Over the years I have often preached on the Great Commission of Matthew 28.18,19 with a view to encouraging my listeners to go out and make disciples. Indeed, when I was ordained, the second paragraph of the constitution of the Baptist Union of Great Britain and Ireland contained a ‘Declaration of Principle’ which declared that the basis of this Union is:
- That our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, God manifest in the flesh, is the sole and absolute authority in all matters pertaining to faith and practice, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures, and that each Church has liberty, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to interpret and administer His Laws.
- That Christian Baptism is the immersion in water into the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, of those who have professed repetnace towards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ who “died for our sins according to the Scriptures; was buried, and rose again the third day”.
- That it is the duty of every disciple to bear personal witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to take part in the evangelization of the world”
As an aside, I have reproduced the whole of the Declaration of Principle to show younger readers or readers from another Christian denomination how central disciple-making was to British Baptists. It was this understanding of disciple-making which lay behind the ‘spiral’ which Alan Wilkinson and I developed in Turning the Tide: An assessment of Baptist Church Growth in England (Bible Society, London) where we talked about the importance of conversion growth rather than transfer growth, and made it clear that although some transfer growth is inevitable, the rate of transfers every year should not normally exceed the rate of conversions. In the development of the spiral we also recognised the need of the church to be engaged in ’social action’ – just as in the ministry of Jesus there was an indissoluble link between mission and compassionate service, so the same kind of ‘incarnational’ mission must characterise the church today. However, my fear is that in many Baptist churches conversion growth is no longer a priority, with the result that over the years Baptist churches have for the most part considerably shrunk in size.
By contrast for me the Great Commission of Matt 28.18,19 with its emphasis on making disciples has always been uppermost in my mind, with the result that when I was a pastor my churches grew. However, I have now come to realise that Jesus’ command to make disciples is not taken up in the rest of the New Testament.
Why is this so? Because the term disciple generally implies a pupillage or an apprenticeship. Jesus, for instance, called people to follow him in the sense that they were to learn from him. However, with the ascension of Jesus to the right hand of God, that form of discipleship is no longer possible.
An examination of the Gospels reveals that although there were many people who followed Jesus, Jesus only called twelve disciples. The term disciple as used by Jesus was associated in particular by a costly break with family and livelihood and a following of Jesus wherever he went.
It is true that in Acts Luke often speaks of Christians as ‘disciples’. Indeed in Acts 11.25,26 he comments that it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians. However, almost certainly the first Christians did not call themselves ‘disciples’ – rather they used other terms such as ‘followers of the Way’ (see for instance Acts 9.2).
The Apostle Paul, for instance, does not speak of followers of Jesus as disciples. Rather he speaks of ‘believers’ , ‘saints’ and of ‘being in Christ’. It would appear that for Paul the term ‘disciple’ had drawbacks – not least because it does not imply community. Indeed, Paul used the term ‘teacher’ of ‘teachers’ in the church (see 1 Cor 4.6 and 12.28). Paul’s favoured term for Jesus was ‘Lord’.
In John’s Gospel, although John in his opening chapter speaks of Jesus calling people to be his disciples (see 1.35-51), later in his Gospel discipleship is not defined in terms of following Jesus, but rather of ‘continuing in my word’ or of ‘loving one another’.
Jesus, of course, was not the only teacher to make disciples; the Jews followed the teachings of various rabbis, the Greeks those of philosophers. But In the history of the early Church as recorded in the New Testament, the atoning work of Jesus on the Cross generally takes precedence over the teaching impartedby Him during His earthly ministry. Thus belief and faith become more important than the assimilation and communication of a body of teachings.
One of the advantages of this shift is that it lessens the risk of personality cults – although there are hints of them in Paul’s letters (“I follow Paul”, “I follow Apollos”, “I follow Christ”). And there is still a very human inclination to identify with a particular teacher or leader, as in the case of the sects associated with Jim Jones or David Koresh. If we want to be like Jesus we need to understand and appreciate His teachings, but it is the crucified and risen Lord we no longer merely follow, but worship.