This now is the second of Douglas Wadeson’s two-part post, presenting the flip side of his earlier one.
These Platinum guest posts have been terrific so far. I hope you too have enjoyed them. Soon we’ll vote on which of the four we’ve seen goes on the main blog site! But for now, here is Doug again.
In my previous post I argued that it may be possible to be a “Christian” but not necessarily a “disciple.” Now I will discuss the flip side: is it possible to be a disciple of Jesus but not a Christian? As a reminder from the previous post, I defined a Christian as one who believes in the Christ (Messiah), that died for the sins of the world and then was raised back to life by God; this is Jesus, of course. Salvation comes by believing in Him, not through your actions. In fact, trying to be saved by your “works” is futile and even heresy.
A “disciple” is by definition a student or pupil or follower. Such a person listens to and studies the teachings of his/her leader. So, on the other extreme is the one who reads and takes to heart the teachings of Jesus, but does not necessarily accept his divinity or his status as the Christ, or Messiah. I suspect there are many Buddhists and Muslims and atheists and others who study the teachings of Jesus and allow those teachings to influence their behavior and their actions towards others.
A classic example of this was Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s Founding Fathers and its third president. He described Jesus as the “first of human sages,” and his philosophy was superior to others because it preached “universal philanthropy, not only to kindred and friends, to neighbors and countrymen, but to all mankind….” You may know that Jefferson was perhaps the first to use “cut-and-paste.” He took a razor and cut out the supernatural parts of the Gospels including Jesus’ miracles and resurrection and pasted together what was left (known as the Jefferson Bible). He was a disciple in the sense of following Jesus’ teachings, although he rejected the notion of Jesus as a divine Christ. I would guess that many people who have left the Christian faith for various reasons might put themselves in this group. A recent Facebook post I saw suggested that young people are leaving the church not because they disagree with the teachings of Jesus, but rather because the church does not reflect His teachings. I think there is some truth in that.
Many of us, I hope all of us, know “Christians” who are also “disciples,” that believe in the mystical theological aspect of Jesus as the Christ but also take seriously His teachings and allow them to guide their moral and ethical thinking. They may actually represent the majority of people in the Christian religion. Unfortunately it is those who so starkly proclaim their position as “Christians” while making a mockery of Jesus’ teachings that tend to get our attention, and often get the press coverage. (When I was young I never could understand how people in Northern Ireland trying to kill each other could be labeled as “Christian.”)
I wonder if Christianity is a victim of its own success. In the early years of the religion, as the apostle Paul put it, “… consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-29) The early church seems to have been composed of common people, not the wealthy and powerful. The Book of Acts suggests that the earliest Christian disciples seriously tried to implement the non-materialistic teachings of Jesus:
And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them… For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and lay them at the apostles’ feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need. Acts 4:32,34,35
That gradually changed over time, particularly after the Roman emperor Constantine legitimized the Christian religion, and it began its ascent to domination of the Roman Empire (it was still a small minority in his day). While the majority of the believers may have been poor by modern standards, the church became a source of power and wealth for many. This dual nature of the church has continued to our day.
To the believers I would pose these questions: Are you simply saved by Jesus, or are you also transformed by His teachings as found in the Gospels? Do you allow His teachings to affect your thinking, your relationships, your daily actions, and even your political views? To the non-believers the questions might be: How do you respond to the teachings of Jesus? Do you seriously ponder the implications of his teachings in today’s society, or dismiss them as the unrealistic ravings of a deluded Messiah, perhaps in favor of dog-eat-dog free market self-interest, or reliance on a tenuous hope that Karma will reward your good behavior? For both groups: Would the application of Jesus’ teachings in today’s society be to its benefit, or its detriment? Are his teachings only applicable on a personal level, or can they be applied to society as a whole? I believe this is fertile ground for discussion between those on either end of the spectrum: what did Jesus teach about individual morality and societal ethics, and are those teachings still applicable and helpful in the world of today? If so, how should that change our personal lives, our churches, our businesses, our culture, and our state, national and international policies?
I thank Dr. Ehrman for the opportunity to share these thoughts with you.
 I realize one could argue that Jesus taught His disciples that He was the Messiah, therefore a true disciple must believe that, but whether He specifically taught them that He was divine or that he was to die for the sins of the world is a matter of scholarly debate. You can search Dr. Ehrman’s posts for discussion of this matter.
 Jefferson to Francis Adrian Van der Kemp, April 25, 1816.