I recently attended a gathering of United Methodist clergy. One of the topics of conversation was “Who is a disciple?”. We were invited to discuss the question in table groups. The small group conversation was followed by a plenary discussion lead by the bishop and director of connectional ministry. I must admit I was surprised by the lack of consensus that emerged. I was dismayed to learn that the words “disciple” and “discipleship” have become troublesome, even offensive, in many congregations.
The bishop addressed the collective discomfort with the word “disciple” by telling the gathering that John Wesley did not use the word, unless he was quoting Scripture. However, the bishop did not go on to discuss the terms Wesley did use. Nor did the bishop inform the assembly that they and their congregations would benefit by studying and teaching what Mr. Wesley has to say about discipleship and the people we today call “disciples.” I was left with the impression that if Wesley didn’t use the term “disciple” to describe disciplined followers of Jesus Christ then we needn’t worry about using it, or understanding it, either.
This experience reinforced my belief that we have a problem. By “we” I mean The United Methodist Church. The problem is that our stated mission is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” If we can’t agree upon whom a disciple is how can we know if we are actually “making” disciples of Jesus Christ? If we are uncomfortable with the idea of discipleship how can we participate in the church’s mission? If we are not committed to the mission, how are we any different than a social club with a religious veneer? The unfortunate reality is that if we are not committed and focused upon disciple-making then we are little more than a “bless-me” club that exists for the personal benefit and blessing of individual members with little concern for Christ and his mission in the world.
It is true that John Wesley did not use the terms “disciple”, “discipleship”, or “disciple-making”. These terms entered the church’s vocabulary in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The synonymous terms used by Wesley are “Christian” and “Methodist.” He modified these terms with adjectives such as “almost” and “all together.”
The best Wesleyan description of a disciple and discipleship is “The Character of a Methodist,” a tract written by John Wesley in 1742. He wrote it to defend the new and growing movement of Methodist societies. Wesley wanted people to understand that Methodists were simply disciplined Christians seeking to be faithful to God and his mission in the world.
The following is a brief summary of Wesley’s “The Character of a Methodist.” To help us see more clearly a Wesleyan definition of whom a disciple is I have taken the liberty of substituting “disciple” for “Methodist.”
The Character of a Disciple of Jesus Christ according to Mr. John Wesley (condensed)
1. We indeed believe that “all Scripture is given by the inspiration of God” (2 Timothy 3:16). We believe the written word of God is the only and sufficient rule both of Christian faith and practice. We believe Christ is the eternal, supreme God. But as for all beliefs that do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think. So that whatever they are, whether right or wrong, they are not distinguishing marks of a Methodist.
2. We do not place our religion in any peculiar way of speaking or any quaint or uncommon set of expressions.
3. Our religion does not lie in doing what God has not prohibited or abstaining from what he has not forbidden.
4. By salvation a Methodist means holiness of heart and life. And this he affirms to spring from true faith alone.
5. Disciples are people who have “God’s love … poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:5). Disciples “love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind, and with all our strength” (Mark 12:30). God is the joy of our heart and the desire of our soul …
6. Disciples are therefore happy in God, indeed, always happy, as having “a well of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:14), and overflowing their soul with peace and joy. “Perfect love” having now “cast out fear,” they “rejoice evermore” (1 John 4:18). They “rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4), even “in God their Savior;” and in the Father, “through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom they have now received reconciliation” (Romans 5:11).
7. Therefore, disciples cheerfully receives all from God saying, “Good is the will of the Lord.” Whether the Lord gives or takes away, they equally bless the Lord’s name. … Knowing that as “every good gift comes from above” (James 1:17), so nothing but good can come from the Lord of the Universe into whose hand they have wholly committed their bodies and souls as into the hands of a faithful Creator. They are therefore careful (anxiously or uneasy) for nothing.
8. Disciples “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Prayer is their way of life. Not that they are always in the house of prayer. However, they neglects no opportunity of being there. Neither are they always on their knees, although they often are, or on their face, before the Lord their God. … They continually walk with God, having the loving eye of their minds firmly fixed upon God, and everywhere “seeing Him that is invisible” (Hebrews 11:27).
9. And while disciples always exercises their love of God by unceasing prayer and rejoicing, and giving thanks in everything, this commandment is written in their hearts, “those who love God must love their brother and sister also” (1 John 4:21b). And they accordingly love their neighbor as themselves. They love every person as their own soul. Their hearts are full of love to all humankind, to every child of “the God of the spirits of all flesh” (Numbers 16:22).
10. For disciples are “pure in heart” (Matthew 5:8). The love of God has purified their hearts from all vengeful passions, envy, malice, wrath, and every unkind attitude or evil desire. It has cleansed them from pride and the arrogance of spirit that leads to contention. And they have “put on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Col. 3:12).
11. Agreeable to this their one desire, is the one pattern of a disciple’s life, namely, “not to do their own will, but the will of God that sent them” (John 6:38). Their one intention at all times and in all things is to please God whom their soul loves. They do not seek to please themselves.
12. Disciples keep God’s commandments because they love God. They keep not some, or most of them, but all; from the least to the greatest. … Whatever God has forbidden they avoid. Whatever God has commanded they do, whether it is small or great, hard or easy, joyous or causes suffering. They run the way of God’s commandments.
13. Accordingly, disciples keep all the commandments of God with all their might. For their obedience is in proportion to their love, the source from which it flows. Therefore, loving God with all their heart, they serve God with all their strength. Disciples consistently presents their souls and bodies as a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God (Romans 12:1).
14. Consequently, whatever disciples do, it is all to the glory of God. … Their one invariable rule is this, “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father by him” (Colossians 3:17).
15. Nor do the customs of the world at all hinder disciples “running the race that is set before them” (Hebrews 12:1). … But “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable” (Philippians 4:8), they think, and speak, and do, “glorifying the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ in all things” (Titus 2:10).
16. Lastly, as disciples have time, they “do good to all people” (Galatians 6:10). They serve neighbors and strangers, friends and enemies in every possible kind. They do good to their bodies by “feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting those who are sick or in prison” (Matthew 25:37-40). But they don’t stop there. Disciples also work to do good to their souls, according to the ability that God gives.
By these marks, by these fruits of a living faith, we seek to distinguish ourselves from the unbelieving world and from all those whose minds or lives are not in accord with the Gospel of Christ. But we earnestly desire to not be distinguished at all from real Christians, of whatever denomination, nor from any who sincerely follow after what they know they have not yet attained. “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:50). And I urge you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, that we be in no way divided among ourselves. Is your heart right as my heart is with yours? I ask no nothing more. If it is so, give me your hand. Let us not destroy the work of God for opinions or words. Do you love and serve God? It is enough. I give you the right hand of fellowship. If there is any consolation in Christ, any comfort of love, any fellowship of the Spirit, any compassion, let us strive together for the faith of the Gospel. Let us walk together as those who are worthy of the vocation to which we are called. “Let us live and serve with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, watching over one another in love. Seeking to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, we remember there is one body, and one Spirit, even as we are called with one hope of our calling. There is…one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all (Ephesians 4:2-6).”