Redefining Discipleship

Although Jesus made it quite clear what a disciple is, many have replaced His definition with one of their own. For example, to some the word disciple is a vague term that applies to anyone who professes to be a Christian. To them, the word disciple has been stripped of all its biblical meaning.

Others consider discipleship to be an optional second step of commitment for heaven-bound believers. They believe that one may be a heaven-bound believer in Jesus but not be a disciple of Jesus! Because it is so difficult to simply ignore Jesus’ demanding requirements for discipleship that are recorded in Scripture, it is taught that there are two levels of Christians—the believers, who believe in Jesus, and the disciples, who believe in and are committed to Jesus. Along these lines, it is often said that there are many believers but few disciples, but that both are going to heaven.

This doctrine effectively neutralizes Christ’s commandment to make disciples, which in turn neutralizes the making of disciples. If becoming a disciple means self-denying commitment and even hardship, and if becoming a disciple is optional, the large majority of people will elect not to become disciples, especially if they think they will be welcomed into heaven as non-disciples.

So here are some very important questions that we must ask: Does Scripture teach that one can be a heaven-bound believer but not be a disciple of Jesus Christ? Is discipleship an optional step for believers? Are there two levels of Christians, the uncommitted believers and the committed disciples?

The answer to all of these questions is No. Nowhere does the New Testament teach that there are two categories of Christians, the believers and the disciples. If one reads the book of Acts, one will read repeated references to the disciples, and they are obviously not references to a higher-class of more committed believers. Everyone who believed in Jesus was a disciple.[1] In fact, “the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch” (Acts 11:26, emphasis added).


[1] Disciples are mentioned in Acts 6:1, 2, 7; 9:1, 10, 19, 25, 26, 36, 38; 11:26, 29; 13:52; 14:20, 21, 22, 28; 15:10; 16:1; 18:23, 27; 19:1, 9, 30; 20:1, 30; 21:4, 16. Believers are mentioned only in Acts 5:14; 10:45 and 16:1. In Acts 14:21, for example, Luke wrote, “And after they [Paul and Barnabas] had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples…” Thus Paul and Barnabas made disciples by preaching the gospel, and people became immediate disciples at their conversion, not at some later optional time.