Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Disciple Doctrine: Part 2 – To be a Disciple; and not a Christian?

The disciple doctrine seeks “eyewitness accounts” in the New Testament. They focus mostly on the Gospels in order to establish a ‘Christian lifestyle’ based on Jesus training His disciples. However, this teaching of discipleship ignores certain critical points regarding the chronological account of Jesus and his teachings.

Supporters of the disciple doctrine become their own kind of “eyewitness.” They speak with a sense of authority on the subject of discipleship. However their facts often “distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.” (Acts 20:30)

Let us investigate an important catchphrase used to entice Christians to be a “Disciple” and not a “Christian.”

When did Jesus ask anyone to become a Christian?

Instructors of the disciple doctrine enquire, “When did Jesus ask anyone to become a Christian?” Or they state, “Jesus never used the word; he never called anyone to be a Christian. He called people to be disciples.”

Where do we go for answers? Instinctively we go to the Gospels because the central figure in these questions is Jesus. And here we will find that Jesus never referred to anyone to be a “Christian.”

It seems to the supporters of the disciple doctrine that they have “discovered” something very important. Their discovery led them to believe that mainstream Christianity has overlooked the fact that Christ never spoke of Christians but only disciples. Therefore the disciple doctrine challenges mainstream thought on being a Christian because Christ never used that word. The disciple doctrine reverts to the term used by Jesus – disciple.

First and foremost, nobody can challenge these observations made by the disciple doctrine because all above-mentioned issues are absolutely truthful. This is very important to understand.

However, we have to bear in mind that while most observations made by the disciple doctrine are accurate, their conclusions often lead to distortion of “the truth”! We ought to know that it is the “truth” that becomes distorted; not “lies!” Hence many vulnerable people become disciples of the disciple doctrine. The case above is no different!

Secondly, we ought to establish why Jesus never used the term – Christian. But for now, let us review the above-mentioned question and statements and provide them with our answers. We shall return to this checklist in order to see if our conclusions or the conclusions of the disciple doctrine are biblically sound.

When did Jesus ask anyone to become a Christian? Answer: Never
2. Jesus never used the word. Answer: True
3. He never called anyone to be a Christian. Answer: True
4. He called people to be disciples. Answer: True

  • Questions often asked by the disciple doctrine

  • The question alludes to a timeframe – “When.” It also refers to a point in time before which a period is reckoned “to become a Christian.”

    We know the biblical term “Christian” comes from non-Gospel sources (Acts & 1 Peter). Why did Jesus never ask anyone to become a “Christian” if the term is so firmly established later in the early church? (1 Peter 4:16)

    We would know precious little about Jesus if all we had were the non-Gospel sources. Fortunately the Gospel sources particularly the four canonical Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the New Testament provide us with much information. The documents although placed first amongst the 27 books of the New Testament and despite vividly describing the original followers of Jesus they were written 40 to 60 years after Jesus!

    More so, we should understand some critical points about the four canonical Gospels often ignored by the casual observer. They shed light on events covering the first third of the first century (4 B.C.E. - 36 C.E.). The Gospel writers in the final third period of the first century, c. 70-100 C.E. recorded these accounts. The original texts circulated anonymously. No one knows where the original texts were composed or who the original authors were. By the second century the traditional ascriptions “Matthew,” “Mark,” “Luke” and “John” were given.

    We should appreciate the fact that the New Testament recognizes that Paul was known to be a theologian (2 Peter 3:16). The bible warns Christians that Paul’s letters “contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” Furthermore, Paul was an apostle of Christ “sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father.” (Galatians 1:1) His early Epistles precede the earliest Gospel – the Gospel of Mark by fifteen years! Paul was a contemporary of Jesus and his disciples. (Acts 9:17; Galatians 2:9) His first letter arguably Galatians (other scholars think it might be 1 Thessalonians) was penned by mid-century.

    Paul’s death is not recorded in the bible but according to church tradition Nero beheaded Paul in the mid-60s of the first century. The Gospel of Mark is recognized to be the earliest document of the four and was composed after the lifetime of Paul. It was composed during the period when the Romans destroyed the Jewish Temple (70 C.E.). Therefore, Paul the Apostle never read the actual Gospels!

    These critical points are extremely important in order to address the timeframe of the question: “When did Jesus ask anyone to become a Christian?”

    It is critical from our own viewpoint or own retrospective knowledge of the bible whenever studying religious texts such as the Gospels or central figures such as Jesus and Paul not to assume the bible facts we hold dearly like being a Christian were common knowledge to those we read about.

    The term “Christian” was in circulation and was well established long before the Gospels were written. However, the term was foreign to Jesus due to the time and space in which Jesus operated his earthly ministry. Fortunately, the New Testament verifies that Paul the apostle of Jesus was aware of the term – Christian (Acts 26:28). The Gospel writers like Paul were familiar with the term “Christian” as we are today, but none of the historical figures featuring in the documents of the four gospels could have known what a Christian is. Therefore Christ in the Gospels never defines the word Christian. We need to seek the correct historical boundaries for the term Christian. Here, it would be dangerous to assume that Paul was a “Christian” as we perceive it to be. Fortunately, the historical context of the term is documented in the New Testament in Acts 11:26.
    “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.”
  • (Acts 11:26c NIV)

  • Jesus never dismissed the term – Christian nor could he because such a term and description for His disciples never existed at the time.

    The four canonical Gospels never referred to the term “Christian” in order to describe the disciples of Jesus because Jesus’ inner core of followers were still known as “Galileans” (Acts 2:7) who spoke Aramaic. However, the term “Christian” came later. It was applied to the disciples of Jesus in the post-resurrection era (Acts 11:26c; c.7-11) long before the first synoptic gospel was introduced – the Gospel of Mark (c. 65-70).

    Think about it in this way. Nobody had ever heard of an i-Pod or talked about it, not until it was finally established. Therefore, if you spotted an i-Pod in a movie that predated the arrival of such a devise it would be a classical anachronism. Likewise, although written late the Gospel writers never introduced the term Christian in the Gospel script despite knowing about it because it never concerned the people they wrote about.

    Only when we follow a proper trajectory of events in the New Testament do we realize that we have no choice but to accept the term Christian was something Paul was familiar with (Acts 26:28) and Jesus was not.

    After gathering all the facts and reading the whole New Testament we cannot conclude that the term Christian is irrelevant because Christ never spoke about it. Nevertheless this is exactly the conclusion of the disciple doctrine. They justify that rejection of the term Christian on account that Christ never spoke of it. Rather we should put our own retrospective knowledge of the bible aside when asking such questions.

    In the end, what Jesus means for the disciple doctrine is an entirely different matter to what Jesus means for mainstream Christianity.

    We conclude that the question is an anachronism. The term Christian cannot be applied in the historical context of Jesus in the Gospels. And it does not mean Jesus disapproved of being called a Christian! (1 Peter 4:14,16)

    Let us review those issues armed with this new insight (Ephesians 5:17).

    When did Jesus ask anyone to become a Christian? Answer: Never
    2. Jesus never used the word. Answer: True
    3. He never called anyone to be a Christian. Answer: True
    4. He called people to be disciples. Answer: True

  • Questions often asked by the disciple doctrine

  • Evidently nothing has changed. The observations made by the disciple doctrine are correct. Our conclusions remain the same. It harmonizes with the bible and historical context of the central figures.

    The problem arises the moment we force our conclusions into a timeframe alien to the central figures we discuss. This is precisely the mistake the disciple doctrine makes insisting calling Christians to be “Disciples” in order to support their theological framework of discipleship.

    However, Christians must be weary concerning the application of these critical points in the disciple doctrine. Here, the disciple doctrine concludes one must be a “Disciple” and not a “Christian.” In doing so, they distort the truth!

    If one understands the historical context of Jesus in the Gospels then issues like these should not upset our faith. Christians should “contend for the faith that was once entrusted to the saints.” (Jude 3)


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