I’m going to go out on a limb and offer something that will seem very counter-cultural within western, American evangelicalism, especially in light of massive church growth strategies over the past few decades.
I do not believe all Christians are called to be disciple-makers.
Ok, it’s maybe not so problematic. But I know it sounds opposed to all we are taught.
Well let’s see how we arrived at the all-are-called-to-make-disciples viewpoint, at least as the way I understand it.
One of the major points emphasized in the midst of the Reformation was the priesthood of all believers. This was established through such passages as 1 Pet 2:9-10 and 1 Tim 2:5. We could argue the context of these two passages and what is actually being communicated, but suffice it to say that I’m very happy with the priesthood of all believers (as with the prophethood of all believers as well, but that’s another day and another time).
To understand the massive uproar of Luther and the reformers, one has to understand the ways of the Catholic church in medieval Europe. Abuses of the magisterium (the papal leadership) and Rome’s priests, indulgences being sold for the due satisfaction of sins, and a host of other dubious practices caused Luther to nail his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenburg church in Germany, decrying such practices.
And one of the cries that arose out of this event was that people do not need any priest to perform any rituals on their behalf because, through Christ, all had been provided for believers. This included the reality that all God’s people are priests.
Not only this, but what also began to develop over the time period is that every single believer should have their own copy of Scripture, able to read it and interpret themselves. Scripture’s message was clear enough for each person to understand (what theologians call the perspicuity of Scripture), regardless of whether they had any education in biblical languages, theology and church history. This could be championed even more now that a new tool had arrived on the scene – the printing press. Never before could printed material (including Scripture) be made available to the mass population. Now it could!
But there are other things post-Reformation worth noting. Over the past 500 years since that famous date of 1517, the western worldview has become more and more influenced by post-Enlightenment modernity. We’ve left the more ancient ways of communal life (some good, some bad) all in an effort to attain a more individualistic society. Suffice it to say, though it didn’t officially began with this man, the more individualistic, western approach was championed through mottos like René Descartes’, “I think, therefore I am.”
This view holds that an individual has the power to cognitively think for himself or herself, and so use his or her individual thinking (cerebral) power to challenge the existing authority and status quo. You are your own authority! I don’t have time to lay out more, but if interested you can read a little more I put down in this article.
What does all this have to do with all believers not being disciple-makers?
Well, we don’t interpret Scripture in a vacuum.
We have a load of presuppositions for interpreting Scripture. And our worldview is flooded with what I described above – the post-Enlightenment, modernist mindset. This increased ever-more in the 20th century, perhaps highlighted through slogans like that of Burger King – Have it your way! Or there is the all-you-can-eat buffets where we get to pick and choose what we want, and leave the rest that we don’t like behind. Everything is about individual choice – from food to clothing to cell phone to internet to education to spiritual life.
And our worldview still normally runs through that lens of individualism. I think it will change more and more as we embrace a more moderate postmodern worldview, but again, another day and another time.
So, when Scripture is cracked open, or we access it on our smart phone, we head to it with a personal devotional perspective – “God, speak personally to me. Speak to me as Scott Lencke.” The statements of Scripture are run through the grid of how I, as an individual, can become a better follower of Jesus. At times we step outside that specific construct to think about our local church or our Bible study group. But, in general, we as individuals want our “manna for today.”
Now, this seems harmless. Matter of fact, it seems THE right way to approach Scripture.
How in the world am I to become a better follower of Jesus if I’m not applying Scripture to me as an individual?
Well, for starters, let me share something that may not be on our radar – Scripture was not written to us. It was written that we might benefit from it. But not written to us. And that’s a paradigm-breaker if we’ve ever seen one. The Scripture writers did not have us in mind. However, we’ve made Scripture so abstract, able to speak to every person in every situation regardless, that we don’t even see it in it’s own narrative framework. Yet, the reality is that it was written to a whole different community, who worked with a different lens.
And that is another point to bring up. It was written to a community first and foremost, not individuals. Sure, communities are made up of individuals. But Scripture started as a communal text. Even when Scripture gives us a story of an individual – Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Daniel, etc – it was penned with the community of God’s people in mind.
Remember, every narrative in Scripture was written after certain events took place. The biblical writers and compilers were putting together a text to teach a community. They were not asking – How can I be just like Noah or Abraham? They were seeing the “bigger picture,” if you will, the call to the community of what it meant to stand in the promises of their fathers. But they weren’t all looking for a Noah-like or Abraham-like experience. Not to mention that most of the New Testament letters were written to local church settings, not individuals.
Now, the great disciple-maker text of Matt 28:18-20 is interesting when considering who Jesus was speaking to. In the actual narrative, he is speaking to the initial apostles. Of course, I don’t confine the text to 12 men and 12 men alone. But just think about who Jesus is instructing – their calling, ministry and role. And think of who is carrying that instruction forward – a larger group, no doubt, with the massive increase of Christianity in 2000 years, but still a group that did not include everyone. Even more, we need to look at what is actually part of disciple-making – the text says baptizing others and teaching them all Jesus has commanded.
We forget those elements so easily. And I don’t believe those are an “everyone” instruction.
Of course, Matthew (writing about the Great Commission) was addressing a community of believers, not just the original apostles. But think about this community reading what the actual text said, considering who it was actually referencing. This “Matthean community” weren’t each asking how to personally appropriate the text as individual disciple makers. Rather, they would have been part of a discipleship community, but more on that in a moment.
Here is an interesting practice to undertake. From now on, when you read the word you in Scripture, read it as youall (we say ya’ll in the south). We usually read you as a singular you, but it’s actually a plural you on most occasions. That’s how the ancients spoke – and also how the majority world functions today. Perhaps the Africans, Asians and Latin Americans have more to teach the west about true Christianity than we allow!
The ancients started first and foremost with the communal-collective and then moved to the personal. We, however, begin with the personal (or individual) and move to the communal. We approach things differently than the ancients – and we need to recognize this with our interpretations of Scripture. There’s a great book that can help with this: Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes. See my article also.
Let me also emphasize that there is a difference between personal and individual. The former makes things applicable in our own lives as part of God’s people. The later can become too overly privatized – apart from the community. That’s problematic.
So back to Matt 28:18-20. The context – Jesus speaking to the apostles, Jesus defining discipleship with baptism and teaching all things he’s commanded. This isn’t the call of all. But that shouldn’t make us feel bad, even though it might call for us to change our website’s vision statement. Or it might call for someone’s idea of disciple-making to crumble. I’ve seen empires of disciple-making, church planting, worship production and more that may need to fall.
What we are called to is a community of discipleship. We can create local churches committed to discipleship, but that won’t mean all are discipling others. And it doesn’t even mean that Larry or Suzy are lacking spiritual maturity because they aren’t discipling others. It might be that Larry and Suzy are involved in hospitality with a homegroup, but they aren’t necessarily being the instigators of discipleship (baptism and teaching all Jesus commanded). It’s really ok.
As I mentioned earlier, that’s what I believe the original Matthean community would have focused on – interested in seeing a community of discipleship formed, but not that each individual was personally making a disciple of another person. They were working under a collective context that allowed the community to embrace the apostolic instruction, but not try and each be baptizers and teachers of all the commands of Jesus.
I’m not trying to create some massive clergy-laity divide here. I’m not saying we dispel the priesthood of all believers, nor that we keep a copy of Scripture out of all people’s hands. Please know that. But I am asking us to consider:
- the ancient communal setting of Scripture.
- understand the narrative of Scripture, which means we’ll have to re-engage with Matt 28.
- allow people to be followers of Jesus while not making them think that, if they want to really move to the next step, they need to be making disciples themselves.
However, what we can do is build local church communities of discipleship, with all involved in serving accordingly, while also realizing every believer is not going to be (or called to be) making disciples. It’s really ok. And let’s also thank God for those who have a calling to follow in the footsteps of the original apostles.
I think this is being more faithful to the text of Scripture, all the while still maintaining a healthy approach to following Christ.