve two masters. Disciples have to serve others, to humble themselves, to avoid defilement, to look after widows and orphans… the list goes on, and we could argue some of the details but it’s hopefully very clear that this is no longer wide open and scandalously inclusive. Being a disciple does impact how you live. Being a disciple, unlike being a Christian, very definitely has moral, ethical, social and political dimensions for your life. Being a disciple costs.
You can choose Christ and have an easy life, but by goodness you’re in for it if Christ chooses you.
We believe, we hope, we assume, that one leads necessarily to the other—that someone who converts to faith in Christ would go on to make the step from there to walking the narrow way of discipleship. But it isn’t necessarily the case.
I had lunch with a pastor of a Japanese church the other day, and he said that his congregation had asked him, in so many words, to stop preaching to them about Christian growth. Discipleship, they said, was not something that they saw the need for. They were saved, they went to church every Sunday, they paid their tithe—they were doing their bit, and anything else was his bit. Why was he trying to make his job into their job? And from my experience, I don’t think that kind of attitude is particularly unusual here, even though one does not often hear it expressed so baldly.
In other words, the Japanese church has a lot of Christians but very few disciples. Getting Japanese people over the hurdle of faith and into the Church has been such a major challenge that we have been quite happy to stop there, count our converts, and give thanks—not wanting to push them too hard along the costly path of discipleship. If we push them too much, they might leave the Church, and how can that be better? And then we wonder why the Japanese church doesn’t multiply; why it’s so hard to get lay people involved in ministry; and all that. Well, why should they? What incentive do they have?
Tyler Edwards argues that the same process is happening in the Western churches, as consumerist tendencies push us towards an easier, more convenient, less demanding gospel. But I don’t think this is a cultural phenomenon, in Japan or in the West. Christian leaders over the centuries have bemoaned a lack of spiritual commitment from the masses in the pews. A hundred years ago, C T Studd complained that
“We Christians of today are indeed a tepid crew. Had we but half the fire and enthusiasm of the Suffragettes in the past, we would have the world evangelized and Christ back among us in no time.”
And Jesus said the same thing about the church in Laodicea back in the first century. So the distinction between “Christian” and “disciple” is not a new thing; it’s not about culture, or about consumerism, or even about how missionaries and pastors have failed to engage with people. If anything, it’s about the 80-20 rule.
Or more to the point, it is about the scandal at the heart of Christianity, or at least of our understanding of it—that Christ is open to all, that anyone can be saved… but walking through the narrow gate is strictly an optional extra.Subject tags: theology