Fanboy or Disciple?

This post from Barnabas Piper marks the beginning of the blog series Discipleship: Re-Imagining Our Calling From Christ. Head HERE to read about the series and to add your own thoughts. To receive future posts of the series in your inbox head HERE. Engage with the writers and community of readers using the hashtag #DiscipleshipBlog.

Can you define “disciple”? It’s not so easy. When I think of what a disciple is I begin coming up with characteristics. A disciple is a follower of someone. He is loyal and knowledgeable, so knowledgeable that he knows the pertinent and intimate details of the one he follows. The disciple can quote the one he follows verbatim and at length and then give you a pretty good summary of what that all means.

More than all this though is the pervasive excitement about the one being followed; a disciple is an evangelist and an advocate who regularly speaks of the one he follows. He defends against insult and misunderstanding. For true disciples this excitement and passion develops into imitation as he seeks to be like the one he follows in mannerism, speech, and even appearance.

Absorb those traits for a moment. Now ask yourself this: what is the difference between all of that and a rabid fanboy? I have known fans of U2, Michael Jordan, Joss Wheedon, Bob Dylan, and Quentin Tarantino who look and sound exactly like what is described above. I insist on calling them fanboys rather than disciples. Why?

To be a proper disciple is to be more than a passionate defender and imitator (though never less); it is to follow the teaching of someone. It is to be an absorber, a sponge, of what is taught. True disciples sit at the feet of the teacher with ears and hearts open. Fanboys are caught up in a frenzy, wrapped up in excitement. They want the identity of another and seek to gain it through second hand observation. Disciples are captured by truth, or a version of it, uttered directly from the teacher. The results often look the same, but the birth of the passion is found in deeply different places.

The distinction between fanboy and disciple is a crucial when it comes to the Christian’s relationship with Jesus. It is good and wonderful to passionately imitate and defend him and tell others of him. We ought to know much about Jesus’ life and actions quote him often. But if all we are doing is pursuing the person of Jesus by observation we are doing good but falling short of what is best. All of that is not what makes us a disciple. Because a disciple follows the teachings of the one he follows, teachings like “the last shall be first”, “to whom much has been given much will be expected”, “I am the way, the truth, and the life”, and “take up your cross and follow me.”

Jesus asks much of his disciples. His teachings are deep, wide, and often hard. And they are the source of life. They are the directions we need on what to imitate and how to do it well. His teachings are the words we should quote, explain, and defend. To be a disciple is to sit under the teachings of Jesus, his living words, day by day. If we seek to follow him without being willing to do this we are not disciples at all but mere fanboys.

Barnabas Piper works in marketing at Moody Publishers in Chicago. He blogs at, writes for, and co-hosts the podcast “What Did They Say Now?”. Barnabas is the author of a forthcoming book from David C. Cook on the unique struggles pastors kids face. He and his wife live in the suburbs of Chicago with their two daughters.