Who ‘makes disciples’? And where can it go wrong?

“Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.’” (Matthew 28:18-20) 

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” (Matthew 5:13)

The short answer to the question in the title is disciples do. Jesus began by selecting twelve, the majority probably fishermen and not an M. Div. among them, “to be with him” (Mk 3:1), to observe and then share in his ministry, and finally to be commissioned to carry on after his ascension.

But the longer answer is: a lot of people. Ministers, pastors and elders. Spouses with each other. Parents with their children. Many churches have small groups that meet mid-week. They go by various names: home groups, home Bible studies, cell groups, bands, life groups, etc. The name is less important than what goes on.

But what goes on has to go beyond the transmission and acceptance of orthodox teaching. Disciples don’t just know something. They do something. This is what “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” means. The mind is engaged, but also the will.

In my 44 years of experience, and based on my understanding of the biblical definition of discipleship, this is what can go wrong:

A copy of a copy of a copy. In the movie Multiplicity, Michael Keaton plays a construction project manager who realizes there isn’t enough of him to go around: daily work responsibilities, being a loving and attentive husband, involved in the lives of his children.

On a job, he meets a scientist who offers to solve his problem by cloning him. To make a long story short, this works until he makes a third copy of himself, who turns out a bit goofy. His explanation: he’s a copy of a copy (i.e., a copied original in turn copied too many times). Clearly, something has been lost in the process.

No matter what mechanism you have in place—some kind of Paul/Timothy mentoring or coaching relationship or person(s) leading small groups of believers—who they are is going to determine the outcome of the discipling process.

You can’t make someone into something you aren’t. If there are blind spots or tendencies that are at odds with biblical standards in your own life, like it or not, and sometimes unintentionally, you will probably transmit them to others.

Harry Chapin’s song, Cat’s in the Cradle, illustrates this clear “sins of the father” principle. His son repeatedly asks for his attention, but the father always has something else to do that makes that impossible. And then his grown son repeatedly puts him off with similar plausible excuses.

The father finally has this revelation: “As I hung up the phone, it occurred to me/He’d grown up just like me/My boy was just like me.”

(Incidentally, so there is no confusion, the “sins of the father” reference has to do with children doing the same things as their father, not that innocent children are punished for something their father did. See Ezek 18 for an elaboration of this.)  

‘One thing lacking’ may mean everything. The story of the unnamed rich young man who came to Jesus with his question about how to inherit eternal life has yielded lots of “creative” (i.e., superficial and erroneous) interpretations. In my opinion, a lot of people tend to shy away from this passage because they think they are in Jesus’ crosshairs as well.

In a manner of speaking they are, but not because every affluent Christian (which covers most of the American church) must sell all their possessions in obedience to the same command Jesus gave to this man. Or that this is a mandate for asceticism. Or that salvation, and therefore obtaining eternal life, hinges on doing what the young man was commanded to do.

In my opinion, all of these assumptions are just poor exposition. Jesus addressed a specific man with a specific command. Absent the Holy Spirit speaking directly to you to “go and do likewise”—possible but not likely to be a widespread phenomenon—we have to look for generalizations in the passage for wider application.

Here’s one: Jesus said after the man went away, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mk 10:23) The rich young man was one member of the category “the rich.” Most American Christians are as well, despite the feeling that we sometimes feel anything but “rich.”

But we cannot escape consideration of what Jesus said. It’s hard for the rich to enter the kingdom. Hard, but not impossible. Nevertheless, Paul reminded the church at Corinth, “Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth” (1 Cor 1:26).

Remember, Jesus said the kingdom belongs to “the poor in spirit” (Mt 5:3). People who are wise, influential, well-off or well-born have a sufficiency in themselves that makes them less interested in the kingdom of God. They just don’t feel a need; their needs are met.  

And there’s simply the way life crowds out the kingdom. Jesus illustrated this in the parable of the sower. “Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful” (Mk 4:18-19).

Another generalization that is unavoidable is this from Jesus: “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Lk 12:15). I found this out about 35 years ago.

At the time, I was self-employed and doing OK. And then calls for work started to slow down, then nearly stop. I had just purchased a larger cube van for work, so I had a truck payment added to credit cards I used to purchase supplies, materials, and then, as my income dropped, household necessities.

The phone calls from creditors became regular events. I started to worry. Then, it reached a point where my stomach would knot up every time the phone rang. I became impatient, irritable, and short-tempered, a big contrast from my usual easygoing, no-worries personality.

And then one day as I was having a cup of coffee at the kitchen table, I realized what was happening. I was seeing myself as I really was. My life did “consist in an abundance of possessions.”

Or, rather, I saw the negative corollary of that. As long as I had “an abundance” I was my easygoing, no-worries self. Take that away and I changed. It was like an equation: (My life) minus (my abundance) equaled a complete poverty of character. Whatever “righteous character” I thought I had was grossly overestimated. It was a bitter revelation.

Today, I am hardly wealthy or affluent, but I am not poor, either. I have an excellent credit score, pay my bills on time and live comfortably by my standards. I’m content. But I also know what my life is, and what it isn’t.

Elders, or just older? Tucked in among the qualifications for elder, Paul wrote this, “He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited” (1 Tim 3:6). I hope I’m wrong but based on my experience this is “a custom more honor’d in the breach than the observance” (from Shakespeare’s Hamlet).

It obviously has a specific application here, but there is an underlying principle that has much wider relevance. Basically, if someone is not ready for the responsibilities that come with a certain position, they shouldn’t be promoted to it. If you ignore this, the outcome is bad for everyone.

I’ve seen this so many times that I cringe when I see the signs of it appearing again. The church needs an elder or a small group leader and dovetailing with that is an opportunity to cement someone’s loyalty to the local church by installing them in that position. It’s flattering to be offered the promotion; it’s expedient to offer it.

Maybe they have an above average command of biblical doctrine and teaching. Maybe they’re well-liked. But if you read the 1 Timothy 3 elder qualifications (which, by implication, are a model for other leadership positions), they have largely to do with character, not just knowledge or popularity.

I’ve often used the analogy of the almost-ripe fruit. No one mistakes the blossom for the ripe apple, but the almost-ripe apple can look so convincing that you take a bite—and then are disappointed for being fooled by appearances. And the difference is not subtle; it’s the difference between sweet and sour.

Persons promoted prematurely are, by definition, incomplete in their spiritual development as disciples. They have a tendency to let the position and title go to their head. When challenged, they tend not to take criticism well, which is bad for two reasons: (1) they alienate those under them by their defensiveness and (2) they miss potentially constructive opportunities to continue to mature. Nobody wins.

But you’re missing a more basic truth by skirting God’s standards. “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain” (Ps 127:1). How are you going to build God’s house on man’s wisdom? Your expedients are all “in vain.”

If I have an 8-year-old son and a 5-year-old son, the 8-year-old is older, obviously. But they are both children; the older is not an elder, by any stretch of the imagination.

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