I was in college in the mid-70s when an extreme discipleship program reached out and touched me.
It was the Shepherding Movement that began with a group of six prominent Charismatic pastors. These pastors developed a system of accountability that spread throughout the charismatic movement. It was built on a covenant of submission so complete that shepherds even dictated decisions on personal matters such as marriage. The leading pastors shepherded individuals, who then shepherded others, who shepherded others in a pyramid of authority resembling a multilevel marketing program.
I was surprised when one of my fellow college students tried to recruit me into an accountability relationship with him as my shepherd. I declined.
The Problem with Many Discipleship Programs
The Shepherding Movement was very extreme, but other discipleship programs have similar deficiencies. As part of evangelism, discipleship is supposed to bring a new believer to spiritual maturity, but much of discipleship involves telling the new believer what to believe and how to act.
This discipleship is much like creating someone in my image—much as I have been created in someone else’s image: believe what I believe; do what I do. If you don’t, then you have failed as a believer and I have not discipled you.
Discipleship is often about authority and dependence; the new believer is more an apprentice than a friend. Discipleship is often about doctrines and rules of behavior instead of learning to internalize Jesus’ principles of loving the Father, ourselves, and others. Discipleship is often about judgment, correction, and conformity.
The way many conservative churches promote discipleship reminds me of Jesus’ words in Matthew chapter 23:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.
Be a Mentor—not a Discipler
I think new believers do need assistance as they grow in following Jesus, but they don’t need someone to dictate to them how to think or act. They don’t need someone to hold them accountable. Instead, they need mentors (hopefully more than one) to help them as they grow.
We are mentors—not masters, and mentoring is a voluntary relationship. As mentors, our place is to:
- Answer questions
- Offer suggestions
- Let them decide
- Provide support
- Point them to Jesus
But we are not to hold those we mentor accountable to us—that’s not our job; they are accountable to Jesus and their own hearts. And we are not to substitute our thoughts and conclusions for theirs; we must respect them as intelligent people, allow them to think for themselves, and let them come to their own conclusions about what to believe and how to behave.
They shouldn’t follow us; they should follow Jesus. Our objective should be to point them to Jesus and let them learn from him.
I Have No Disciples
In my earlier days I was very willing to tell other believers what they should do and how they should act, but I haven’t done that in many years.
All I am is a fellow follower of Jesus and a fellow traveler on the road of spiritual development. If other travelers can benefit from things I have learned on my long journey then I am willing to share, but I have no authority over Jesus’ followers and I have no business judging them.
If someone asks me, or if I have an established trusting relationship, I am happy to share why I think or act as I do, but even then I rarely offer strong recommendations. Their journey is their own journey. I can make helpful suggestions, but they are only opinions; the choice and responsibility is theirs.
I think we have distorted the concept of discipleship as making people into copies of ourselves by telling them what to do and how to think. Though we who are farther in our journey might help them as models, we have no right to dictate to anyone.
The Passion of My Blog
In his letters, the apostle Paul stood firmly against the Judaizers who wanted to circumcise gentile believers; Paul did not tolerate the teaching of Jesus + (something). I call that ‘something’ baggage, and this is the theme and passion of my entire blog.
I see that some Christians today are much like the Pharisees and the Judaizers—heaping burdens and judgments on the people the Father loves and to whom Jesus brings peace and reconciliation.
My mission is to share the good news of Jesus and to expose the baggage that burdens believers down and distracts them from following him in peace, freedom, and love. I am no authority for anyone; I am only a follower of Jesus who has journeyed for more than fifty years and learned many things. If those things are helpful to others, especially those still struggling with religious baggage, then I am content.
I invite your comments and observations below.
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Have a great day! ~Tim