Reviewed by Carl Muller
Many years ago I had a good friend who played rugby. He used to wear a t-shirt that said, “Rugby players eat their dead.” Sometimes I fear that the barbarism referred to in such a darkly humorous way is characteristic of the way in which Christians critique one another. With more than a little appetite for battle, Christians launch themselves at one another, guns a-blazin’! Christians who describe themselves as “reformed” seem more adept than most at this kind of twisted “spiritual warfare.” We sometimes forget that we are on the same side! In this review I shall attempt to articulate some significant disagreements with the emphases of the authors. But we are on the same side. We are brothers serving the same Master, servants of the same King.
Notes of Appreciation
There is much that is commendable about this book. It tackles a vital subject. It does so in organized fashion. The authors insist that the best way to develop disciples is in the context of the local church (page ix). That these authors have a love for Christ, for His church, and a zeal for the spiritual prosperity of that church, comes across on every page. Foundational issues (what is a disciple, the role of the Spirit in disciple-making, what a disciple looks like, the centrality of the church in disciple making, and so on) are dealt with. The vigorous call to “obey everything Jesus commanded” is a necessary one in our day. The writing is clear and understandable. This, in particular, is to be appreciated. Just because a river is muddy does not mean it is deep. The perspicuity of Scripture is to be celebrated and the clarity of Christian writers is to be appreciated. So Earley and Dempsey have placed us in their debt by their contribution to this vital aspect of Christian church life.
Whilst I am thankful for the efforts of the authors and appreciate their work, I find it necessary to highlight a few concerns which contribute to the overall weakness of the book.
Part 2 of Disciple Making Is…. (chapters 5-11) deals with what the authors call the three stages of disciples: declaration, development, deployment. The stages described, while helpful, are too simplistic. Not sufficient notice is taken of the fact that so much development takes place after we have been deployed. A love for slotting Christians into categories is evident in the book (see the chart on page 128 where Christians are said to be in one of three categories – believers, disciples, or disciple makers). I have found church life much more complicated and Christian people much more difficult to categorize.
In chapter 5 the authors emphasize the need to obey everything Jesus commanded. They begin by asking a question: “If I really believed, read, studied, memorized, and obeyed everything Jesus commanded every day, would my life look any different?” What follows is an urgent call to do just that, obey everything Jesus commanded.
Now the problem is that the authors seem to limit the words/commands of Jesus to what is found in the gospels (see pages 53-56, 73 for examples) to the exclusion of the epistles! This is dangerous. One practical problem with this crops up when the authors urge us, on the basis of Mark 10:21, 22, to sell all as part of our radical discipleship. They argue: “Maybe your defense is that Jesus’ command to sell everything and give it to the poor was an isolated incident. I have had a few people tell me they did not have to obey this command because Jesus only said it to one guy, the rich young ruler. But Jesus only told one guy he needed to be born again (John 3:1-7), yet we view this as binding on us all, as we should” (p.99). The authors then refer to C. T. Studd as anecdotal evidence of this type of radical discipleship.
Now I do not agree with this understanding of what Jesus said, but the bigger problem is the effort to interpret our Lord’s words in isolation from the rest of the New Testament. One wonders, for instance, whether those people who were “rich in this present age,” to whom Paul wrote and whom he urged to be generous with the wealth that they didn’t give away, were ignoring the commands of Jesus. Now I am not minimizing what our Lord said; I am simply saying that they need to be understood in light of the words of Paul for Paul had the mind of Christ. The emphasis our authors place on the actual words of Jesus in the gospels (an emphasis found throughout the book) militates against preaching the whole counsel of God, and minimizes the importance of the rest of Scripture. I am sure that studying the words of Jesus in the gospels and living them out is a wonderful thing. But there is no reason to limit ourselves to the gospels, and every reason not to.
Now if the way to grow disciples is to emphasize the commands of Jesus, the way to get more disciples is to use the “power of multiplication.” “Never underestimate the power of multiplication to fulfill the Great Commission. When you totally commit yourself to a life of radical discipleship, and making disciples, you can unleash an unstoppable force” (p.118). Jesus changed the world by using the power of multiplication (p.119). What is this world-changing ministry? It is “anchored in mentoring and multiplying disciples” (p.120). You can “launch an unstoppable force through the power of multiplication” (p.123). So, if you pour your life into twelve disciples, and they do the same, in 25 years you will have a church of 250 000 members, as per the experience of Cesar Castellanos (p.121)! “In order for this model to work, the members must be radically devoted disciples” (p.121). The key to getting more disciples is to “multiply” (p.121). It is not so much “what number you multiply by as much as it is that you do multiply” (p.121). You do not have to aim at multiplying by twelve, as did Cesar! You can use a more manageable number! Furthermore, it is vital to set a date! Cell group leaders who know their goal – “when their groups will give birth – consistently multiply their groups more often than leaders who don’t know. In fact, if a cell leader fails to set goals the cell members can clearly remember, he has about a 50-50 chance of multiplying his cell. But if the leader sets goals, the chance of multiplying increases to three of four” (p.170).
Now I would argue that all of this is thoroughly unbiblical. Where is the sovereignty of God in this? Where is the wind blowing “where it wishes” (John 3:8)? Why does Paul agonize over the lost condition of his countrymen (Romans 9:1-5) when he could be unleashing the unstoppable force of multiplication upon them? One wonders also what Carey or Judson would think of such a notion. What of those pastors of small churches in little towns around the country who have been labouring faithfully for decades and who have been pouring their lives into the souls of those around for many a year? Their churches are still small, and their numbers are few. Earley and Dempsey’s confidence in the “power of multiplication” could easily lead such men to either despair or false hope. Zeal to see more disciples (which is commendable) must be tethered to sound Biblical teaching about how we will make such disciples. I believe this book fails to do that.1
Whilst our authors rightly state that the “most effective way to develop followers of Jesus Christ is in the context of His body (the local church)” (p.ix), it is disappointing to note that little is said in the book about the crucial and fundamental role of regular, faithful, expository preaching of the Word, Sunday by Sunday, in the nurturing and growth of the saints. If sanctification comes through the truth (John 17:17), and if spiritual prosperity is the result of thorough acquaintance with the Word (Psalm 1), then surely the God ordained means of preaching that word (2 Timothy 4:1, 2) will play a vital role in the growth and development of disciples (2 Timothy 3:16, 17).
“Disciple making is embracing the cross. It is forsaking all to follow Jesus” (p.ix). Indeed! As I said at the outset, we are on the same side. My points of disagreement are disagreements between brothers. We stand shoulder to shoulder with the authors in seeking to build the church and nurture disciples. My concerns about the book are by no means insignificant, but I do nonetheless pray that God will use this book to help the church of Christ to examine the matter of discipleship with much care and enable the church to carry out the ministry of discipleship with greater faithfulness.
1 A helpful discussion of “multiplying men,” more helpful than the one under consideration here, may be found in Leland Ryken and Todd Wilson, Preach the Word: Essays on Expository Preaching in Honour of R. Kent Hughes (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2007) – see chapter 14, “Multiplying Men: Training and Deploying Gospel Ministers,” by Jon M. Dennis.
Carl Muller is Pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Burlington, Ontario
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