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The Cost of Discipleship

But “quiet times” are only the tip of the iceberg among the various strains of programmitis infecting Christianity. There are many other beloved practices that also fail the Scriptural Sniff Test. The fact that they sound so reasonable and beneficial has made them difficult to identify and dislodge—we cling to them while simultaneously proclaiming Sola Scriptura and Semper Reformanda. Binding unbiblical burdens on people’s backs was not a practice limited to the Pharisees and scribes—it yet liveth.

Martin G. Selbrede
  • Martin G. Selbrede,
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In the January/February 2009 issue of Faith for All of Life (FFAOL), I criticized the “doctrine” of a personal quiet time1 and exposed the shabby Biblical support for it as well as the dislocated priorities this man-made concept leaves in its wake. But “quiet times” are only the tip of the iceberg among the various strains of programmitis infecting Christianity. There are many other beloved practices that also fail the Scriptural Sniff Test. The fact that they sound so reasonable and beneficial has made them difficult to identify and dislodge—we cling to them while simultaneously proclaiming Sola Scriptura and Semper Reformanda. Binding unbiblical burdens on people’s backs was not a practice limited to the Pharisees and scribes—it yet liveth.

In discussions with many well-intentioned, well-meaning, highly-motivated Christians, I see this tragedy played out repeatedly. “There is a way that seemeth right to a man,” the Bible repeatedly warns. And because that “way” seemeth right, men tend to defend it when it is challenged, when someone suggests it is not, in fact, the right way. The defenders of that way, that tradition, that practice, have all their arguments lined up, their Scriptures in order, the clear beneficial effects faithfully tallied—or so they first think. The truth is this, that insofar as that “way” does not coincide with God’s Way, the church is again spinning its wheels in another ditch rather than making meaningful progress into the future hurtling toward us. The sound of the engine revving is not the mark of progress: forward motion is the only marker that counts.

And the worst tragedy of all is when man’s way is marketed as the key to making meaningful progress in our faith and its application. Christians collectively see the five smooth stones on the ground, turn aside to look at the shiny armor offered by Saul, and then they choose to don that armor and step over those supposedly inconsequential stones to go into battle.

Bad idea.

Accountability and Discipleship

In my FFAOL essay entitled “By Faith He Still Speaks,” I drew attention to a serious problem plaguing Christendom by adapting a general indictment first leveled by columnist David Brooks:

Team loyalties … create “invisible boundaries that mark politically useful, and therefore socially acceptable, thought.” What are these team loyalties? They could be loyalties to church, to denomination, to non-denomination, to a theological school of thought, to a ministry, to a self-serving violation of God’s law being protected through a code of silence, etc. We have created artificial accountability structures that create these socially acceptable boundaries, transgressing on Scriptural boundaries in the process. Such accountability structures inculcate the fear of man and peer pressure, generally in the context of team loyalty, rather than instilling the fear of God. As Rushdoony put it, we are our brother’s brother, not his keeper. Not surprisingly, the propagation of the traditions of men makes void the law of God. The conscience can only be bound by God and His Word, but modern Christendom routinely abandons God’s law and binds the people’s conscience with human precepts. Humanism always rushes in to fill the gap left when God’s law is dumped into the garbage bin. That’s when the invisible boundaries, the unstated rules, encroach on Christian freedom under color of ecclesiastical authority. Couching that humanism in SpiritSpeak merely puts lipstick on the pig.2

The gist of the evangelical push for accountability is horizontal accountability. This push is a major factor in many ministries in which believers are advised to hold one another accountable for various aspects of their Christian walk. An implicit distrust of the Holy Spirit’s office of sanctifying the believer lies behind this push. The Spirit may be sent to convict the world of sin and of righteousness, but evangelicals feel He needs a little help—He’s just not quite omnipotent enough, you see, and so men need to fill in what’s missing. Just as we have many new precepts of men rushing in to fill the vacuum that results when God’s commandments are tossed out, even so we have many new sanctifying agents rushing in to fill the gap when God’s Holy Spirit is judged inadequate to perfect the saints in holiness.

The pattern is all too clear: just as many evangelicals are dead-set on being lawmakers on God’s behalf, many more are committed to becoming little holy ghosts for their brothers and sisters. One’s “accountability partner” becomes a surrogate for the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit’s work is usurped. This is a way “that seemeth right to a man.” We would expect this kind of thinking among Arminian believers who repose much weight in the actions of man as opposed to the operations of God, but the idea is rampant among Calvinists who have temporarily lost sight of the fact that God controls sanctification as much as any other aspect of our lives.

The dominant focus in Scripture is that men and women are accountable to God. Accountability is fundamentally vertical. As David put it so directly after being implicated in the death of Uriah the Hittite, “against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned” (Ps. 51:4). This idea grates on human pride and pomposity, but it is God’s law, not man’s law, that is being broken. We are to inculcate the fear of God, the vertical relationship, in others. But we undercut this because accountability partners subconsciously act out of fear of man. Our motivation in these relationships takes an unconscious turn: “I’m doing this because I don’t want to look bad to my accountability partner.” God holds us all accountable. Nothing ought ever to pull our eyes down from heaven, from Him with Whom we have to do, to worry about our fellow man’s opinion of us. We ought to worry about what God thinks of us. “So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God” (Rom. 14:12; see also 1 Pet. 4:5).

Accountability partnering puts man back in front of a human audience, inviting us to operate in terms of that new relational dynamic instead of in terms of the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying power and quickening of His law-word to our minds and hearts. Dr. R. J. Rushdoony drew attention to this tendency in men to focus on external things in his exposition of the lost military victory against Moab in 2 Kings 3 when the Moabite king sacrificed his eldest son on the city wall in plain sight of Israel:

Given the syncretistic mentality of Israel, it is more than likely and almost certain that this act of human sacrifice had a profound effect on them, an equal if not greater effect than God’s providential miracles on their behalf. When and where we are more afraid of man than of the Lord, and more awed by the acts of man than the acts of God, then and there we incur God’s wrath and indignation. Men readily believe in the efficacy and power of man’s acts. Man’s acts are deliberately public: the human sacrifice was made, not in an inner temple or altar, but on the walls, before the invading armies. Men work before an audience, while the Lord works in terms of His own secret counsel and way.
Israel lost a victory handed to it by the Lord, because Israel believed more in the power of man’s acts than in the power of God. Men today still lose victories given them by the Lord because they move in the fear of man.3

To seek out an accountability partner is to not only to discount God’s infinite provision for our sanctification, the Holy Spirit; it is to fly in the face of God’s warning in Isaiah 2:22: “Cease ye from man, whose breath is in his nostrils: for wherein is he to be accounted of?”  Yet, many churches today unwittingly make men and women depend on each other, rather than upon God, for their sanctification, subtly (or not so subtly) shifting the motive for obedience in the process. As Rushdoony said so well, “men work before an audience, while the Lord works in terms of His own secret counsel and way.”

We should not lose sight of another key factor: the fear of man is a snare, whereas the fear of the Lord is liberating and purifying.  Some proponents of these programs argue they are not substituting something for the fear of God, they are merely supplementing the fear of God. But adding a snare to place in our brother’s path is hardly an improvement.

“Accountability” is an idea that sounds good and seems more than reasonable. Therein lies the danger behind the idea. It’s the reasonable, good-sounding things that entrap even vigilant Christians. As has been well-said, there’s a certain kind of evil only a good man can do. This means that our guard is down when strong Christian leaders that we trust come out in favor of an idea—if humanists proposed that same idea, we’d be on our guard and scrutinize it without mercy. We don’t expect to be handed a stone when we ask our leaders for bread—as a result, we’ve broken our teeth on many a false loaf of bread.

“Discipleship, not Accountability”

On many occasions over the last twenty years, I’ve raised these issues with good, solid men of God and was told that they fully agreed with my point regarding accountability, but saw no harm in discipleship. In a sense, they were bringing back the accountability paradigm, but in a form felt to be Biblically defensible. I’ve heard many verses appealed to in favor of such a compromise position: “We’re called to disciple the nations,” “we’re to bear one another’s burdens,” “Paul mentored Timothy,” etc. Let us consider this possibility.

While it might (emphasis on might) be possible to do “discipling” that doesn’t run afoul of the concerns raised above, the odds are strongly against it. The very Scriptures used to justify the idea don’t support the weight they’re intended to bear. For example, one’s sanctification is not a burden someone else is to bear for you: it is an operation of God upon your heart and soul. The Great Commission calls upon the nations to become disciples of Christ. Looked at dispassionately, without a preexisting agenda, it offers no basis for justifying much that goes on in the name of “discipleship.” Timothy was being prepared as one who must give account for the souls to be placed under his ministerial care (Heb. 13:17), a fact not easily generalized without doing violence to the context.

Let us be equally clear, however, that nothing said here militates in the slightest against the many things Christians are to do for one another as fellow disciples of Christ and members one of another in Him. We are surely to exhort one another, to teach, to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice, to have a true sense of community, etc.4 And these obligations are perpetual, extending far beyond the time anybody spends in spiritual kindergarten as a babe in Christ. But God expects rapid spiritual growth to the point that people become teachers themselves (Heb. 5:11–6:3), not that we stay in a perpetual kindergarten. To fail to become capable of teaching is condemned as the moral crime of slothfulness.5 In other words, the window for discipleship, if such a thing were intended for us to pursue at all, would be remarkably short, time-wise. Note too that “moving on toward maturity” (Heb. 6:1) is made contingent on God’s sanctifying operation: “this we will do, if God permit” (Heb. 6:3).6

We must not forget that the teaching of God’s people is often represented as God’s teaching them directly. “And all thy children shall be taught of God,” we’re told in Isaiah 54:13, while the psalmists repeatedly assert they were taught by God (Ps. 71:17), particularly out of His own law-word (Ps. 119:102, 171). God teaches and disciples us through the Holy Spirit quickening His law-word to our mind, bringing to vigorous spiritual life our individual study of Scripture “to show ourselves workmen approved, not ashamed” while also confirming us in the ministry of the Word from the nations’ pulpits.

The Protestant Reformation was a move away from sacerdotalism (priests and/or church as mediators between God and man) to evangelicalism (where God acts directly upon man’s heart and spirit without a mediator to effect salvation). This move, while pivotal and important, did not always filter down into every nook and cranny of modern Protestant practice. We often hear the oxymoronic term “Protestant sacerdotalism”  to refer to such inconsistencies. But the modern accountability movement and its counterpart in modern discipleship practice reinserts humans between God and man in regard to sanctification. This constitutes a return to sacerdotalism. But God doesn’t sanctify through peer pressure, He sanctifies us through His truth (John 17:17). The human agent is more likely to get in the way and realign our priorities and place undue burdens on people not actually commissioned to take over the Holy Spirit’s job in the first place.

Unlike people, the Holy Spirit does not nag. But He can be grieved, and He can be pushed to the deepest envy: “Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain, The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy?” (James 4:5). The envy, the jealousy, the Spirit feels refers to His seeing us squandering our love on the world rather than loving God—Who actually merits our affections, unlike the empty façade of the world. He works in us both to will and to do—so re-steering our motivation away from God and the Holy Spirit’s chartered task in our hearts is likely to reawaken His envy again. He will envy the trust we place in our fellow man to sanctify us with the slavish crutch of peer pressure.

Zealously Cling to Liberty

To my surprise, there are those who will agree with everything I’ve alleged above against modern discipleship programs, against cookie-cutter attempts to mold Christians through having your own personal sanctification assistant, and yet will still resist abandoning or reforming such practices. They will either cite the alleged practical benefits they’ve seen, or will argue that a Christian is free to enter such relationships voluntarily.

But men always reap what they sow, and will pay a price for scattering seed in the wrong kind of field. We must live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God, and not be governed by matters of expedience. Moreover, the “benefits” of tying people to accountability relationships with each other to anchor their Christian walk cannot be compared to the result of properly teaching the fear of God and promoting Biblical motives for obedience and holiness. The cost of discipleship, when conducted in this way, is very high indeed. In the name of sanctification, we look to our fellow man to hold our feet to the fire through varying degrees of compulsion. For we are talking nothing less than psychological compulsion when we swim in these particular waters.

Christians often enter into relationships that are unwise, or that aren’t countenanced in Scripture. If we are currently free of such spiritually compulsive relationships, there’s every reason to avoid entering such a relationship anew. We are to stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ made us free (Gal. 5:1). The accountability relationship is an unnecessary yoke, a set of training wheels that bespeaks man’s distrust of God’s provision for leading us into all truth. It is an open testimony that we hold the Holy Spirit to be inadequate to sanctify us—that He needs our help, and that we need to be, not just our brother’s brother, but our brother’s keeper as well (thus adopting a job description scornfully coined by the world’s first murderer).

In short, a Christian is not actually free to enslave himself, or adopt a yoke that curtails his hard-won liberty. “[W]here the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty,” Paul explains in 2 Corinthians 3:17. Why set aside or diminish the in-working of the Spirit in favor of artificial yokes to “improve” our walks and “insure” our spiritual growth? God alone gives the increase. God alone looks upon the heart, and searches a man’s spirit. “I the Lord search the heart, I try the reins” (Jer. 17:10), “and all the churches shall know that I am he which searcheth the reins and hearts” (Rev. 2:23). Men aren’t qualified to do this. The best men can do is subject us to external testing—which can divert our attention away from His internal work. It is dangerous to associate or equate the commitments we voluntarily make to other Christians with an actual divine imperative.

Under God’s law, we walk at liberty. “And I will walk at liberty: for I seek Thy precepts” (Psalm 119:45). The term translated “liberty” can be understood more literally as “a wide space” —David walks in a wide, unhindered space because he seeks God’s precepts. But when today’s discipleship trend deteriorates into micromanagement, one Christian of another, at any level, there is no more “wide space” to walk in. The sufficiency of Scripture is implicitly undercut as well.

The Urge Toward Micromanagement

I bear my brothers witness that they have a zeal for sanctification, but it is not according to knowledge. The mere fact that the word “disciple” appears so often in the Bible (256 times in the KJV) causes many to think that discipling and discipleship (as they understand those terms) are not to be questioned at any level. After all, everyone wants to be a good disciple of Jesus, so whatever means the church appoints to make us better disciples is regarded as intrinsically justified. This argument doesn’t bear up under closer scrutiny.

The vast majority of uses for the term disciple relate to the twelve disciples: the apostles, the pillars and foundations of the church. We learn that by Acts 11:26 the term became functionally equivalent to “Christians.” Someone who is a disciple of Jesus isn’t even necessarily someone who received micromanaged training by Him—such as Joseph of Arimathaea (John 19:38), or, most interesting, the blind man whose sight Christ restored, who posed a question that rankled the scribes and Pharisees:

“[W]ill ye also be His disciples?” Then they reviled him, and said, “Thou art His disciple; but we are Moses’ disciples.” (John 9:27b-28)

Moses was obviously not alive at the time the scribes claimed to be his disciples. Christ, of course, repeatedly challenged the leaders’ claims to be disciples of Moses or sons of Abraham, but the fact remains that the concept of disciple transcends one-on-one micromanagement. The collective aspect is indisputable, for which reason we find mention of Paul “strengthening all the disciples” in Galatia and Phrygia (Acts 18:23) by collectively exhorting them in their labors for their King.

“What you need is a manager”

Actor Burgess Meredith, playing boxing trainer Mickey Goldmill, informs Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa that he needs a manager (namely, Mickey himself). And in the 1976 motion picture Rocky, that assertion made perfectly good sense.

But all too often, the modern church echoes Mickey by telling the people, “What you need is a manager!” But the Manager that God had already sent into the hearts of His people is given only lip service, because, regrettably, He is invisible, but man looks on the outward appearance. As Rushdoony so insightfully put it, “men work before an audience,” and an invisible God with an invisible Spirit inside us where we can’t see Him is easily overlooked when staring into the eyes of the person across the table from you who has taken up your spiritual growth as a pet project.

If we’re not to lean upon our own understanding (Prov. 3:5), why should we lean on someone else’s understanding? “Cease ye from man” means we get our marching orders, our motivations, our moral imperatives, from God and His law-word.8

Christians already have a Manager Who is fully equipped, through God’s Word, to disciple His people. God alone writes His Law into our hearts and minds (Heb. 8:10). Our distrust of the Holy Ghost in His capacity as Sanctifier reflects our inability to cope with the fullness of Christian liberty.

Liberty is indeed a dangerous concept. Because humanists premise their utopian dreams on total control, the fact that they fret over the idea of liberty is understandable. But the fact that Christians would so willingly abridge one another’s hard-won liberty is not.

Perhaps one day the idea of discipleship could be severely reformed and reconstructed to avoid the countless pitfalls inherent in current practice, pitfalls even plaguing better informed Christians. But as things stand, and as currently practiced, we can draw only one conclusion about the matter:

The cost of discipleship is too high. We’ll get more faithful disciples without it.

The urge to guarantee results through micromanagement of various kinds appears whenever we depreciate the power and value of the Spirit’s work in our hearts. As Puritan John Howe put it, “An arm of flesh signifieth a great deal, when the power of an almighty Spirit is reckoned as nothing.”

In that light, what is the best thing we can possibly do when the Spirit is working in our fellow Christians’ minds and hearts to sanctify them? The answer is irritatingly simple:

Get out of His way.

1. Martin G. Selbrede, “None Dare Call it Phariseeism,” Faith for All of Life, Jan./Feb. 2009.

2. Martin G. Selbrede, “By Faith He Still Speaks,” Faith for All of Life, Jan./Feb. 2007, footnote 2.

3. R. J Rushdoony, Chariots of Prophetic Fire: Studies in Elijah and Elisha (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 2003), 93.

4. We can add that the concept of apprenticeship is a very commendable one, and to the extent “discipleship” means training via apprenticeships or internships for specific business or technical or marketing or professional skills within the framework of taking godly dominion, I could be induced to relax my objections—if all other aspects were in true Biblical order and my fundamental concerns proposed above adequately addressed. Many skills are best transmitted in this way, but that is a far cry from relegating sanctification of other Christians to such a method.

5. Martin G. Selbrede, “The Perpetual Kindergarten,” Faith for All of Life, May/June 2007.

6. Had Hebrews 6:3 said something like, “and this we’ll do, if our accountability partners hold our feet to the fire,” I’d be less inclined to object to this modern practice.

7. Dr. Gary North wrote an article for the Journal of Christian Reconstruction that featured this term in its title, wherein he contrasted family authority to various ecclesiastical preemptions. The term itself appears to have originated much earlier still.

8. It should not be necessary to say that Christians should fulfill all their moral, familial, ecclesiastic, civil, educational, and vocational obligations, and that these are not to be pitted against God’s Word, least of all in the interest of anarchy. The Bible places all these spheres under Christ’s feet, and we are to discharge our commitments faithfully even if it hurts (Ps. 15:4).  This proviso applies to all statements in the text: they are to be understood in the context of all godly obligations incumbent upon God’s people to faithfully discharge in regard to every single one of life’s concerns. The context of this essay relates to various intrusions of sacerdotal practice in regards to personal sanctification that continue to weaken the church through programs and initiatives and traditions that have been unthinkingly adopted even by Calvinist churches that should have noted the Arminian basis of such practices.

Martin G. Selbrede
  • Martin G. Selbrede

Martin is the senior researcher for Chalcedon’s ongoing work of Christian scholarship, along with being the senior editor for Chalcedon’s publications, Arise & Build and The Chalcedon Report. He is considered a foremost expert in the thinking of R.J. Rushdoony. A sought-after speaker, Martin travels extensively and lectures on behalf of Christian Reconstruction and the Chalcedon Foundation. He is also an accomplished musician and composer.

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