Why We Are Getting Discipleship All Wrong

How Did the Twelve Make Disciples?

The fish metaphor brings us face-to-face with a question that’s rarely asked today: How did the apostles who received the original commission of Jesus to “make disciples of all nations” carry out this commission?

If you read the New Testament chronologically from Acts to Revelation, there’s only one answer you can come up with. They did so by planting ekklesias all over the known world.

I invite anyone to challenge me on that point.

Converts were made and sustained into full-fledged followers of the Messiah, naturally and organically, simply by being part of the local ekklesia in their city. For them, the ekklesia was the environment for spiritual training. It was, as T. Austin-Sparks put it, “the school of Christ.”

The Twelve knew ekklesia themselves. They lived in an embryonic expression of it in Galilee with Jesus Himself. For 3 ½ years, the Twelve and some women lived in community with one another where Jesus was both the center and the head of their lives together.

When a Christian lives in a living expression of the Body of Christ today, he or she is being discipled just by being part of that expression. Just as a saltwater fish grows, is nurtured, and is sustained simply by living in the ocean and swimming with its school.

Ekklesia, therefore, is the birth right of every child of God. By living in it, God’s people naturally absorb Christ. This is because in an authentic ekklesia, the life of Jesus Christ is constantly flowing, being shared, expressed, revealed, and imparted by and to the members. To wit, the Christian is “discipled” by Christ and into Christ through the community of the believers when it is functioning as it should.

I don’t say this theoretically. I’ve watched it happen countless times over the last 23 years in healthy ekklesias.

Those who are called to plant ekklesias today, therefore, carry out the so-called “Great Commission.” They make disciples (converts) and establish them into communities where the Holy Spirit does the work of transformation (what many are calling “discipleship” today).

We Don’t Know Our History

Another observation I make is that people who are jazzed about discipleship (usually males in their mid to late 20’s and early 30’s-their leaders being in their 40’s and 50’s), seem to have no knowledge of the history of modern discipleship, where it came from, and why it even exists.

The story harkens back to John Nelson Darby’s teachings in the early 19th century. Darby used the art of proof texting the New Testament to separate conversion from following Jesus.

The gulf between conversion and followership further widened with the emergence of Dallas Theological Seminary and the early teachers there. They perpetuated Darby’s doctrine, which separated faith in Jesus as Savior from following Jesus as Lord.

What happened as a result should look familiar to you. The Christian landscape became peppered with many converts to Christianity who possessed fire insurance policies, but few of them were actually following Jesus as this world’s true Lord.

The antidote was discipleship as a method and a program. Parachurch organizations took the helm on this and ran with it. They created the first discipleship “programs.” Denominational churches began picking it up as well.

What did it look like? The “disciple” would meet with their “discipler” at least once a week. They would memorize Scripture together or study a Biblical text, go over sins committed (this is called “holding each other accountable”), pray together, discuss witnessing to the lost, and set a date for the next “discipleship” meeting.

Young Christians were excited about it at first, but in time, they began to see the roteness of it all. This left the door wide open for a strong reaction against the routine, the drudgery, and the staleness of discipleship as a method.

Walking through that door was the greasy grace movement. This was an over amplified version of Darby’s teachings taken to the extreme. “Do whatever you please because you are under grace” was the mantra. While this was going on, the Lord hit America with a huge revival, and many young people in the counterculture were coming to Christ.

Some very gifted ministers took the wheel of that revival and spawned a new movement that became known as the “discipleship” movement (also called the “shepherding” movement). They reinstated all the old methods of discipleship, but they introduced a new theology and vocabulary to go with it. It was the theology of “submission to delegated authority.”

When the dust finally cleared, the discipleship movement left a trail of bruised and battered souls, some of whom have never recovered to this good day. In the minds of many Christians, “discipleship” became a four-letter word. So the pendulum against legalism and authoritarianism swung hard again.

The Christian landscape became quickly populated with nominal Christians and lukewarm believers who simply “prayed the prayer” (i.e., the “sinner’s prayer”).

As a reaction to the growing lukewarmness and nominal professions, “discipleship” has returned. It’s back in vogue again to try to repair the damage. Yet, the advocates of modern discipleship are largely ignorant of the history behind it. So we are back to spraying fish on the lawn again.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

~George Santayana

What history teaches us is that men have never learned anything from it.

~G. W. F. Hegel

Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over, and over again, and expecting different results.

When I think of the practice of the church and modern discipleship, that quote comes to mind.

Would to God that we learned our history.

In a word, you cannot raise the bar on discipleship without raising the bar on the ekklesia—the living experience of the body of Christ—the native habitat in which true disciple making and transformation take place.

Closing Challenges

So what’s my point? It’s quite simple. The problem is not with discipleship; the problem lies in our practice of the church.

Permit me to share my heart.

You who emphasize mission, where is your vision of God’s eternal purpose?

You who emphasize discipleship, where is your understanding that you cannot separate the ekklesia of God from producing serious followers of Jesus Christ who are mature, tempered, balanced, and free from religious bondage?

What God has joined together, let us no longer put asunder.

I welcome disagreement and even correction on the above. (If you can show me where I’m off using Scripture, then we both get to be right.)

At the same time, please entertain the possibility that those of us who are raising this particular flag just may be on to something. And if we are, what do you plan to do about it?

I’d much rather have fair and rigorous disagreement over this matter than I would a theological head nod. For the latter changes nothing. We Christians are good at bulbously saying “amen” and then going back to business as usual.

May that not be the case here, as this issue is far too important.

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Frank Viola
FRANK VIOLA has helped thousands of people around the world to deepen their relationship with Jesus Christ and enter into a more vibrant and authentic experience of church. His mission is to help serious followers of Jesus know their Lord more deeply, gain fresh perspectives on old or ignored subjects, and make the Bible come alive. Viola has written many books on these themes, including God's Favorite Place on Earth and From Eternity to Here. His blog, Beyond Evangelical, is rated as one of the most popular in Christian circles today.