By Ron Halbrook
Among trends found in conservative denominational or “evangelical” circles during recent years is something called the “discipleship” movement. It is an effort to infuse a spirit of zeal, dedication, and discipline into denominational religion which has grown lax, lazy, and limber. This movement, also called “shepherding,” mixes well-known Bible principles emphasizing personal study, submission, and sacrifice with various techniques of psychological manipulation, self-hypnosis, and small group therapy. If this movement stopped with Bible principles and left off the pop psychology, it would be a healthy trend. As with denominationalism generally, there is poison and death in the pot (2 Kgs. 4:40).
Such trends often have a trickle-down effect among the people of God, some of whom drink too long and too deeply from the wells of denominational theology and literature. The Crossroads movement centered in Gainesville, Florida at the Crossroads Church of Christ reflects some characteristics of the so-called discipleship or shepherding idea. Faithful brethren have emphasized the need for personal evangelism on the part of all Christians (Acts 8:3-4). But some who are enamored of the discipleship shepherding concept speak of converting Christians into “disciples” and turning believers into “witnesses,” citing and perverting Acts 1:8. The idea of assigning someone to monitor every step of a new convert and instructing the new convert to “report in” to his “teacher” in a “teacher-to-disciple” relationship is not biblical, but is a phase of the new crusade.
The end product is a shallow, unbiblical faith in men above God, and loyalty to men above Christ. Some are attracted to the campaign because of its apparent “success” rate, but true success recognizes first the standard of God’s Word and then our responsibility to faithfully proclaim it. The results in terms of the number of people reached is in the hands of God through the means which God provided – the power of the pure, unadulterated gospel of Christ (Rom, 1:16; 1 Cor. 3:6-15). The glow of zeal lures some brethren into the “discipleship” campaign – “they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge” (Rom. 10:2). For further study, read the following article by Hugo McCord from the Gospel Advocate, 19 Dec. 1985, pp. 753, 756.
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Primarily a disciple is a learner. Biblically, a disciple is more than a learner; he is a follower and an adherent of his teacher. One reads of the disciples of Moses, Isaiah, John the Baptist and Jesus (Isaiah 8:16; Matthew 15:1; John 3:25; 9:28).
Jesus explained the process of making disciples, “They shall be taught of God. Every one that has heard from the Father, and has learned, comes unto me” (John 6:45). His final directions (Matthew 28:19,20) were for His apostles in going to all nations to do three things: (1) make disciples, (2) baptizing them and (3) teaching them.
The book of Acts tells how the apostles followed the Lord’s instructions: (1) disciples were made, (2) were baptized and (3) were taught in Jerusalem, Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, Derbe, Corinth and Ephesus (Acts 2:36-42; 14:21, 22; 18:4, 8, 27; 19:5; 20:28).
Notwithstanding the clarity of the Lord’s commands and of the apostles’ examples, a movement has arisen among us changing the terminology and order of the three specifications in this way: (1) make converts, (2) baptize them and (3) disciple them. A leader writes that Jesus’ order “was not to ‘make converts’ . . . but to ‘make disciples.”‘ Thus he is saying that making converts is one thing while making disciples is something else. Where Jesus listed ‘make disciples” as item (1), some are now listing it as item (3).
In the new movement a convert is placed under the supervision of a mature Christian, called a “discipler,” who is to guide and nurture the new Christian until he himself becomes a discipler, and so reproduces himself. “All of” a new convert’s “mind, words and actions” must be conformed “to that of his teacher” (the discipler).
The word Jesus used for item (1), matheteuo, make disciples, never appears in the New Testament for, item (3), where the movement places it. The form (active) in which the word appears in Jesus’ command occurs only one other time in the New Testament where it corresponds to item (1) of Jesus’ words: “And when they had preached the gospel to that city (Derbe), and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, and to Iconium, and to Antioch” (Acts 14:21).
What follows items (1) and (2) (making disciples, and baptism understood) is not a discipling process (which the new movement teaches), but a guiding process by teaching (Acts 14:22) corresponding to Jesus’ item (3): “Confirming the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith and that through many tribulations we must enter into the kingdom of God. Thus according to Luke the new converts of Acts 14:22 had already been discipled, and now were to be guided and nurtured.
Illustrative of the new movement’s altering Jesus’ order is the example of an Abilene Christian University coed. She had become a Christian at age 12, and now, eight years later, was in Scotland doing missionary work for a three-month period. She much appreciated a missionary wife there, and reported, “Sister has lovingly discipled me all summer.”
The necessary work of guiding a new convert is very important, but the ACU coed was not a new convert. The two Christian ladies in Scotland strengthened each other, but properly speaking neither discipled the other. All Christians are to “exhort one another, and build each other up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11), but the idea of assigning a supervisor, a discipler, on whom the new convert is to be dependent, is not a New Testament teaching.
The Lord’s wisdom did not entrust the holy work of supervising, shepherding Christians as sheep, and watching for their souls to a discipler, but to the elders (1 Pet. 5:1-5; Acts 20:28). Actually the new movement effectively supplants the eldership, for it is contructed in a oneunder-one relation, not on a plurality of elders (Acts 14:23).
Further, the new movement says a discipler must limit his work “to a few individuals,” for “discipling can only take place with a few people.” On the contrary, biblical discipling Jesus directed “to all nations” (Matthew 28:19). The apostles’ discipling on the day of Pentecost converted 3,000 (Acts 2:41). An exponent of the new system was asked, “Where does pulpit preaching fit into your plan?” He gave an honest answer: “It doesn’t.” This is contradictory to 1 Corinthians 1:21.
If only a few can be discipled, who decides who is to be selected? Who decides when the process is completed? What is done for the non-discipled? Can a non-discipled Christian be saved? One Christian, hearing of the new system, inquired, “What shall I do? I have been a member of the church for 30 years, and a class teacher for 21, and I have never been discipled.”
The new system holds that discipling is not advised “between people of the opposite sex.” On the other hand, biblical discipling had no gender barrier (“both men and women,” Acts 8:12).
Under the new system “witnessing describes a way of life,” whereas under the New Testament, witnesses “were chosen before God. . . who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead” (Acts 10:41). The new plan wrongly applies Acts 1:8 to Christians today: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and to the ends of the earth.” This was addressed directly to the apostles. The new plan puts a weak Christian in “direct dependence” on his discipler who becomes his “closest brother.” These two “pray together and share their insights of God’s word.” They enter a “prayer covenant.” Then (in a class situation) one is to “tell who (sic) you prayed with and share one of your prayer requests that the rest of the class can pray about.”
The new system transforms Paul’s words, “The things thou hast heard of me . . . commit to faithful men who will be able to teach others” (2 Tim. 2:2) to mean a discipler “instructs that close brother whom he had discipled to disciple others.”
The new system affirms that not many Christians are worthy to be “disciples.” However, in the inspired writings, no difference can be found between a disciple and a Christian (Acts 2:41; 4:4; 6:1; 11:26). They are synonymous terms. One could as erroneously say that not many disciples are worthy to be called Christians.
Actually, if one can find a biblical emphasis of one term above the other, it would be that “Christian” is more meaningful than “disciple.” After the book of Acts, God’s people are not called disciples. A misplaced emphasis on the word “disciple” calls to mind Alexander Campbell’s mistake. He held that since God’s people were called disciples before they were called Christians the former term is preferable. Campbell’s mistake lives on today in the “Disciples Church.”
Another error stemming from the new movement is the setting of a probation period for discipled Christians until they may be appointed evangelists. A congregation of 1,000 members in 43 house churches reported their evangelist had “baptized and discipled to Christ for three years” five brothers before their “being appointed evangelists.” Moreover, a gospel preacher of more than 30 years experience all over the world with hundreds of conversions to his credit, placing membership with the congregation, was asked to be an apprentice before he could be appointed an evangelist.
The new movement emanates from deep devotion and is characterized by fervent work. Actually, however, it crystallizes itself into a church within a church, stirring friction. The dedication of the disciplers executing their new plan is wholly to be admired and praised. May those not espousing their errors pray sincerely for them and emulate their enthusiasm, bearing “them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge” (Romans 10:2).
Guardian of Truth XXX: 3, pp. 80-81
February 6, 1986