Working from Matthew 28:18-20, I would say that anyone who is baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and who is obeying everything that Jesus taught—that person is a disciple of Jesus Christ. No doubt, there is room for dispute. But the bottom line is that we must be able to define who is and who is not a follower of Christ.
This question takes on significance when considered in light of “fencing the table” for the Lord’s Supper. Throughout history, Christians have had to wrestle with who should partake of the Lord’s Supper (Communion). Is it for anyone and everyone who happens to show up the day it is celebrated? Or is it for only some of those present? On what basis does one decide?
The natural sentiment is to say that we should not exclude anyone. But to say such a thing is to gut the Lord’s Supper of its meaning. The Lord’s Supper is for those who have communion with God through Jesus Christ. When He instituted the Lord’s Supper, Christ did not celebrate it with the whole crowd gathered for Passover. He celebrated it explicitly with His disciples. So, it seems logical to conclude that the Lord’s Supper is to be celebrated by Christ’s disciples.
Most Christians would agree that the Lord’s Supper is not for all, but for some. Non-believers, atheists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Mormons—all these groups find themselves routinely excluded from the Lord’s Supper because they are not disciples of Christ Jesus. If it is the case that one must be a disciple to partake of the Lord’s Supper, then it must be necessary to exclude non-disciples from the Lord’s Supper. To do that, one must be able to define who is a disciple.
Some wish to simplify the process and say a disciple is “a follower of Christ.” The problem with saying this is that, often, people in the excluded categories mentioned above will profess to be followers of Christ. I have had Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons tell me they are “Christians.” Does follower of Christ (or Christian) get defined by the individual? If one professes to be a follower of Christ, then she is—on that basis—a follower and, thus, able to enjoy the fellowship of the Lord’s Supper with other believers? If not, then on what basis is it decided whether or not the person is a follower of Christ?
As a pastor, I answered the question using the equation found in Christ’s great commission. Instead of the term follower of Christ or Christian, I used Christ’s word in Matthew 28—disciple. And, using Christ’s definition, I concluded that a disciple is someone who obeys all that Jesus commands and has been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:18-20). These two characteristics—having been baptized and being obedient to Christ’s commands—are the defining characteristics of a disciple of Christ.
This will not satisfy all, but it is a biblical position. Regrettably, it does exclude those who have never been baptized as believers. It excludes those who are ignorant of or in rebellion against the commands of Christ, too. But it defines disciple in Christ’s own categories, which include being baptized and being obedient.