False Dichotomy: Evangelism or Discipleship

biblestudydiscipleshipWhen I became serious about being in church and made my first baby steps in the Christian walk, I learned about evangelism. If I cared about people and loved Jesus, my teachers told me that I must also tell others about Jesus and how He made the way for them to go to heaven. Honestly, I can’t argue with that. It was basic then. It is basic now.

However, I didn’t hear a lot about discipleship until I went to seminary. As I have talked with others through the years, I’ve seen that my experience is not unique. It seems that many churches, church leaders, and others hold evangelism and discipleship in an unnecessary tension. Some almost seem to think if you do one, you have to diminish the other. In fact, I have heard that expressed verbally. However, Jesus never had such a conflict in mind.

In the Great Commission, Jesus gave one command: Make disciples. The other verb forms in those verses–going, baptizing, teaching to obey whatever Jesus commanded–are all participles. Because they explain an imperative form, they also carry an imperative or command form meaning. As we use the phrase today, most people relate making disciples to what happens after people become followers of Jesus. We baptize them* and teach them. We usually associate baptizing and teaching with discipleship. Evangelism is going to unbelievers and sharing the gospel with them.

However, based upon the structure of the Great Commission, I believe that we should think of making disciples as one process with parts–parts that today we often refer to as evangelism and discipleship. Evangelism and discipleship should not compete with one another for a church’s attention but should both be part of any church’s ministry. The reasons are very practical.

  1. We won’t have believers to disciple without evangelism since faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God. People have to listen to the gospel before they can profess faith in Christ as their Lord and Savior.
  2. Discipleship does not slow down the witness. Rather, it multiplies it. In 2 Timothy 2:2, Paul encouraged Timothy to pass on what Timothy learned from him to faithful men who would teach others. Let’s apply that teaching to sharing the gospel. The town where I attend church has a little less than 9,000 people. For the sake of argument, let’s assume I am the only believer in the city. By the end of this year, I share Christ with two people who I teach to witness to others. Next, each of us teaches two others, and this pattern is consistent for several years. Assuming that this trend continues, between year 7 and 8, everyone in the town would hear and respond to the gospel. Evangelism alone adds believers. Evangelism with discipleship multiplies believers.
  3. Evangelism and discipleship together use the entire spiritual gifting of a church. One-on-one discipleship (or mentoring) is important and helps especially with accountability. I highly recommend it. But no one person has all the spiritual gifts necessary to help a believer reach maturity in Christ. While all should share the gospel, some are more gifted at it than others. My experience has been that most people with evangelistic gifts are not as gifted with the gifts needed to teach these new believers to obey Jesus’ commands. It takes the entire body of Christ working together to help one another grow into the likeness of Christ. So, no church should ever ask, should we emphasize evangelism or discipleship. Both are equally important parts of the process of making disciples.

*I am a Baptist, and I believe biblical baptism is a baptism of believers only by immersion in water. The Great Commission implies this understanding.

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Review of Rescuing the Gospel

Rescuing the Gospel is a history of the Protestant Reformation written by Erwin W. Lutzer. Lutzer is the long-term pastor of Moody Church in Chicago. His book is more than a history of the Reformation. It is as the subtitle suggests: it is “The Story and Significance of the Reformation.” The author explains the theological reasons behind the Reformation and why they remain significant today.

Strengths

I appreciate the fact that this book is accessible to most readers. The book would be an excellent supplement to readings on church history in a home school or a Christian school. The price for accessibility is that Lutzer oversimplifies some explanations (for example, his explanation of TULIP).

Lutzer does not whitewash the reformers. This book is not hagiography. He portrays them in all of their temperamental weakness. He also does not ignore the political intrigue and impetus behind their movement as well. Still, he argues convincingly that the main issues were theological and significant regarding the Bible’s teachings on salvation. He concludes that the Reformation was not a mistake, and that significant differences remain between the Roman Catholic Church and Protestants (particularly Evangelicals) today.

Weaknesses

If I have one complaint, it is the imbalance between the length of material regarding each of the reformers. Luther dominates the book. Zwingli’s work fills one chapter with his role in the martyrdom of Anabaptists covered in a second chapter. Calvin, whose influence on present-day Evangelicals is greater than that of Luther, receives much less attention than Luther. I would have also liked to have read more about the Anabaptists, the free church tradition, and the Radical Reformation.

Conclusion

I highly recommend Rescuing the Gospel for anyone who wants to understand the how and the why of the Protestant Reformation and to anyone who questions if its importance remains true today.

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book from Baker Books for review purposes. I was under no obligation to write a positive review.)

Review of Unchanging Witness by Fortson and Grams

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Unchanging Witness by S. Donald Fortson III and Rollin G. Grams desires to answer the recent challenges to traditional evangelical views regarding homosexuality. The authors seek to respond to the challenge not only by examining pertinent biblical passages but also by looking to the traditional teachings of the church. They hope their book will be a resource book for those who hold the traditional view.

Strengths

If the intent was to become a resource book, the authors are successful. A 380-page book is remarkably brief to reach the desired goal of the authors. The structure of the book is easy to follow. Pastors and Bible teachers looking for resources to help shape their response to attacks on the church’s views of sexuality will find this book to be a valuable resource. The structure of the book, which begins with the historic church views moving to modern views and then concluding with sections regarding the Bible’s teaching, is easily followed and can be quickly referenced.

Weaknesses

The book is high on doctrinal truth. It is weak on pastoral care for those who are dealing with homosexual desires. It was not the intent of the authors to write a manual on pastoral care; so, I recognize that my criticism is not entirely fair. I bring it up to say that ministers will want other tools on their bookshelf to go along with this one. Also, this book is not accessible to just anyone. The language is technical and theological. Pastors and teachers will need carefully and respectfully to convey this material to their congregation or class. The book is ideal for a seminary class or college level class on the subject of Christian ethics.

Analysis

This book contains nothing new, and that is precisely the point that the authors want to make. Through the centuries, the church has had one authoritative voice on the issue of homosexuality. I am most qualified to analyze this book from a missiological perspective. New teachings regarding the acceptability of homosexual behavior are what missiologists call local theologies. They are developed to answer questions that arise in a particular culture. In this case, the culture is our own, and the theology is that homosexual behavior in a committed relationship is biblically acceptable. Fortson and Grams say “no” to that conclusion.

Fortson and Grams bring the local theology that homosexual behavior is acceptable into dialogue with the rest of the church’s teaching. Many proponents of accepting same-sex marriage argue that evangelicals no longer have a universal view on the subject, and therefore, freedom exists for evangelical churches to sanction same-sex marriage. However, Fortson and Grams demonstrate that they assume too much.

The fact that disagreement exists does not make all views equal and warranted. Missiologists and theologians have devised various dialogical methods for analyzing local theologies for the purpose of determining if a local theology is worthy of either universal acceptance or, at the very least, toleration. Part of that dialogue includes not only the witness of Scripture but also the historical teaching of the church. Fortson and Gram initiate the conversation using both history and the Bible. They find the case for same-sex marriage and acceptance of homosexuality to be wanting. This book is one of the most important recent books on this subject.

(I received a free copy of this book from B&H Academic in exchange for a review. I was under no obligation to write a positive review.)

Christian Citizenship: The Duty of Prayer Part 1

A few weeks ago, I attended a National Day of Prayer observance for the first time. As Christians, we have a responsibility to pray for our government. However, that is not where I want to begin. I want to start with the church’s responsibility to pray for herself–for the church.

I suppose it will strike many as self-centered to say that the church’s duty is to pray for herself. What about praying for leaders? Well, I plan to cover praying for leaders in my next post in this series. However, I think the church will never be active in its mission—its first duty—of making disciples of all nations unless the Church draws near to God and becomes what God desires.

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When many speak about renewal or revival, they reference 2 Chronicles 7:14. I see one common misapplication of this verse. Many take the reference to “My people” as somehow being a reference to the United States of America. Without getting into if the Founders founded America as a Christian nation or not, we just cannot theologically conclude that this verse applies to all Americans. The people of God, those called by His name, can only refer to those who have a covenant relationship with Him. Under the New Covenant, only those who have trusted in the substitutionary atoning work of Christ upon the Cross can truly be God’s people.

However, some say that this verse only applies to Israel under the Old Covenant. To use it today as a call to prayer for renewal is to rip it from its context. I disagree. “My people” refers to the covenant people of God, and the Church is the covenant people of God. The actions called for in the verse are timeless principles applicable to the church now as they were in Israel. Though the Church does not occupy land as Israel did as a political entity, the Church is in need of healing, renewal, and revival.

As the people of God, we face many challenges. Our influence in society has decreased. Others marginalize us away from public debate. Politics divides. Our society no longer shares the values that we hold, and in fact, many find our values repugnant.

Therefore, in light of the challenges we experience as a result of being both people of this country and His people, we need to humble ourselves, pray, seek God’s face, and turn from any evil in which we participate. If we are to have any power at all, it must be God’s power working through us to witness, make disciples, and to transform the world in which we live.

Christians* in a Pagan Empire

I see the panic in some people’s eyes. I see the confusion.  They seem to be saying, “What happened? I thought we were a Christian nation.”

The point of this blog post is not to debate if the Founding Fathers of the  United States of America founded it as a Christian nation. The answer to that question seems to depend on the perspective from which one begins. Clearly, in the early 1800s, Christianity in its Protestant and comparatively speaking, evangelical form, had an enormous influence over the direction of the country. What some stand in shock of today, the loss of that influence, began gradually in the late 1800s, but it has accelerated exponentially in recent years. In other words, we shouldn’t be shocked.

Also, we should not panic. On one hand, we should not retreat from the public square, build walls around what remains of us, and scream and shout at those outside. The Pagan Empire that I refer to in the title is not the USA but rather the Roman Empire. Christianity has been in this situation before today. In fact, it thrived there. It may thrive again if we prove ourselves to be faithful, which brings me to the other hand.

We must not give in to the temptation to compromise with the world, to heed the call to “modernize” or “post-modernize” or whatever philosophy rules this month. So-called progressive Christians who encourage us to compromise with the world so that we can continue to have a voice are terribly deceived. First of all, to compromise Biblical truth in exchange for worldly influence (yes, some conservative, fundamental Christians are guilty of this as well) is not progress but regression. Also, historically, such assumptions have proven false. Sociologists Peter Finke and Rodney Starke in their book, The Churching of America 1776-2005, point out that the churches that thrived in the USA were “aggressive churches committed to vivid otherworldliness.”(Finke and Starke, 2005, p. 1) They also assert that those churches and denominations that “rejected traditional doctrines” and “ceased to make serious demands of their followers” declined.

So, the the first step for Christians and churches to thrive in our present situation is to accept it for one it is. We are one voice among many competing voices, some of which also claim to speak for Christianity. We live in a pluralistic nation, but we do not accept pluralism. (For a more in-depth discussion of that last sentence please find and read the book that I reviewed here.) Yet, we have the right to speak (at least for now) and to proclaim the gospel of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Let us do so faithfully and boldly. And let us learn from Scripture–from those who came before us–how to live as Christians in a “pagan” world.

Over the next several days or weeks (I don’t know yet), I will write blog posts about Scripture passages that speak to how we should relate to government and society, even when both stand against us. Today, I dealt with the first step we must take–accept reality for what it is. We do not live in a Christian nation, nor do Christians have the influence that they once enjoyed.

Our priority is to share the Gospel and make disciples. But the Bible says other things about how to relate to those around us. What will follow are steps that have no particular order. I hope to write a blog post on each one.

  • Pray for leaders, for our nation, and for the church.
  • What the Bible says about paying taxes.
  • What the Bible says about obeying laws.
  • What the Bible says about doing right to all people.
  • What the Bible says about the priority of obeying God above all others.
  • What happens when the price for following God is high.

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*Yes, I am using Christian here to refer to conservative, evangelical Christianity. Yes, I know there is a broader meaning. I do not mean to exclude so much as not to have to explain what I mean in every paragraph.

My Sunday Prayer Time

This morning I did my usual. Every day I read several chapters of the Bible and one chapter from Proverbs. Most days I do more, but on Sundays I do that and focus on praying for the service at our church, the Bible study classes, and for our pastor and staff.

This morning was different in one way. I was impatient with God. We’ve been waiting on God for an answer to prayer for some time now, and this week, I had grown tired of waiting. So I started my prayer, “It’s Sunday, Lord, and nothing has changed since last Sunday.” It wasn’t long after those words passed through my mind that a couple of questions popped into my mind. “Have YOU grown more like Christ this week? Have YOU drawn nearer to God?”

Romans 8:29 states that God’s purpose is to conform believers to the image Christ. All things—even waiting for God to answer prayer—work toward good according to that purpose. (Romans 8:28) So, if nothing has changed, it is not God’s fault. It is a failure on my part to accept His purpose, to submit myself to Him, and to be transformed by the Spirit’s work through God’s Word that I spend time in each day.

God answered my prayer of complaint, though that is more than I deserved. Because He did, I am reminded what to do as I wait for His response to my other one. I hope that my experience will help others who also find themselves waiting.

Saturday: Between the Cross and the Empty Grave

How was that Saturday? The day before the Romans had crucified Jesus as if He were a dangerous criminal. The Jewish religious leaders had wanted Him dead. They had what they wanted when Saturday dawned. What about the disciples? Where were they on that Saturday?

It was the Sabbath. Not many would be out that day. For that, I suppose they were thankful. It meant that hiding would be easier than on a regular day. Were they afraid that day? Who did they fear more–the Romans or the Jewish leaders? What were they thinking? Did they feel shame? For certain, Peter did. What about the others? All but John had watched from a distance.Was John looking for them to tell them all that had happened? I wonder if the weather was like it is today in Northwest Florida–clouds and rain to match their feelings of dread and despair.

But Sunday was coming. The Cross was yesterday. The Empty Grave would be tomorrow.

Today we live between the Ressurection and Consummation–between a single empty grave and many empty graves. This period is our Saturday.

Some disciples face death. Many face persecution. Some face illness. Others needlessly carry the shame and guilt that Jesus has already taken away. Despite the uncertainties of our present Saturday, we face tomorrow with hope, because we look back toward a Sunday with an empty grave. A perfect Sunday is coming.