Purpose and Scope
In the contemporary church there is a movement that for the purpose of this study we will designate as “The Discipling Movement” or Movement for short. What does this movement teach? What principles is it based on? Is it biblical? What are it’s dangers? Can we examine it’s precepts by a biblical standard? I hope to address these questions. Let us examine seven aspects
regarding the Movement as follows:
1. What is the Movement?
The Movement is the collective enterprise of discipleship adherents. It is not restricted to any particular organization, sect, denomination, or church. It does have advocates throughout contemporary Christianity. Its principles are employed by orthodox and heterodox Christians regardless of confession or creed.
It is expressed in the professed reliance on “discipleship” relationships.
2. Basis of the Movement
The Movement claims its basis is in the biblical statement of Matthew 28:19, saying: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations….” This is interpreted in context of Jesus relationship to the twelve as illustrated in the four gospels.
The specifics on how this task is performed are defined by several authors who have published popular teachings on discipleship.
Using these or similar teaching as a foundation the Movement appears in various ministries under different names. Since they are so diverse and also appear within mainline and denominational churches, it would be tough to know them by name.
It has made the rounds in Protestant, Evangelical, Charismatic, and Catholic traditions; not generally bound by sectarian definition.
3. What does the Movement Teach?
The Movement maintains that Jesus set the pattern of relationships to accomplish the mission of the church according to His relationship with the twelve; that Christians must disciple others in the fashion that Jesus discipled the twelve. Using this relationship, Christians may “reproduce”
themselves to go and produce other Christians.
According to this doctrine, Christians must be discipled in a Master/Disciple authoritarian relationship to be a true disciple of Christ. This is accomplished according to the authority that Jesus has over the twelve apostles. Further, that this subordinate relationship with another
Christian is necessary to bear “fruit”. “Fruit” is specifically defined as the production of disciples. Therefore the Movement establishes a hierarchical chain of members by placing men in the position of Master/Disciple.
Rapid growth is the chief goal of the Movement. By the usage of authority over the lives of its “disciples” the Movement aims to cause large numbers of converts. The assumption of the Movement is that a genuine Christian will produce “much fruit” and therefore many disciples. Assessment of the value of a Christian is according to their success at bearing “fruit”. Hence a Christian, according to the Movement, is defined by performance. Failure to produce will call into question the character, legitimacy, and acceptance of the Christian. A doctrine of “fruit inspection”.
Enforcement of the Movement’s standard is via various discipleship techniques. These range from meetings with a discipler who interrogates the disciple’s performance. Such encounters may be called “soul talks”, “spiritual discussions”, or “prayer partners”. Although the terminology and intensity varies, the intent is to produce performance by compulsion. The Movement will convey to the disciple potential loss of salvation and thus eternal damnation by direct or indirect confrontation. Often, the threat is communicated indirectly in other teachings, sermons, and writings.
4. How is the Movement at Variance with the Bible?
A. It places people in the role as Master; a position reserved for Jesus.
Following Christ’s example as Master is specifically forbidden in the scripture. Jesus told his disciples:
“But you are not to be called Rabbi; for you have only one master and you are all brothers. Nor are you to be called ‘teacher’, for you have one Teacher, The Christ.” (Matthew 23:8,10)
Here Jesus directly warns against the rabbinical practice in those days. A “Rabbi”, sometimes translated teacher, is a term that describes a composite master/teacher/guru personage. The relationship of Christians is to be one of brothers and sisters; not parents, masters, rabbi’s…
To be sure the Movement (except in some extreme cases) avoids the usage of such terms to conceal its authoritarian character. Rather it employs terms as “discipler”, “spiritual director”….
Christians may not have followers or disciples as Jesus did. Nowhere in the New Testament are Christians commanded to have disciples or to “Lord over” others in authoritarian fashion:
“…You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you…” (Matthew 20:25-26 NIV)
B. It demands acceptance based on performance rather than relationship.
Christians are removed from their relationship as brethren and placed into Master/Disciple relationships. This requires the Christian to strive for acceptance based on performance. Consider Jesus encounter with the devil and notice carefully what Satan is suggesting:
” The tempter came to him, and said, ‘If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones become bread. …Then the devil took him to the holy city, and had him stand up on the highest point of the temple. ‘If you are the Son of God,’ he said, ‘throw yourself down”(Matthew 4:3-6)
Jesus’ relationship as Son is challenged on the basis of performance!
The relationship of a disciple to his discipler is one of a servant:
“A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master.” (Matthew 10:24-25)
Servants, and hence disciples, are always accepted by performance.
C. It undermines the principle of biblical son/daughtership in favor of discipleship.
The relationship of a Christian to the Lord is a child to father. Anyone who prays “our Father” ought to believe this. If anyone is a child of God, it cannot be taken away by anyone except God.
Consider who you are in the household of God. Are you a child or a servant? Let us compare and contrast the roles of sons/daughters versus servants in a household.
What does the Scripture reveal about servants and sons?
“I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” (Luke 15:18-22)
“Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever.” (John 8:35)
“So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also a heir. (Galatians 4:7)
“For you did receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” (Romans 8:15)
“no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.” (Philemon 16)
“Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.” (Philemon 11)
“Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’ “(Luke 17:9-10)
“And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness…” (Matthew 25:30)
Discipleship places people in servant relationships with people serving as “masters”.
Are you a child of God, a servant of God, or outside the household? Every Christian needs to understand this because in any household the position of son/daughter is above the servant. If you are not certain you are child of God maybe you need to be adopted and born again, once and for all, of incorruptible seed.
In comparison to God, we are wicked parents. Yet we still know how to love our children. Would we cast away our children?
“… anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” (Luke 18:17)
D. The Movement implies that we have people as “spiritual parents”.
The movement considers disciples to be spiritual children of the disciplers; they are “begotten” in the process of discipling.
According to discipling teachings, Christians are bastard children wandering in the streets without parents unless they have disciplers over them; an affront to God the Father!
“And do not call anyone on earth ‘father’, for you have one Father and he is in heaven.” (Matthew 23:9)
It would be a real stretch to apply the above verse to physical fatherhood.
Christians are to be made in the image of Jesus; not the image of other people.
E. It requires that people be perfected according to the “flesh”; after the fashion of other people.
“What I mean is this: One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’, another, ‘I follow Apollos’, another, ‘I follow Cephas’, still another, ‘I follow Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul (1 Corinthians 1:12,13)
Paul warns the Corinthians that their attitude towards God’s ministers is carnal and after the flesh; hence revealing they are spiritual babies:
“Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly-mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? For when one says, ‘I follow Paul’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos’, are you not mere men? What, after all is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe-as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow” (1 Corinthians 3:1-7)
Regarding people as something other than fellow laborers with God may place the Christian in dependence on something other than Christ.
“For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 3:9-11)
Scripture does not advocate spiritual growth according to the pattern of people:
“Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to again your goal by human effort?”
F. It requires that people trust and commit themselves to other people [rather than trust and commit the holy spirit].
“Stop trusting in man, who has but a breath in his nostrils. Of what account is he?” (Isaiah 2:22)
“This is what the Lord says: ‘Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who depends on flesh for his strength and whose heart turns away from the Lord.” (Jeremiah 17:5)
“But blessed is the man that trusteth in the Lord, whose confidence is in Him” Jeremiah 17:7
“Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot save.” (Psalm 146:3)
“Trust in the LORD, and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture. Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and He will do this.” (Psalm 37: 3-5)
“It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in man.” (Psalm 118:8)
“But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men. He did not need man’s testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man.” (John 2:24,25)
The Movement contends that you need to be committed to another person who is more “mature” and that your growth is dependent on such relationship. Furthermore, that strong covenantal bonding is required making the relationship one that cannot be rejected without rejecting God. Such notions are foreign to apostolic Christianity and are closer to Rabbinical Old Testament practice.
Closely aligned with this is the practice of “covering” by the movement. This applies the covering principle to Christian over Christian. It is the idea that by submitting entirely to another Christian one will not be held responsible for actions. Know that in the Bible this thinking does not wash. God holds people responsible for their individual actions and in no way accepts the plea that another was pulling the strings. Covering does apply to the relationship with Jesus Christ; his directives should be obeyed.
Again the movement is substituting people in the place of Christ.
G. It is a departure from the building of the church body as revealed in the epistles.
The normative process of Christian growth in the church is revealed as an interdependence of ministry functions. Different offices with specific gifts:
“It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.” (Ephesians 4:11-12)
The body is built by a co-function of ministries; not individual dependence on people so that no flesh may glory, no person be the head, no doctrine of people may prevail, and unity of the body is strengthened:
“…until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” (Ephesians 4:13-16)
The Lord does not intend that we as Christians are developed by dependence on a discipler personage; this would imply that certain people possess all the attributes necessary for perfection of the saints. If such were the case then the necessity of the body would be negated in favor of personal development with “one man shows”.
It seems odd that the word “disciple” does not occur in the scripture after the book of ACTS. If discipling were the preferred methodology in making a Christian, then surely the epistles would strongly emphasize the process. Why don’t they contain definitive teaching on the matter? The movement cites the gospels and Acts as the pattern for Christian relationship; refusing to believe that God is working in developing his church in a new pattern as the old transitions out.
5. Temptation and Dangers of the Movement
The temptation of the Movement is to maximize the number of converts and the performance of the disciples. It does this according to the flesh, making disciples in the image of people and not Christ. In fact, the Movement stresses that new converts should quickly “reproduce” to gain disciples for themselves. This amounts to putting new believers in authority; a practice frowned upon according to 1 Timothy 3:6.
In one case a major sect of the Movement was found to be altering the psychological personality types of the individuals such that most of the persons tested were one type. (The Meyers-Briggs-Indicator type was used). This indicator shows the normal personality differences in persons and is not of itself a bad or good parameter. Forcing persons into the same type pattern amounts to “cloning” after the flesh. This sort of psychological aberration is usually found in destructive cults. Indeed this is precisely what the movement teaches; reproduction of disciples in the pattern of people.
Various components of the movement manifest danger signs and may vary in intensity from group to group. Some of the things that have occurred:
Foremost is a spirit of control. Teachings on grace, liberty, freedom, and so forth are avoided or branded as apostasy. Extraordinary emphasis is placed on submission and obedience. Complaints of abuse are countered by justification based on Jesus submission and obedience to ungodly authority as the Romans. Be aware that Jesus had no kind words for the ecclesiastical
authority and popular religious leaders of his day.
Christian experience is denigrated or denied for those outside the Movement. “We are real Christians…others are just playing Church.” … Sometimes the meaning is veiled in terms like “faithful remnant”. Sometimes the attitude is “Woe to those who are not like us.”; a policy of the Pharisees harshly rebuked by Jesus.
The tendency of the Movement is to seek performance via compulsion. Instead of relying on the leading of the Spirit, the Movement requires that people force performance of their disciples. This amounts to coercion according to the flesh.
Performance is monitored according a method of inquiry. This method is justified on the basis of verses like 2 Corinthians. 13:5 and 1 Corinthians. 11:28 which states:
“Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves
“A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup.”
First, it states that self examination is necessary, not cross-examination! Second, this is with sin in view and not performance. Some followers of the movement actually maintain sin lists. Imagine that! That God would forgive and totally forget sins; while disciplers keep records just in case they are needed for leverage. Friends, if God has forgiven sin then he does not
account them in some ledger.
Third, who are people to judge another’s servant? They stand or fall to their own master according to Romans 14.
The Movement may be introduced without a full disclosure of the authoritarian roots and the consequences. If a work is of the Lord, it is clearly manifest in the sight of people. It should be in the open like a city on a hill, like a lamp on a table. We should not veil works of light.
Discipleship may be presented as a teacher/mentor relationship that would seem to help Christian growth. In fact, biblical discipleship is authoritarian in nature and knows nothing of peer or mentor relationships.
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22-23)
The appearance of these nine fruits may seem evident at first encounter with these groups. However, once a person gets involved deeper the pattern is abuse and use. Authoritative manipulation is the rule. Group order may more resemble Machiavellian power then the Holy Spirit. Whatever spirit produces fruit in these groups, it is not the Spirit of God.
There is often a tendency of the Movement to impose it’s precepts on a basis that they cannot be challenged. The methods are considered to have the automatic divine stamp of approval. Intimidation results if a disciple questions the methods. Thus the disciple is charged with sin, rebellion, faith loss, and various other charges of iniquity.
6. Christian, Beware of the Movement
The Movement’s teaching advocates introduction of its methods by stealth and without the knowledge of the church leadership. One of it’s authors endorses introducing the methods secretly in order to not alarm the presbytery. Others justify questionable tactics because the objectives are so “righteous”; reminiscent of Marxist teachings in order to impose totalitarian/authoritarian ideology. In their doctrine, the ends justify the means.
Because the Movement is introduced via personal relationship (“one-on-one”) apart from the view of the church, it lends itself readily to deceptive methods. Forming small groups apart from the main body is also a popular tactic in order to attain this lack of accountability.
Paul gives grave warning that certain men would arise to prey on the flock:
“I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.” (Acts 20:29-30)
Beware of wolves. They look like sheep. They work by stealth. The arguments they employ can be seductive. They generally refuse to be challenged and advance their principles using assertion, analogies, and intimidation rather then biblical exegesis. The church leadership may not be wise to their presence or fail to confront them with biblical/apostolic teaching.
“The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it.” (John 10:12)
Listen to the good shepherd. Search the scriptures. Avoid the alluring teachings of men. Be as harmless as doves; and wise as serpents.
Watch out for “bait and switch” tactics used by some proponents of the Movement. They desire to gain acceptance of their principles without a disclosure of the real nature. They may use spiritual “smooth talk” in order to gain a following. Once established, they impose methods that are authoritarian in nature. Further, they justify this with the “count the
cost” arguments. Initially they portray a biblical Jesus, later Jesus becomes a different person. Initially they may seem biblical but apply the teachings of men. Initially they portray themselves as shepherds, then proceed to prey on the sheep. Initially they preach the necessity of “fruits”, then inflict thorns onto the disciples.
The discipling movement seeks to impose relationships not permitted or commanded in the Bible. It applies the Lordship of Jesus to inter Christian relations in order to gain control. Control is what the movement desires. It teaches that in order to be a Christian you must be a disciple of people. Hence it maintains that you need people controlling you in the fashion of Jesus.
With people acting in the role of Master/Disciple we see a transition of relationships as follows:
Jesus >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Another lord
Gospel of God >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Teachings of people
Grace >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Merit
Bible >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Dogma
Love >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Abuse
Fruits >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Thorns
Sons >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Servants
Shepherds >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Wolves
Note: Mentoring is often labeled as “discipleship”. I think this is a misnomer and I have no objection to mentoring. It is the authoritarianism control [in the church] this article addresses.
Dear Christian, there is no such thing as biblical discipleship without mastership; the two cannot be separated. Before accepting a discipling structure you should question: Who is the master?
“I looked and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.” (Revelation 6:2)
Note: Unless otherwise noted all bible quotes from NIV.