Reforming Discipleship (Part 1)

In Praise of the Pathway

Many thousands of gallons of ink have been spilled in an attempt to understand and apply the concept of “discipleship” in the local church. Additionally, many thousands of conference hours have been applied to discussing what this means and how it works. It isn’t uncommon to hear exhortations from speakers or authors who say something like, “If your church doesn’t have a ‘disciple-making pathway,’ then in all likelihood you’re not really making disciples.” We also commonly hear of research demonstrating that if your church adopts some form of a pathway approach to discipleship, you’ll see more growth. This newer focus on discipleship in general and “disciple-making pathways” in particular has had both positive and negative effects on the way in which we see disciple-making approached in the local church.

Positively, this has rightly motivated many churches toward intentionality as it relates to the sanctification of its people. The idea that Christian growth and maturity will just sort of work itself out in the context of the church apart from actively pursuing it—that it will just sort of happen via osmosis—is wishful thinking, at best, and negligence, at worst. It simply does not reflect the clear instruction of Scripture for the church as it relates to its spiritual life and health. And so, in this regard, there is a lot to be thankful for as it relates to the Disciple-Making Pathway approach (what we’ll call DMP).

The Problems with the Pathway

Negatively, however, this newer focus on discipleship has caused confusion. Read 100 different DMP books on discipleship and you’ll get 100 different definitions of what “discipleship” means (or no definition at all). It has become classic “junk drawer jargon.” In other words, since the word can mean practically everything, it doesn’t end up meaning much of anything.

But we shouldn’t be surprised that these definitions are so varied and confused, as they mostly reflect how DMP material tends to approach the Bible. The primary problem with the pathway approach is that it’s almost entirely rooted in a genre of Scripture that was never primarily intended to be read or taught this way. Of the multiple DMP books on my shelf, all of them mostly appeal to the life of Jesus in the Gospels (without actually mentioning his death much at all) in order to make their case for how local church leaders should go about the business of making disciples. The entire philosophy appears to take a WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) approach to ministry life in the local church, appealing to specific examples in the life of Christ and (awkwardly, at times) attempting to apply them in our context.

Now, please hear me: I’m not at all arguing at all that the Christian shouldn’t seek to emulate Jesus. I take seriously the clear biblical calling to become more like Christ. As John wrote in his first epistle, “By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 John 2:5b-6, ESV). And so of course the gospels will be a useful tool in identifying the heart of Christ that we should seek to exemplify.

WWJD or WJDTWCND?

I am arguing, however, that these gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were not primarily written to show Christians what to do (WWJD). They were primarily written to show Christians what Jesus did that we could never do (WJDTWCND). These narratives reflect the historical reportage of the events surrounding the gospel. They tell the story of what Christ did for us. They make it clear that his disciples were unable to live like him, and indeed, this is why he had to come.

Another way of saying this is that we must be very careful to draw a clear distinction between description (describing what has already been done for us) and prescription (prescribing to the church what we must do) as we read the Gospels. To be clear, some of what we find in the Gospels is prescriptive material (i.e. much of Jesus’s teaching), but I would argue that most disciple-making pathways root themselves in passages in the Gospels that were meant to describe the work of Christ for us rather than prescribe a certain method of disciple-making.

This is perhaps the greatest weakness of the DMP approach to Scripture. How does one take these passages of Scripture and distill from them a disciple-making strategy for the church? Which details should be included? Which ones should be left out? When we call people to discipleship, should we primarily focus on those whom we desire (Mark 3:13)? When we teach, should we regularly speak in parables with the expressed purpose that people may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand (Mark 4:10-12)? If not, why not? Did Jesus really call the disciples in Luke 5 because they were modeling the ability to go to the next level with him? Since Jesus had twelve disciples he taught more generally, three he taught more specifically, and one he taught more regularly, does the author share this because he wants his readers to apply it in their disciple-making relationships? The determination of which details to apply or leave out seems completely unhinged to me.

A Few Specific Examples

A good example of this problem is shown to us in the book of Mark. As New Testament Scholar Grant Osborne has pointed out, Mark’s entire Gospel account centers on the theme of “discipleship failure.” He writes, “In the success-oriented society within which we reside, Christians tend to believe that discipleship failure should not occur. For this the healthy realism of Mark is a valuable antidote.” Indeed, how one forms a successful disciple-making pathway on the basis of Jesus’s strategy in Mark, when a major theme of that account is “failure in discipleship”, is just another example of the confusion that abounds in this approach. What is in view here is not a guide or pathway for us to distill but rather, as Osborne says, “faith and prayer” in order to “counter the problem of self-dependence.”

That we tend to approach the Gospels with the lens of what we should do is a normal tendency, as this is the default mode of the human heart. One of the reasons that Christians must seek to preach the good news of Jesus to their own hearts daily is because we will always be inclined to read these accounts primarily through the lens of what we need to rather than the lens of what has been done for us.

And the teachings of Jesus in these gospel accounts make this clear. Jesus begins one of his largest sections of teaching, the Sermon on the Mount, by saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” That is to say, the blessing of God through the cross of Christ will be given to those who recognize that they are not capable of walking like Christ apart from the grace of the gospel. As D.A. Carson writes in his commentary of Matthew,

“To be poor in spirit is to acknowledge spiritual bankruptcy. It confesses one’s unworthiness before God and utter dependence on him. Therefore those who interpret the Sermon on the Mount as law and not gospel stumble at the first sentence. The kingdom of heaven is not given on the basis of race, earned merits, the military zeal and prowess of Zealots, or the wealth of a Zacchaeus. It is given to those who are so ‘poor’ that they know that they can offer nothing and do not try. They cry for mercy, and they alone are heard.”

Another example actually comes to us in one of the passages in which Jesus sends out his disciples (Luke 9-10). As pastor and author Jonathan Dodson explains,

“Certainly, Jesus did model, and instruct, and send disciples, though his criticism when they returned wasn’t that they failed to multiply. In Luke 9, the narrative of the sending of the twelve ends oddly, not on their triumphant return, but on their faithfulness to the gospel (9:6). In Luke 10, however, the seventy-two sent disciples do return triumphantly. Oddly, Jesus does not ask if anyone repented. In fact, he warns them of rejoicing in the power of disciple-making. He essentially says, ‘Don’t rejoice in your power to make disciples and topple demons, but rejoice that you are God’s children. Rejoice in your identity and not in your activity.’”

In other words, the primary purpose of these accounts is not found in us unearthing some ancient strategy for disciple-making by reading beneath the surface of the narrative portions of the text and then applying that to our ministry, but rather in seeing Jesus accomplish for his people what they were unable to accomplish so that now we can be reconciled to him. This is the lens through which these portions of the Gospel accounts must be read.

Two Different Approaches to the Christian Life

DMP material, however, seems to be inclined toward the exact opposite. While each “pathway” approach is slightly different, the vast majority places individuals on some kind of a continuum—perhaps an infant-to-parent continuum, or a new-believer-to-mature-leader continuum—and they’re often pictured with such images as a funnel, a certain number of chairs, or a baseball diamond, in which an individual is essentially called to make progress. And this progress is almost always described in terms of attaining various spiritual disciplines for each level along the way (e.g. prayer, Bible reading, commitment to the local church, ministry in the local church, tithing, etc.). This should immediately tip us off as to why the Epistles are so rarely mentioned in DPM material. This is not how the Apostle Paul, for instance, viewed the spiritual growth of the church, both individually and corporately. It’s not how he wrote about what it looks like to be conformed to the likeness of Christ. For Paul, it was less about focusing on spiritual disciplines themselves and more about living into the reality of the gospel itself.

See, in most cases, one of the first steps of the pathway is to “repent and believe the gospel.” This is good and right. But after this initial mention of repentance and belief in the gospel (usually mentioned as the thing that “gets us in”), our progress is mostly measured in terms of our attainments. In other words, the gospel is often assumed throughout the process. The first step along the way is “repent and believe the gospel,” but the Scriptures make it clear that every step along the way should be under the heading, “repent and believe the gospel.”

This is not theological hair-splitting. While DMP material often measures progress by the attainment of disciplines, the Scriptures make it clear that these attainments are secondary and flow out of the gospel. The gospel is primary and should be explicitly positioned that way in all of our disciple-making strategies.

This is also not semantics. It actually reveals two different approaches to the Christian life. It shows us two different beliefs about how Christians grow. One tells us that the source of our justification is the same source as our sanctification—the cross of Christ and the work of the Spirit. The other (intentionally or not) functionally places our spiritual disciplines as the driving force, which is less like putting the cart before the horse and more like believing that the cart can pull the horse dragging and kicking behind it.

Moving Forward

See, there’s no question that the church has been commanded by Christ himself in the Gospels to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” This is a prescriptive command to the church from Christ himself. This Great Commission for the local church is not optional. The question, therefore, is not whether we are to make disciples. The question is how we are to do it. Where should we primarily look for instruction regarding disciple-making in the local church? I would argue that we should primarily seek out instructions for disciple-making from within the places of Scripture that were written for that purpose.

In sum, this is the primary problem with the pathway approach: it doesn’t appear to be found in the Bible unless we attempt a reading of Scripture that not only fails to account for the author’s intent in writing, but also tends to awkwardly read between the lines of the text (“Jesus did such-and-such a thing first, then second, then third,”) in order to discover what we must do. But what if, instead of a pathway, local churches adopted the biblical approach of intentional gospel application both individually and corporately for the people of God? What if, instead of placing people on a continuum based upon their spiritual disciplines, we equipped them to apply the gospel and see the cross of Christ as the great motivator for the Christian life? What if “Repent and Believe the Gospel” was the heading over every aspect of disciple-making? This will be the subject of my next post.

Editor's Note: This post was originally written for publication at RememberingGrace.Org.

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