Disciple-Making: What Went Wrong?

There are gads of books written about discipleship.

Why?

The true answer—what we read in the Bible and what see with our eyes is not the same.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the majority of Christians possess an inch-deep faith. Only 20 percent of Christian adults are involved in any form of discipleship activity.[1]

But—I believe change is coming. More believers are opening their eyes to the benefits and obedience of communal disciple-making.

So, what happened?

In the early church, baptism unified new believers with Christ, as disciples under Christ’s Lordship (Mt. 28:19–20; Jn. 20:19–20). By the second century, the church had developed a three-year process of discipleship training, called catechesis, prior to baptism.[2]

Baptism necessitated an examination and call for obedient discipleship. Historian Philip Schaff notes:

We should remember that during the first three centuries…adult baptism was the rule…Hence in preceding catechetical instruction, the renunciation of the devil, and the profession of faith.[3]

Candidates for baptism would partake in the church’s communal teaching, instruction, and spiritual disciplines, but not in the Lord’s Supper.[4]

Disciple-making consisted of the cultivation of spiritual maturity within the ecclesiological community. The early church made disciples in the same manner as the Twelve—they lived out activated faith in communal life—together.

In the infant stages of the church, catechesis specifically related to communal instruction of the disciple-making process.[5]By the late first century, Clement of Rome (c. 35–99), a disciple of Paul (Phil 4:3), provided evidence of following Christ’s Great Commission “commands” to “instruct” baptismal candidates.[6]

By the late second century, Origen (c. 184–253) and Tertullian (c. 155–240), referred to catechesis as discipleship instruction and disciplines.[7],[8]Yet, discipleship still took place within communal gatherings.[9]It was distinctively a shared life-on-life spiritual maturity.

As time progressed, the church formed schools—such as, Pantaenus, a converted 3rdcentury philosopher and highly regarded gospel-proclaimer, who founded a “catechetical school” in Alexandria.[10]These catechetical schools provided a more structured discipleship than a “random outdoor meeting.”[11]

By the early fourth century, the church had received an onrush of enthusiastic converts. With increasing heresies and sects, a move from the Apostolic Tradition to a “specified three-year catechumenate” became the preferred model of discipleship.[12]

Heresies established the classroom style and didactic shift from the communal teaching-gathering. The church desired all new believers to possess “treasured knowledge” of the Eucharist and baptistic doctrine.[13]

The biggest shift

A great change occurred due to heretical teaching, but infant baptism was the catalyst. With the (latter) assistance of Augustine of Hippo and Emperor Constantine marrying the Church to the state, infant baptism became the catalyzing shift.

Baptism became viewed as a “rite of entry into” the communal church.[14]Believers were “born” into the church, instead of the stringent ties of baptismal catechism. Discipleship developed into a study of doctrines instead of a life-on-life baptistic Christ-identified community.

While catechesis evolved into didactic doctrinal training—it was still a form of discipleship. And, for argument sake, could be done in community.

Infant baptism is not to blame for today’s lack of discipleship.

How should we view the shifts?

All of the disciple-making shifts were factors of enculturation. Society influenced the church. I, personally, do not fault what occurred—it is what it is. But, how do we respond?

I think it’s wise to research our past—not for blame, but correction. If life-on-life communal gatherings were the incubator for disciple-making, then let’s shift back.

 

Sources:

[1]David Kinnaman, “New Research On the State of Discipleship,” Barna Group, https://www.barna.org/research/leaders-pastors/research-release/new-research-state-of- descipleship#.VqDcJFJQmDU.

[2]Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 218.

[3]Philip Schaff, and David Schley Schaff, History of the Christian Church,Vol 2. (Grand Rapids: C. Scribner, 1910), 255.

[4]Green, Evangelism in the Early Church, 217.

[5]Kittle, Bromiley, and Friedrich,639.

[6]“Clement of Rome,” Diane Severance, www.Christianity.com, http://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/1-300/clement-of-rome-11629592.html.

[7]Andrew B. McGowan, Ancient Christian Worship: Early Church Practices in Social, Historical, and Theological Perspective(Grand Rapids, Baker, 2014), 95.

[8]Tertullian, “Latin Christianity: Its Founder Tertullian.” in vol. 3 Ante-Nicene Fathers, eds.Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004), 263.

[9]McGowan, Ancient Christian Worship, 95.

[10]Green, 240.

[11]Ibid., 241.

[12]McGowan, 170.

[13]McGowan, 171.

[14]Ibid., 169.