“Christian” or “Disciple?”


A fellow ‘organic church’ leader, in his farewell message four years ago to his large congregation, said “This is the last time I will be calling myself a ‘Christian'”… When I left the institutional Church five years ago, I determined to do the same. Not all will agree with us, but consider the following:  

  • Critics and atheists will, quite rightly, remind us of the Crusades (1095-1291 AD), blessed by Pope and Church, when hundreds of thousands of Crusaders and Turkish Muslims were killed in the pursuit of the ‘holy city.’  
  • During World War 2, much of the traditional Church in Germany, directly or indirectly, supported Adolf Hitler in his Nationalist Socialist policies, thus sharing (however indirectly) in the genocide of six million Jews. The Pope at the time became known as Hitler’s Pope, his silence deafening as he saw people march past the Vatican on the way to the notorious camps. Few Protestant leaders challenged Naziism, exceptions being Pr. Martin Niemoller and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (who paid with his life).   
  • I was moved, a few years ago, as a respected church leader from Rwanda  recounted the infamous 1994 genocide, during which close on one million (20% of the population) were murdered (did you see Hotel Rwanda?). Many of the church bishops failed to speak out against, and in some cases condoned, what was happening – some are still serving prison sentences. 
  • In my native land, South Africa, the leaders of a major Protestant denomination (and others) justified ‘Apartheid’ from the Scriptures (!). Eighteen years later we still struggle with the hurts and the divisions.  
  • Think of the contemporary Church, world-wide:  the ‘cover up’ of priests and paedophilia; pastors guilty of adultery and rape; mega-churches (and others) propagating ‘prosperity teaching’ and stealing from rich and poor (the Church in poverty-ridden Africa has in many places bought into this heresy); the Christian divorce rate in the USA equals that among non-Christians; many fundamentalists continue to love to hate and hate to love; the colossal curse of nominalism in the Western Church continues to cripple her witness (see George Barna studies)…  

What do the Scriptures say about the title ‘Christian’? (very little) 

  • In Acts 11:25-26 Luke describes the fruitful ministry of the scattered believers, Barnabas, and Paul, in Syrian Antioch:  v. 26c, “The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch” (presumably by Antiochians?). 
  • In Acts 26, where Paul relates his conversion story before King Agrippa, the latter sarcastically responds in v. 28, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”  
  • When Peter, in his First Letter, addresses suffering for being a Christian, he says in  4:16, “However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name…” (at that point the term ‘Christian’ was not negatively loaded as it often is today). 

In short, Jesus’ (and the Bible’s focus) seems to be on ‘disciple.’ 

  • Follow the Gospel accounts of Jesus and His relationship with/mentoring of the ‘Twelve’ (Mk. 1:14-20, etc). He spent more time with the twelve than with the masses, despite the overwhelming needs of the latter… 
  • Notice the relationality of the Great Commandment (Mt. 22:34-40)… 
  • Notice the Great Commission (Mt. 28:16-20). In our going we are to make disciples (matheteusate, i.e. learners/apprentices) of all ‘ethne’  
  • Think of the Epistles’ call to lifestyle transformation (Eph. 4:17ff, etc)…
  • In evangelicalism we have related to Jesus mainly as ‘Saviour,’ less so as ‘Lord,’ and hardly ever as ‘Rabbi’ or ‘Teacher’ or ‘Mentor.’ In NT times each rabbi had his ‘disciples,’ who were encouraged to follow their rabbi so closely that the dust from his feet would cover them…

It’s probably a matter of personal conviction! 

Those who have opted to drop the name ‘Christian’ face a new dilemma… What do you say when someone asks you if you are a Christian? My colleague (mentioned earlier) usually responds, “Do you want the short or the long answer?”  

5 thoughts on ““Christian” or “Disciple?”

  1. So, in a nutshell, we don’t want to be associated with past and present questionable deeds done in the name of Christianity ?
    As long as the name “disciple of Jesus” doesn’t eventually have the same connotation !!
    Or have I missed something ?

    • Exactly, in my humble opinion. Great comment…

      That’s why we can’t legalise in these matters, and I left the post open-ended. I think we must do as we feel is best for us and our situation. I have used different approaches with different people, depending whom I am talking to. Bear in mind that I deal with alot of folk who are disillusioned with institutional church…

      ‘Disciple of Jesus’ could well be abused in the same manner…

  2. I understand your reasoning, but cannot agree w/ your conclusion, Erroll. We are Christians because we follow Christ…not because we are perfect. In this life, all of us sin — much as we may try to avoid that. The Crusades, the Inquisition, etc. are proof that we cannot save ourselves, and are wholly dependent on Christ. Christians have, also, founded countless hospitals and orphanages. During the Middle Ages, they helped preserve not only the Word of God but civilization, itself. Each man must, of course, follow his own conscience.

    • Eight years later, I would today probably approach this topic a little differently. Thanks for your honesty, Anna. See much how your lawyer skills help us to think a little more clearly!

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