Seminary Professor Questions “Discipleship” Methods Today
First, it was “evangelism” and “follow up.” Then the two were melded into discipleship. We’ve been a bunch of legalists ever since.
Fact: the word discipleship never occurs in the Bible. We have disciples as a noun, and making disciples as a verb, but never discipleship as a title for a theological category or process.
Fact: neither the word disciple nor any of its cognates ever occur in the epistles.
Fact: the underlying Greek word, mathetes (math-AY-tace), means a learner or pupil in the academy. It emphasizes the instructional aspect of spiritual growth.
Discipleship has come to mean so many things, it now means nothing, except, perhaps, for the nebulous machinery for pumping out good, self-sacrificing “Christ-followers.” The same could probably be said for a dozen other words in the Christian vocabulary, but this one has a particularly strong influence. It has usurped the role as the main thing the church does. In so doing, it has toppled salvation and enthroned an undefined sanctification as the ruling power.
I would argue that the emphasis on discipleship has murdered evangelism. Before this emphasis, churches trained their people in evangelism. We all knew “The Romans Road.” Most of us went through Evangelism Explosion. We carried around the Four Spiritual Laws and handed out tracts.
Regardless of the fruit, at least our hearts were in the right place.
Now, all of that is dead.
Evangelists, like the late Billy Graham, and Luis Palau, now carry the months-long burden of building “discipleship” programs in local churches before they can come and preach the gospel.
No wonder the age of the evangelist, at least in America, has waned. We’re piling “discipleship” on the evangelist’s shoulders, and the result has been the near extinction of the evangelist as a species. Can you even name an evangelist of national scope today?
At least the devil is happy.
I frequently preach the gospel and see people saved. When I celebrate this moment on social media, I can bet real money that well-meaning Christians will immediately jump in with skeptical comments. They are skeptical because, as they say, until a person is “disciples” so they can demonstrate genuine “life-change” which is the only “proof” of salvation.
A birth has just happened. Can’t we celebrate the moment? A baby is born! Can’t we revel in the greatest miracle of all for even one minute before we start talking about nutrition and college savings plans and all that?
They’re afraid the gospel doesn’t work. They’re skeptical. Unless there’s “life-change” they weren’t really saved, they think.
Again, shut up, in Christian love.
On the Day of Pentecost, three thousand people were saved. The church celebrated. How? By recording the moment in Scripture – including a numerical count – and by immediately baptizing these new converts. No life-change in sight. Just a profession of faith alone in Christ alone, and it’s time for the ordinance of baptism.
There’s not a whiff of a suggestion that the church should wait to see if their salvation actually “took hold” before baptizing them. Not a whisper of concern that the church might be giving them a “false confidence” by acceding to their salvation-claim in the ordinance of baptism.
“Did you believe in Jesus as your only hope?”
“Great! Welcome to God’s family. You’re in. Go get dunked.”
May I suggest that our grandparents’ generation had it right? They had it right because they had the terminology right. Correct vocabulary has a way of producing correct thinking.
Evangelism first, and then follow-up. Those were the terms typically used.
These are discrete, albeit related, categories. They can’t be merged. The message of the duties of the Christian life always pollutes the message of the gospel of free grace. No matter how many qualifiers you add, the unregenerate mind simply can’t separate them. Nobody is saved by being a better person. It is salvation alone that awakens that potentiality. “Discipleship,” by conflating evangelism with follow-up, produces an invariably legalistic gospel and an invariably confused church.
What God has rent asunder (salvation and obedience), let no one join together.
Fully Devoted What?
It was Willow Creek that coined the phrase, “fully devoted followers of Christ” as a motto for discipleship. About a billion other churches have followed in lockstep.
It’s a beautiful phrase, I suppose, and it has served us well enough.
But these days, I throw up a little in my mouth every time I hear it. It has become cliché. Even more, however, I long for the church to flip this perspective on its head.
Let us break it down.
Fully. One hundred percent, completely, without reservation, and without limitation.
Devoted. Dedicated to the point of sacrifice. All in.
Follower. In this context, it means “one who obeys.”
Creating fully devoted followers has now become the operating system of the church at large, however the mission may be phrased. This operating system has broad ramifications, at least three of which are, in my opinion, deadly dangerous to the true mission of the church.
First, it is supremely behavioral.
Second, it is utterly human-centered.
Third, it bypasses the biblical priority altogether.
I am suggesting that by defining discipleship this way, and by making it central, we have created a behavior-obsessed, human-centered church. Instead of proclaiming an immutable God and his everlasting gospel, our focus has shifted to behavior modification and collateral techniques.
It’s time to flip the “fully-devoted” meme on its head.
What if we were so gospel-wise, and grace-oriented we made it our mission to preach and teach a God in heaven who was a fully devoted follower of you?
Stop and think for a moment.
What if, in the grand scheme of salvation, it is God’s intention to follow you immeasurably more than you ever followed him? What if God is infinitely more committed to you than you will ever be to him, and he’s good with that!?
Let’s break it down one more time.
Fully. One look at Calvary erases any questions about the extent of God’s devotion to you. He is one hundred percent, completely, and without reservation “all in” for you.
Devoted. God is dedicated to you to the point of total sacrifice – with a “crazy love” so deep the human mind cannot fathom it.
Follower. He has been pursuing you all your days. He still is. If you really want the theme of “following” in the Christian life, here you go: “Surely goodness and mercy [grace] shall follow me [pursue me] All the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the Lord Forever” (Psalm 23:6). God is chasing you with his grace—that’s what the Hebrew verb indicates. It’s much stronger than mere following. God pursues you. Stop running like a maniac and let him catch you. That’s the idea.
God is your fully devoted follower.
Breathe it in. Soak in that. Rest in that.
Let’s make that astounding truth our ecclesiastical centerpiece. Let’s make that our message. Our organizing principle. Let’s make proclaiming that reality our mission.
“I am here today to declare to you that God is a fully devoted follower of you, and will be till you die.”
If you run from him, he’ll chase you with love. If you hide from him, he’ll find you. If you cover your eyes, he’ll patiently wait till you’re ready to take a peek. “Whither shall I run from thy Spirit?” Nowhere. God is your fully devoted follower, and will be till the mountains crumble into the sea.
That will wake up the congregation.
It is impossible to make the centerpiece of the Christian message the arduous task of making people into fully devoted followers of Christ without first convincing them down to their toes that God is a fully devoted follower of them.
Grace responded to last.
All the Proof You Need
Aside from the problem of swamping evangelism in a call for behavioral life-change, my other problem with discipleship as a concept is that it is too often viewed as an external, demonstrable, “proof” of salvation.
But is not the promise of God all the proof we need? If my Bible promises that whoever believes in Jesus will not perish, but will have everlasting life, and if I have believed in Jesus, isn’t God’s Word proof enough?
Discipleship has become code for obedience. It all-too-often bypasses the free-grace gospel, omits the saving work of Christ, neglects Calvary and the power of the shed blood, and is hyper-focused on behavior.
Above all else, discipleship is rarely rooted in a systematic view of either sanctification or of grace.
In truth, the process of becoming a disciple is called salvation, and the process of making disciples is called evangelism.
The process of becoming a good disciple — a mature child of God — is called sanctification and the process of making good disciples is called edification. These biblical terms give us the clarity we need.
Correct terminology is foundational to correct thinking. It clears out the chaos.
We need a return to the old operating system that churches used for decades, one that separates what has always been separate: finding God (evangelism, salvation) and following God (edification, sanctification).
Finding God as Savior in salvation first.
Then following God as Lord, progressively, in sanctification, second.
Out of worry that people might fake their salvation, the church has essentially pressured Christians to fake their sanctification.
Nicely played, Mr. Devil.
* * *
This article is an excerpt from the book Chaos: As Goes the Church So Goes the World, by Bill Giovannetti (Endurant Press, 2021).