The Empty Rhetoric of “Making Disciples”

“This is because the missionaries did the wrong thing. They were only making converts while the mission of the church is to make disciples.”

I met the man who said this at a mission conference recently; he was a committed Reformed Christian, a supporter of several missions around the world. I was sharing about my mission work in Bulgaria, and specifically about my work among the Gypsy communities there. I will here omit a more detailed account of who Gypsies are and what problems a missionary encounters when working with them; I will only mention one of the testimonies I heard in a Charismatic Gypsy church planted many years before by American Charismatic missionaries. When the pastor opened the pulpit for testimonies, an old man stood up and said:

“Brothers and sisters, I want to praise God for his mighty deeds. It was very cold yesterday. We didn’t have any firewood. But there was some firewood in the house next door. Praise God no one saw us.”

The man I shared it with reacted quickly: They should make disciples, not converts. In this, he is not different from many other Christians who have adopted the rhetorical jargon of the modern pastors. He is well-meaning, of course. But I will claim here in this article that “making disciples” is only empty rhetoric, and it doesn’t solve the problems of the modern church. And in addition, it is dangerous. I realize that by criticizing the rhetoric of “making disciples” I will be challenging what has been accepted as a truth that doesn’t need to be proved, a fad that is dear to the majority of our modern Christians. But challenge it I must.

Indeed, the concept of “making disciples” as over against “making converts” has become something of a fad for the modern church. The semantic change from “converts” to “disciples” is expected to create a revolution in both the church growth in America and in the mission growth outside of America. Numerous ministries today boast that they are “making disciples.” The online Discipleship Library (here’s that buzz-word that we hear so often, “discipleship”) of the Navigators has a special course on “making disciples.” The Reformed Baptist pastor John MacArthur declared in a sermon that the church’s main purpose is neither fellowship nor teaching nor praise but “making disciples.” Michael Horton at the Westminster Seminary in California has a book devoted to “recovering God’s strategy for making disciples.” There are numerous examples throughout the United States and on the mission field: there are “discipleship” conferences, seminars, booklets, strategies; the concept of “family discipleship” is preached, and so is the “workplace discipleship.” There was even, for a short period of time, a Discipleship Movement. Many Christians and Christian leaders are awakening to the fact that the current practice of the Church leaves much to be desired; there are millions of American Christians, and millions of converted souls on the mission fields of all continents that say that phrase, “Praise God no one saw us,” in one or another version, whether more or less subtle. So the church is on a search to find out why that is happening, and what must be done. And of course, the first thing we need to change is the rhetoric; we have been producing “converts,” now we have to start “making disciples.” So prevalent is the fad that one wonders if so many Christians could believe that simply the change in rhetoric will create the necessary result.

The very phrase “making disciples” is one of those unfortunate turns of events when well-meaning ministers of the Word use words without thinking out all the implications of what they say. When those ministers of the Word are translators of the Bible, their failure can assume gigantic proportions because now the incorrect use of words has the aura of sanctity for the majority of the readers who have no easy access to the original languages. Even in Reformed circles, where the injunction of the Westminster Confession that “in all controversies of religion, the Church is finally to appeal unto [the original languages]” is considered to be authoritative, the temptation is very strong to look at translations as ultimate and ignore the plain meaning of the original text. In other circles, where scholarship in the original languages is not as strong, the problem is much more severe.

“Making disciples” is reportedly based on the text of the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19: μαθητεύσατε πάντα τὰ ἔθνη. The earlier translations of the Bible – King James Version, the Geneva Bible, and Tyndale Translation – remained faithful to the grammar if not to the strict meaning of the words: “Teach all nations.” This was good enough for them since “all nations” was in the accusative, thus pointing out that “all the nations” were the direct object of the verb, “teach.” So did the Latin Vulgate Bible: “docete omnes gentes.” Neither “teach” in English nor “docere” in Latin were a strict translation of μαθητεύω though. That’s why Young’s Literal Translation noticed that the verb μαθητεύω is based on a noun, μαθητής (disciple), and therefore gave it a better translation, keeping the accusative case: “disciple all the nations.”

The problem came when translators transformed the simple Greek phrase into a more elaborate English phrase: “make disciples of all nations.” Not that the phrase in itself is an incorrect translation; taken in the right way, it is actually the best translation since the verb μαθητεύω requires to be translated “make someone a disciple.” It does presuppose a finished product, a disciple who has been produced by the work of the one who discipled him. The accusative case – that is, the direct object position – for “all nations” must be preserved, though. Therefore, the correct reading of the phrase would be similar to the words of a field sergeant to a new recruit: “We will make a fine soldier out of you.” “Out of you” is here only an idiom, it doesn’t mean parts of the soldier will be taken out and made into a fine soldier; the meaning is that the soldier himself will be the direct object of the “making,” that his very nature will be transformed into a new nature. And that’s exactly the meaning of “disciple all nations” in the Greek text: The nations will be made into disciples.

What the translators didn’t think out well enough was the alternative meaning of the phrase: “Take individual people out of the nations and make them disciples.” This alternative meaning is not present in the Greek text; the accusative and the lack of a preposition prevent such meaning. Only in English, where there are no cases like in Latin or Greek, and where a preposition like “of” can mean many different things depending on the context, the phrase can have the alternative meaning of making of individual disciples as the focus of the Great Commission.

In the 20th century, with the pietistic and individualistic focus of the modern church’s teaching and preaching, this alternative – and non-Biblical – meaning was taken as the authoritative meaning. It is not discipling the nations – as nations – anymore; it is all about making individual people “disciples.”

And then, when in the second half of the last century it became obvious that the evangelistic efforts of the church were not producing converts of good quality, the incorrect meaning of the phrase was turned into a theology of “discipleship.” It is hard to think of another such example of incorrect meaning of a verse that has produced so many theological treatises, conferences, sermons, etc. “Making disciples” and “discipleship” is the fad of the day among pastors and conference speakers these days.

Ironically, the problem of “making converts” who – like my Gypsy friends I mentioned above – have no idea of what they must be and how they must act as Christians is caused by the same attitude that is at the core of the “making disciples” theology: pietism and radical individualism. Thus, changing the rhetoric from “making converts” to “making disciples” won’t do the job; the problem goes much deeper than the words we use. The difference between a “convert” and a “disciple” is only in the semantics; the Bible doesn’t differentiate between the two. There are no two different types of believers in the Bible, “converts” and “disciples.” And the Bible doesn’t even mention such a difference, let alone point to such a conflict. A convert is also a disciple; that is, he is converted in his whole being, and his whole worldview, and mind, and attitude. Unless a person is converted completely and renewed completely in his mind, he is not a true convert. So a convert and a disciple is the same.

Not only doesn’t the Bible contain any special emphasis on “making disciples” – in fact, as we saw, it has a completely different thing in mind in Matt. 28:19 – but in the other three occasions where the same verb is used, it is used in a very casual way which doesn’t presuppose anything special about “making disciples” the way our modern rhetoric has it. Matthew 13:15 talks about “any scribe that has become a disciple of the kingdom” without presupposing some special kind of process of discipling as over against conversion. Matthew 27:57 uses the same verb to describe Joseph of Arimathea: “who himself had also become a disciple of Jesus.” But the previous accounts do not even mention his name as someone to whom Jesus had paid special attention in a process of discipling. And Acts 14:21, “After they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch,” the same verb is used so casually that it obviously means “converted” many by their preaching of the Gospel.

As can be expected, if the Bible has no such emphasis on “making disciples” as the modern church rhetoric assumes, there won’t be any clear and specific rules and standards as what “making disciples” would mean and what a “disciple” is in the modern church. And indeed, there are no such clear rules and standards, let alone Biblical clear rules and standards. The sermon of John MacArthur mentioned above, a very lengthy sermon in itself, gives only some vague principles for “making disciples” (availability, worship, submission) without explaining why that is not the case for making converts, for example. The Shepherding Movement, also called Discipleship Movement, couldn’t define a “disciple” either; all they would do is emphasize on the personal submission of a disciple to his teacher. But submission in itself can’t define a disciple. No wonder the Shepherding Movement had to disintegrate for the many abuses within it. For all the rhetoric in the church that emphasizes “discipleship” and “making disciples” as the solution to the moral problem of the modern church, the lack of clear definition of what “making disciples” should be is staggering. But it is nevertheless predictable. When the hopes for solution to a problem are based on rhetoric rather on a solid Biblical ground, and when that rhetoric is not based on a clear Biblical text but on a faulty interpretation of an unfortunate translation, we shouldn’t expect anything else but vagueness and confusion.

To summarize what I said so far, there is no Biblical foundation for the rhetoric of “making disciples.” There is nothing special about “making disciples” as over against “making converts,” neither does the Bible place so much weight on “making disciples.” Neither is there a Biblical foundation for the claims that the task of the church can be summarized as “making disciples.” The rhetoric is empty; it is not Biblical. It is a modern fad that can supposedly solve the problems of the church in a magical way. But the truth is, no one knows what exactly is “making disciples,” outside of some vague and general rules.

But why did I say that I also consider this rhetoric dangerous? The rhetoric may be empty and unbiblical, but dangerous?

We need to understand that rhetoric is never without consequences. However empty it is, there is always an underlying worldview that supports the rhetoric; and therefore rhetoric that is not supported by the Bible will have consequences that are dangerous. There are several reasons I consider the rhetoric of “making disciples” dangerous.

First, it is based on a self-conscious pietism and radical individualism in the interpretation of Biblical message. Like I said above, the main verse used to support the theology of “discipleship” – Matt. 28:19 – does not talk about making individual disciples; it is about discipling the nations. The greatness of the Great Commission is in its comprehensive mandate, in converting the whole world to Christ, including all human institutions. When modern theologians talk about “making disciples,” the underlying motive is not taking the Gospel to every area of life as is the true intent of the Great Commission but the pietistic limiting the Gospel to personal salvation and personal piety.

Like I mentioned above, the problems of our modern missions and churches stem from that very pietism and individualism; when preachers, missionaries, and pastors deliberately truncate the Gospel to mean “personal piety,” the result is immature believers who have no idea how to live and work as Christians. (Hence my Gypsy friends’ testimony.) Ironically, the “making disciples” fad is trying to solve that problem by only changing the rhetoric, but not changing the message from truncated and pietistic to comprehensive and culture-changing.

Second, the “making disciples” rhetoric, in its own perverse way, legitimizes the artificial, unbiblical distinction between a “convert” and a “disciple.” It tacitly presupposes that there are two types of Christians. The first one is one who is “converted” but not a “disciple.” The other one is a level higher, he is not only converted but he is also a disciple. While it is true that in the church the individual believers are at different levels of knowledge, understanding, and sanctification, such rhetorical distinction is not Biblical. Converts and disciples are the same; once a man believes in Jesus Christ, he is a disciple, period. There is no second step, no special process to make a convert into a disciple. The conversion process is not over until the believer has changed his mind about everything the Bible teaches, about every application of the Gospel to every area of life. A person can not have Jesus Christ as his Savior but not have Him as his Lord, over every area of his life and over every area of life in general. Every convert must be a disciple also, otherwise we are creating a distinction between Jesus Christ as Savior and Jesus Christ as Lord and King over all.

Third, the “making disciples” rhetoric places heavy emphasis on behavioral change per se, as part of the training, not as a finished product produced by Biblical understanding and wisdom. This was very clear in the Discipleship Movement: a “disciple” was someone who absolutely obeyed his “teachers” or “overseers,” even to a point where a major leader of the movement couldn’t have a fully legitimate marriage to a committed Christian woman because the other leaders wouldn’t give him permission. While the Discipleship Movement can be viewed as a rather extreme example, the other proponents of “making disciples” also focus on the external, behavioral change as the description of a disciple. Obedience to a higher authority, of course, is the main characteristic in all descriptions of a “disciple.” (It is never mentioned that a good Christian sometimes has to disobey a higher authority, if his conscience and his understanding of the Law of God tell him so.) Other characteristics are also strictly behavioral: “availability” (i.e. being present at all the meetings), “humility” (which is often defined by external behavior), “worship” (which again is defined as being present at all the weekly services), etc.

While it is true that the process of sanctification and renewal of the mind inevitably leads to change in the outward behavior of the Christian (Col 3:5-10), it is dangerous to define a “disciple” by his outward behavior. True, a Christian doesn’t commit sin willingly, so this is a change in behavior that we expect from the very beginning of the Christian life. But outward changes defined in a vague way – obedience, humility, learning, availability – are no different than the rituals of the Pharisees which eventually replaced the obedience to God’s Law. When behaviorism replaces obedience to the specific commands of the Law of God, this leads to a combination of pietistic over-spirituality and legalism. And indeed, in many cases “discipleship” produces over-spiritual, self-righteous people who have no idea of the application of the Gospel in every area of life. My favorite example of this is a mother who told my wife that she was very happy in the morning when her kids got onto the public school bus so that she could have some quiet time of prayer. And yes, her church talks about “making disciples.”

And fourth, the “making disciples” rhetoric is dangerous because it has an unhealthy focus on the method of training as over against the content of teaching. A pastor I mentioned above insists that the church’s main mission is not to teach but to “make disciples”; apparently, for him teaching is not the central activity when one “makes disciples,” something else is. I have been criticized many times on the mission field by other Reformed missionaries for “over-intellectualizing” the Gospel. By that, they meant I was consistently teaching the Gospel as it applied to every area of life, from the personal life of the believer to science, education, psychology, government, economics, etc. The other missionaries believed that it was unnecessary, that what was needed was less teaching, but training “in the spirit of humbleness and compassion.” One of them insisted to teach his local converts for a year on the “love of God” and delivered numerous sermons and lectures on how to act “in the love of God,” hoping that the right method will somehow “make disciples.” Al Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Seminary in Kentucky, while insisting that the church’s main mission is to “make disciples,” at the same time declares that “there is no such thing as a Christian culture or Christian government,” thus limiting the content of Christian teaching to personal piety only. Michael Horton does the same: He has a whole book on “recovering God’s strategy for making disciples” but at the same time he claims that the culture should remain secular, and even that the Reformation was about secularizing the culture! Logically, if there is no such thing as Christian culture or Christian government, then there can’t be such thing as Christian doctrine of culture or government; or, at the very least, any attempt at making such doctrine will be severely limited at best. Thus these teachers believe that the process of “making disciples” doesn’t have to include a comprehensive teaching to every area of life; culture and government, for example, can not be part of the Christian life because they can not be Christian to start with.

Unfortunately for these gentlemen, no method of training can substitute for the content of teaching. If what is taught is a truncated Gospel, limited to personal conversion and to the personal life of the believer, then what we should expect is Christians who do not understand the Gospel as it applies to every area of life. If certain areas of life are excluded by a dismissive attitude (“there is no such thing as a Christian culture, government, etc.”), then we should expect Christians to be lacking in knowledge in these areas, and therefore ignorant as to what a Christian should do. Obedience, availability, worship, and the other “characteristics of a disciple” can not produce knowledge in areas if that knowledge is excluded from the teaching in the first place. There are many methods of teaching in the Bible, and there is not one that is set aside as special “making disciples.” Paul himself was a disciple of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 11:1) but he only met Christ personally for several minutes on the road to Damascus. Timothy was a disciple even before he met Paul or any of the apostles (Acts 16:1). As a personal example, I have been a disciple of several great Christian men, and I only know personally one of them, and only see him once a year. In the final account, it is not the method that produces disciples but the content of teaching; when the teaching is limited in scope, the result is “Praise God no one saw us.”

The question now is: If not “making disciples,” then what is the alternative solution? The church has a problem today with Christians who are only half-hearted Christians. We are losing our children, and we are even losing many adults. And those adults that stay in the church often have pagan minds, viewing the world around them not through the worldview of the Bible but through the eyes of the pagan culture around them. What can change this situation?

I will talk about that in the next article.

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