How We May Have Disregarded Discipleship for 300 Years
A few years ago I began collecting Bible leaves. I was at one time unaware that copies of actual Bibles that have survived the ravages of time are sold for exuberant amounts of money. Much like dealers sell baseball cards or comic books, pages of Bibles that have fallen out—no one wants to buy an incomplete Bible—can be acquired through savvy internet dealings. Persistence paid off, as I was able to acquire a copy of an original page from a 1611 King James Version “He” Bible (the “He” version, as opposed to the “She,” is the first printed copy). The leaf upon which the page is printed is nothing special. The story behind the leaf, however, is entertaining and revealing.
Richard Bancroft, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, was a staunch critic of Puritanism and the Geneva Bible. He encouraged King James, therefore, to consider developing a new translation. At the time, three versions were in circulation: the Great Bible, the Bishops’ Bible, and the Geneva Bible. The first two were authorized by the Church and preferred by the clergy, although the Great was losing ground to the newer Bishops’. The Geneva, on the other hand, was a favorite among the masses as well as the Puritan leaders in the Church of England. Even though the Geneva was a superior translation, the Church rejected it because of the anti-monarchical annotations. The stage was set, then, for a new translation.
Fifty-four (although only forty-seven are mentioned by name in the printed copy) of England’s foremost Bible scholars were divided into six panels—two at Oxford, two at Cambridge, and two at Westminster. The translation was to be a revision of the Bishops’ Bible. Words that were omitted by Tyndale were reintroduced: “church” in place of “congregation,” and “charity” instead of “love.” After the translation was complete, a committee of twelve was convened, comprised of two scholars from each of the six panels. The fourteen Apocryphal books were included in the completed version as they had been in the previous authorized English Bibles. The actual translation took the panel three years to present a completed copy. The committee of twelve spent another three years reviewing the translation, and an additional nine months was needed to prepare it for the press. This was the 1611 King James Version (KJV).
Hugh Ross was the first author to call for a revision of the KJV in 1727. John Wesley, founder of Methodism, introduced his revision of the KJV in 1755, in which there were 12,000 changes. Benjamin Blayney’s 1769 Oxford Standard Edition of the KJV is essentially the version that is printed today. Blayney’s edition is “estimated to differ from the original 1611 version in at least 75,000 details.” The current KJV differs from the original in that in omits the fourteen Apocryphal books; the punishment for their exclusion, according to the Archbishop of Canterbury, was one-year imprisonment.
What does this have to do with discipleship?
The extensive translation process produced a Bible translation that has been a Christian staple for over 400 years. The KJV’s prominence, I suggest, is one of the reasons why there has been such a glaring lack of discipleship over the last four centuries.
In order to carry out fully the command of the Great Commission, we must understand properly a crucial term in Matthew 28:18-20. The KJV of the Bible renders the Greek word for “make disciples” as “teach.” The KJV of Matthew 28:19 reads, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations….” All modern versions translate the verb matheteuo as “make disciples” instead of “teach.” Even the New King James Version states, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.”
Could this oversight be one of the reasons for the minimization of discipleship among Christians for centuries? Many diligent believers simply read this word and “teach” people about salvation, that is, share the gospel and lead them to a decision for Christ. This is good and admirable, but it is not enough. More is required to make a disciple of Jesus Christ. It is only one aspect of Jesus’ command. Making disciples requires equipping, training, and investing in new believers.
Allow me to explain my point. Imagine that you received a note from your father about lawn care. “Go to the garage, Take out the lawn-mower, weed-eater, and blower. Bring each of them to the front yard. Finally, fill the lawn-mower up with gas. Have this done before I get home from work.”
What is Dad going to find when he pulls into the driveway after work? Uncut grass, clean machines, and a confused Father.
When your father asks, “Why didn’t you mow the grass?,” “Why didn’t you edge the curb with the weed-eater?,” “Why didn’t you use the blower?,” what will be your response?
Because you didn’t tell me to do that.
Maybe the reason we haven’t seen discipleship at the forefront of our ministries is because we have just been going to the nations to “teach.”
I know what you’re saying, “Isn’t teaching synonymous with making disciples?”
Yes and no. Teaching is a part of discipleship, but discipleship is far more than teaching. Discipleship is not a class you take, a seminar for which you sign-up, a degree you earn, or a program though which you go. It’s not a 12-week Bible study, a 40-day home group, or a weekend class.
Disciple-making was a priority for Jesus and His disciples, and it should be a priority for us now. Bill Hull, a leader in personally obeying the Great Commission, has sounded the clarion call for discipleship over the past twenty years. He rightly insists that understanding “what a disciple is and what a disciple does are top priorities for the church.”[i] He notes that many churches are carelessly guilty of throwing “the word disciple around freely, but too often with no definition.”[ii]
Perhaps the most common term used by believers in our day is “Christian.” But do you know how many times the designation appears in the Bible? Only three times (Acts 11:26, Acts 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16)! In its two occurrences in Acts—a book that details the origination of the term—it is used in a derogatory fashion. In fact, “Christian” was likely coined as a term of derision. Those who despised Christ displayed their disgust for His followers by calling them “Christians.” It wasn’t until years after Christ’s ascension that the term was used in a positive light.
On the other hand, the term “disciple” appears 269 times in the New Testament, with 238 of those occurring in the four Gospels (the root word is used 281 times in the New Testament and 250 times in the Gospels alone). Why is this so important?
The answer is because Christ did not come to make “Christians;” He came to make “disciples.” Immediately before leaving this world to return to heaven, He commanded us—His disciples—to carry on that work in His absence. But before a person can make disciples, he or she must first be a disciple.
What does it mean to be a disciple? At the very core, a disciple is a learner, one who is set on growing and developing. In nearly every sphere of life, people learn specific skills from someone else who has developed those skills. An electrical certification is attained only after an extensive apprenticeship with a more experienced electrician. When a prospective doctor finishes medical school, she invests several years in a residency, a time of shadowing an experienced physician.
If a psychiatrist bases his practice on the teachings of Sigmund Freud, we might say he is “a disciple of Freud.” If a musician, following the methods of Wynton Marsalis, plays jazz in the same style, we might comment that he is “a disciple of Wynton Marsalis.” This concept of learning directly through the expertise and experience of another is the foundation of what Jesus envisioned when He used the term “disciple.”
So how does this understanding of the word matheteuo, or “make disciples,” affect how we live our Christian lives? Do you view the terms “teach” and “make disciples” as synonymous or different? Are there any changes that you need to make in your own life to become more than a Christian, that is, a disciple of Christ?
[i]Bill Hull, Disciplemaking Pastor: Leading Others on the Journey of Faith (Ada: MI: Baker Books, 2007), 54.