Misunderstood Discipleship

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(This article is based on a sermon preached by Pastor Tommy Ashcraft on a Sunday evening in April of 2002 at Mount Hebron Baptist Church. Its purpose is to state the Biblical philosophy concerning a vital area of ministry.)

This is not a pastoral message. It is a message designed to help us remember who we are. From time to time, we need to return to the basics. We are prone to too much sophistication. Too many independent fundamental Baptists are playing with concepts that are contrary to the Bible, and counterproductive to the cause of reaching souls with the gospel.

Not everything that looks good is good. Not everything that “works” is good. Not everything that “works” for a neo-evangelical, a liberal or a Southern Baptist will “work” for an independent, fundamental Baptist.

I do not wish to hurt, offend, or provoke anyone. It is my desire to help sincere soul-winners, and pastors of soul-winning churches have a clear understanding of our real purpose and how to achieve that purpose with a Biblical strategy.

It is important that we do the right thing, and it is also important that we do it the right way. It is not right to do the right thing the wrong way. We often need to make sure that we are on the right course.

I have seen recently in my contacts with different groups of independent Baptists a tendency that if not destructive, it could be dangerous, and certainly distracting. I’m talking about good men, with good intentions and good hearts – people who love God, love souls, and who want to do right. It has to do with the false concept of what is being called “discipleship”.

Some things must be made very clear lest someone misunderstand.

Every soul winner SHOULD care for and teach and help his converts grow in grace.

A good soul-winning church must develop plans and programs to care for the people being won to Christ in their soul-winning programs.

A new convert needs to grow in grace and mature spiritually. I know of no Bible-believing, soul-winning pastor who does not believe that. That is not the issue. No one could conscientiously claim otherwise.

The danger I speak of is the tendency of a good soul-winning church to SUBSTITUTE its EMPHASIS on soul-winning for a program that ends up destroying or diminishing a soul-winning spirit.

Please note that the word “discipleship” in this article always appears in quotation marks. That is because the word “discipleship” does not appear anywhere in the Bible. Neither does the concept of “discipleship” as practiced by some neo-evangelical and interdenominational groups.

I cannot find the word “discipleship” in any English-language dictionary. Neither does the verb “disciple” appear.

The concept of a disciple in the New Testament only appears as a noun – never as a verb.

Each time Jesus initiated a relationship with one of his disciples, the first words he told them were: “Come; follow me.” “Take up thy cross and follow me.” Nineteen times in the New Testament Jesus says to different individuals: “Follow me”: Matthew 4:19,
8:22, 9:9, 10:38, 16:25, 19:21; Mark 1:17, 2:14, 8:34, 10:21; Luke 5:27, 9:23, 9:59, 14:27, 18:22, 21:8; John 1:43, 21:19, 21:22.

At times Jesus uses these expressions to initiate His relationship with the disciple, and at others He addresses an experienced disciple, as in John 21.

The important thing to note is that Jesus always says to a disciple: “Follow me”.

Jesus ONLY worked with those who were willing to follow Him.

A person can genuinely receive Christ as his Saviour and not want to follow Him. The requirement for salvation is NOT a willingness to follow. The basic requirement to be a disciple is a willingness to follow.

No one knows the heart of another, but we can discern a willingness to follow. The two most visible ways to discern a saved person’s willingness to follow – to develop a meaningful Christian life – are: 1) Baptism and 2) Church attendance.

If a person is not willing to be baptized, he has very little aptitude for being a disciple. If a person is not willing to attend church, he has very little aptitude for being a disciple.

A rebellious person cannot be taught. That’s why a rebel should not be brought to Sunday School. If he is not willing to obey a bus worker before boarding a bus, he will not obey a Sunday School teacher when he gets to church. He will only be a distraction to the others.

In the parable of the man who made the feast in Luke 14:43, we read: “And the lord said unto the servant, Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled”. He did NOT send the meal to the house! The word “compel” is not referring to physical force. It speaks of persuasion. If they are not persuaded to enter, don’t give them to eat.

Christ commands the soul-winner to “Go and preach”, and he commands the new convert to “Come and follow.”

The church is a “called-out assembly”. If someone does not have enough initiative to leave his house and follow God’s leadership in his life, he will hardly be converted into a true disciple.

A soul-winning church reaches many people with the gospel. A church that reaches only the number of people it can “disciple” is not reaching enough people.

The only way a soul-winning church can “care for” all its converts in the sense that the promoters of so-called “discipleship” would demand would be to WIN FEWER SOULS IN ORDER TO DEDICATE MORE TIME AND RESOURCES TO “DISCIPLE” A FEW.

Soul-winners and soul-winning churches are accused of “winning them and leaving them”. It is certain that this happens in some cases. A church that is reaching hundreds of people every week with the gospel can give the impression that it is neglecting many of those people because it not “discipling” all the ones that are being saved. However, when a person accepts Christ and the soul-winner invites him to attend the church where the soul-winner attends, this is an invitation to follow Christ. If the convert does not attend after several invitations, it is obvious that he does not want to follow Christ.

If a person attends church, he is giving an indication that he is interested in following Christ. When he attends church, and is invited to follow the Lord in baptism, he is receiving another invitation to follow Christ.

If the convert decides to be baptized, he is giving another more serious indication that he wants to follow Christ.

A soul-winning church that is reaching a great number of people with the gospel can decide whom it is going to “disciple”. It should concentrate its efforts on two groups of people: those who attend church and those who are willing to be baptized.

It is not humanly possible for a soul-winning church to concentrate its efforts on all those who are being saved. If a person we win to Christ decides to he can attend church. Every person we win should be given ample opportunity to take these
two steps: attend church and be baptized.

If a person does not accept the invitation to attend church, does not accept the soul-winner’s offer to do something as simple as getting on a bus or get in the soul-winners car in order to come to church; if when he does come to church he refuses to be baptized, then it should be understood: WE ARE NOT LEAVING HIM, HE IS LEAVING US!

“They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us (1 John 2:19)”.

This is not mere cold calculation. It is a matter of prudent stewardship of the time and resources – human and material – that God puts at our disposal. The only way to “disciple” all those who are being saved is to diminish the number of people who are being saved. That would be disobedience to the command of God to go and preach the gospel to every creature.

More people are “discipled” by a good soul-winning church that makes an honest attempt to bring the convert to church, baptize him and involve him in the life of the local church than by the churches that minimize soul-winning and invest the majority of their time and effort in “discipling” each person they win, even though these are not willing to follow.

The comparison made by the detractors of the Biblical philosophy of soul-winning between not “discipling” a convert and abandoning new-born babies is not fair and neither is it consistent with the teaching of the Scriptures. When a person is born again, it is true that he is a new creature. But he is not born into the soul-winner’s family. He is born into the family of God. They are “new creatures”, but they are not the soul-winner’s creatures. They are God’s creatures.

This is not an excuse for not “discipling”. This is a spiritual reality. Jesus said: “For many are called, but few are chosen”. In the parable of the sower, the seed is sown; but there is little or no fruit from the seed sown along the way side, in stony places or among thorns. The only difference between these and the seed that brought 30, 60, and 100 fold was the condition of the soil. You know that the purpose of a parable is to illustrate, not to establish doctrine. A parable illustrates the spiritual in physical terms. So we cannot judge whether the seed that bore no fruit represent saved people who did not grow or people who were never saved to begin with. Reason would lead us to believe, however, that at least those that fell on stony ground and among thorns represent saved people, because there were signs of life. The seed that fell by the way side was taken away by the fowl and never took root.

If we apply this mathematical proportion to evangelism and “discipleship”, we would have to conclude that no more than one and four achieve full “discipleship”.

However, there is another comparison that is perhaps more realistic than this. It is the case of the ten healed lepers. Only one returned. The other nine disappeared. There is no indication that the healing of the nine was less effective than that of the one who returned. Their attitude and actions after being healed did not affect their healing. Their healing depended not on their “sincerity”, but on Christ’s power to heal. By the same token, the salvation of one who hears the Gospel does not depend on some subjective measure of “sincerity”. It depends on the power of God in response to the person’s willingness to receive the gift of salvation.

Eternal life is a gift of God. It can only be received. It cannot be deserved or earned. What one does with that gift after receiving it does not affect the quality of the gift. Some (those who follow) develop a close relationship with the Giver of life, they grow, mature and enjoy the benefits that come only by knowing God and walking with Him; but the loss suffered by those who do not do this, although great, is temporal. Their salvation, although not enjoyed to the maximum, is nonetheless eternal.

“And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: 14 That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love” (Ephesians 4:11-16).

This passage is teaching that a believer grows in grace according to his effectual working in the context of his participation in the local church, not some series of home-Bible-study lessons.


Ephesians 4:11-16 speaks of coming to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, in the context of the local church. This is not some extra- or para- or out-of-church program. It MUST be done within the confines of the effectual working in the measure of every part making the increase of the body. No Baptist would deny that this “body” spoken of here is the local church.

The difference between one disciple and another is the measure of his willingness to follow Christ. “Follow up” is not something that a mature Christian does to a new convert. It is what that new convert must decide to do himself. Simon, called Peter, decided to follow Jesus, and he grew. Andrew, his brother, decided to follow Jesus, and he grew. James, the son of Zebedee, decided to follow Jesus, and he grew. John, his brother, decided to follow Jesus, and he grew. Phillip decided to follow Jesus, and he grew. Bartholomew decided to follow Jesus, and he grew. Thomas decided to follow Jesus, and he grew. Matthew, the publican, decided to follow Jesus, and he grew. James, the son of Alphaeus, decided to follow Jesus, and he grew. Labbaeus, the son of who was surnamed Thaddeus, decided to follow Jesus, and he grew. Simon, the Caananite, decided to follow Jesus, and he grew.

And Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed him, decided NOT to follow Jesus, and became a devil.

What was the difference? The degree of their dedication to follow Jesus. Judas’ fall was not the fault of his “discipler”. It was not the fault of his “discipler” that Thomas doubted. It was not the fault of his “discipler” that Peter denied the Lord.
It was not the fault of the “discipler” of ALL the disciples that they forsook Him and fled. The decision to follow or not to follow, to forsake or not to forsake, was the decision of each individual. Jesus did not leave them. They left Him.

Matthew 4:25: “and there followed”;
Matthew 9:9 “and followed him”
Matthew 9:19 “and followed him”
Matthew 12:15 “and great multitudes followed”
Matthew 14:13 “they followed him”
Mark 2:14 “…and he arose and followed him.”
Mark 3:7 “and a great multitude followed him.”
Mark 14:54 “and Peter followed him afar off.”
Luke 5:28 “And he left all, and arose, and followed him.”
Luke 9:11 “And the people…followed him.”
Matthew 4:20 “And they straightway left their nets and followed him.”
Matthew 4:22 “And they immediately left their ship and their father, and followed him.”
Matthew 8:23 “…his disciples followed him.”
Matthew 9:27 “…two blind men followed him…”
Matthew 19:2 “And great multitudes followed him…”
Matthew 20:34 “…and immediately their eyes received sight, and they followed him.”
Mark 1:18 “…and straightway they left their nets and followed him.”
Mark 1:20 “…and went after him.”
Luke 5:11 “…they forsook all and followed him”.
Luke 22:39 “…and his disciples followed him.”

These men were disciples, NOT because they were “discipled”. They were disciples the INSTANT they decided to follow Jesus – not after six months of home-Bible study.

Follow-up is MY decision; not some program. It is not a series of lessons. It is not a formula. It is a decision. It is not “cell groups”. It is not home-Bible studies.

Just as I decided to accept Christ, I decided to follow Christ. Jesus said “I am the way, the truth and the life”. To “grow up in him in all things” (Ephesians 4:16) is a decision that a Christian must make to follow Christ. The truth is, no one can “disciple” another. Jesus did not command us to go and “disciple”. He commanded us to MAKE disciples. I do not find the verb “disciple” in the Bible. I do find the words, “winneth souls”, “evangelist”, “preach”, “witness”, etc.

To “make disciples” is to present the gospel. It can be no more than that, because the “baptizing” and the “teaching” come afterwards. Accepting Christ is a voluntary decision that the person must make in order to be saved. Following Christ is also a voluntary decision that the saved must make in order to be a disciple. For some reason, some saved people decide to follow Christ, and others decide not to. Some people decide to be saved, and others decide not to be saved. We present the same plan of salvation to the one who decides not to get saved as the one who decides to be saved. We present the same opportunity to the one who decides to follow as to the one who decides not to follow. The decision not to be saved is as much a mystery to the mature soul-winner as is the decision not to follow Jesus after one is saved.

That is not fatalism. It is reality. The responsibility of the decision to be saved or not to be saved is on the individual who hears the gospel. The responsibility to follow Jesus or not to follow Jesus, to know Him better, is that of the individual who hears and responds to the gospel.

Just as God is not willing that any should perish, neither is God willing than any should not grow and mature; but one is just as much a decision of the individual as the other.

The so-called “discipleship” that causes a Christian or a church or a pastor to diminish soul-winning efforts in order to “follow up” on a few is in direct defiance to the scriptural mandate to preach the gospel to every creature. The world will not be reached with the gospel by “discipling” churches. It will be reached by soul-winning churches who make an honest, calculated, prudent and consistent effort to introduce their converts into the life of a local soul-winning church.

The CHURCH is God’s method for caring for the new convert. The provision that God makes for a new convert to grow is in Ephesians 4:11-16. It is not in some book or series of lessons produced by people who scoff at the only method approved by God to reach the world with the gospel: soul-winning.

If we are not careful, we will allow ourselves to be deceived and intimidated by those who make fun of our soul-winning results by saying: “But, where are they?”

On the other hand, a soul-winner should be very careful not to judge these dear brethren too quickly. This tendency to substitute “discipleship” for biblical evangelism is understandably natural. These are not bad people. “Bad people” don’t want ANYONE to get saved and grow. These people have a genuine desire to see saved people grow. They are not evil people, and we should not treat them as such. Evil people do not develop programs that promote spiritual growth.

The attraction of a “discipleship” program over a soul-winning program is logical. ANY mature Christian would prefer to spend time with saved people, who are interested in the things of God, than with a sinner who has little or no concept of the spiritual.

One natural tendency of a mature Christian is his growing desire to know God better. He delights in spending time in the Scripture. He delights in spending time with other Christians examining and rejoicing in the great truths of the Bible. He falls in love with the Word of God. He falls in love with the people of God.

It is easier to get a mature Christian to teach the Bible than to win souls. It is easier to get a young Christian to win souls than to teach the Bible. One tends to do that which makes him most comfortable. A young convert is more comfortable winning souls because all his friends and relatives are lost. A mature Christian is more comfortable teaching the Bible than winning souls because most of his close friends and relatives are saved, and as time goes by, he seeks the company of mature Christians.

For a mature Christian to win souls he must by necessity go outside his “comfort zone”. He must approach people he does not know. He must place himself in unfamiliar, and sometimes, unfriendly territory. It requires more discipline and more effort for a mature Christian to maintain his soul-winning zeal than a new convert. It requires more effort and discipline for the pastor of a mature church – a church full of mature Christians – to maintain his soul-winning zeal than the pastor of a new church. It takes more discipline and effort for a Bible college professor to maintain his enthusiasm for soul-winning than a first-year student in that same Bible college.

BUT spiritual maturity does NOT diminish the measure of RESPONSIBILITY to win souls. The mature Christian, the Bible College professor, the mature pastor, the mature church member, all have the same responsibility before God to win souls as does the new convert.

Souls keep going to hell the same twenty years after conversion as they did twenty days after conversion.

TRUE Christian maturity does NOT diminish soul-winning zeal. Jesus accused the Ephesian church of having left their first love. It does not say they lost it. It says the left it.


A Christian who has gone so deep in the things of God that he has lost his soul-winning zeal has gone too deep in the wrong things. The Christian who studies so much that he loses his desire to talk to people about Jesus is not studying the Bible. He is studying ABOUT the Bible.

He is probably reading and studying books written by authors who scoff at those of us who win souls and ridicule soul-winning churches. It might be interesting to research and see how many people Josh McDowell won to Christ last year. Or Max Lucado, or Luis Palau, or Charles Stanley, or James Dobson or Jeff Adams or Chuck Swindol, or the author of “The Prayer of Jabes”, Perhaps before reading a book it would be a good idea to see if the author attends a soul-winning church. A “preacher” or an “author”, or a “conference speaker” who does not win souls, or who does not pastor or attend a soul-winning church has nothing to teach an independent fundamental Baptist about evangelism or “discipleship”. You will not lose your soul-winning zeal reading books or listening to sermons by John R. Rice or Jack Hyles, Bob Gray (either one) or D. L. Moody, or Curtis Hutson, or R. A. Torrey, or J. Frank Norris.

It is a FALSE spiritual maturity that diminishes soul-winning fervor. It is a false Bible “profundity” that produces apathy for lost souls. Those are people who are “…ever learning but never coming to the knowledge of the truth.”

Jesus said “upon this rock I will build my church…” Not my “discipleship program”, no my cell group, home-Bible study, dogma or catechisms. And if one diminishes soul-winning zeal, any one of these is just as good as any of the rest.

Any program in a New Testament church should produce one of two things, or both: souls saved or soul-winners.

Someone may ask: What about “and daily in the temple and in every house they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ”. That does not contradict what I am saying. I’m not against your teaching and preaching Jesus Christ. I’m not against your doing it in every house. No one could criticize the teaching and preaching of Jesus. But note what it says: “and in EVERY house”. You CANNOT “disciple” in every house. You CAN present the gospel in every house. And it says “daily” – in every house and from day to day – not six weeks in one house.

Our church reaches around 1,000 people with the gospel each week. It bothers me that we are caring for only a small percentage of them. But I would rather live with the sadness of not being able to care for those we are winning that with the guilt of allowing 990 people to die and go to hell while we are trying to “disciple” a few who have shown no desire to follow Jesus.

Those we win will make it without being “discipled”. Those we do not win while “discipling” a few will not make it without being saved.

It is not a question of choosing between soul-winning and discipling. It is a matter of choosing to obey or disobey.

Independent Baptists normally don’t struggle to discern between good and evil. We are not talking about good and evil. It is not “evil” to “disciple” a believer. This is not a struggle between sin and righteousness. It is a struggle between a greater good and a lesser good. It is not possible to consider it evil to care for a new convert. We do not have to decide if we should or should not do it We know that we should care for those we are winning to Christ. We know that we should give a new convert every opportunity to grow in grace and mature. It is a question of how to do it without neglecting a greater good. And the only way to do that is to care for those who are willing to follow.

It is a question of attending to the necessary without abandoning the indispensable.

It is a question of doing the important without neglecting the urgent. A new convert will have all eternity to discover the great deep truths of the Word of God. An unsaved person will suffer the torments of the damned for all eternity.

Dare we ask if the preference for “discipling” over soul-winning has selfish motivation? Is it a coincidence that soul-winning produces little monetary income?

“Discipling” potentially puts tithers in the church. Soul-winning only puts sinners into heaven. “Discipling” brings joy to the treasurer. A repentant sinner only brings joy to the Heavenly Father.

Ninety percent of all “discipling” programs target adults. Could it be because children’s “tithes” amount to so little? We should not allow ourselves to judge the motives of others, but some are just a little too obvious.

Let’s keep winning all we can. Let’s bring all the converts to church that are willing to follow. Let’s baptize all the converts that are willing to follow. Let’s involve in the life of the church all who are willing to follow. And let’s teach all who are willing to follow to win souls.

One Bible verse puts in perspective the balance between soul-winning and “discipling”.

“And of some have compassion, making a difference: 23 And others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire; hating even the garment spotted by the flesh” (Jude 22-23).

This is the dilemma of a fireman approaching a house in flames. He must choose between entering the house and rescuing one who is burning, or remain outside and attend to one who has already been rescued from the fire.

Of course the fire victim needs to have his injuries attended to but it is not right to leave victims in the burning house while binding the wounds of those who have already been saved.

The soul-winner must do what he can to take care of those who have been saved but he must not abandon those who have not yet been rescued.

It is interesting to read the last thing the Bible says about the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch that Philip led to Christ: Acts 8:39: “And when they were come up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip, that the eunuch saw him no more: and he went on his way rejoicing.” Philip won him, baptized him, and he left him!

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