111. Exploring Vegas’ Critique of DMM

Kenneth R. Jolley is a colleague with Fellowship International with many years of cross-cultural experience in Latin America. He has agreed to be a guest author in the ongoing discussion about the legitimacy of the Disciple Making Movements. His submission is an evaluation of the article posted on the website Radius International by Chad Vegas: “Defining and Evaluating the Ideas Impacting Missions Today” (Jun 11, 2018) in which he critiques Disciple Making Movements[1]

     In this article Chad Vegas presents a critical and negative evaluation of Discipleship Making Movements (DMM). He summarizes his evaluation of DMM as:

  1. an unbiblical methodology and
  2. a faulty understanding of the gospel, conversion, discipleship, and the church.

These are serious charges, and in essence, Vegas does come out and say that he finds elements of DMM to be heretical.

     To his credit, Vegas cites numerous advocates of the movement, giving proponents of DMM a voice in what he has to say. When it comes to assessing any debate, it is essential to establish the premises upon which opposing sides present their case. In the case of Vegas, I find that I must do so more by inference and deduction from what he seeks to defend, and as such, I have a number of questions that I would like to ask of him, in order to verify my own assumptions in fairness to him. When it comes to his quotes and presentation of DMM advocates I find that he is selective, and while acknowledging many of the foundation principles and premises of DMM methodology, he has not dealt with all of them. As such I am not sure that he has a complete appreciation for the premises upon which DMM methodology is built and particularly the “why”.

     Therefore, in evaluating Vegas’ presentation I find there are two areas that need to be explored more fully with him. First, is the area of general understanding; I would like to see whether or not both sides are in agreement on the premises (e.g. the authority of Scripture and guidance of the Holy Spirit in the life of individuals and community, believers and unbelievers, over and above that of preachers and teachers), because it is on the level of foundational premises that an evaluation needs to take place. It seems that Vegas’ negative critique has to do more with how Vegas perceives DMM threatens the definition and practice of traditional protestant understandings of “gospel, conversion, discipleship and the church”. I would like to explore whether or not he acknowledges that our traditional theological definitions and practices are historically and culturally defined, and what his understanding and appreciation for the need of contextualization is; as Jesus expressed it, “New wine requires new wineskins.”  On several points, I find that “a defending of protestant tradition in theology and practice” is what is driving Vegas’ presentation, rather than an understanding and appreciation of how DMM practitioners are also seeking to be biblical in what they do and why they do it. Vegas’ strength is that he uses Scripture to back up his arguments. However, with regards to several of his biblical arguments, I would like to ask Vegas to affirm whether or not he accepts what others perceive those same biblical texts to be saying.

     Secondly, Vegas’ critique does seem to focus on DMM methodology more than on the premises upon which the methodology is built. This too, I would like to clarify with Vegas. In one sense, this is understandable. In my own journey in DMM, there has sometimes been a greater emphasis on being faithful to a methodology, the “hows” as well as the “do nots” of DMM, rather than firmly establishing the premises, the “why,” and importance of the methodology. In this regard, Vegas does proponents of DMM a service in that perhaps greater emphasis should be given to this, and not just the methodology itself. While some proven principles have been established, I believe there is a need to be conscious of contextualization in DMM, and recognize that in some contexts the methodology may need to be adapted if the foundational principles are to be maintained.

     Hence, my personal evaluation of Vegas has to do with establishing what these general premises are, and not only the substance and content of his arguments. In spite of the fact that he weighs more heavily on critiquing the methodology and not so much on whether or not the premises upon which DMM is built are legitimate or not, I will attempt to evaluate what Vegas has presented based on the three categories of his critique of DMM methodology:  1) Obedience based discipleship (OBD), 2) Person of Peace (POP) and Discovery Bible Study (DBS).

Vegas on Obedience Based Discipleship (OBD)

In this section, Vegas tackles the idea that people are “discipled towards conversion” and cites Jerry Trousdale significantly in doing so. He questions Trousdales’ emphasis that this is what Jesus did with the 12 disciples. Many of Vegas’ points here are valid. In the calling and discipling of the 12, one should not view the disciples as “unconverted and without faith about Jesus.” Vegas observations about how some were followers of John the Baptist and began following Jesus because of the testimony of John the Baptist are well taken. I believe in this, some proponents of DMM made be presenting ideas of understanding that “push the limits” of acceptance and Vegas’ observations need to be taken seriously.

Vegas then analyzes the actions of these disciples as apostles, and argues that neither Jesus, nor the apostles engaged in discipling unbelievers, but rather preached the gospel, calling people to repentance and hence conversion. They discipled people only after they had converted to Christ. All to emphasize that the traditional pattern in which the church does the same, is the biblical pattern. Vegas does not say this directly, but I believe it is implied that Vegas does not like the idea that “we disciple people towards conversion”. For him, discipling is something we do with believers. You first of all have to be a disciple in order to be discipled.

While Vegas’ observations are valid, I do not believe that he has dealt adequately with the question of “discipling unbelievers towards faith.” The great commission implies a discipling of the nations that leads them to a declaration of conversion (baptism) followed by ongoing insistence to obey Jesus’ teachings. It is one thing to give testimony to the gospel of the kingdom amongst those who have a foundation and acceptance of the knowledge of God (e.g. the 12 disciples). It is another to do so amongst those who have no knowledge or awareness of him, or who follow other faith systems. For those who live in non-Christian or post-Christian contexts, most discover that there is a discipling of unbelievers towards faith, and that faith is about obeying (responding in belief) to what God has said. I wonder how Vegas would respond to this? The road to discipleship is a road of growing in faith and obedience is key. In making disciples of the nations, is this not what we encourage unbelievers to do? I would like to know how Vegas would response to the apostle Paul’s discourse in Athens (Acts 17:16-34) which seems to be an invitation for unbelievers to acknowledge and know God as their creator and judge, as much as it is a call to repentance. Could we consider that Paul was discipling people towards faith, as much as he was calling them to conversion to the one true God (note: Paul does so without mentioning the name of Jesus directly or what we might consider a traditional presentation of the “gospel”)?

However, Vegas’ greater contention with OBD is his conviction that DMM is in error (he hopes it is just ignorance) in understanding “gospel, conversion and the Holy Spirit”. He believes that DMM understanding of the gospel is false and he takes offense at equating faith with obedience. For Vegas, faith and obedience are two distinct things and should not be equated, and he fears that DMM is appropriating Roman Catholic doctrines.

There are other details to question Vegas about and to challenge him on, which for the sake of time and space I will not do. However, Vegas has pointed out something that is a concern of our times and that has been a source of debate amongst protestants and evangelicals for over a century; namely, adequately defining what is “saving faith”? Where we land on that definition determines whether we can appreciate the emphasis of DMM or agree with Vegas. Ultimately, Vegas seems to be concerned about defending a particular protestant/evangelical historical understanding, and for him, to deviate from that is heresy.

There are other Scripture passages that I would like to explore with Vegas, for it can be strongly presented from the Scriptures that there is no true faith without obedience.  This is affirmed by the apostle Paul, who speaks of calling gentiles to “the obedience of the faith” (Ro. 1:5; 15:18) and James, who makes the point that faith without works of obedience is not true faith (Jam. 2:26). Even Jesus seems to be clear on this when He says, that confession of faith in calling him “Lord” and serving in his name are no guarantee of entering the kingdom of heaven. Rather it is only those who “do the will of the Father” who have any such guarantee (Matt. 7:21). I would like to know how Vegas would respond to these teachings of Jesus and the apostles. With respect to his critique of equating faith with obedience, I find significant biblical support (including the Old Testament) to challenge his position of seeking to separate them. Saving faith is obedient faith and without acknowledging this, it is understandable that it would be difficult to accept this foundational premise and practice of DMM.

Vegas on Person of Peace (POP)

In this section, Vegas again presents ideas that I believe can be challenged, both in terms of how he perceives what proponents of DMM are emphasizing, as well as his own interpretation and understanding of a POP. So, once again, I will not attempt to address all that he presents but to point out a few areas that I believe need to be addressed.

Vegas emphasizes ideas proposed by DMM and takes them to an extreme that in so doing distorts what is being said. For example, I believe he pushes the point when emphasizing that finding a POP and walking with them is the primary or main role of a missionary. I do not think most DMM practitioners would agree. To take what many propose as a key element of the DMM missionary strategy and make it the primary focus is to misrepresent the strategy and methodology. This is one example where Vegas attempts to convince us of what he is saying in order to conclude that to perceive otherwise would be wrong. I question whether he understands the why behind these concepts, let alone their nature and I would like to explore his understanding.

 Similarly, I believe Vegas’ presentation of a POP can be challenged. Using Scriptural support he argues that,The phrase “son of peace” is not a description of an unbeliever who has been prepared for the gospel. It is a description of someone who, upon hearing the gospel preached, receives the gospel, and thus “peace” belongs to them.

Vegas concludes that a “son of peace” is a person who has experienced “the supreme peace of reconciliation with God. To argue that the Jewish cultural greeting “shalom” is only valid for those who have experienced reconciliation with God would appear to be a big leap. He also equates the greeting to the blessing of Aaron, and hence concludes that a POP is a person who already believes the gospel. Although Vegas uses Luke 10 as one of the foundations of his argument (as does DMM), I find his exposition weak. For example, Vegas argues that Jesus´ instructions to his disciples involved finding the home of a believer. Jesus’ instructions seem to be about finding “receptivity” when the disciples “blessed” a home, and not only the receptivity of a home, but of a village. It is ironic that Vegas emphasizes Jesus’ own words of “being received,” but in deference to Vegas, it would seem that Jesus’ emphasis is on receiving the disciples, not the gospel, so that the disciples may then proceed to not only preach the gospel of the kingdom, but also to express it through actions of concern, care and where able, restoration.

Vegas goes on to analyze other biblical examples, but his basic premise that a POP is a believer affects how a text is read and what the conclusions will be. I have questions for Vegas regarding the texts he looks at. For example, when the Bible describes Cornelius as a man who “feared God” and “had God’s favour”, is he not a “peaceable” person, even though he has not yet heard the full gospel regarding Jesus Christ? After being instructed by God, Cornelius sought for Peter, invited him into his home so that all of his household and some from the community were present to hear Peter. Did Cornelius have to become a believer who had received the gospel before he could be considered a “son of peace”?  According to Vegas, yes, for as he clearly states, a “POP is not a spiritually interested unbeliever who is hospitable, and who will lead other unbelievers in the process of discovery.” According to his definition, Cornelius is not yet such an individual. I think that there is more to explore here and other biblical examples to consider, including Rahab of Jericho, who harboured the Hebrew spies and the gentile widow who received Elijah. Can they not be understood as “persons of peace” who are open and curious to learn from, and care for God’s servants? I wonder how Vegas would respond to this? Jesus’ instructions seem to imply the openness and willingness of a household to receive and promote a servant of God, and do not emphasize the condition that they must first of all believe and be reconciled with God. I believe Vegas takes a theological leap to make this point.

Vegas on Discovery Bible Study (DBS)

     As in the previous section, I find Vegas takes DMM elements with regard to the role of Scripture and the Holy Spirit in individuals and community and carries these to extremes that DMM proponents would not accept. Once again, there are a number of details that could be challenged, but instead, I will attempt to examine what I perceive as general points of concern.

     Would Vegas accept the premise, upon which DBS methodology is based, that the Scriptures and the work of the Holy Spirit are the primary and authoritative agents in the life of an individual and community? Would he agree that their authority supersedes that of teachers and preachers?

     I think Vegas comes to conclusions about DBS that are not what happens in reality. He implies that, potentially, unbelievers will be participating in a DBS without the involvement of believers. In this he fails to recognize that a key element in seeing anyone participate in a DBS is because of the power of personal testimony of those who have already had an encounter with the word of God and the call to obedience to what God has said. If the experience is positive (in terms of authoritative impact and response), then they are on a journey of faith and growing in it. To share with others, what one is discovering about God and themselves (which involves the gospel of the kingdom as it is found in the Scriptures) is how DBS continues to grow. Likewise, the whole element of accountability in DBS speaks to the fact that different kinds of relationships are being developed that extend beyond just getting together to study the Bible. In general terms, I believe Vegas has yet to grasp these other elements and dynamics that go beyond the discovery and application of truth. To have a DBS as Vegas paints it, would not be a true DBS.

     One of Vegas’ primary concerns is the diminished role of preachers and teachers. In this, Vegas gives strong biblical support for understanding the key role that they do play, as called and gifted by God to equip, ensure sound doctrine, correct, etc. This observation of Vegas is legitimate and needs to be considered. An element here is that of course, during the 1st century A.D., people did not have access to God`s word personally, nor were necessarily capable in terms of literacy as we are today. So the role of preachers and teachers then, was more crucial than it is today. However, Vegas’ observations regarding the role of preachers and teachers in the Scriptures, need to be considered in the light of DBS. Do they have a role, not in terms of being authoritative and central sources of teaching – the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit should not be supplanted by them as contemporary expressions in the church sometimes do – but in understanding the nature of God’s word in its historical, cultural and literary contexts, and the impact those have on determining understanding and meaning? At some point, an encounter with the Scriptures will be similar to that of the Ethiopian who said, “How can I understand what I am reading unless someone explains it to me?” (Acts 8:31). For many today, the Bible can be confusing, but with some basic orientation to its nature and context, it can make sense to them. So the role of teachers and preachers is something that I believe needs more exploration as they relate to DMM. Is it possible to maintain the engagement of individuals and community directly with the Scriptures as their primary authority, and teachers facilitate that, not supplant it, as they help others understand the Scriptures, allowing them to do the hermeneutics? What would this look like? In this I think there is room for exploration.

     Vegas believes that missionaries, preachers, and teachers should proclaim the gospel in order to assure its’ propagation and faithfulness to its’ content. However, my question for Vegas is, cannot the Scriptures proclaim the gospel of the kingdom, just as well, or even more effectively in terms of hearing directly from God, than preachers and teachers can? If they are looking to the Holy Spirit to help them, with encouragement to obey, would this not be effective communication of the gospel? 

     Another of Vegas’ primary concerns in seeing a change of the centrality of the teacher and preacher role in Bible study, is that such a change opens the door to error and heresy. I would hope that Vegas would acknowledge that it is also because of the central role of preachers and teachers that false teachings and movements occur, are propagated and maintained. The best way to combat bad theology is with good theology and I believe that Vegas would concur that the Scriptures should be our primary, if not complete, source of good theology, and not just what preachers and teachers say is good theology. If people are taught to recognize the authority of Scripture and are obedient to it, over and above what teachers teach, would Vegas say that this might be a better defense against heresy? Similarly, if people look to the Holy Spirit to aid them in understanding, would that be better than just looking to the interpretations of teachers? In a similar vein, what if hermeneutics are best done and affirmed in community, so that we do not just have to believe what anyone who speaks in the name of God says. Instead, as the apostle John encourages us to do, we test such individuals and their teachings, as well as the “spirit” behind what they say, and do so in order to discern what is true and false when someone speaks on behalf of God (1 Jn 4:1-6). Does not DMM and it’s methodology promote such a possibility? It would be interesting to explore these ideas with Vegas for our own understanding and encouragement of what DMM communities could potentially be.

In addition, while Vegas acknowledges that church groups and missionaries have planted their own “brand” of protestant or evangelical Christianity amongst other peoples as his quotes of proponents of DMM express, he does not address it. I would like to know his thoughts; does he recognize it as a problem or not? And if so, why or why not?

Summary:

     Key to understanding is clarity in our premises. Although Chad Vegas has sought to give DMM proponents a fair voice, I question that he has fully understood the premises upon which DMM is built. His presentation largely focusses on a critique of elements of DMM methodology, but it is not as clear to me if he fully understands and appreciates the why and purposes behind the methodology. Certain elements of his critique communicate to me that he may not have such a full appreciation. To a certain degree, Vegas is analyzing key elements of DMM from the lens of the traditional forms of biblical interpretation and communication (primarily the central role that teachers and preachers should have), which naturally and understandably he perceives as a dangerous threat to these traditional roles. But unfortunately, this can also limit our understanding of DMM principles and the purposes behind them.

     DMM proponents should learn from Vegas. Perhaps there are elements to be better communicated and emphasized as foundational, other than stressing adherence to a methodology. DMM does change traditional definitions and practices, indeed even the nature and function of the church, but in that Jesus has always been active in renewing his church in every place and every generation. “New wine requires new wineskins”. God has spoken and everything else is commentary. I have come to understand that God welcomes our commentary in order that we may lean hard into Him as we learn to lean into each other redemptively. By God’s grace and the illuminating presence of the Holy Spirit may He continue to help us be faithfully obedient to what He has spoken. 


[1] https://www.radiusinternational.org/a-brief-guide-to-dmm/  . Last consulted September 30, 2020.

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