Discipling will always be controversial since the watershed events of 2003. Some congregations didn’t really change much, however, and some seem to be showing signs of a return to a reliance on the concept of discipling.
So what is discipling? One of the problems is that the term can be ambiguous -ICOC preachers have used it as a cover term for teaching, training, correcting and rebuking. But the term has taken its own definition in the past culture and practices under Kip Mckean’s ICOC – ‘one-over-one’ discipling’. It’s also been called ‘shepherding’ and ‘mentoring’ whereby each member of the congregation has a personal discipler or mentor, who has (depending on the congregation) some degree of authority over them.
In the culture of the ICOC it had become implied that any true Christian church must have this system of one-over-one discipling. Though it is argued that Jesus had such relationships over his apostles and wanted it passed down, there is no proof of a one-over-one discipling system practised as essential doctrine in the New Testament churches.
One blogger critic of the ICOC discovered a sermon discussing the relationship of Jonathan and David and that it resembled an effective discipling relationship. The critic alleged that the problem arose, however, when the preacher claimed that David’s falling into the sin of adultery was because of a failure to replace a ‘discipler’ in his life after the death of Jonathan.
If this is true, what are the implications? Surely this would be attributing a modern concept (of discipling) over David. Yes, he had godly friendships that help him in his walk, but the responsibility to have a personal discipler was an unknown concept for the people of the day. Besides, the bible cleary attributes the impetus for his sin to laziness (as Kings should lead their armies in war, not stay at the palace), not the lack of a personal human leader (2 Samuel 11:1-2).
Interpreting scripture in light of one-over-one discipling is dangerous and borders on idolatry. I thought I might coin a name for the idol: ‘Disciplon’. If you start to make the assumption that the only way to be righteous is by having a godly mentor, it’s in danger of becoming a core belief. We can only obtain righteousness through Jesus -his death on the cross and our faithful response to it.
Does that mean it’s wrong to have a spiritual mentor, a godly leader with a personal relationship in our lives? Of course not, but it shouldn’t be what we rely on, and having it institutionalized in doctrine is dangerous for false leaders and imposters can use the system and take protégés for themselves as well. Bad leaders who take on roles as disciplers can wield damaging influence over their followers and should they rise up through the ranks, can lead whole congregations and regions astray. It can also be argued that Pharisees also ‘discipled’ their followers to be just like them.
The temptation for ICOC congregations is to be seduced by former glory and a significant feature that set them apart from other congregations was the one-over-one discipling system. But to revive (or continue) this system might be justified by the belief that ‘discipling’ is an essential doctrine with the implications of one-over-one discipling being the same thing. In other words, they’ll need to erect the idol ‘Disciplon’.
There are many godly personalities in the bible who did and didn’t have mentors and personal leaders in their life at various times but they all made do by relying on their relationship with God.