The Strachan Theorem, put forth by the late R. Kenneth Strachan, director of the Latin American Mission organization, proposed that “the successful expansion of any movement is in direct proportion to its ability to mobilize and involve its total membership in constant propagation of its beliefs, its purposes, and its philosophy.”[i] After Jesus issued the command to “make disciples of all nations” in Matthew 28, His followers enthusiastically obeyed His challenge. Christianity infiltrated the pagan world of Asia Minor, Greece, and Rome. Rapid expansion continued until the third century. Have you ever wondered what caused the disciple-making flame of the first century to burn out? Did you even notice that it did? While there are many factors that have contributed through the years, allow me to offer a few that I find particularly compelling.
The shift from empowering the laity for the work of ministry to a employing a hierarchical structure began with the formation of the Catholic Church. During the third century, institutionalism took over the responsibilities from the discipleship model established in the first century. “From this time onward,” comments Alexandre Faivre, “the layman’s function was to release the priest and Levite from all his material concerns, thus enabling him to devote himself exclusively to the service of the altar, a task that was necessary for everyone’s salvation.”[ii] Throughout the second and third centuries, an assembly of presbyters and bishops governed the church. The ministry was stripped from the people and put in the hands of the priests, a hierarchical structure descending from the Pope that is still in effect today.
Believers were immediately emasculated from the expectation of Ephesians 4:11-13 to partner in the ministry with leaders in the church. The vacuum of authority took the wind out of the sails of a multiplication movement that spread rapidly up to this point. For the next thousand years, the church had a monopoly on ministry. The spiritual temperature was so cold during this period that it perfectly fit the name once applied to it because of our lack of historical knowledge about it: the Dark Ages.
Another setback to the disciple-making movement was an over-emphasis on an individual’s experience with the spiritual realm. Gnosticism (knowledge), in the First and Second centuries, along with Montanism (experience) sidetracked many believers. In a response to the intellectualizing trend set forth by the formation of schools in the regions of Alexandria, Syria, Bithynia, and Asia Minor, leaders overemphasized an emotional experience.
An unforeseen result was the minimization of the proclamation of the Word of God. “The leadership and people,” according to Carl Wilson in his helpful book With Christ in the School of Disciple Building, “became preoccupied with the gifts of the Spirit and with emotional experience to the point that the teaching of Scripture and the apostolic traditions were neglected and the preaching and teaching became shallow.” It was time for a grand shift in the spiritual lives of people everywhere, and Martin Luther was exactly the man to bring it about.
Come back next week for Part 2.
[i]Evangelism in Depth (Chicago, IL: Moody, 1961), 25.
[ii]Alexandre Faivre, The Emergence of the Laity in the Early Church (New York: Paulist Press, 1990), 69.
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