Disciple-making is an important aspect of the Bible, since Jesus commanded people to follow him. And Christians are known for being followers or disciples of Jesus. But the word disciple-making becomes a problem when teachers like Jeff Vanderstelt claim that disciple-making was not exclusive to the New Testament, but occurred in the Old Testament as well.
Disciple-making is an important aspect of the Bible, since Jesus commanded people to follow him. And Christians are known for being followers or disciples of Jesus. But the word disciple-making becomes a problem when teachers like Jeff Vanderstelt claim that disciple-making was not exclusive to the New Testament, but occurred in the Old Testament as well. It amounts to a watering down of the Bible, or a misguided attempt to essentially spread Jesus through the Bible. By using the word disciple more often, and seeing it where it is not, more people will somehow come to know Jesus and more will be his disciples. That's the idea, however misguided it may be.
The message is that what Jesus said in the New Testament was not really enough. We don’t get enough of Jesus modeling what it looks like to be a Christian from the four people who wrote the gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, or what the Apostle Paul wrote about becoming a Christian in the New Testament. We need to talk about it in the Old Testament as well. People are not smart enough to get it in the New Testament, so let's make up things in the Old Testament.
There are many charismatic type teachers who claim extra revelation or a word from the Lord; they claim extra revelation, or adding to the Bible. Benny Hinn is one that comes to mind. But they are not taken seriously by Bible scholars. Though Vandersteldt may not be taken seriously by Bible scholars (at least his speaking about disciple-making in the Old Testament), he is taken seriously by pastors in the Acts 29 group of churches, which uses a Reformed theology as a foundation for preaching God’s word.
In fact, Vanderstelt was at an Acts 29 conference in St. Louis, where he used animals, plants and Adam and Eve as examples of disciple-making. There is no reference to disciple-making or being a follow of Adam of Eve or Cain or Able, or Noah or anyone else in the Old Testament. The fact that Adam and Eve brought sin into the world does not mean that everyone after them became followers of Adam and Eve. We have a sin nature because of what they did in the garden.
Inanimate plants and animals do not have followers
That’s why there is no reference to the world followers similar to following Jesus in the Old Testament. David had followers, but not disciples as Jesus had the disciples. David pointed people to the God of the Old Testament, not to himself. If he did not, he would not have been referred to a man after God's own heart.
Is there a difference between having influence over someone and being a disciple? One can influence someone, and be popular, as many political figures are today. They may have more influence over of us. But rarely do they claim to demand devotion or a following as Jesus did. They don't usually claim to be God either.
The term disciple is derived from the Koine Greek word mathetes, which means a pupil of a teacher or an apprentice. One could also use it to refer to someone who learns or a student.
In a secular sense, there are many disciples, thousands if not millions, since there are many students attending school. But are they seeking to emulate a life style in the way that disciples seek to model themselves after Jesus or other believers?
Is emulating the sin nature, in the Old Testament, the same as being a disciple of Jesus, or is it just something that is in our sin nature? According to the Bible, it’s clearly not the same thing. Neither is it the same thing as a tree or a weed that reproduces to become what the seed dictates that it will become. If that were the case, why would Jesus or the Apostle Paul make such a big deal about being different from the sin nature? In fact, much of what Paul talks about in the New Testament highlights the difference between being a Christian and obeying the sin nature. One should ask, is the sin nature a good example of how we disciple each other, or what we are called to?
Trees are disciple-makers as well
“Everyone is a disciple maker,” Vandersteldt says. “Including trees. Trees are disciple makers as well."
Of course, this is not the case. Vandersteldt confuses the void that is present in our lives with making the effort to follow someone, like a leader, a teacher or Jesus. The opposite is actually the case; it takes discipline that is completely outside the sin nature and what is natural to be a disciple of Jesus. This is clear in the New Testament.
For Vandersteldt, being a disciple is what the animals and plants do.
“In Genesis, we see God making trees that will have fruit,” he says. “In the fruit will be seeds. And the animals will do the same thing. And he tells Adam and Eve to multiply and fill the earth.”
Part of multiplying is having sex, which results in procreation and filling the earth. Are we to understand that being a disciple is the same as having sex? Diluting the meaning of making disciples is really missing the narrative of the Bible. Even more so, to say that becoming a follower of Jesus is similar to plants and animals reproducing to be more plants and animals doesn’t make sense. Jesus said just the opposite, if we are to believe the gospels:
The Cost of Following Jesus: Luke 9:57, 58:
"As they were going along the road, someone said to Him, "I will follow You wherever You go." And Jesus said to him, "The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head."
Vandersteldt is part of an increasingly popular group that attempts to create something new, by coining a few phrases
Here are a few:
Mission, Missional, On Mission
While none of these words are harmful in and of themselves, it's how they are used that causes problems when interpreting and teaching the Bible, and being the church.
Here is a statement from gcmcollective (part of Soma Communities):
The GCM Collective exists to promote, create and equip Gospel Communities on Mission. A gospel community is a group of believers that lives out the mission of God together as family, in a specific area to a particular people group, by declaring and demonstrating the gospel in tangible forms. Regular people, living ordinary lives, with great gospel intentionality.
Ask someone associated with this movement what gospel intentionality means, and it’s not clear that it is the same thing as in the Bible. The inference is that people who do not use “gospel intentionality” are not really acting out the gospel.
One pastor in the Acts 29 group of churches used the word gospel more than 50 times as part of his sermon. Clearly there seems to be an assumption that if one uses the word gospel more often, it means that one is more centered on Jesus or simply more aware of Jesus' mission. If this were the case, why would Paul not have encouraged Christians to do this?
To be sure, Vandersteldt talks about some things that definitely make sense, like the fact that Christians in the U.S. need to have the mindset that they are sent into the U.S., as Christians, in same way that missionaries being sent overseas.
“(We) wanted to live life on mission, in the every day, not just every day Sunday for a couple of hours,” he says in a video about Soma Communities in Tacoma, WA.
He asks the question, “Who has God sent us to?”
The idea is to radically re-orient ones life to reach non-believers and other Christians who are disaffected. The problem is that this is mostly a popular gospel that rarely challenges people with their political or world-views that affect people. The gospel of Soma community, in essence, does not extend this far.
Seattle, where Vandersteldt's church is based, is known as one of the more progressive or liberal (read Godless) states in the U.S., and was labeled as such by none other than Bernie Sanders when he visited the city (before he was cut off from his speech by Black Lives Matter activists). This mission field for churches like Soma usually does not extend to talking about issues that affect non-Christians and Christians alike - especially political issues. The reason is that it's not popular, certainly not in Seattle.
One adherent to Soma says:
“This is what the gospel is about. This is what it means to say Jesus is my Lord and Savior.”
But is that really the case? The corollary is: if you are not doing this, Jesus is not your Lord and Savior. All Christians have a higher calling to follow Jesus. But if one does not do these things, does it mean that they are not Christians?
Soma and Vandersteldt also don't like the word Bible study
“You can have a Bible study and be unfaithful to the scriptures,” he says. “They don’t lead to a healthy and effective church.”
Bible studies stop, they don’t create the church, Vanderstelt says in the video. “They often think the goal was to study the Bible instead of becoming a healthy family.”
The obvious problem with this is that Paul actually commended a group of believers for “searching the scriptures” or studying the Bible.
Acts 17:11: "Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true."
The result is that many of them became believers because of their persistence in studying the Bible. Further, if Christians are not motivated to study the Bible, why would non-believers?
The better question, which Vandersteldt does not ask, is, if studying the Bible does not make one relevant as a believer, why not? One church, The Journey in St. Louis, was founded, by Darrin Patrick, and grew because of the concept of expository preaching - relevant and well-communicated expository preaching - but still, expository preaching.
In fact, intense and open study of New Testament books like Corinthians, where sin is openly discussed is probably why The Journey flourished. Added to that was the assumption that people hearing the message would discover it themselves. The idea is to present such a compelling message that people would want to read about it in the Bible.
The jettisoning of Bible study in small groups, community groups, can result in only the pastor studying the Bible: a pastor of a church can study the Bible, but people on mission don’t really need to study the Bible.
Pastors like Vandersteldt, others in the Acts 29 group as well as other pastors, may prepare for a sermon between four and 16 hours, or a half day to two full days. Any more than that can be counter productive. Church members, on average, often spend very little time actually studying the Bible, to the consternation of many pastors. If a pastor says that they are not meeting to study the Bible when they meet together, the result can be similar to what happened in the Middle Ages - common every day people were discouraged from reading the Bible.
If a teacher or pastor wants Christ followers to be like the New Testament church, does he tell believers not to study the Bible? Is that how we get believers to become more authentic?
“We really think that Jesus came to die to give us more than a great sermon and good music on Sunday morning,” says one Soma member. “He died so that our whole life could be restored to God. The Gospel comes to bear on all parts of your life, as you’re living in community. It’s messy and it’s uncomfortable and it’s scary.”
“This is what missional living is about,” says Vanderstelt’s wife, Jayne. “It’s not this nice, clean tidy wipe my hands at the end of the day and push people out and live my own life. It becomes part of who you are.”
The reality is that people in Vanderstelt’s missional church are not the only people acting like the U.S. is a mission field. They are just the only ones calling it this. Think Habitat for Humanity, the Salvation Army.
They plant a garden in the back of a neighbor’s yard. Nothing wrong with that. Lot’s good with that. But how does Vandersteldt characterize this? It’s part of getting one’s life cleaned up by the gospel. Other Christians are not doing this, therefore the gospel is not what they are demonstrating.
He also claims that this is a form of apologetics, or a defense of the gospel. But is this really what defense of the gospel means? Are Christians supposed to respond to attacks or half truths about Christianity by handing people some vegetables? Vegetables and gardens are good. But they are not the same as "defending" one's faith. This is not what Peter is referring to when he talks about be ready with an answer for your faith.
1 Peter 3:15, 16: "But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander."
What we have in reality, is the use of the word disciple and gospel according to Vandersteldt, and others at Soma Community. Teachers are held to a very high standard as he well knows. Not holding leaders accountable for what they teach, no matter how small the error, creates problems in the church now, as it has countless times in the past. Rob Bell, for one, has a brilliant and positive message of redemption and grace.
What’s wrong with Bell? His message, as one of supposed compassion, omits the aspect of God’s character as a judge who causes people to spend eternity separated from him. Other than that, he’s a great, charismatic teacher of the Bible. But that’s the problem. Mischaracterizing the Bible produces a corrupted gospel, one that does not completely depend on Jesus. We need the gospel, with a little help from a brilliant man who describes a popular and attractive church.
If we only use the word gospel more often in our conversation, it will help to make us more centered on Jesus, reminding us to be true disciples. This is the kind of gospel the church does not need. Plants and animals replicating is not part of the disciple-making process either.
© 2016 Larry Ingram
Based in St Louis,
Larry Ingram writes about the news media, movies and culture, as well as topics like race, privilege, Christianity, religious expression and tolerance.
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