To be a disciple is to follow Jesus Christ. There is no discipleship without following Christ in all he teaches us to obey and in how we live our lives under God. There is, however, a form of the Christian life without discipleship, which is a life without Christ (2 Timothy 3:5). The call to follow Christ goes out to everyone, but not even all those who answer the call in the beginning follow through as disciples.
To follow someone is to allow them to be your teacher and begin take on the character of their life, and in the case of Christ it is to also take on the power of his life. In fact, we become like what we follow no matter whom or what it is. The Psalmist tells us about this in the context of idols by saying, “those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them” (Psalm 115:8). So, over time, a mark of the disciple is how different they become from the world and the idols around them. Christ is the one true God, so nobody and nothing else offers us the life that Christ does. People may follow many different idols in this world, but they all end up looking very much the same. The people who stick out as different are the followers of Jesus Christ.
But the minute we say that, we struggle to think of the differences between Christians and the others around them. Christianity without discipleship makes little to no difference in a life at all. After all, how could it? This form of belief is nothing more than lip-service without any intent to allow faith in Christ to sink deeper than some kind of proclamation. As the prophet put it so memorably, “they honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me” (Is. 29:13). So, what are the hallmarks of a Christian proclamation without the difference discipleship makes?
Christianity without adherence to the fundamentals of the faith will create a life that is indistinguishable from a non-Christian life. It may seem odd to some that we begin talking about a different life by talking about what we believe, but our lives are inevitably the result of our most deeply held beliefs. If you want to know what a person truly believes about an issue, do not put stock in what they say, rather, pay attention to what they do. Behavior inevitably betrays belief, and our beliefs turn us into who we become. It makes a difference whether you believe God created the universe and you or not. You will live differently if you believe Jesus is God in flesh reconciling the world to himself. Your priorities will be different if you believe Jesus is worth obeying and he tells you to make disciples of every nation teaching people to obey everything he tells us to do. You will be a very different kind of person if you really believe that people who are persecuted for righteousness are blessed. And the list could go on.
Why would a Christian not hold to the essentials of their faith? There are probably as many answers to that question as there are nominal Christians, but I think at least two general reasons account for most of the failure of discipleship. First, many Christians are not taught what they believe, and they are not intimate enough with the Word of God to learn it on their own. Their churches and pastors fail them. Their TV watching habits fail them. Their lack of reading and comprehension skills fail them. Whatever the case, the warp and woof of their doctrine has not been made clear and desirable to them, so they go merrily along their way, none the wiser. Secondly, to believe the things Christ teaches us to believe is to – by very definition – stick out. The follower of Christ learns how to believe that forgiveness is more powerful than vengeance and that humility is greater than the exertion of power. These values, and many more like them, are not at all like the world around us. In cultures where the grass of cultural convention is mowed pretty often and people are told to look and believe the same, Christians are like fast-growing weeds that simply cannot be leveled off for long. But, being that weed, the Christian must get used to getting mowed from time to time.
Disciples must know what they believe as followers of Jesus Christ and strive to have those beliefs reflect the truth as closely as possible. To paraphrase Dorothy Sayers, the drama of your life is wrapped up in the power of your doctrine. Otherwise you will find yourself in an inevitable drift of both belief and behavior toward the way the world sees and does things. You will be indistinguishable.