A Christian believer, saved totally by grace, becomes a disciple of Jesus and a “discipler” of others because of that grace status. This expression of discipleship will appear differently in different people as God molds them into His servants. That is the setting for what follows here.

We normally think of the New Testament apostles as great leaders. They were. Peter’s classic declaration to the Sanhedrin, “We must obey God rather than man” and Paul’s affirmation to Agrippa, “So then…I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision” stand out as two examples of the faithful confidence and heartfelt commitment often seen in Christian leaders.

But great leaders rarely start out that way. Like all of us learning to run only after first learning to walk, so leaders must learn first to follow. Sometimes following puts one in the shadows. Sometimes commanding is learned best when being commanded. Being commanded does not grant celebrity status.

Within the vocabulary of grace-oriented Christians, obedience is a term often avoided. It seems to lack philosophical nuance and theological breadth; it is so either/or. In the minds of many, obedience seems rote and requires little thought. I may agree to a point. The gospel song glibly and perhaps too simply declares: “God said it; I believe it; that settles it for me!” Obedience, at least on the surface, may not require much thought. But it often demands significant courage. And courage exercised is the substance of leadership.

Before the leaders of the New Testament had any name recognition, they were followers—disciples. In fact their identities as leaders would remain forever unknown if they were not first of all followers of Jesus Christ. How many 1st century Judean tax collectors do we know by name? Two. Matthew and Zacchaeus—both followers of Jesus. How many 1st century Galilean fishermen can we name? Four.

How many tent makers? You get the point. None of these had the slightest prayer of becoming anything but mere chaff on history’s pages if they were not followers of Jesus before they became leaders in His eternal and divine cause. Followers are, by definition, obedient—not blindly, but faithfully.

One story found in all four gospels is the triumphal procession of Jesus coming as king to Jerusalem. Three of the gospels tell us that Jesus sent two disciples ahead to borrow an unbroken young donkey. He did not tell them what it was for; He simply said, “the Lord needs it.” We don’t know the names of those disciples, we don’t know the owners of the donkey, but we do know they were obedient to the expressed need of Jesus and we know what Jesus did with it. By their unquestioned obedience, they completely supported the ministry of the Lord.

Of course Jesus could have done all the things He did with no human help at all. But He chose to build His kingdom using the willing obedience of those whose lives had been transformed by His limitless grace.

He still does it that way. With His amazing power He could reach the world in seconds with any message He so desired. Even the rocks would cry out in obedience to Him if He so desired.

The church today accomplishes its mission much of the time on the strength of real-life disciples whose names we don’t know, but are etched for eternity in the books of heaven. God doesn’t call us to lead until we first learn to follow His lead. And in following His lead we will support His cause, and His leaders, occasionally becoming leaders ourselves in the process.

If you are a Christian you are a follower, a disciple and obedient. In that obedience you lead, you disciple others, you change your world.

This editorial originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of OUTLOOK.