As we enter a new year, I want to begin with what I am calling the "Discipleship Series." It is all too evident that biblical discipleship is either absent or woefully inadequate to producing any tangible fruit, much less real freedom in Christ. Thus too many within the body are mired in sin management rather than freedom from it, while others remain shackled by past wounds and sinful choices, and far too many are discouraged by the elusiveness of peace that Christ promised.
There are a number of reasons why I think we have come to neglect disciple making. Foremost may be the reduction of the gospel to merely the personal plan of salvation. By excluding the kingdom and its present implications from the gospel of the kingdom that Jesus taught and preached, Christians are left with a gospel whose only real implication occurs when you die: you get to go to heaven! Unfortunately, by reducing the gospel to nothing more than the means of achieving eternal security, there is no impetus for bearing good works here and now or bringing forth the kingdom. Under this paradigm, loving your neighbors is only worthwhile if "you get them saved." Defending righteousness, opposing injustice, helping the poor, sick, and suffering, and so on, is meaningful only if it directly leads people to faith in Christ. Everything else that Christ commanded his church to do is reprioritized under the preeminent goal of "saving souls."
Of course the church is called to proclaim the message of salvation through Christ, but it is also called to do many other things, which together achieve and bear witness to God's whole redemptive purpose. From the standpoint of discipleship, if all that matters is an individual's eternal (i.e., future) security, what else is there to know about the Christian life? As a result, discipleship is reduced to teaching Christians nothing more than how to share the personal plan of salvation. I submit that a century of this reductionism has rendered the American evangelical church among the most theologically uninformed, radically individualized, and socially irrelevant in history.
This truncated view of the gospel gained traction in the late nineteenth century when American Christians were understandably pessimistic following the despair and devastation of the Civil War; hope for a better world seemed futile. Evangelist Dwight L. Moody expressed the sentiment of the era quite well when he said, "I look upon this world as a wrecked vessel. God has given me a lifeboat and said to me, ‘Moody, save all you can.'" In a very practical sense, the church would no longer prepare itself for redemptive occupation of the world as Christ commanded but would instead condemn the world as a sinking ship in need of evacuation.
However, God loves the world according to scripture (see John 3:16) and is redeeming it through Christ Jesus, to whom "all authority in heaven and on earth has been given" (i.e., the reign of God or kingdom). Furthermore, the body of Christ—the church—is to be the instrument of Christ's rule through which this redemptive activity occurs. Finally, a condemnation of the world is, in essence, a disregard for the neighbor that Christ commands us to love. As Michael Horton writes, "In this view, improving the lot of our neighbors in the world is like polishing the brass on a sinking ship," thus rendering the love of neighbor—a direct commandment from Jesus—an unworthy goal!
While I certainly respect D. L. Moody and believe he was used greatly by God, he represented a new breed of evangelical fundamentalism that would inadvertently embrace a false dualism (specifically, heaven is good and the world is bad). To be sure, these fundamentalists were the "good guys" trying to defend orthodoxy against its modernist opponents. However, theirs was a reaction that would unwittingly foster a destructive shift in the American church's relationship to culture and the world. As James Fraser points out:
Since the Puritan era, American evangelicals had been believers in progress. For many, America was the place where the Kingdom of God would finally and fully blossom. Fundamentalists, for the most part, had none of this hopefulness … it was a significant shift from an optimistic belief in Christianity's role as the ultimate agent of social and moral reform to a much more defeatist attitude toward culture and a desire to save as many individuals as possible for a better future life." (James W. Fraser, Between Church and State, [St. Martin's Press: New York, NY, 1999] p. 119)
Tragically, this pessimism toward the world would become the prevailing evangelical position in America until just recently. Lately, more and more Christians are attempting to recover an understanding of the gospel of the kingdom and, with it, an interest in redeeming the social, cultural, and economic systems that affect human beings and God's creation. However, without proper biblical training (discipleship) in the proper ordering of these systems and their relationship to Christ's mission, errors have occurred in the opposite direction, namely an undue emphasis on social reform without spiritual formation—what we derisively refer to as the "social gospel."
Without proper discipleship emanating from a biblical understanding of the gospel of the kingdom, we appear to have gravitated toward two extremes. On the one hand we have conservative Christians who want a king without a kingdom (privatized salvation without any public affect) and on the other, liberal Christians who want a kingdom without a king (utopian schemes apart from Christ). Both are products of misunderstanding at best and apostasy at worst.
My hope in writing this series is that you will be challenged when appropriate, reassured where needed, gain greater practical understanding of Christian life and practice, and be equipped (and resourced) to disciple others. If you would like to receive the Discipleship Series, register here for your free subscription to the Truth in Culture Weekly.
© 2011 by S. Michael Craven Permission granted for non-commercial use.
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S. Michael Craven is the President of the Center for Christ & Culture and the author of Uncompromised Faith: Overcoming Our Culturalized Christianity (Navpress). Michael's ministry is dedicated to equipping the church to engage the culture with the redemptive mission of Christ. For more information on the Center for Christ & Culture and the teaching ministry of S. Michael Craven, visit: www.battlefortruth.org