Your Church Discipleship Isn’t Working
Discipleship. Seemingly every Southern Baptist Pastor and every evangelical minister, lay leader, and church member worthy their salt is all about this word. Discipleship books are popping of the selves of Christian books stores, conferences are dominated by the theme, and most every Sunday school vendor has launched some sort of new “Discipleship” curriculum that synthesizes discipleship principles into an accessible five to seven step program that promises to redefine you and your church.
The focus upon discipleship is extremely timely and needed. Today, only 1 of every three Southern Baptists attends church on Sunday. And only 39% of SBC members read their Bible every day. Mega churches such as Willow Church have and are continuing to radically adjust their programming because they discovered church participation does not equal spiritual growth and abiding faith. As Bill Hybles notes, “We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become self-feeders.” As a result of this mistake and of many others, SBC and evangelical churches often resembles the American culture which prizes self-actualization above all else. As Americans and Christians look within they do not find peace. They find narcissism. New York Times Columnist Ross Douthat comments that,
A nation of narcissist turn out to be a nation of gamblers speculators, gluttons, and gym obsessives, pornographers and Ponzi schemers, in which household debt rises alongside public debt, and bankers and pensioners and automakers and unions all compete to empty the public trough.
The same can often be said of Christendom. The evangelical, conservative church desperately needs revival and reformation. She can greatly benefit from rediscovering discipleship.
The focus upon discipleship is also needed because Jesus commands his followers to make disciples. In Matthew 28:19-20 Jesus commands us to:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in[b] the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Christians are to make disciples. Christians are to be regularly teaching each other, investing in the lives of others, and sharing their faith. All who follow Christ have been commissioned by their God to make disciples. All Christians should be about the business of being discipled and discipling.
The church should champion discipleship. I am thankful for Bill Hull, Robby Gallaty, and the many others who have speared headed the discipleship movement. But in their zeal to disciple, the created a defective view of discipleship. Gallaty defines discipleship as, “intentionally equipping believers with the Word of God through accountable relationships empowered by the Holy Spirit in order to replicate faithful followers of Christ.”
The definition is good as far as it goes. It rightly priorities the relational nature of the Christian faith. But Gallaty’s and many others stop short of the historical definition of discipleship taught in the Scriptures and defended by Southern Baptists of old. The leaders of the modern discipleship movement divorce discipleship from the historical doctrines of formative and corrective discipline, making discipleship the property of the small group instead of the church. To teach God’s people the full counsel of God, the people of God have to deal with ecclesiology. They have to teach on and exercise the keys of the kingdom. The small group is the only one of many important cogs used by God to mature men and women into his image.
Until liberalism stormed into the SBC in the late 19th and early 20th century, Baptist theologians seldom employed the word discipleship. The used the word discipline from which the English word discipleship derives. They believed two types of discipline existed: Formative Discipline and Corrective Discipline. As one might guess, formative discipline consisted of all the disciplines needed to mature or form the believer in the faith. Baptists affirm that the church forms disciples through covenants, the preaching of the Word, and small groups. Instead of being the impetus for discipleship, small groups are places where church members are encouraged to live out their covenantal commitments in light of their pastors’ teaching. Small group foster and aid the general discipleship process of the church but are not the discipleship process. Mark Dever rightfully notes, the pastor’s “teaching of the Word is the core of the church’s discipleship ministry.” And the great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer concurs, writing that “the sermon remains the encompassing of spiritual care.”
As men faithfully expound the Scriptures detailing all the commands of Scripture, men and women hear truth, internalize truth, and then begin to make decisions based on the truth. Dr. D.Martin Lloyd-Jones notes that the goal of preaching is “to isolate the radical problems and to deal with them in a radical manner.” Preaching is discipleship. Church covenants are discipleship. Small groups are discipleship. And every element of church worship and life that proclaims the gospel is discipleship from the pulpit to the arm chair. In short, formative discipline is the process of forming believers into disciples through the accurate and intentional teaching of biblical truth. As the great Baptist theologian Edward T. Hiscox writes,
[edification and spiritual growth] are largely attained by instruction from the pulpit, the various departments of worship and the general activities of the Christian life.
Churches that have poor discipleship programs most likely do not have a faulty small group structure. They have a faulty preacher.
Discipleship, formative discipline, begins and ends with the local church.
Admittedly, even the most faithful of local churches will not produce perfect disciples. Though church covenants, godly preaching, and small groups should do much to promote the spiritual growth in the church, men and women are still very much sinners who are prone to sin. Matthew 18 clearly teaches the local church to be prepared for such failures. Men and women are commanded to confront those who sin and to call them to repentance. Most of the time such confrontations end well and the sinner believer is restored. But at times, the believer refuses to repent, the Christians must go back to the sinner with witnesses. And if that does not work, the believer must take the matter to the church. And if the sinner still refuses to repent, the sinner must be put out of the church.
Corrective church discipline described above can be likened to a school grade. Jonathan Leeman notes that the church should award A’s to those who diligently pursue Christ and to those who willingly repent of their sins, but hands out F’s to those who refuse to obey Jesus’ commands. If the church refuses to issue letter grades and if the church refuses to discipline men and women for unrepentant sins, the discipleship culture of the church will unravel. Anarchy will reign because obeying self is always easier than obeying Jesus. Hiscox prophetically notes,
The Church is the school of Christ; let the school be controlled with strict, yet wise and kindly discipline or the pupils will learn more of evil than of good, and anarchy and confusion will supplant good government.
Sadly a quick scan of today’s churches validate Hiscox’s warning. They are weak, feeble, wandering, sick, and lead by ungodly men and women because they have abandon elements of if not the entire doctrines of formative and corrective discipline. J.L. Dagg also hit the nail on the head in in 1858 when he wrote, “When discipline leaves the church, Christ goes with it.”
The discipleship programs in most of our conservative churches are broken because they follow Gallaty and Hull and others and only embrace one of the elements formative discipline, neglecting preaching and covenants and completely ignoring all the meaningfully elements of corrective discipline.
Brothers and sisters we do not need more small groups. We need men and women who are committed to the whole counsel of God and who are committed to preaching and living the Word, willing embracing all the costs and heart aches of church discipline. Until the churches of the SBC and conservative evangelicals begin lovingly and thoughtfully practicing church discipline, there will be no revival in America. I share Dr. Albert Mohler’s conclusion that, “A church lacking these essential qualities, is biblically defined, not a true church.”
Are you ready to embrace both formative and corrective church discipline?