Commentary: Good church members or disruptive disciples?

© Carlos Oliveras Palomar |

© Carlos Oliveras Palomar |

by The Rev. Christy Thomas

I was in conversation last night with a good friend about the nature of discipleship. She’s been placed in charge of discipleship for her large church, a United Methodist congregation.

We chatted about the history of discipleship plans there. Mostly they involved making sure the Sunday school classes were properly structured with presidents and program people set in place.

We looked at each other, a shared moment of despair hanging in the air between us.

Tears sprang to my eyes.

We asked, “What IS a disciple of Jesus?” “What does a disciple do?” “How do we know if we have actually made a disciple?” Until we have actually defined our goal, we’ll never know if we’ve reached it.

Definition of Disciples

As we talked, it dawned on me that real disciples are highly disruptive by nature, and are not necessarily terribly knowledgeable. Certainly, when Jesus set his followers free to head into their entire known world, they were a pretty unformed, motley group.

The early church, as depicted by the book of Acts and from what we can glean by the Epistles, was a chaotic, conflict-ridden place. New theological understandings arose as the Gospel began to spread into areas that were primarily non-Jewish in background.

Context shaped the message (see Acts. 17). People argued their positions passionately, agreeing on occasion to go their separate ways or simply agreeing to disagree over items of significant importance. They chose to maintain overall unity while sustaining significant doctrinal and practical diversity.

Radical inclusion became the norm. Those formerly with no place in the covenantal life of the community found themselves not only included, but placed in positions of leadership and authority. Gentiles, women, slaves, the previously unclean, were suddenly made clean by new understandings of what it meant to live in a kingdom of heaven way.

That is chaos. That’s what happens when we make disciples and set them free.

A possible working definition of disciple: one who has had a life-changing encounter with the Living God. Then, while staying connected to some sort of local community, s/he sets forth to offer to others the same life-change.

No lumbering bureaucracies here. No multi-layered hierarchical authority deciding who may and who may not announce the good news with authority. Aged wineskins burst open, spilling the carefully stored fruit of the vine everywhere, staining clothes, spreading into rivers and valleys, being caught and imbibed by those not formally deemed worthy to taste it.

Disciples flame with life and passion for God, frequently discard old structures in favor of new and untapped missions, ignore many of the rules and openly break others, and leave unsettledness in their wake.

Definition of Good Church Members

Good church members gather in worship frequently, give regularly, serve faithfully on various committees of the church, attend some small group gathering and periodically engage in mission of some sort to those not so comfortable in life.

They are knowledgeable enough to vote competently at congregational meetings and to teach Sunday school. They often step up to serve in the larger and very complex denominational structures.

They support the pastor(s), and die gracefully, often leaving a substantial portion of their estates to further the work of the church that they have so loved over their lifetimes.

They are genuinely good people, wonderful friends, and solid members of their communities. We can’t do church or have a healthy community life without them.

John Wesley and His Methods

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, became a disciple after years of being a good clergyman/church member. He ultimately left chaos in his wake, broke rules willy-nilly, and passionately taught about God.

I am finding it more and more fascinating that Wesley’s methods, now tightly encoded and overlaid with centuries of rules, regulations and top-heavy structures, ended up creating primarily church members, not disciples.

Even so, the Spirit of God continually births new disciples, untamed and passionate. The church, no matter what it’s beliefs or organizational structure, will do its best to tame them, slowly suffocating the passion.

The institutional church that creates good church members can and often does grow solidly. Roman Catholics, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are good examples.

Everything is tightly coded. New revelations must come only through a tightly held, all-male, self-perpetuating power structure at the top. The rituals designed to initiate newcomers and bring people in and keep them there are well-prepared and succeed well in the goal of indoctrination.

Free-thinkers are either shut down or expelled.

But disciples have this annoying tendency to be free-thinkers. Again, think John Wesley and others like him. Their lives have been too radically changed by their encounters with the Holy One to have assurance that all that is from God can be contained in one human institution.

Disciples breathe the freedom of grace; they swim in waters of forgiven intimacy with God and with each other.

The United Methodist’s church tagline reads, “Making Disciples for the Transformation of the World.”

I love the tagline. Unfortunately, it is just not a true representation of what the UMC is about. A more accurate tagline might read, “Making Church Members for the Survival of the UMC.”

If we want real disciples, we have to throw open the door to the holy chaos and fresh air of the Spirit of God. It’s frightening, uncontrollable, upsetting, and rule-breaking. It’s what happens when the angel shows up and immediately says, “Don’t be afraid” because we are instinctively afraid of that which is radically different from what we know. It’s also how the world is actually transformed.

christy-thomas-seated-with-glasses-july-2015-cropped-xsm*The Rev. Christy Thomas is a retired elder in The United Methodist Church who writes regularly for the Denton (Texas) Record-Chronicle and blogs at





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13 Comments on "Commentary: Good church members or disruptive disciples?"

The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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George Nixon Shuler

It is interesting that you would accuse me of using the same tactics which you use. I suppose that must mean then that you are unable to answer the question, and it is your position that Paul (AKA Saul, the Original) advocated the demanding of political correctness as it appears you do. Please correct me if this is not so.

George Nixon Shuler

So, what you are saying is that Paul advocated “political correctness,” n’est ce pa? What in your view does that mean for us today?

George Nixon Shuler

Please explain. Perhaps it is you who is unfamiliar with the Pauline corpus. dos that mean you are unable to answer the question?

Paul W.
The article, unfortunately, is a deeply flawed discussion on the topic of discipleship. Of note is that all of the points in Mr. Rickman’s critique are spot-on other than the personal attack on the effectiveness of Pastor Thomas’s ministry. After reading the article several times, whether or not this is the message the author intended, these are her main points: 1. The topic of discipleship is very emotional for the author. 2. Real disciples are “highly disruptive”, “not necessarily knowledgeable”, “free-thinkers”, “untamed”, “flaming with passion”, letting “context shape the message”, who “argue passionately”, “discard old structures”, “ignore and break rules”,… Read more »
Wes Andrews

Very well said. Paul. A disciple follows Jesus. It is about following not feeling.

Al DeFilippo
I agree, Paul. Wesley did his best to maintain with the Anglican Church. In time, he did see God moving his efforts in a different direction, especially in light of the fruit that began to show. Early on, allowing lay preachers to preach was a turn away from the structure of the Anglican Church. This act along with allowing women to exhort and eventually preach were bold steps toward the eventual break with the Anglican Church. It pained him that the Anglican structure was not to be. But as you so well put, he did incorporate a structure that he… Read more »
George Nixon Shuler
Paul W asks ” is she perhaps alluding to Romans 14 which addresses only non-essentials in the context of doing nothing to cause your brother to stumble?” and follows with “Unfortunately, as written, the piece comes across as a veiled rallying cry for increased radical progressive advocacy within the UMC under the guise of “discipleship”. That the author and the UMC have trouble figuring out the definition of a “real disciple” is unsurprising. They need to stop looking in the wrong places. Progressive theology, free-thinking chaos, and disruptive radicalism have nothing to do with Christian discipleship.” My disagreement is perhaps… Read more »
Richard Hicks
By definition a “discipline” is one who lives out a discipline. To understand the Discipline of Jesus, one need only read the Gospels. Jesus was an order giver. Forget the Ten Commandments study and follow the Jesus Commandments. I can’t find one place in the canon where God or God’s leader asks for volunteers. In keeping with this pattern, Jesus went about teaching and speaking in a short order-giving manner. The Jesus of the Gospels is almost as direct as the STOP and YIELD signs on the street. Then finally we need to remember the suggestion of Thomas to the… Read more »

Typical Methodist-speak. This article mentions Jesus by name one time out of 927 words. Hence the problem with the Methodist church–you’ve forgotten whose church it is. Perhaps if the seminaries would teach and train their pastors the truth instead of yielding to public opinion, it would be able to develop disciples and good church members.

Wes Andrews
I don’t agree with Mr. Rickman’s accusation of the author of the article. It’s fine to disagree with a person’s ideas, but attacking another as one who does not “bear fruit” actually reflects a weakness in the accuser’s point, and even perhaps his or her character. Discipleship is THE most important calling and responsibilities we have been given and it is often the most difficult to pursue. “Disciple” must first be defined based on Scripture by each pastor for his or her church. It then must be put in the forefront of everything the church does. The more politics gets… Read more »
George Nixon Shuler
When Mr. Rickman says, ” I don’t read a biblical perspective here. I read someone who is in love with rebelliousness and anti-institutionalism…” what I see in his comment is an advocacy for political correctness. The first sentence implies the writer has knowledge he is incapable of obtaining, and the second sentence is identical to those made by the powerful when challenged by the powerless at every occasion. While there may be support for the idea Wesley’s perspective would rightfully be critical of some aspects of our radical American individualism as epitomized by hatred of government and order, it is… Read more »
Jeffrey Rickman
To juxtapose disciples against church members is akin to setting primates against monkeys. Just because we have two different words/terms for something does not mean we have two different things. We just multiple words to understand the same thing in different ways. By nature Christ’s disciples should be good church members. The two are synonymous. Rev. Thomas’ characterization of the early disciples and of John Wesley seems disingenuous at best, while also self-serving. It is very convenient for someone who does not bear fruit in their ministry to look down their nose at those who play by the rules and… Read more »
bill krill
Sorry, Jeffrey, that’s the attitude that has led me to determine that the church has left me, like an ugly and rejected orphan. And, I will not ‘return’, because there is nothing credible to return to, and I have been wounded too often, to deeply, to do so. Oh, you may chastise me not to leave the church just because a few have hurt me, that the church is not perfect, or that I am being unreasonable; but save that to tell that to the millions who have left, and the millions more who shut out the central message of… Read more »
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