Are all followers of Jesus called to be his disciples?


I’ve wrestled with this question over the past several years. It started when I was meeting with some buddies for accountability, prayer, mutual encouragement, and so on. One of the guys is on staff with The Navigators – a discipleship-focused organization – and he emphasizes discipleship in his ministry. Since I’ve been heavily influenced by the Navs throughout my life, I understood John’s emphasis, but the question remained, Did Jesus want or expect all those who follow him to be his disciples?

I have concluded that the answer to that question is No. Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus was followed by a great many people – throngs, multitudes, crowds. Seldom did Jesus condemn them for following, though he did acknowledge that following alone would not earn them entry into the kingdom of heaven. (“Not all who call me Lord, Lord will….”) Also, his words on discipleship usually included a conditional statement: “If anyone wants to be my disciple, [then]….” I can’t think of one time that Jesus condemned a follower for not being a disciple. (By the way, I grew up thinking Jesus had only 12 disciples – a fallacy I learned in Sunday School, no doubt! In reality, he had many, from whom he selected 12 and appointed them to be apostles. See Mark 3:14 and Luke 6:13. Of course, Matthew 28:16 refers to “the eleven disciples” [emphasis mine].)

What I find particularly intriguing, though – the statement that causes me to question my own conclusion – is the last command Jesus gave: to go and make disciples. Apparently his desire is for disciples, not just followers. Given all that he said about suffering and persecution, it’s clear Jesus knew that if his word was to be spread, it would require the commitment of a disciple, not merely a follower. It would mean dying to self, leaving family and friends and home and job behind, and maintaining a singular focus on building his kingdom.

All of this, I think, has great importance for how I approach my role as a minister of the gospel.

  • I need to recognize that there will be a lot of Christ-followers who will be content with that position – to be one of the crowd around Jesus. Like Jesus, I need to believe that that’s okay, even as I recognize that those are not the people who are going to get the word out.
  • I need to recognize that discipleship is primarily a relationship, not a program. Jesus spent three years training his disciples in the “everydayness” of life. How can I practice, teach, or expect any less? I love how 1 Thessalonians 2:8 describes Paul’s relationship with that church: “…we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives.”
  • I need to recognize – and teach – that discipleship is costly. It requires great commitment from both disciple and “discipler”. It will entail persecution (though little in our American life can compare with the persecution our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world endure). It will require sacrifice…of home, family, friends, career, reputation perhaps….
  • The key job of a disciple is to make more disciples. According to Matthew 28, Jesus was addressing his disciples (or rather, only the remaining 11 apostles) when he said to “go…make disciples.” After all, a primary principle of reproduction is that it takes one to make one; that is, we reproduce after our own kind. A follower cannot make a disciple, only a disciple can.

Corollary to all of these things is the realization that, if I want to be a disciple who makes disciples, then I need to focus the vast majority of my time and energies on “my” disciples. That doesn’t mean I neglect the followers, but my focus needs to be on those who want to be disciples. Jesus set the example of this, often withdrawing from the multitudes to spend time with his disciples, often going off with just The Twelve, sometimes only with the Inner Circle of three, and maybe on occasion hanging out with just one or two of them. And, of course, he often got alone with God, something I also need to do. These are examples I need to follow.

10 thoughts on “Are all followers of Jesus called to be his disciples?

  1. Bill

    I’m no theologian, but I believe all true followers of Jesus are disciples. The only difference between individual followers is how close they stay to Jesus. In other words we’re all sheep, but some of us stay closer to the Shepherd than others. In the same way, on some days I’m closer to the Shepherd than on other days.

    On my monthly retreat days this past year I worked through the SonLife self-study on “Discovering Jesus’ Strategy for Making Disciples.” This was very powerful for me – the course does not teach a particular point of view but guides you through all the scriptures that illustrate Jesus’ relationship with His disciples.

  2. Jeff

    Jesus truly did have many “groupies” who enjoyed the miracles and the free food. Maybe it was in His divine understanding of their disintrest in actually submitting to a Messiah that He bypassed them with personal invitations and let them ignore His public ones?

  3. Randy Ehle

    Jeff, there were certainly disinterested “groupies” (I like that term!) who followed Jesus around – many, no doubt, because his teaching simply made them feel good in comparison to the teaching of the Pharisees. But those really aren’t the followers I’m talking about. There was a host of people I believe were true followers – in a faith sense – who never rose to the level of disciple. Was Jesus okay with that? I think the biblical record may be inconclusive; we see few passages where Jesus either praised or criticized those. (Again, I am not talking about the groupies, who I would suggest are the ones Jesus had in mind when he condemned those who call him Lord, Lord, but will not spend eternity with him.)

  4. Bill

    “There was a host of people I believe were true followers – in a faith sense – who never rose to the level of disciple.”

    This is new to me – do you have a passage that describes this? I’m not aware that there is a line we cross to move from being just a “follower” to being a “disciple.” We’re all in a different place in our spiritual journey – to me the issue is how close we follow Jesus.

  5. Randy Ehle

    Bill, I don’t have “chapter and verse” to quote for you to show that there were true followers (i.e., “saved”) who were not disciples. This is sort of theology in process for me and I am open to the thoughts of others. My conclusions (at this point) are really based on what Jesus didn’t say as much as on what he did say.

    I think we can readily agree that crowds followed Jesus wherever he went. At various points in his ministry, Jesus addresses two extremes among those crowds – the pretenders (“those who call me ‘Lord, Lord'”) and the committed (disciples). I think that leaves us with two possible conclusions: either (a) these are the only two types of followers there are, or (b) there is a third group that are truly believing followers who are unwilling and/or unable to pay the price of discipleship.

    If (a) is the case, then Jesus is addressing his “cost of discipleship” comments to people who really don’t have a faith commitment to him to start with. This seems unlikely to me, but by no means out of the realm of possibility.

    Let me bring this into today’s language: The first group are people who are unsaved; they may be called “cultural Christians,” in that they are not Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, atheist, etc., but they do not have a saving faith in Jesus Christ. The last group, the disciples, are not only saved, they are the “laborers” for whom Jesus said we should ask the Lord of the Harvest.

    I agree that we are all on a spiritual journey. Some of my questions related to this:

    Is there a point on that journey, beyond salvation, at which I become a disciple? (I would say yes.)

    Are only “disciples” truly saved? (I would say no.)

    Can you be truly saved, having placed your faith in saving grace of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and yet not be a disciple? (I believe that is not only possible but prevalent.)

    Others will disagree with me on much that I’ve written, and I am open to their input.

  6. Bill


    Now you’ve gotten into one of those areas where my understanding certainly falls somewhere far short of the complete truth – I want to understand the mystery but it may not be possible this side of glory.

    To me it’s very telling that in the great commission Jesus told us to “make disciples” – not to “lead people to Christ,” “get them saved,” “get them to say a sinner’s prayer,” etc. etc. At a minimum this tells me that we need to be really serious about what it means to “make disciples,” and implies that is something more than “hit and run evangelism,” – that we do what it takes to ensure that the person has a living relationship with Jesus Christ.

    I think our terminology “saved/lost,” “believer/unbeliever” can tempt us to classify people in ways that only God can. I do believe that there is a line to be crossed between saved and unsaved, but I can’t be confident that I can accurately identify where an individual is other than by their fruit. On the other hand John 15:8 states that we can identify disciples by their fruit. Thus the outward evidence is clear if someone is a disciple.

    That leaves the difficult theological questions – What about someone who appears saved (i.e. once said a sinner’s prayer, “accepted Christ,”, whatever) but shows no fruit? What about someone who once showed fruit but hasn’t for many years?

    Perhaps more important than the theological questions, this is very personal for many of us, who have friends or family members who “accepted Christ” as a child but have shown little or no fruit since that time. Rather than resting in the idea that they are “saved” it seems that my focus needs to be help them become “disciples” with fruit that will leave no doubt.

    So, I don’t fully understand the state of people who might be saved but aren’t yet disciples. Since our mandate is to make disciples we have to help people move beyond this “saved but not yet a disciple” state as quickly as possible.

    I appreciate this dialogue – I’m struggling with this as well. The Baptist church I was raised in seemed to teach that “getting people saved” was the main (or even only) focus of evangelism. If getting people to heaven is my only goal and I believe in eternal security that approach may be sufficient. However since Jesus told us to “make disciples” I think that my job is not complete until the person “bears much fruit,” including making more disciples.

    Sorry to ramble – as I process this one thought leads to five or six more!

  7. Randy Ehle

    Great thoughts, Bill! I appreciate the input. You’re absolutely right – disciples are known by their fruit. They are also known by their love for one another (John 14:34-35). You’re also right that the Great Commission is to make disciples – not get people saved. Under the natural laws of reproduction, everything reproduces its own kind – thus, in order to make disciples, one must first be a disciple.

    I think it’s clear that Jesus’ desire is for disciples. In Matthew 9:37-38 and Luke 10:2 Jesus says, “Ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest field.” I think those workers may just as well be called “disciples.”

    From a practical standpoint, this means that as disciple-making disciples we need to concentrate our efforts on making disciples, not nursing the followers. The danger in applying this kind of thinking is that we can become elitist, only hanging out with disciples. That was certainly not Jesus’ model – he spent a wearying amount of time and energy with those who were not disciples. Nonetheless, his disciples got even more from him. We need to follow that example

  8. Bill

    My perspective would be to spend a lot of time with the followers – not nursing them but helping them to become disciples. Our time with disciples would focus on working together to follow Jesus more closely. Then, assuming as you’ve said that there’s an in-between stage called followers, our efforts with unbelievers should be to help them to become followers and then (as quickly as possible) disciples.

    Simply put, no matter who we minister to, our task is to help them to get closer to Jesus. Then God can worry about exactly where the boundaries are.

  9. Randy Ehle

    Well said, Bill. By the way, I need to correct a reference in an earlier comment of mine. Jesus’ statement that his disciples will be known by their love for one another is in John 13:34-35.


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