This is not Discipleship
Some of the most frequently quoted verses in Evangelicalism are Matthew 28:18-20:
“All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.
Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father
and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you;
and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Amen.”
The Great Commission calls for making disciples rather than preaching the Gospel. (The same command in Mark 16:15 says “…preach the gospel….”) It is probably for this reason most Christians assume incorrectly that preaching the Gospel fulfills the Matthew 28:18-20, but it does not. Preaching the Gospel and making disciples are two entirely different (though related) things. Billy Graham, and others, have illustrated very well that there is a huge difference between these two ideas. Preaching the Gospel is relatively easy, and skilled evangelists can bring many to the altar through a single 30-minute sermon. But that is only the first step of many, and on its own does not fulfill the Great Commission at all. In fact, calling someone to the altar often does nothing more than give the candidate a false sense of security—they believe they are saved because they prayed a rote prayer and signed a decision card. Billy Graham worked that out and eventually started calling these “decisions” rather than “converts.”
So while preaching the Gospel is commanded and is vital, it is NOT discipleship and does not obey the Great Commission. For instance, many young men mistakenly think that inseminating a young girl makes them a father. It does not. A father provides for, trains, and raises that child until it is an adult. So evangelization without discipleship is like giving birth to a baby, and then dropping the newborn on Main Street and pointing the infant to a range of restaurants.
The more modern, and popular, system of assimilation is also not discipleship. This method involves inviting unbelievers into a non-threatening, non-confrontational social environment, vaguely associated with the church. These events could include enjoying coffee in the foyer of the church, attending church social events, playing on the softball team, joining (motorcycle) breakfast runs, etc. Some churches even invite influential members of the public to serve in some capacity, including serving on the board of the church. The idea is that the unbeliever will gradually be assimilated into the life of the church to the point that they become full-blown members.
It outwardly appears that this method works. Such people are quite successfully drawn into church membership, and learn to talk the right language and do the right things, eventually looking just like a real member. Many of these will even get baptized, take out church membership and rise to leadership positions. In the same way children that grow up in Christian homes become assimilated into the life of the church—they learn the right clichés, when to stand and when to sit, how to blend in, how to say “God bless you” and “I am praying for you”—but remain unregenerate. In the absence of having been born again, the first step of discipleship is missing. Therefore anything they say, do or learn is without any foundation and is simply learned behavior. There is no difference between such people and the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, of whom He said: “… you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.” (Matthew 23:27).
Rather than teach disciples to become like Jesus, these “joiners” teach the church to become like the world.
Popular in more cultic groups, heavy shepherding (aka Shepherding) is seen by its proponents as the ultimate form of discipleship. In this system disciples are manipulated, controlled by fear, threatened, and coerced into becoming clones of the leaders. These leaders will make every decision for their minions, even control their thought processes, values and minutest discussions. Once again, the system seems to work as the “disciples” act and speak exactly as they have been taught. These groups are often marked by such conformity to the standard that they all dress the same, speak the same and think the same. This is sold as “unity” but it is not. This “unity” is achieved through the subjugation of the will and the mind of the individual to that of the leader(s). True unity comes about as the individuals are submitted to the Lord Jesus Christ rather than to men.
Louw and Nida confirm: “In rendering μαθητεύω in Mt 28:19 and similar contexts, it is important to avoid the implication of duress or force, that is to say, one should not translate ‘force them to be my disciples’ or ‘compel them to be my disciples.’”
Heavy shepherding is most certainly not discipleship since it fails in the primary purpose of discipleship—to make disciples of Jesus Christ. Followers of these groups are disciples of men who have usurped the role of Christ in the heart and mind of the believer.
The words mentoring and discipleship sound like they mean the same thing, but they do not. A mentor is actually the name of a man who had occult abilities who lived hundreds of years ago (see HERE). In the occult world, a mentor became known as someone who was training an “adept” to have spiritual gifts that they could use to perform occult rituals. Promise Keepers (among others) brought the word mentor into the evangelical world and soon mentoring replaced discipleship in many churches.
Interestingly, the term mentoring conveys the idea of shadowing or mimicking someone else's behavior. It has to do with actions and activities that in psychology are known as “behavior modeling.” But it isn't about cognitive learning, which is a key component of discipleship (studying the Bible and Christ together). So mentoring becomes a substitute for actually delving into the Word and learning obedience to Christ. Rather it is some sort of trying to act like a leader. Hence the proliferation of popular books such as Lead Like Jesus, etc.
On the other extreme are those who believe that by simply preaching the Bible on Sundays that people will miraculously be changed into disciples by hearing the Word. This method is partially based on the King James translation of Matthew 28:19 as “Go therefore and teach…”
Many of these teachers do not even draw an application from the text for fear of “doing the work of the Holy Spirit.” This is a very comfortable way of doing ministry. The preacher simply prepares and delivers the Bible study and then retreats into his office in preparation for the next lecture. Members of such churches are marked by a proliferation of head knowledge about the Bible while simultaneously lacking in humility and most other characteristics of Jesus Christ.
Obviously, we do believe in the role of the Scriptures, and that the Word is indeed transformative. We must diligently teach the Bible, but this in itself does not constitute discipleship. David was very willing to say “Amen” to Nathan’s sermon about injustice, but failed to understand the message until the prophet pointed to him and said: “You are the man” (2Samuel 12:7).
Many bigger, and not so big, churches have some form of small group meetings under different names: cell groups, accountability groups, men’s groups, beer drinkers groups, cigar smokers groups, house churches, etc. The idea of small groups is to supplement any formal preaching on Sundays with small groups which do the work of “discipling” the individuals in these small groups. Mostly these touchy-feely groups study anything but the Bible, and are more about getting in touch with one another’s feelings than discipling. Rather than teach people to follow the Lord Jesus, they encourage people to celebrate their differences, and to feel good and accepted no matter how sinful, rebellious, or unbiblical their behavior.
Very few members of these groups have ever been discipled themselves and thus they are not in a position to disciple others. Group consensus does not make the truth and is a recipe for rebellion against God’s Word. Small groups can have value if they are led by godly and gifted shepherds, but this is not often the case.
Counseling and Psychology
Others feel the need to get more personally involved with the individual, and do this on the basis of counseling and therapy. These sessions often contain a few misquoted Scriptures used to mask the true roots of the therapy. There are many variations on the same theme when it comes to counseling. There are many techniques and ideas culled from psychology, marketing, personal experience, group dynamics, behavior modeling, the human potential movement, holistic health, the New Age, etc. Spiritual self-help books containing new techniques proliferate, and include such mumbo-jumbo as inner healing, deliverance, positive confession, Reiki, Yoga, meditation and contemplation, guided imagery, confessing the sins of one's ancestors, spiritual "gift" inventories and assessments, etc. All of this serves to assist the counselee to become self-absorbed and needy, which is hardly a path to spiritual maturity. Yet, these immature people are often put in positions of ministry and leadership, especially in works-based initiatives filled with heavy requirements on the time of the individual.
These sessions are usually presided over by one of the pastors of the church, or by a specialist either from within or without the church, or by a graduate from an earlier class. Irrespective of the method, the philosophy remains fairly constant—to encourage the individual to accept his/her own “idiosyncrasies” (politically correct lingo for sinful behavior). In other words, the counseling is palliative, aimed at relieving symptoms without evidence of the transformation of the inner man through repentance and regeneration. The focus of every one of these methodologies is the individual and is never Christ. The standard of becoming like Christ is often rejected as too legalistic and a threat to the individual’s identity and self-expression. This is of course the antithesis of the whole purpose of discipleship, which is to help people become conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29). The purpose of true discipleship is not to get to know self better but to know Him better.
Elements of Truth
Many of the techniques outlined above encompass elements of true discipleship, yet fail dismally in producing true disciples—mainly because they contain more human than spiritual wisdom and have not been based on a Biblical concept of discipleship. There is room for preaching on Sundays, small groups, individual counseling and so forth. But none of these individual components, on their own, constitute true discipling. But an even bigger problem is that each of these systems is based on a wrong premise, and seeks and produces an outcome that is in conflict with that of Scripture.
No Discipleship and True Discipleship
If we discount all the above methods that do not constitute biblical discipleship, and add to that the many churches that offer no alternative, it becomes evident that biblical discipleship is absent in the vast majority of churches today. This is true of big and small churches alike.
In addition, instead of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the majority of churches in the West are preaching a false Gospel of self. Thus without the preaching of the real Gospel and without discipleship, it is no wonder the church is adrift on a sea of humanism.
To be continued…
1. Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996). Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: based on semantic domains. New York: United Bible Societies.
2. Not to be confused with true house, or home churches.