109. Defending DMMs

A response to Chad Vegas, A Brief Guide to DMM

Using critique to support, correct and build up ministry

I would like to raise a caution about criticizing those who do ministry in a way that is different than our own. By using our own perspective as the standard, we may wind up opposing what God is doing. Consider Jesus’ response to the Pharisees when they criticized him for healing on the Sabbath. Their theology and traditions were built on God’s law and were the only filters they had for judging Jesus. Their complaint was that Jesus’ approach to ministry was “unbiblical” and an affront to a clear command. I do believe that we should examine and test what is being promoted as good ministry practice; it is right to voice our concerns, as long as we do so with an openness to correction and do not hold too tightly to our “settled convictions,” lest we find ourselves calling what God is doing “unbiblical.” I, too, have been guilty of judging others before understanding their perspective and to remind myself of this tendency, I have on my screensaver is saying (not my own), “Lord, help me forgive those who sin differently than I.”

Through Disciple Making Movements (DMMs), we are witnessing a phenomenon of God at work; thousands of people are coming into the kingdom and communities are being transformed through faith in Jesus. It is a movement of the Spirit of God. Those privileged to see such movements first hand and experience the blessing of God through the fruitful practices of DMM, seek to ground it in God’s Word. They are responding as practitioners who want to be biblically based and so seek to interpret and validate their practices through that lens. However, in general, they are not robust theologians and some of their biblical conclusions may need to be questioned and developed. Their explanation of the connection between the moving of the Spirit and how they interpret such phenomena through the light of God’s word may not be entirely legitimate. This does not disqualify the movement of people to Christ through these methodologies, rather it challenges us to be careful and thorough in expressing how the revelation of how God works in the Bible corresponds with the movement we have the privilege of observing.

When the disciples of John came and asked Jesus the question, “Are you the one John said was going to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Luke 7:20), Jesus did not give a biblical argument about his identity but pointed to what God was doing through him. John and his disciples were challenged to shape their theology around Jesus, not fit him into the framework of what they expected the Messiah to be. Similarly, we need to view DMMs as the work of God’s Spirit and view these movements as a challenge to revisit our theological and ministry frameworks, making sure that our theology and ministry practices conform to both what God has said in scripture and what he is doing in this world.

I encourage those inclined towards academic and theological pursuits to recognize God’s hand in what is happening, to come alongside and help practitioners appropriately shape their theology and understanding as it relates to what they are experiencing. The goal is not to find reasons to dismiss or squelch DMMs, but to provide thoughtful responses about how to biblically partner with each other in what God is doing. We need apostle Pauls who can help the rest of us connect the moving of the Spirit we see and experience to the revelation of God’s nature and will in scripture. Let us be true partners of the gospel who act as faithful exegetes and theologians and so come alongside the practitioners in order to generate biblical interpretations in a way that builds up and advances the kingdom. 

Addressing Vegas’ Critiques

That said, I am grateful to Vegas for his critiques in the paper A Brief Guide to DMM. These critiques need to be considered seriously and carefully. He has done the church a favor by raising issues that make us take a step back and consider the biblical legitimacy of the DMM approach to ministry. Ken Guenther has already provided a helpful Response to Radius International’s Criticism of Disciple Making Movements (DMM). Continuing to follow the concerns as set out by Vegas, I will summarize Guenther’s response and then add a few comments of my own. Because Vegas’ and Guenther’s points are only mentioned briefly for reference in a summarized fashion below, I am assuming that the reader will access the original documents in order to read the full arguments in context.

1. DMM as rediscovered biblical discipleship

Critique: Proponents of DMM have “faulty and dangerous understanding of church history” because they think they have “restored the proper biblical understanding of missions methodology that has been lost for nearly 1600 years.”

Early on in his article, Vegas interprets Watson as claiming that he has rediscovered God’s way of doing ministry, a restoration of New Testament methods and practices that have been lost to the church, and a corrective to the mistaken methodologies he had been taught in the traditional church. This is unfair to Watson. What Watson realized was that a key principle of obedience was missing in what he was doing. This is not something that the church has forgotten or not known for 1600 years. However, in his ministry Watson realized that it had been neglected. He realized that there was a difference between being a disciple of Jesus and being a disciple of his denomination, of obeying Jesus’ commands as opposed to denominational doctrines. This is not intended to be understood as a unique discovery unknown to the church, but Watson’s own discovery for his ministry.

Also, it should be noted that this act of “discovery” is something that has occurred over and over again in church history, and it will continue to happen. Perhaps it is necessary for missionaries to continue to “rediscover” obedience in order to make sure that they are focused on what is truly biblical. It is not that DMM proponents have been the only ones to discover what Jesus intended missions to be. Rather they have come to realize a key principle that has always been there for those following Jesus in his mission and that has been “discovered” by missionaries through the ages.

2. Obedience-based Discipleship

a. Critique: obedience-based discipleship does not follow the biblical pattern

Vegas sees as biblical a strict progression of “faith and repentance, followed by baptism and teaching towards maturity in Christ.” His conclusion is that encouraging “unbelievers” towards obedience before faith is “unbiblical.”

Guenther proposes that there are “multiple examples” of Jesus calling people to obedience who are not “believers in Him as Lord and Saviour” and gives several references.

My comments:

It appears that Vegas defines “biblical” as instructions or patterns that are described in God’s Word, and “unbiblical” as any initiative that does not have a clear precedent in the Bible. However, in common language usage “unbiblical” not only means “not in the Bible,” but also implies “opposed to biblical teaching” and therefore wrong. Thus Vegas seems to be arguing that if a practice is not explicitly outlined in scripture, it is “unbiblical” and therefore wrong. Granted, what Vegas is responding to is a similar perspective from DMM proponents, such as Trousdale, who provide a disapproving description of the practices of the “church today” in contrast to “the model of disciple making that Jesus gave us.”[1] Such a categorization of the church today, which in reality is diverse in form and practice, is a caricature that misrepresents many good initiatives.

What is unfortunate about both Vegas’ and Trousdale’s positions as they dismiss practices different from their own, is that they base their argument on perceived ministry patterns described in the Bible, while arguing that the other ministry pattern lacks biblical support. Universalizing NT patterns of ministry reveals a hermeneutic that views the Bible as a missions or ministry manual that needs to be implemented as is without reference to contextual concerns. A more appropriate understanding is that the issue is not if a particular impacting methodology is described in the Bible, but whether or not it is consistent with the gospel message and the purposes of Jesus as he builds his church – does a this contextualized methodology advance the gospel or not?

The theological basis for DMM methodology is addressed by Vegas and examined under the next point. It is a more important critique than identifying patterns because DMM, as with any ministry effort, needs to be aligned with the purposes of God and the gospel message.

b. Critique: obedience-based discipleship is not “consonant with a biblical gospel”

Vegas makes the serious charge that DMM proponents have misunderstood “faith” and as a result are promoting a “false gospel.” He claims that to be “obedience-based” as promoted in the DMM methodology is to move away from a “gospel-based or grace-based” discipleship. If correct, this could invalidate DMM movements as heretical, rather than acknowledging them as a movement of the Spirit advancing the kingdom. 

Guenther points out that the Watsons’ comment that “Faith is defined as the continuous act of choosing to be obedient to God’s Word”[2] is not intended to equate faith with obedience as if the word “faith” is synonymous with “obedience.” Rather, obedience is a description of how faith is expressed; it is faith “acted out.”[3] He asserts that DMM practitiononers “believe it is essential to establish the clear understanding (the DNA) that obedience, not just knowledge, is the appropriate response to the Word of God.”

My comments:

Both Vegas and Guenther believe that obedience is necessary for all who follow Jesus. However, the pragmatic concern of DMM proponents is to establish that “DNA” from the first time the gospel message is communicated. The first recorded gospel invitation is a call to obedience – “Follow Me” (Mark 1:17) – and DMM proponents see such obedience as the needed orientation of a faith commitment, in contrast to mere faith acknowledgement that seeks understanding instead of responding in submission. This difference is reflected in one of Fellowship International’s beliefs that “What you win them with is what you win them to.” The way people come to Christ will be reflected in how they live “in Christ.” When people come to Jesus by learning obedience through studying God’s Word, that orientation continues as the way to grow in Christ after they have become committed followers. Vegas, on the other hand, believes that this practice reveals a “deeply problematic understanding of the gospel, conversion, and the work of the Holy Spirit.”

The essence of Vegas’ argument is that if obedience is an essential part of faith, then, contrary to reform doctrine, human works – the act of obedience – has become part of justification, rather than all the work of Christ. Love and obedience cannot be part of saving faith, but only the “fruit” of faith.

Vegas has confused the distinction between works that earn our salvation and the human response required to receive salvation. The former is the heresy that the reformers fought against, the latter is what we are called to: repentance and commitment to Jesus. Repentance, turning from darkness to light, was the first act Jesus commanded when he began to preach the gospel message (Matthew 4:17). Jesus’ invitation to his disciples to “follow me” required an act of obedience that, after time, led to a commitment to Jesus as Lord and Saviour.

Vegas has made a categorical error by equating “obedience” with “good works.” Good works means “I have earned a reward because of what I have done. I deserve salvation.”  Obedience as a response to the Master is not an action that “earns” a reward, but an act of submission, trusting Jesus to be that salvation. Dallas Willard articulates this point well, “Grace is not opposed to effort. It is opposed to earning. Effort is action. Earning is attitude…. That grace is, of course, ‘unmerited favor.’ But the form it takes is the action of God in our lives and with our actions. If we wish to know more of this and see the deliverance it works in and around us, we must do the things that will bring it to pass.”[4]

Faith, whether saving faith or an ongoing life of faith, includes both knowledge and action. Saving faith as an action on our part “saves us” in the same way that the action of people crying out to Jesus saved them. As Jesus said to the woman who had been living a life of sin, “your faith has saved you” (Luke 7:50).  This does not mean that we can save ourselves or that what we do merits salvation; it means that our response to the Saviour has saved us. We must accept and trust in order to be saved and this is expressed by “following” when Jesus says, “Follow me.”  These are not “good works.” As an analogy, consider the act of a drowning man grabbing a life line. In one sense grabbing hold of the line “saves” the man, one could even suggest that he “saved” himself by accepting the offer, in the same sense that the woman’s faith in Luke 7 “saved” her. But the greater salvation is accomplished by the one who did the saving by throwing out the lifeline.

Faith expressed as obedience is also true in an ongoing sense of sanctification, which is also by faith alone. To be delivered from sin is not a passive experience, but an ongoing action and commitment on the part of the one who is saved. Even as we are saved from sin and walk in the light, we recognize that “all is gift” and it is the light that saves us, not our cleverness or our strength or our wisdom. The word “obedience” is a word of submission, a giving over of all to God. We are like children who must come to our parents in order to take a bath and be made clean. Our “coming” is the obedience that cleanses us. But the obedience is not a “good work” of cleaning ourselves as if, instead of coming to our parents and the bath water, we somehow clean ourselves up first.

3. Person of Peace (POP)

Vegas argues that the description of the POP as well as its key place in the strategy of DMMs does not have a solid biblical foundation. He argues that (1) a POP as described in the Gospels is actually a believer, not a spiritually interested and hospitable unbeliever, and (2) the biblical pattern is that the gospel is preached by the missionary to which the listener responds in belief. I.e. faith does not come by means of a Bible study in which unbelievers engage God’s word.

In response to Vegas, Guenther suggests that (1) the key attribute for the person of peace in Luke 10 was that they were receptive to the message, not that they were committed to Jesus, and (2) the fact that the New Testament was not written down makes Vegas’ argument against the method anachronistic. He further suggests that the POP should be viewed as one methodology that recognizes those who are “receptive to the Gospel and who can open the door to larger groups and families studying the Bible.”

My comments:

Vegas is correct that DMM proponents have not been careful in how they have used the Bible to support the DMM concept of POP. I suspect that the use of the phrase “person of peace” came after practitioners discovered the importance and impact of identifying and cultivating relationships with the gatekeepers of a community. Because Evangelicals value a biblical foundation, it was important to show biblical support for this methodology, and the concept of POP resonated. This approach in ministry has been effective and has led to further development of the concept, in some cases, resulting in an overstatement of the biblical claims for the POP. DMM proponents may not be happy with this analysis, but no methodology is precisely the methodology we see in the Bible, all are contextualized and shaped according to the needs and perspectives of the particular setting in which they are used. Such contextualization is not only appropriate, but necessary.

Nonetheless, as Guenther notes, the key attribute of the Luke 10 description of a person who is receptive and hospitable, is a principle that fits both the biblical POP profile and the DMM methodology. The openness of Lydia and Cornelius to hear the message also resonates with this general description of receptivity. I suggest that the narrowness and harshness of Vegas’ conclusion declaring POP biblically invalid is unwarranted because it misses this broader principle of receptivity. This might be due to some excessive, perhaps even exclusive claims he has encountered in DMM writings. However, rather than completely dismissing the DMM methodology, it would be better to provide a biblical corrective that supports and validates the appropriateness of looking for those who are receptive, as Guenther suggests.

The validity of holding discovery Bible studies (DBS) with unbelievers will be looked at in the next section.

4. Discovery Bible Studies

a. Critique: DMM undermines the role of the teacher

Vegas questions the DMM claim that the Bible is sufficient for unbelievers to interpret, obey and evangelize “without the instruction of a Christian minister who has been sent in the power of the Holy Spirit to preach the gospel and teach the Word.”

Guenther makes four points in response:

  1. It is anachronistic to demand biblical examples of DBS in a 1st century setting,
  2. The epistles sent to churches are examples of the expectation that people can read and obey scripture without a teacher,
  3. Even though the practice of “facilitation” is emphasized, DBS is also an effective teaching methodology, and
  4. Claiming that the Bible cannot be understood without a teacher contradicts the “Protestant affirmation of the perspicuity of the Scriptures” and demands a human mediation to connect people to God. In contrast, 1 Tim 2:5 declares that there is “one God and one Mediator who can reconcile God and humanity—the man Christ Jesus” (NLT).

My comments:

Vegas again seems to be reacting against an extreme view that DBS is the only valid methodology and that human teachers, beyond the Bible and the Holy Spirit, are unnecessary. However, even though DMM proponents are convinced that a discovery approach is the most effective tool for disciple making (which is why it is emphasized), Vegas’ understanding that the DMM emphasis invalidates other teaching methods is incorrect. There are three primary dialogical dynamics in any disciple making process: the relationship between the individual and the Bible, the individual and others, and the individual and their context. In DMM, the first dynamic is foundational to establish God’s authority through scripture, and the last is essential to encourage faith lived out in obedience. The second dynamic is the DBS practice of studying the Bible in a group setting. DMM proponents do not want these important dynamics undermined by relying on human teachers rather than the Holy Spirit and scripture. Prioritizing the DMM process does not require a denial or rejection other methodologies, any more than approval of the methodologies advocated by Vegas requires the disapproval of the DMM process.   

Nonetheless, there is a sense in which DBS seeks to correct an abuse by teachers who have (even inadvertently) turned people away from trusting God’s Word to trusting in their interpretation of God’s Word. DBS may even be seen as a correction of the idea that the Bible can only be understood by the elite: those who have access to the original languages and are well versed in the whole Bible. The average believer is intimidated by such knowledge and many do not believe they can understand God’s Word without the filter or mediation of someone with special knowledge; they prefer to listen to someone expound God’s Word rather than reading it for themselves. In that case, DBS is important foundational training of the perspicuity of scripture, reinforcing that people can discover God’s truth for themselves. The DBS process helps missionaries avoid being teachers who, either overtly or inadvertently, say, “Think and believe as I do.” Instead they orient seekers to look at what God says, discover with others who God is and what God wants, and then consider how that is to be lived out. DBS moves the disciple towards an orientation similar to the Bereans who searched the scriptures to see what God has truly said (Acts 17:11).

b. Critique: Is DBS is harmful as an evangelistic tool

Vegas also claims that DBS as an evangelistic method is wrong and harmful. He believes that the biblical directive is that while converted disciples can interpret scripture, obey scripture, and evangelize others, “unbelievers” cannot be corrected or guided by scripture and the Holy Spirit, they need to be preached to.

There are two theological understandings in conflict. The traditional view is that people are evangelized to conversion, at which point they are baptized, become disciples and begin to grow in faith and obedience. Vegas accentuates this distinction by using the terms “believers” and “unbelievers.” The DMM orientation is that discipleship, faith and obedience begin well before conversion and continue in a similar fashion after conversion. The former orientation comes from Reform theology which makes a strong distinction between the saved and the unsaved (The historical Protestant reaction against the Catholic church is at the heart of this concern, but beyond the scope of this discussion).

Is the strong distinction advocated by Vegas biblically required? Are there only these two categories or can we entertain the idea that people can live somewhere between being an “unbeliever” who denies Jesus and is in rebellion against God and a “believer” totally committed to saving faith? Perhaps someone in transition could be designated as a “seeker.” This could correspond to the biblical example of those who “would see Jesus” (John 12:21), people who “fear God” like Cornelius (Acts 10:1), or those who have not received the Holy Spirit and “only received the baptism of John” (Eph 19:2-4). Can a seeker obey Jesus? The term “unbeliever” implies rebellion, denial and disobedience, but it seems there is room for a time of transition and turning towards the light when a person is attracted to Jesus but is not yet a committed believer. Perhaps the three-year journey of the disciples towards faith in Jesus, and Jesus’ perspective that the unbelieving crowds are “sheep” needing a shepherd (Mark 6:34)  rather than wolves needing to be opposed, would indicate a nuanced description of a faith journey rather than the black and white dichotomy of “believers” who can be disciples and “unbelievers” who are rebellious and unable to obey.

Vegas’ view is a bounded faith, DMM is a centered faith. With the former, people are either “in” (believers) or “out” (unbelievers). The apostle Paul is a good example of this strict distinction. One day he is fighting Jesus by persecuting Jesus’ followers, the next he is a committed follower (Acts 9:18). The metaphor of being dead in sin and then resurrected to new life in Christ (Col 2:13) fits well with this concept of an immediate change from spiritual death to spiritual life, from rebellion to full commitment. 

DMM accepts a centered view of a person’s spiritual journey. Whether committed followers of Jesus or not, the important issue is whether people are moving towards Jesus or away from him. This view does not deny the significance of baptism and the covenantal commitment of submitting fully to Jesus, but views conversion as a critical transition point within the context of a spiritual journey. From this perspective, rebellion and commitment, and metaphors using the stark contrast between death and new life, are read as end results of our orientation towards Jesus.

As an analogy for centered thinking, consider two people falling in love. It is a long journey, but a willing one. The couple are interested in each other and realize they are in love. They know they are moving towards marriage and they get engaged. Finally, they celebrate their wedding by entering into a covenant. Their marriage is the fruit of their previous journey and the beginning of another journey lived together. Although they had been pursuing a relationship for some time, their marriage commitment raises their relationship to a significant new level.

DMM proponents see DBS like a courtship process in which people grow to love, trust and obey Jesus. They continue to move towards commitment until their relationship is permanently established through a covenant, symbolized by baptism. As an example of “What you win them with is what you win them to,” they are won through a developing relationship of obedience to Jesus, which is strengthened and deepened at the point of commitment.

c. Critique: Unbelievers cannot evangelize

Vegas claims that it is unbiblical for unbelievers to be involved in the work of evangelism.

For DMM proponents “evangelism” refers to the witness of DBS participants (whether or not they are committed believers) to what they have learned about Jesus. Like the woman at the well, such sharing is encouraged. In communally oriented cultures, a journey together, inviting friends and family, should be encouraged otherwise the spread of the gospel will be hampered. Once a person becomes a committed follower of Jesus they become personal witnesses to the saving power of Jesus. Encouraging seekers to share what they are learning and gaining as they engage God’s word prepares them to be a light for others throughout their lives.

Conclusion

Rather than seeing DMM “crumble under even minimal biblical scrutiny,” I suggest that Vegas has employed faulty arguments in seeking to undermine this work of God, and I encourage those engaged in DMM ministry to press forward in confidence that those who study the Word of God in order to obey it will not be disappointed and that the Holy Spirit will continue to open people’s eyes to the truth and move them to obedience. Despite this difference in opinion and exegesis, I encourage Vegas and Radius in their work of preparing people for the work of the ministry. Together with them I also affirm: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever! Amen” (Rev 5:13).


[1] Trousdale, Jerry. Miraculous Movements: How Hundreds of Thousands of Muslims Are Falling in Love with Jesus (Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition), 101.

[2] Watson, David; Watson, Paul. Contagious Disciple Making: Leading Others on a Journey of Discovery (Thomas Nelson, 2014), 37.

[3] Ibid, p. 49.

[4] https://dwillard.org/articles/live-life-to-the-full.

Mark Naylor

About Mark Naylor

I have been with Fellowship International since 1984. Karen and I served in Pakistan for 14 years and returned to Canada in 1999. I have continued to be involved in Bible translation traveling twice a year to Pakistan. My current role with Fellowship International and Northwest Baptist Seminary is as Coordinator of International Leadership Development
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