124. Discovery Bible Study (DBS)

Responding to Theological concerns about Disciple Making Movements #2

Critics of Disciple Making Movements (DMM) have raised biblical and theological concerns about some DMM principles and practices (DMM P&Ps).  Because Fellowship International (FI) has adopted and adapted DMM P&Ps with the desire to be used by God to catalyze kingdom growth around the world, such critiques should be taken seriously and answered with care. The previous article on Obedience-Based Discipleship (OBD), this article on Discovery Bible Study (DBS), and the following article on People of Peace (POP) attempt to address three significant critiques with the invitation to respond as we participate together in the missio Dei.

Theological concern: Discovery Bible Study (DBS)
Obedience-based discipleship (OBD) uses an inductive or discovery method of Bible reading where participants discern the meaning of a passage in a group setting through interactive engagement with a passage of Scripture. Usually, these groups follow some form of Discovery Bible Study (DBS) that uses a set of open-ended questions suitable for any passage of Scripture. For example, a core question is “What does this passage reveal about what God is like, what God wants, and what God is doing?” Each meeting is led by a facilitator who reads out the questions and encourages others to respond. The DBS process I prefer is available here.

Discovery methodology prioritizes the engagement of participants, both believers and seekers, to discern the meaning of a Bible passage rather than depending on the prepared explanation of a teacher. Three concerns raised by critics are that (1) people who do not have the Holy Spirit are guiding others in Bible study, (2) without appropriate spiritual oversight by a mature believer, participants will misunderstand or misapply Scripture, and (3) DBS displaces teaching and proclamation so that these spiritual gifts are not given appropriate biblical emphasis.

In response to these concerns, this article will

  1. Describe the three key issues found in public critiques of DBS,
  2. Affirm those convictions that are consistent with Fellowship International’s theology,
  3. Describe the DBS dynamic,
  4. Provide a summary explanation of how Fellowship International’s use of DBS is theologically consistent and appropriate,
  5. Introduce the theology and hermeneutic used in the discovery method, and
  6. Provide examples of how DBS is being used in missions along with reasons why these accord with the way God’s Spirit brings transformation.

A. Summary of the case against DBS

The following DBS critique is summarized from podcasts by Berger & DeMars and articles by Morell, Kocman and Vegas, and Rhodes’ book, No Shortcut to Success. Bibliographic information can be found in the list of references.

The use of this methodology as the primary disciple-making practice has drawn criticism for three reasons:

  1. Unbelieving facilitators: It is inappropriate for someone who is not a professing believer to facilitate a Bible study because they do not have the Spirit of God guiding them. This is unheard of in the New Testament. If DBS is the way people are discipled in DMM, then unconverted unbelievers are engaged in the process of making “disciples” and thus disciple-making movements are being encouraged where there is no conversion to the gospel.
  2. Lack of Spiritual Oversight: Related to the previous concern, but examined separately, is the practice of encouraging Bible study without the oversight of a mature believer. Such a practice is spiritually irresponsible because people can easily misunderstand or misapply Scripture.
  3. Disparagement of preaching and teaching: In DBS, discovery is emphasized while teaching and preaching are disparaged as “knowledge-based discipleship,” as if obedience can be separated from knowledge. The biblical pattern of evangelism is proclamation, not inductive Bible study. After Pentecost the apostles engage in preaching and teaching. They never promote the idea that believers, let alone unbelievers, should facilitate a self-corrected, untaught, Bible study. The biblical methodology is proclamation by Holy Spirit-appointed believers in whom the authority to teach rests. Historically Protestants hold that evangelism is carried out by the preaching of the gospel, not by the study of God’s Word by unbelievers.

B. Fellowship International affirmations of theology

  1. Unbelieving facilitators: Since teaching, prophesying, and evangelism are all described as gifts of the Spirit given for the building up of the church (Eph 4:11-16), it is inappropriate to appoint, promote, or encourage an unbeliever to take on the position and responsibility of teaching others the Bible and the message of the gospel.
  2. Lack of Spiritual Oversight: Mature believers should take seriously their responsibility to give guidance to seekers who are pursuing Jesus and to new believers who are learning how to live out their covenant with Jesus (1 Tim 4:11-13, 2 Tim 4:1-2, Tit 2:1-15). It is irresponsible to refuse, ignore or downplay such interaction and oversight.
  3. Disparagement of preaching and teaching: Since teaching, prophesying, and evangelism are all described as gifts of the Spirit given for the building up of the church (Eph 4:11-16), the proclamation and teaching of God’s Word is to be encouraged, not disparaged.

C. The DBS Dynamic

An understanding of the DBS dynamic is important for clarity before responding to the critiques.

DBS is a method of Bible reading, not teaching: The facilitator creates an environment for people to engage God’s Word directly so that all can discern together how the character, will, and mission of God are revealed in the text.

Discovery at the heart of disciple making: Fellowship International views the discovery method as the heart of disciple making because a deep and appropriate engagement with God’s Word brings transformation as people conform their lives to the revelation of God’s character, will, and mission. DBS emphasizes that the primary and authoritative source for the proclamation of the gospel and the teaching of who God is and what he wants is Scripture itself; God’s self-revelation is the foundation of a true relationship with God. The primary focus of DBS is that both believers and seekers will know how to read, interpret, and respond to God’s Word.

Facilitators not teachers: DBS facilitators are not teachers but participants who hold a posture of submission to God’s Word along with others, expecting a sacred message they can understand. A facilitator provides opportunity for God’s Spirit to act as the teacher rather than being the one to explain what the Bible means.

Anyone can facilitate. Because DBS is primarily a way to come to know God’s character, will, and mission by reading the Bible and discussing the implications, all group members are encouraged to take turns facilitating. This is as simple as following a one-page outline of instructions and questions.

DBS is a means for all believers to be disciple-makers: Fellowship International interprets the Great Commandment as applicable to all believers. Therefore, all believers are called to be disciple-makers and DBS is a clear process that any believer can use to engage interested people – seekers or believers – so that they have opportunity to reflect on what God has revealed.  Not all believers can be teachers, but all can become disciple-making facilitators.  Being a facilitator is not an authoritative position, but a method by which people are exposed to the Bible as God’s self-revelation.

DBS prioritizes the apostles’ teaching and proclamation: DBS is a simple, reproducible method of Bible reading that engages people directly with God’s Word rather than by removing the reader from the text by one degree through the filter of a human teacher.

The discovery process empowers participants to develop their theology:  Since participants read God’s word primarily as God’s self-revelation, they are gaining a biblical understanding of who God is.  The message in a passage of Scripture is not interpreted or claimed as a direct communication from God to the reader but as a revelation of God’s character, will, and mission. From that understanding, an appropriate application can be determined. See below for an introduction to the theology and hermeneutic of the discovery method.

DBS allows for intercultural catalyzing:  Because people discover for themselves the meaning of God’s word, the cross-cultural worker does not need to cross the cultural bridge with their own understanding of God’s word; instead, they create access so that others can read God’s Word for themselves.  This does not negate the need for language and cultural learning, but it provides a pathway into significant disciple-making engagement of God’s word even before the cross-cultural worker has mastered communication skills.

D. How Fellowship International’s use of DBS is biblically and theologically appropriate

Fellowship International believes that DBS is an appropriate and effective disciple-making practice for both believers and seekers because it is centered on God’s Word. The specific critiques mentioned above are now addressed:

1. Unbelieving facilitators: Some have expressed concern that DMM practitioners are encouraging people who are not yet committed followers of Jesus to take spiritual leadership within a Bible study. This would be in violation of the concern laid out in the pastoral letters that spiritual leaders be committed followers of Jesus (e.g., 1 Tim 4). Fellowship International affirms this concern. However, DBS, while an important disciple-making process, is primarily a Bible reading method suitable for anyone, whether believer or seeker. Furthermore, the facilitator is not considered a spiritual leader but a fellow participant, although the hope is that the person will become a committed believer and develop into a spiritual leader.

In FI’s DMM approach, all people whether believers, unbelievers, or seekers, are encouraged to read and engage God’s Word in any setting. The reading of God’s Word is always a good thing and should not be discouraged. The hope is that unbelievers will become seekers, seekers will become believers, and believers will be strengthened in their faith to become mature disciple-makers. In DBS, the authority of the message remains in God’s Word, not in the facilitators or participants. They are the recipients and the ones discovering what God has revealed. It is the Word alone that speaks authoritatively.     

Because facilitation of DBS is a means of reading Scripture with others, it is appropriate for a non-believer to take on a facilitation role and everyone is encouraged to take their turn by following the DBS aims and questions. It is normal for one person to instigate the gathering of the group to guide and monitor the DBS process – referred to in this article as the “facilitator,” even though others are encouraged to facilitate during a meeting – but they do not have the authority of a teacher.

2. Lack of Spiritual Oversight: A key DMM principle is to multiply DBS groups among people who have the desire to discover God’s character, will, and mission by engaging Scripture. Establishing a new group requires someone capable of being a facilitator, either a believer who embraces Jesus’ command to be a disciple-maker or a seeker who wants to read the Bible with their friends or relatives. Where movements are happening, people are establishing their own groups (e.g., reading the Bible at home with their family) even without the instigation of a DMM practitioner.

The history of missions has been founded on God’s Word.  A lack of oversight by mature believers should not be a reason to keep God’s Word from people hungry to learn. In many places, people are being exposed to God’s Word through technology that does not allow for oversight (internet, radio, Scripture distribution). While not ideal, such realities do cause us to rely on the Holy Spirit, especially when we are not able to follow up, like Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch who continued alone back to his home country (Acts 8). DBS anticipates and provides for rapid distribution of the gospel message through a simple, reproducible method of reading to understand and obey that helps seekers understand how to engage God’s Word appropriately and with impact, even without oversight.

To make oversight the limiting factor for the spread of the gospel seems inappropriate in light of New Testament patterns. The apostle Paul expressed thanksgiving for the spread of the gospel (1 Thess 1:8-10), even when it was accomplished through those who were less than sincere (Php 1:15-18).

Nonetheless, in the normal course of catalyzing a disciple-making movement, the DBS process is instigated by a DMM practitioner who continues to monitor and debrief the primary facilitator of a group. This spiritual support and oversight allow the disciple-maker to gauge how the group is engaging God’s word, not by taking responsibility for the group, but through interaction with the facilitator. This approach requires a deep faith in God’s Word and confidence in the Holy Spirit to guide the process as the facilitator is encouraged and empowered. This not only aids the multiplication of groups who engage God’s Word, but also establishes a means for the intentional training, teaching, and disciple-making of facilitators. In addition, the disciple-maker can challenge facilitators concerning their own personal faith response.  If a person has not yet made a commitment to Christ, that will be an essential part of the conversation.

3. Disparagement of preaching and teaching: Some have expressed concern that proclamation and teaching are discouraged in the DBS process, noting that the New Testament clearly describes proclamation and teaching as the primary ways people were introduced to the gospel. Three responses:

a. DBS is not a forum for teaching:
Fellowship International affirms the importance of teachers, prophets, and evangelists in the building up of the church and does not discourage or disparage such gifting. However, proclamation and teaching are discouraged in a DBS context because such actions undermine the discovery process that is essential to develop a conviction that anyone can read and interpret Scripture sufficiently in order to discover God’s character, will, and mission.

Preaching and teaching must be true to the authority of Scripture and DBS equips people by developing a familiarity with Scripture so they can engage and even evaluate a teacher’s message based on their understanding of God’s Word.

DBS can also be a welcome correction to an unhealthy dependence on preachers and teachers whose knowledge and competence encourage believers to become passive and rely on the insights of the teacher rather than exploring the Word for themselves. DBS mitigates the concern that people may come to faith with a desire for salvation but without a commitment to obey. Trusting the instruction and guidance of teachers rather than exploring Scripture in order to obey weakens the disciple. DBS begins with and maintains its focus to know God’s character and conform to his will and mission. “What you win them with is what you win them to.” 

The claim that personal engagement of God’s Word through a discovery process is a legitimate priority for a disciple is based on the Protestant doctrine of the perspicuity of the Bible[1]. This doctrine assumes that God intended to communicate a message for all people through his prophets and apostles who were guided by the Holy Spirit in what they wrote, and that he was successful – 2 Tim 3:16-17, Heb 4:12.  Thus, anyone who reads God’s word with care and sincerity can discern God’s message, especially in the self-correcting environment of a group. Through DBS people learn that they can read and discover God’s self-revelation with understanding and confidence. Rather than assuming a position between God’s Word and listeners in order to explain and interpret, facilitators together with all participants, submit themselves to the authority of Scripture. The Holy Spirit remains the teacher; the facilitator and the participants, are the learners.

At the same time, while personal engagement with God’s Word is necessary and foundational for disciples, it is not sufficient because the input of believers who can teach is also important. Such teachers are a gift from God to Christ’s body and are to be encouraged as they help others understand God’s Word and grow in their discipleship journey. Such teachers complement the personal engagement of God’s Word, but should not undermine or become a substitute for personal discovery.

b. DBS promotes direct engagement of the apostles’ proclamation and teaching:
Despite discouraging a teaching posture for DBS facilitators, DMM practitioners encourage people to engage the record of proclamation and teaching in the New Testament. At the time of the book of Acts, proclamation was necessary for people to hear the gospel because the New Testament was not yet written or collated. The New Testament was written by the apostles through the prompting of the Holy Spirit to expand the proclamation of the gospel beyond verbal messages to written text. Reading the Bible is therefore a form of hearing Jesus’ and the apostles’ proclamation and teaching. DBS, therefore, does not downplay proclamation and teaching; it is exposing participants to a God-given, inspired means of proclamation and teaching found in the text itself.

There is much to be learned from other believers about the way of Jesus and how to live in the kingdom of God, and apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers (APEST – Eph 4:11-12) are all gifts to the church for this purpose. We must never quench the Spirit by discouraging those to whom God has given these gifts but give them full scope to fulfill the task God has called them to. A fuller and deeper engagement of God’s Word is gained through the supplementary gifts of preaching and teaching, as long they enhance and do not undermine the primary engagement of Jesus’ and the apostles’ teaching through a discovery process.

c. DBS prioritizes disciple-making over passive listening:
All believers are called to be disciple-makers who make disciple-makers (Mt 28:19-20). This responsibility is effectively carried out in a group setting through a discovery process as participants work out the meaning of God’s message and its implication for their lives. This follows the pattern evident after Pentecost when believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42) and were often “together” (Acts 2:44,46) for fellowship and worship. The testimony that the “Lord added to their group others who were being saved” (Acts 2:47) likely implies that seekers joined with believers to engage that teaching. Furthermore, the apostles often addressed the whole church in their epistles (e.g., 1 Thess 1:1) indicating that all believers were expected to engage the apostles’ teaching directly, not just through the authority of a local leader. Engaging the apostles’ message in our time occurs first through such readings of the New Testament as DBS offers.

While DBS provides a foundational pathway by which seekers can become disciples and believers can be strengthened in their faith and become involved in making disciples, this process does not displace preachers and teachers within the body of Christ. Rather, it emphasizes the priority of Scripture reading that needs to be complemented and supplemented by the guidance of Spirit-filled believers whom God appoints for such ministry. The discovery process is how disciples are made and the responsibility for this task is not limited to those with APEST gifts.

E. An introduction to the theology and hermeneutic of the discovery method

DBS promotes an important hermeneutic: the Bible as revelation. The Bible is an authentic, necessary, and sufficient revelation of God’s character, God’s will, and God’s mission within cultural, historical, and geographical contexts that are different from the contexts of today’s readers.  The Bible also provides an authentic, necessary, and sufficient representation of humanity and the human condition described within diverse cultural, historical, and geographical contexts. Both unfamiliarity with the biblical contexts and the inevitable influence of the reader’s personal worldview and cultural assumptions challenge the ability of the reader to interpret and apply Scripture. These challenges indicate that to understand the text the reader needs (1) familiarity with the Bible, (2) community support to interpret and apply God’s Word, and (3) teachers and scholars.

The role of DBS is to (1) expose people to God’s Word, (2) guide people to read God’s Word as his self-revelation, (3) help people read the Bible with understanding and confidence, (4) ensure that the Bible is read in community, and (5) challenge participants to respond to what they have discovered. DBS demonstrates a high reliance on the perspicuity of the Bible, the work of the Holy Spirit, and a community of believers and seekers. When the discovery process happens regularly over time an ever-increasing familiarity with Scripture is developed.

The following diagram shows the interpretive process used by DBS:

The Bible is not read in order to find a direct application to life as if contextual interpretation is not needed (bottom arrow). At least two cultural contexts need to be considered: the biblical culture and our own culture. Because of this reality, a direct connection between the Bible and our situation is not possible. Instead, Scripture is viewed as the revelation of God given in another time and place and through a different cultural lens (left arrow). The discernment of God’s revelation in a passage then shapes our beliefs as we integrate the revelation into our theology and belief system (top arrow). Only then does that belief find application as it is expressed through culturally appropriate actions (right arrow).

DBS encourages respect for and integrity with God’s Word as authoritative because the participants read and understand the meaning of a biblical text rather than using a variety of texts to support a particular doctrine. At the same time, readers in a group context are guided to self-contextualize the revelation of God as they explore how these truths can be expressed in their lives. This is a foundational practice for any congregation to become the hermeneutic of the gospel (Newbigin 1989:222) and so moves the group towards a self-identification of “church.” At the same time, this practice does not exclude contextualization of the gospel by outsiders, nor does it undermine or exclude God’s gift of apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers (APEST). DBS allows the text to reveal God to seekers and to empower believers so that they have confidence in what they read, and it demonstrates a crucial process for how to use God’s Word to assess the truth claims of those who teach so that they are not led astray.

F. Examples of how DBS is being used in missions along with reasons why these accord with the way that God’s Spirit brings transformation.

A DBS Case Study in Pakistan
Papu is a believer in Pakistan from a Hindu background whom I am coaching according to DMM P&Ps. He has 13 men from different villages that he calls People of Peace (POPs).  Four are baptized believers, the rest are seekers from a Hindu background who are learning about who Jesus is and what God’s Word teaches. On Sundays they meet as a group. During the time together Papu engages them in a discovery process of Bible reading. He teaches a story to the illiterate men based on a passage of Scripture that is read by the literate men. The men take turns repeating the Bible story until everyone repeats it adequately.  Papu and the POPs then go through a set of DBS questions to work out the meaning and significance of the story followed by a challenge to respond in a manner that fits with what they have discovered about the character, will, and mission of God. These questions are always the same, allowing for this process to be repeated with any Bible story or passage, and for the men to repeat the process when they return to their villages.

During the week each of the men is required to repeat the story or read the passage with their family and/or friends, ask the DBS questions, and then challenge the group members to respond. Papu visits the villages of his POPs and oversees their efforts to guide others in a discovery reading of God’s Word.  These facilitators are not training to be teachers; they are like the woman at the well (Jn 4) telling people in their village what Jesus has said. The goal for the people of Sychar was not to continue learning from the woman but to turn to Jesus and learn from him. Similarly, the POPs point to Scripture so that people can hear God speak and then learn to respond.

DBS and Bible Translation
As a Bible translator, I am intrigued by the history of Bible translation and the stories of the opposition and struggle faced by those who sought to provide the average person access to God’s Word in their own language. In session three of the documentary series, The Adventure of English, the presenter explains how the Bible came to be translated into vernacular English.

At the time of William Tyndale, a Latin translation, which people could not understand, was the Bible of the church. During worship services, the priest would read passages silently so that the ordinary people would not hear, and a bell would sound to let them know when the reading was complete. The Bible was considered too sacred for their ears.

Meanwhile, outside the ornate cathedrals, people were entertained by mystery plays, similar to children’s advent plays today, that were loose portrayals of Bible stories, performed in the vernacular English. These were entertaining but poor reflections of the biblical text.

It was in this context that Tyndale envisioned and worked towards an English translation of the Bible from the original languages[2]. When a Bishop argued that it was harmful for people to have God’s law, Tyndale responded, “If God spares my life, in a few years a plowboy shall know more of the Scriptures than you do” (Brandon 2016).

Once the translation was complete, a group called Lollards who were dedicated to the reformation of Western Christianity, traveled around England secretly distributing handwritten copies of the English Bible at risk of imprisonment and execution. This conviction to give the Bible into the hands of the common person, written in their mother tongue, has been a key commitment of missionaries throughout the era of modern missions. The Gideons movement is an example of the conviction that the Bible should be made available to all so that anyone can read God’s Word for themselves.

Getting the Bible into the hands and thoughts of the average person drives DBS and is based on the belief that the foundational method for the proclamation and teaching of the gospel is God’s Word itself. Familiarity with and love for God’s Word cultivated through DBS ensures that the primacy of Scripture is established from the beginning of the seeker’s journey and that the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ remains the believer’s supreme teacher (Mt 23:10).

DBS and Bible Correspondence Courses
The Pakistan Bible Correspondence School (PBCS) invites Muslims to study the Bible.  A series of lessons are sent out that consist of Bible passages and simple questions. Early on in my ministry I studied one series to help me learn the Sindhi language and religious vocabulary (I even received a certificate!). Whenever a person signs up to study the lessons, they are sent a copy of the Sindhi New Testament with the hope that they will read it, perhaps even together with family or friends. The basic introduction of the courses is supplemented by the staff of PBCS who travel to meet students, engage their questions, and give further teaching. One of their tools is DBS as they encourage seekers to effectively engage and respond to the good news of Jesus Christ.

The point of these illustrations is to demonstrate that DBS is being used as an effective and appropriate Bible reading tool for seekers and believers alike.

There is a claim that we remember 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, 30% of what we see, 50% of what we see and hear, 70% of what we discuss with others, 80% of what we personally experience, 95% of what we teach others (Dale, We Remember). Whether or not these percentages are accurate, the concept resonates. The more we engage God’s Word with others in order to understand and obey, the more we will retain and the greater the impact will be. DBS lays out some foundational practices for the sincere disciple who desires to follow Jesus fully. It is only one methodology and it is not sufficient for the building up the body of Christ. Leaders, pastors, and teachers are needed. What DBS provides is a foundational and impacting process through which disciples are made and who then know how to go on to become disciple-makers themselves. The goal is to adopt, adapt, and supplement such methodologies so that the body of Christ will be built up and there will be a missional impact of disciple-makers making disciple-makers.


[1] Brackett (2010) informs us that both the 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith and the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith state, “…Those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.” On p. 37 footnote 5 Brackett provides a list of the eight key points of the doctrine.

[2] John Wycliffe had translated the Latin Bible into English more than a century earlier.  That translation had been outlawed in England (Wycliffe Bible Translators).

List of References

The Adventure Of English – Episode 3 The Battle for the Language of the Bible – BBC Documentary.

Berger, Russell & DeMars, Sean (2021). Episode 63: Obedience-Based Discipleship: Is it Biblical? Defend and Confirm Podcast. https://www.podbean.com/site/EpisodeDownload/PB112062DRUZ3N

Brackett, Kristian (2010) “The Perspicuity of the Scriptures:  Presupposition, Principle or Phantasm” in KAIROS – Evangelical Journal of Theology, Vol. IV. No. 1, pp. 31-50

Brandon, Steve (2016). The Plowboy. https://enjoyinghisgrace.wordpress.com/2016/01/27/the-plow-boy/

Dale, Edgar. We Remember.  https://uh.edu/~dsocs3/wisdom/wisdom/we_remember.pdf

Kocman, Alex (2021). Is ‘Obedience-Based Discipleship’ Biblical? https://www.abwe.org/blog/obedience-based-discipleship-biblical

Morell, Caleb (2019); Book Review: The Kingdom Unleashed, by Jerry Trousdale and Glenn Sunshine.

Newbigin, Lesslie (1989). The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns.

Rhodes, Matt (2022). No Shortcut to Success: A Manifesto for Modern Missions. Wheaton: Crossway.

Vegas, Chad (2018). A Brief Guide to DMM.

“William Tyndale: A Master Translator.” Wycliffe Bible Translators.                        https://wycliffe.org.uk/story/william-tyndale?gclid=CjwKCAjw5MOlBhBTEiwAAJ8e1nAJ16UKZvMkSmzJ-LbpXz4bPRayytra9IJCNEM4tYbrBKEYITCpDhoCh4cQAvD_BwE

Additional resources related to DMM controversies

Coles, David (2022) Book Review: Matt Rhodes, No Shortcut to Success: A Manifesto for Modern Mission

___________ (2021) Addressing Theological and Missiological Objections to CPM/DMM in Motus Dei: The Movement of God to Disciple the Nations. Ed. Warrick Farah. Littleton: Wm Carey Pub.

Jolley, Ken (2020) 111. Exploring Vegas’ Critique of DMM. https://impact.nbseminary.com/exploring-vegas-critique-of-dmm/

Naylor, Mark (2020). 109. Defending DMMs: A response to Chad Vegas. https://impact.nbseminary.com/109-defending-dmms/ 

___________(2020). 110. Response to Stiles’ Critique of DMMs. https://impact.nbseminary.com/110-response-to-stiles-critique-of-dmms/

___________(2020). 112. DMM Critiques addressed at FI Summit 2020. https://impact.nbseminary.com/dmm-critiques-addressed-at-fi-summit-2020/

___________(2021). 114. Does DMM suffer from NA pragmatic arrogance?https://impact.nbseminary.com/114-does-dmm-suffer-from-na-pragmatic-arrogance/

Watson, David L. & Watson, Paul D. (2014). Contagious Disciple Making: Leading Others on a Journey of Discovery.  Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Waterman L.D. (2019). A Straw Man Argument to Prove What God Shouldn’t Do: A Critique of Chad Vegas’ “A Brief Guide to DMM”

Yinger, Ken (2020) 113. We are all Heretics,


121. Jesus’ Expectation that We Will find “People of Peace”

Response to a Sept 13, 2022  Gospel Coalition article by Matthew Bennett, Jeff Kelly and Joshua Bowman

One of the practices of Disciple Making Movements (DMM) is to look for a “person of peace,” a gatekeeper who is uniquely placed to bring the gospel to their relational network. This terminology comes from Luke 10 and the incident where Jesus sends out his disciples to heal the sick and preach the coming of the kingdom of God. Bennett, Kelly and Bowman in their article, “Did Jesus Send Us Looking for ‘Persons of Peace’?” argue that the DMM “interpretation of Luke 10 is exegetically flawed, and following this philosophy to identify a person of peace is potentially dangerous.”

The authors suggest that we should not “conflate the announcement from Luke 10 with the post-resurrection gospel [e.g., 1 Cor. 15:1–5] and the message entrusted to contemporary missionaries.” The development of the Christian gospel through the cross and resurrection and Jesus’ post-resurrection directions to the disciples calls “into question the ongoing validity of Luke 10 as a case study for modern missions.” They claim that using this passage to “formulate contemporary strategies” for missions is illegitimate because it “dislocate[s] Jesus’ command from its redemptive-historical setting.” They also protest that using this terminology gives the DMM concept of looking for a “person of peace” the “air of biblical authority.”

The hermeneutical concern of the authors is the contrast between commands that are “prescriptive” and “mandatory” for the church today (such as Luke 24:46-48 – repentance from and forgiveness of sins), and commands that are contextually and historically limited (such as the Luke 10 instruction for the disciples to look for “people of peace”). The authors therefore contend that this command is not “valid” or “prescriptive” for contemporary missions strategies.

The authors are both correct and incorrect in their assumptions and conclusions. With language such as “secret sauce” and “delay gospel proclamation for an indefinite period of time in order to cultivate favor with our hearers” they have described a missionary who is unable to discern between the “prescriptive” message of the gospel (repent and believe) and the “descriptive” methodology of searching for a “person of peace.” This would be comparable to someone reading that we are called to “preach the gospel” and assuming that it is prescriptive of standing in a pulpit and giving a sermon. Or for someone to read Paul’s declaration that the Gospel of Christ “is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom 1:16) and believe this requires them to give the gospel first to a Jew.

Nonetheless, even though we must not “conflate” passages given at different times, what Jesus did and taught before the cross is not disconnected from the post-resurrection message of the gospel. There are many similarities between the missional command of Jesus in Matthew 28:18-20 and the Luke 10 commission of the disciples, and it would disingenuous to see them as theologically distinct and unrelated. One illustration used in missions over the centuries is found in verse 2 of the Luke 10 discourse when Jesus sends out the 72: “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore to send out workers into his harvest field.” Not only is there consensus that that the image of the harvest is relevant to contemporary missions, but the command to pray continues in its prescriptive force. Our interpretive responsibility is to consider the purpose of Jesus’ command concerning the “person of peace” within the missional context of Luke 10, and ask ourselves what lesson can be learned that will inform us in our ongoing task of proclaiming the gospel.

Correct interpretation calls us to determine as best we can what the passage meant in its context, what that meaning teaches us about God’s character and his will (which includes his mission), and how such a revelation of God’s character and will can be expressed in our particular ministry context. It is the same Jesus who sent out the 72 and then, after the resurrection, sent out his disciples with the gospel. Therefore, it is legitimate to ask, “What can we discover about Jesus’ will and character from the ‘people of peace’ instruction that will guide us in ministry today?”

Part of the interpretive task is to keep in mind that we all read scripture through our cultural grids. In the article, the authors present us with a caricature of missionaries who read the “person of peace” methodology as prescriptive and then fill the concept with their own “secret sauce” preconceptions that cause them to ignore those without “extensive social network and influence” and to delay presenting the gospel in order to “cultivate favor” with their hearers. While agreeing with the authors that such a missionary has misunderstood and misapplied Jesus’ teaching, I suggest that this description indicates a misunderstanding and misapplication of the DMM principle by the authors as well. Rather than being a reason for rejecting the principle, such misapplication points to the need for a correct understanding of what the DMM principle means and how it should be applied. Is there an interpretation of Jesus’ concerns in this passage that may validate an application of “people of peace” thinking in missions efforts today?

I suggest that Jesus had at least three expectations when he gave his instructions:

  1. The disciples would meet people sensitive to God’s Spirit and their need of salvation. “The especial mention of the greeting in this context must convey some deeper sense; the word ‘peace’ is no longer an empty formality but refers to the peace which is associated with the coming of the salvation of God.”[1]
  2. These people would be receptive to the message of God’s kingdom. “A son of peace would mean a person who is open to or ready for the salvation that is now coming into the world.”[2]
  3. This person or the household would act as a gatekeeper to the village and the disciples would be associated with a member of that community while proclaiming their message to others. The reference to “eating and drinking” may be “an act of table fellowship which seals the acceptance of the gospel by the household.”[3]

More exegetical work should be done in order to substantiate the legitimate use of “person of peace” for missions today. However, I suggest that this preliminary reflection provides evidence that Jesus’ expectations as he sent his disciples into the harvest would be similar for missions today. Jesus sends us, even as he sent the disciples, to be “lambs among wolves” (10:3) with the expectation that we should expect to meet and look for (1) people within whom God’s Spirit is at work, and (2) who will welcome the message of the kingdom of God.  Furthermore, (3) those people will be the beachhead for the growth of the gospel within their network of relationships.

For further responses to critiques of the DMM “Person of Peace” principle see:

Ken Jolley, Exploring Vegas’ Critique of DMM

Mark Naylor, Response to Stiles’ Critique of DMMs


[1] Marshall, I. H. (1978). The Gospel of Luke: a commentary on the Greek text (p. 419). Paternoster Press.

[2] Nolland, J. (1993). Luke 9:21–18:34 (Vol. 35B, p. 552). Word, Incorporated.

[3] Marshall, I. H. (1978) referencing Hoffman. The Gospel of Luke: a commentary on the Greek text (p. 421). Paternoster Press.

110. Response to Stiles’ Critique of DMMs

Response to Mack Stiles’ article “What Could Be Wrong with ‘Church Planting’? Six Dangers in a Missions Strategy

I appreciate Stiles’ irenic tone in which he seeks to point out “weaknesses” and give “cautions” for “Church Planting Movements” (CPMs) or “Disciple Making Movements” (DMMs).  Such push back is important in missions since we all have blind spots and can get excited over new developments without noticing potential problems.  The need for careful examination is especially true for us in Fellowship International since we are promoting and investing in a DMM strategy.  Where the weaknesses or cautions are invalid, we need to have a good argument for why we see things differently.  Where they are valid, we need to be alert and avoid the danger as much as we can even as we move ahead.

For ease of reference, the following 9 responses are provided in the order they appear in Stiles’ article.

  1. Critique: Local rather than Biblical Culture (under Critique 1. Sloppy Definitions of Church)

Because CPM advocates say that they “don’t want Western church,” Stiles assumes (correctly) that CPM advocates want a church that is contextualized within the local culture.  He opposes the idea of producing “a church that imitates local culture,” claiming that the goal is a “biblical culture.”  He goes on to explain that ethnic and cultural identities should not be erased, but should be “secondary to our new identity as the people of God.”

Summary answer: God intends churches to be culturally appropriate expressions of the body of Christ.

Detail: Stiles’ concern is that any expression of church should not compromise God’s intention for the body and bride of Christ with the “blindnesses and brokenness” of any culture. This is important and should be affirmed. Where he errs is by stating that a church should not “imitate” culture, which implies that it should not be a part of, or an expression of culture. In fact, missiologically speaking, the opposite is true: each congregation should “own” both gospel and church as an essential part of their culture, rather than as a foreign import.

Stiles’ error is partly categorical and partly theological. “Biblical culture” in the sense Stiles is using the term is a different category than is intended by referring to human “cultures.” Anthropologically speaking, “culture” is the way a self-defined group of people create meaning in their interaction with their environment. It is the “total process of human activity” which comprises “language, habits, ideas, beliefs, customs, social organization, inherited artifacts, technical processes, and values” (Niebuhr, 1951. Christ and Culture. p. 32) within any given community. It is therefore impossible for a church to exist without worshiping and serving through cultural expressions. Similarly, it is necessary for an individual to maintain their cultural identity on one level while claiming a new identity as a child of God.  These two aspects are not contradictory, but complementary.

By using “biblical culture,” Stiles is likely referring to biblical values and principles that believers are to live by within their culture – a necessary and appropriate goal. But he has used “biblical culture” in a way that wrongly implies a contrast with the local culture. Because “biblical culture” cannot replace a local culture nor fit within the definition of culture as described above, it belongs to a different category. Using “biblical culture” as if it is a substitute for local culture ignores the reality that the changes the gospel brings occur in and through culture, rather than supplanting it. A simple example that demonstrates this misuse of the term “biblical culture” is language. Language is an integral part of any culture. If one culture was supplanted by another, the first culture would lose its language, among other things, because the dominant culture’s language would replace it. However, it is not the goal of any missionary to replace a local language with a “biblical language,” any more than a local culture should be replaced with a “biblical culture.” In fact, when one culture assumes the use of its language in worship, it can be an indication of the dominant culture imposing itself upon another people group rather than respecting the depth of identity and significance found in each culture. Lamin Sanneh (1989) powerfully argues for the “translatability” of the gospel (with parallel implications for the church) in Christian mission in Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture. This approach to culturally shaped expressions of church and gospel is in contrast to the Islamic orientation towards its mission: “[C]ultural diversity belongs with Christian affirmation in a way that it does not with Islam” (p. 212). 

Theologically, Stiles’ mistake is a lack of recognition that both gospel and church are intended by God to have unique cultural expressions, rather than importing or imposing gospel and church expressions from one culture to another. Of course, Stiles’ argument is not that a foreign culture should dominate; his concern is that a church should conform to biblical teaching, rather than to culture. However, this is a false dichotomy; there is no church or gospel without culture. “Biblical teaching” is analogous to content while culture is analogous to language. Culture is the “language” through which the “content” of human thought or action finds expression. Thus the incarnation of Jesus is God’s expression of salvation within human life and culture; God’s salvation did not occur in a cultural vacuum. Culture is the locus of gospel and church, and they cannot exist separate from it. Culture is to be redeemed; it cannot be avoided.

In Acts 2 the disciples begin proclaiming the gospel in other languages, a theologically profound message from God of how he accepts all cultures as the media within which  church and gospel find expression. The rest of the book of Acts and the Epistles are lessons of how contextualization of the gospel message and church takes place in different cultural settings. The consideration of circumcision in Acts 15 is a prime example, as well as the rejection of clean and unclean food distinctions (Mt 15, 1 Cor 10). Part of the apostle Paul’s amazement in discovering the “mystery” of God’s plan was how God’s intention was to include other cultures in “God’s household” (Eph. 1-2) – a unity that embraces cultural diversity. Contextualization within a local culture is the methodology that all missionaries should aspire to, as expressed by the CPM missionaries quoted by Stiles: they did not want their own cultural preferences to override local expressions of church.

  • Critique: Speed (under Critique 1. Sloppy Definitions of Church)

Stiles suggests that churches should be established on biblical principles and “here’s the rub: it takes time.” At the end of the article he repeats the idea with “Speed is not the call.” The implication is that CPMs and DMMs are focusing on getting the work done quickly.

Summary answer: the concern in CPMs and DMMs is not speed, but multiplication.

Detail: The danger of prioritizing efficiency and speed in church planting is a valid concern because as humans we look for shortcuts and want results now. A harvest requires patient waiting for the plants to germinate, grow and mature. God usually does things slowly and missions is a slow and methodical process because it focuses on building relationships.  Nonetheless, the implication that DMMs are trying to bypass the more appropriate, but slower, path of God’s church planting methodology, is unfair and misses the point.  The goal of DMMs is not speed, but multiplication. The vision and hope is one of planting the Gospel in “good soil” resulting in an exponential response with a vast “harvest.” Because this is a biblical vision given to us by Jesus, it is a possibility and something God wants to bless.

Stiles focuses his criticisms on the word “church” in “Church Planting Movements,” but the key to this phrase is the last word: “movements.”  The vision of DMMs is that the Gospel can be spread through a multiplication process whereby those who are learning to obey Jesus through studying the Bible can pass that “virus” of disciple making on to others.  The power in the DMM dynamic is the move away from leadership-heavy organizations towards disciple making movements in which all believers are encouraged to (1) use the Bible as the primary authority and to obey what it says, and (2) spread that methodology through their relationships with others.

Is it valid to encourage believers early in their walk with Christ to lead a Bible study with unbelievers or other new believers?  Or should the process be slowed down with a greater reliance on the teaching of trained leaders within traditional church structures and processes, as Stiles prefers?  Church history suggests that there may be a pendulum effect between the passion of movements spreading the gospel quickly, and the establishment of organizations. As churches form and communities are organized with pastoral leaders, the fire of multiplication stimulated by apostolic leaders dies down and a “new normal” in the community is established.  Perhaps, because of global communication, we are able to observe something like this pendulum happening today – the complete life-cycle of the rise, establishment, stagnation, and demise of faith can be seen in real time around the world.  These expressions have their parallel in the NT as seen in the celebration of thousands coming to Christ in one day in the book of Acts, the establishment of Christ-centered believers in a particular locality throughout the Epistles, and the threat of at least one church having their “lampstand” removed in Revelation.

Stiles cites with approval the suggestion of a friend that Paul’s extended time in Ephesus (3 years) indicates that he “delayed total indigenous leadership.” Perhaps this was not “delay” but a time to raise up leaders so that Paul could move on.  If leaders were prepared so that Paul could leave, then it is likely they were serving as leaders very early on, maybe even leading studies of the Scriptures, so that Paul could feel comfortable leaving.  This latter scenario fits well with the DMM call to raise people up quickly into a disciple making ministry. This is not incompatible with training and appointing leaders; effective DMMs demonstrate good strategies for developing leaders.

In his conclusion, Stiles suggests that people “dial it back.”  This is an unfortunate choice of words.  When there is a movement of God’s Spirit toward revival, or even people working and praying for revival where results are few, I don’t think the advice should be to “dial it back,” but to “bring it on.” I would not criticize his methodology of church planting that he describes near the end of the article. It is one way to go about the task. But I would suggest that perhaps even his church’s approach to “grow and teach and model and correct” may find benefit through adopting and adapting some of the CPM practices that he is criticizing. It may also be true that established churches that are taking it slowly could benefit from the fire of a passionate pursuit to obey Jesus that is seen in DMM movements.

  • Critique: Calling gatherings “Church”(under Critique 1. Sloppy Definitions of Church)

Stiles’ experience is that DMM practitioners demonstrate an “inability to define a church” and are promoting gatherings that are not biblical churches because they are not grounded in “basic foundational principles.”

Summary answer: A focus on making disciples is the way to a healthy and indigenous expression of church.

Detail: The key strength of DMMs is found in Stiles’ third “tweetable” sentence: “The overarching mission of the church is the Great Commission: to disciple all nations, teaching them to obey everything Christ has commanded.”  This is where DMM begins, with the goal of seeing expressions of church emerge from gatherings that are shaped by their obedience to Scripture.  The goal is for culturally appropriate expressions that include all the elements of a Christ-centered community.  The DNA of the church is actually instilled from the beginning in the DBS process:

  • Worship and praise
  • Prayer and requests
  • Engaging God’s word
  • Conformity to God’s nature as revealed in Jesus
  • Obedience to God’s will
  • Evangelism
  • Accountability

The DMM approach is not what Stiles is familiar with, or even comfortable with, but as long as the leaders of a movement remain biblically grounded and obedient, the establishment of commonly held truths (doctrine) should not be a problem. As Newbigin states (1989. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. p. 222), “The congregation [is the] hermeneutic of the Gospel.” The goal of DMMs is for people to live out this principle as a congregation, centered on Jesus, within their context.

  • Critique 2: Vulnerable to Error and Heresy

Stile’s states that “CPM calls for an extreme commitment to indigenous leadership, they often leave these young believers open to destruction”

Summary answer: This danger is not unique to DMMs and safety measures are built in.

Detail: When multiplication occurs, it is “messy.”  In stable traditional church structures, hierarchal control keeps things in order under the guidance of recognized leaders. In DMMs, however, rather than maintaining a repository of truth in the hands of a few leaders, there is greater freedom and responsibility for average believers (disciples) to determine what God has revealed. This is done with group encouragement, input and correction in Discovery Bible Studies (DBS).  There is potential for error and heresy.  However, it is also possible for error and heresy to be entrenched within an ecclesial organization and perpetuated through the leaders. So this danger is not unique to CPMs and DMMs, but is a warning for all believers and church structures.

It could also be argued that DMMs principles hold the key for preventing and correcting error even more so than traditional church structures in which control of accepted truth is held by a few.  In the DBS process, the Word, rather than a human authority, is the teacher.  The focus is to discover what the Bible says, and people’s ideas are constantly challenged by the question, “where is that found in the passage?”

Furthermore, it could be argued that, historically, heresies have not arisen from the rapid spread of people engaging God’s word, but from those who proclaim themselves as teachers with special or authoritative insight into God’s Word. Again, in such a scenario, it is the ones steeped in God’s Word with a habit of seeking the truth (like the Bereans of Acts 17:11) who are less likely to be vulnerable to being led astray.

A word should be said about the “extreme commitment to indigenous leadership.” I suggest that the adjective “extreme” is a better descriptor of autocratic leadership found in hierarchical structures. DMM leaders are taught not to have confidence in their own experience and education, but to consistently lead people back to the Bible in a discovery process, making young believers less “open to destruction.”

Another concern raised is that “mature teachers and preachers are sidelined in the CPM model in the name of indigeneity.” Although I am not aware of an example of leaders being “sidelined” in CPM, it is true that CPM has a strong focus on empowering local believers to become competent leaders rather than relying on cultural outsiders.  This does not mean that outsiders do not have a role to play, but the priority is on training insiders to become leaders as a way of encouraging multiplication. This can be appropriately described as a “commitment to indigenous leadership,” but it can scarcely be called “extreme.”

  • Critique 3: Temptations to Pragmatism

Stiles’ fear is that people “jettison scriptural principles about the church” out of a desire for results.

Summary Answer: The solution is to continue testing all methodologies to ensure that they are consistent with Jesus’ mission and vision for the church as revealed in the Bible. Such a practice of testing the spirits in the light of Scripture is consistent with CPMs and DMMs.

  • Critique: Missionary fad? (under Critique 3: Temptations to Pragmatism)

Stiles notes that “missionary strategies come and go” and suggests that CPMs fall under that category. He emphasizes this by saying that it is new (circa 2001) in the overall history of missions and yet old in the world of modern missionary methods.  Since CPMs have morphed into DMMs as “a kind of next-generation CPM with a focus on obedience-based discipleship and discovery Bible studies,” this is more of a “missionary fad” rather than a “clear proclamation of gospel truth in the context of healthy biblical churches will last until Jesus returns.”

Summary answer: Identifying what God is doing in the world is responsible and appropriate.

Detail: The idea of “fad” is pejorative and quite unfair to and dismissive of this current movement in missions.  It is much better to recognize that missionaries and missiologists have always looked for ways to describe what they see God doing and to share with each other those activities that have been fruitful. In this day of global communication, it is a positive and not a negative development that we can quickly discover and analyze where there is a movement of the Spirit so that we can seek to pattern our ministry after fruitful practices. Looking for healthy patterns is not new, it is a matter of respect for what God has done and is doing through his people. Two historical examples are the prayer meetings that preceded revivals in various parts of the world, and the three “self-“ principles (self-governance, self-support, self-propagation) promoted by Henry Venn and Rufus Anderson as a basis for the establishment of indigenous churches for the American and British Protestant mission in the 19th century.

It is also important to realize that any new methodology is constantly being tested and evaluated for biblical support and appropriateness to the task of seeing the message of the Gospel proclaimed and people being discipled and gathered into Christ-centered communities.  Those who have become seriously involved in DMMs have critiqued the concepts and recognize that this approach is not a “magic bullet” or a “fad” but a process of engaging a culture using proven fruitful practices so that multiplication is encouraged and people are saved.  It is not a “one size fits all” shortcut but an approach that takes both Bible and context seriously so that adaptation of the methodology occurs in each setting in such a way that integrity to the Word is maintained.

  • Critique 4: Lack of Clarity

Stiles thinks that CPM is often “fuzzy” about biblical conversion and what constitutes the gospel.

Summary Answer: I do not know what Stiles is referring to.  Since a major fruitful practice found in DMMs is to study and obey the Bible, people encounter Jesus as Lord and Savior in the Word. (I have a suspicion that Stiles may have a particular theory and formulation of the gospel and salvation that is used as a lens to interpret Scripture. See below on “Over-Contextualization”).

  • Critique 5: Ethnically Homogenous Congregations

Stiles claims that “All churches should desire to be international churches.”

Summary answer: The “person of peace” principle looks for natural networks.

Detail: The concept of culturally homogenous churches actually has a strong and healthy history with respected missiologist Donald McGavran (1954) bringing the reality of family and kinship ties to prominence in his book The Bridges of God.  He recognized that people have distinct ethnic identities and the gospel needs to cross cultural boundaries and become part of the worldview of a people group in order for them to be transformed by the gospel.  God must “speak a person’s language” both literally and metaphorically. That is, the gospel must be seen as relevant for them to accept the message for themselves.  Respecting other cultures prevents an outside culture from acting in a colonizing manner by forcing them into a mold.

An assumption of the DMM strategy is that in order for the gospel to penetrate and transform a people group, it must first be seen as speaking to them within their context.  Their identity must not be compromised or overruled by those with a different cultural identity.  Thus the principle of “person of peace” (POP) has been promoted.  These POPs are the gatekeepers of a network who metaphorically open the door for others to engage God’s word.

Culturally distinct expressions of the gospel and the church are valued and not disparaged with DMMs. These varied expressions are considered to be like facets of a diamond – each providing insights that further the church’s appreciation for and worship of God.  This picture is ultimately fulfilled in Rev 7 where a multitude of nations are before the throne, each praising in their own tongue and manner, reflecting their love for and submission to God.

While it is not wrong to be an “international church,” as Stiles insists, it is only one local expression of the universal church.  It, too, has its limitations and difficulties that are not found in distinct ethnic expressions of church. A more inclusive and (I believe) appropriate approach is to encourage local churches to have an international agenda with respect to other churches and believers in a manner that maintains each congregation’s cultural and ethnic integrity.  That is, they desire to be connected with their brothers and sisters across geographical and ethnic boundaries for fellowship and correction (For further reading, see my article, “Navigating the Multicultural Maze: Setting an Intercultural Agenda for FEBBC/Y churches” in Being Church: Explorations in Christian Community, 2007).

  • Critique 6: Over-Contextualization

Stiles also believes that “Many involved in CPM … cut and paste the gospel, even giving different interpretations to clear biblical texts so that we can fit the gospel to culture, [and so give] up the biblical narrative.”

Summary answer: Stiles has confused syncretism with contextualization.

Detail: Contextualization is inevitable in our preaching and teaching, including the way the gospel message is communicated. The question is: does the message we present resonate with the culture AND maintain biblical integrity?  If the message maintains biblical integrity, but does not resonate, we are in danger of creating dual systems.  That is, we are presenting a foreign system that is added to the systems lived and understood by the insiders because it is not perceived as relevant to who they are. If the message resonates with the context, but does not maintain biblical integrity – i.e., the gospel has been compromised – that is syncretism.  One of the best and well-known examples of good contextualization of the gospel is “Peace Child” (1976) written by Canadian missionary to New Guinea, Don Richardson.  His first presentation of the gospel to the Sawi people was accurate, but did not resonate the way he intended – it was not appropriately contextualized. When he retold the gospel message with Jesus as the “Peace Child,” it resulted in a contextualized presentation of the gospel that maintained integrity with Scripture while resonating with the context. (For another example and further explanation, see my own contextualization journey among Sindhis).

Stiles has confused an appropriate representation of the gospel message that can be understood by the audience with a distortion of the gospel message due to some kind of compromise with cultural values.  The way to deal with the problem of syncretism is not to have one particular presentation of the gospel that is considered universal – this only results in dual systems. It also reveals a mono-cultural blindness that says, “The way I express the gospel is the only true way,” and does not recognize that our own expression is also culturally shaped.  The solution is to use the Bible as the final authority and ensure that people engage all the teachings of the Bible so that their beliefs and practices are challenged by what God has declared and what Jesus has revealed.  There is a reason why the first four books about the life of Jesus the New Testament are called the Gospels. The gospel may be summarized into a short statement, but all such statements are contextualizations designed to fit a particular way of viewing the world and they come with unspoken assumptions. The full message of the gospel is as broad and deep as Jesus himself, who declared that he is “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6).


  • McGavran, DA 1955. The Bridges of God: A Study in the Strategy of Missions. New York: Friendship Press.
  • Naylor, M 2007. “Navigating the Multicultural Maze: Setting an Intercultural Agenda for FEBBC/Y churches” in Being Church: Explorations in Christian Community. Langley BC: Northwest Baptist Seminary.
  • Newbigin, L 1989. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
  • Niebuhr, HR 1951. Christ and Culture. New York: Harper & Row.
  • Richardson, D 1976. Peace Child, Ventura: Regal Books.
  • Sanneh, L 1989. Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture. Maryknoll: Orbis.

103. Religious Preciseness and Baptism

In the article Baptism and Jesus’ orientation to the law I cited Luke 11.39-42 as evidence that Jesus’ concern is with the purpose or heart of God’s commands that can often be fulfilled without word for word compliance. A reader responded that such an understanding ignores the final phrase of the last verse: “it is these [justice and the love of God] you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others [tithing mint and rue and herbs of all kinds].” The person understood this last phrase (“without neglecting the others”) as a commendation of the Pharisees’ carefulness in following the literal instructions of the law and derivatively as an indication of how Jesus would like us to follow God’s commands. In other words, Jesus is advocating full and radical obedience by following BOTH the heart of the command AND by being precise about the literal wording.

This comment is helpful in illustrating how my interpretation of Scripture contrasts with that of the Immersionists. If Jesus’ point is that we are intended to follow a both / and scenario in obeying biblical commands, then the Immersionists are correct in their insistence that baptism means BOTH full and radical commitment to Jesus AND being fully immersed in water. Leaving out either would be disobedience and invalidate the act, just as the Pharisees would be disobedient even if they practiced justice and the love of God and yet failed to “tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds.” Following this line of reasoning Jesus’ commendation to the Pharisees for their carefulness in fulfilling the literal description of the law in the smallest detail would then be a critical guide for how we should interpret and apply God’s laws. This is a powerful argument because Jesus is our Lord and Master whom we follow radically and without reservation. If this was indeed Jesus’ concern and message then, like Jesus indicates with the Pharisees, we too need to be religiously precise in following all of God’s laws.

I would like to argue that this understanding is not consistent with Jesus’ concerns and does not appropriately appreciate Jesus’ and Paul’s message about how believers are to follow biblical commands. I suggest that Jesus was not commending the Pharisees for their preciseness in following the law, but for their concern to obey God’s law. Jesus’ actions and message throughout his ministry do not point to a precise following of the words of God’s commands, but to a hunger for the complete fulfillment of the will of God. Fulfilling the will of God is such a weighty notion that, in comparison, a ritual fulfillment of any symbolism has little significance. Thus through the rebuke to the Pharisees Jesus was not communicating to his disciples, “Make sure that you practice justice and the love of God AND also be sure to tithe any mint and rue and herbs of all kinds.” Instead he was saying, “Make sure that you practice justice and the love of God AND also be sure to follow God’s will in every command he gives, whether large or small.” In this latter interpretation the focus is not on the preciseness of the wording but on the intent of God’s concern and purposes.

The difference can be illustrated by contrasting an artist’s painting with those who seek to replicate a great artist’s work by following a paint-by-number kit. In the original the artist is immersed in the light, colors and message of the painting. In the kit colors and numbers are matched as the person attempts to paint within the lines. Such a stilted process does not do justice to the artwork and a true artist can break commonly understood rules (such as what constitutes proper perspective) in order to fulfill the purpose of the painting. Similarly, a “word for word” approach to God’s law can miss the point of the commands and this becomes evident when the obedience of those who have been less precise, yet have fulfilled the purpose of the commands, is not recognized and valued.

Sometimes unions call upon their members to “work to rule” when they are not to do any work beyond the precise instructions of their contract. As a result, even though they do their job and technically fulfill their responsibilities, they do not fulfill the heart and purpose of their position. However, when a person’s heart is in their profession, they are capable of judging when a precise reading of the rules is unnecessary based on the accomplishment of the intent.

My argument is that when a believer has received baptism through another mode it is as legitimate as full immersion baptism, as long as the purpose of baptism as commitment to Christ is fulfilled. The greater consideration of the meaning of baptism makes the preciseness of the word “immerse” insignificant. To put it another way, the Immersionists’ dismissal of the legitimacy of baptism where immersion is not practiced is a form of setting aside the weightier aspects of God’s concerns. There is a vast difference between being religiously precise and following the heart of God, and I believe that Jesus teaches us that the weightier matters do fulfill the command completely, even if the preciseness of the wording has not been followed. In fact, I would go so far to suggest that the religious preciseness of any command needs to be constantly revisited and questioned in order to determine whether or not we are actually following the heart of Christ in the way God desires.

Once when Jesus was asked about the greatest command and he gave his famous answer (Lu 10.25-37), the response came back, “Who is my neighbor?” This was a request for preciseness; in order to fulfill the command, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” the man needed to identify his “neighbor.” Jesus transcended his thinking and answered a different question. He taught the man what it meant to BE a neighbor. The hero of the story is not a mint and cumin tithing Pharisee, but a rejected Samaritan. Jesus was not commending someone focused on being precise about God’s laws but someone who believed and lived out the heart of God despite a lack of religious preciseness.

My conclusion about Jesus’ response to the Pharisee in Luke 11 is that Jesus is not advocating for literal preciseness in following God’s laws, but he is advocating the posture of attending to all of the laws. As Christians we do not attend the Bible in order find commands that we can obey with religious preciseness, as if the center of our lives is about obeying the laws of God. Instead we study the commands of God in order to grasp the heart and character of God so that we can be true image bearers and children of our Father. Jesus is not advocating that we be BOTH precise AND understand the heart of God. Rather it is by following God’s heart that the purpose of the law is fulfilled, whether or not we are religiously precise. In baptism, this principle should also hold. The precise word is “immerse,” but the heart of the command is turning from self and committing to Christ. To deny the fulfillment of the heart of the command in someone’s life because of strict adherence to the literal wording places us on the side of the Pharisees and undermines the concerns of Christ. Such a posture sets aside the weightier aspects of the law for the sake of the symbolism that only serves as a means to embrace the significant purpose of baptism.

101. Why I am a Baptist, but not an “Immersionist”

The “Immersionist” position is that any act of baptism that is not by the mode of immersion cannot be accepted as fulfillment of Jesus’ command to baptize.[1] Their rationale stems from a deep and admirable desire to radically obey[2] Jesus in all things and since the Greek baptizo literally means “immerse,” only that form is a true fulfillment of the command. In thinking through the issue I have come to the opposite conclusion and believe that highlighting the immersion mode diminishes the purpose and meaning of baptism because it emphasizes something peripheral to the command. Both symbolically and with a life-surrendering vow baptism is an act of “plunging … into the very name and life and character of the true God, who is Father, Son and Spirit.”[3] Radical obedience is the fulfillment of the latter vow, rather than a literal adherence to the form of the symbolism. It would be an unfortunate emphasis in our Fellowship churches if, by insisting on the outward appearance, we denied ourselves the fellowship of those who have also made that vow and embraced that symbolism, albeit by a mode that is less expressive than it could be.

Part of the argument provided by the Immersionists is that a transliteration (“baptize”) rather than a translation (“immerse”) of the word baptizo masks its true meaning and was employed in Bible translations for political reasons.[4] While political reasons stemming from church practice and the influence of the monarchy on religious authority were evident at the time of the early English Bible translations, these reasons need not be the sole motive behind the choice to transliterate. As a Bible translator into the Sindhi language,[5] I have often struggled with the benefit and impact of transliterating rather than translating. For example, in the Bible many names have meaning yet the function of identification usually overrides other aspects leading to a choice to transliterate. Barnabas means “Son of Encouragement,” which the original readers would have understood but this meaning is lost in the transliteration. Nonetheless, this loss is considered appropriate since the purpose of the name is primarily the identification of the person, just as a woman called “Joy” is only occasionally reminded of the significance of her name. Even closer to the issue at hand, when translating the New Testament into the Sindhi language for a Hindu audience, we discovered that some Hindu-background Christians were referring to baptism as a “holy bath.” For a time we seriously considered this as an option, but eventually settled on the transliteration “baptism” in order to facilitate a common Christian vocabulary and avoid potential divisions and arguments based on terminology.

Other than political expediency, the desire to avoid controversy and to encourage greater uniformity in Christian terminology, the most important reason for transliterating baptizo is theological. Baptism is far more than a symbol of immersion, its primary significance is as an ordinance. I am a Baptist because I am convinced of believer’s baptism and I value immersion as the most appropriate symbol to express the profound commitment of making a vow of total submission to God in Jesus’ name. The imagery of immersion is powerful and significant. It is an acted out metaphor of the internal reality and I would not want to lose that. But to deny expressions of baptism based solely on the mode raises the physical act to a level that I do not believe Jesus intended. His focus was on the heart not the outward appearance and in order to follow Christ I believe that we need to treat baptism the same way. The commands of Christ lead us to the heart of God, not to outward symbolic actions. A focus on immersion that causes us to reject those baptized by another mode is to move our attention from the purpose and meaning of baptism to a secondary and less important aspect.

In a recent paper Phil Webb[6] stated that “every change that God desires of us is relational and takes place in relationship,” which means that true obedience is done “by the spirit of the law rather than by the letter of the law.” The transliterated term “baptism” is more appropriate than the translated “immersion” because it points to the spirit of the command rather than the mode; “baptism” emphasizes the meaning and purpose of the ordinance and avoids placing too much emphasis upon that which is secondary.


[1] Belyea, G., Carter, G. & Frey, R. (2016) Conclusion in Baptism Is … The Immersionist Perspective, Eds. G. Belyea, G. Carter & R. Frey (p. 151). Brampton: Kainos: 151-152.

[2] Stairs, J. (2016). Why the Dripped Should be Dipped! in Baptism Is … The Immersionist Perspective, Eds. G. Belyea, G. Carter & R. Frey (p. 199-200). Brampton: Kainos: 191-204.

[3] Wright, T. (2011). Lent for Everyone: Matthew Year A (p. 149). London: SPCK.

[4] Frey, R. (2016). The Linguistic Evidence in Baptism Is … The Immersionist Perspective, Eds. G. Belyea, G. Carter & R. Frey (p. 22). Brampton: Kainos: 21-32.

[5] https://www.nbseminary.ca/church-health/cild/cild_sindhibible

[6] Webb, P. (2016) Unpublished.

100. Interpretation and Baptism

It is fascinating to consider how a literalist application of Scripture, as evident in the teaching and practice of the Pharisees, was challenged by Jesus and the New Testament writers. The apostle Paul is the premier example of how a transformational encounter with Jesus changed the way he interpreted and applied God’s word.

As a strict Pharisee, Paul was a legalist and a violent supporter of God’s law. “God said it, I believe it and that settles it” would have been his unspoken assumption to take Old Testament laws literally and apply them without compromise. The seriousness of circumcision and its foundational role in the religious and political life of the nation of Israel would have been one unquestioned example based on God’s command to Abraham:

This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant (Gen 17:10-14).

That is a clear, unequivocal command. Yet when Paul met Jesus, he changed the way he interpreted Scripture. He had a new lens through which he understood God’s purposes and so he amazingly rejects circumcision for God’s people despite God’s firm admonition that it be enacted as an eternal covenant. He states, “For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God” (1 Co 7.19).

The intriguing aspect of this verse is that in dismissing the direct command of God, Paul declares that we are called to obey the commandments of God! What has changed in Paul’s hermeneutic – the way he interprets and applies Scripture – so that by exhorting people to NOT literally fulfill the declared action of a command, Paul can still assume that Christians can (and must) obey God’s commands?

One influence on Paul’s thinking would have been Jesus’ teachings about the law. A particularly contentious command for Jesus that the Pharisees followed literally was to keep the Sabbath holy and not work on that day. Jesus’ argument against the Pharisees was not that they had mistaken the words of the command, but that they had misinterpreted God’s intention in giving the command. Jesus did not deny that he was working on the Sabbath but by saying, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working” (John 5.17), declared the right to do so. This interpretation of the command was not based on the meaning of the original terminology but on Jesus’ perspective of the fundamental purpose of the command. Jesus’ statement, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath” (Mark 2.27 NRSV) announced the appropriateness of bringing wholeness and release to people on the Sabbath.

Where the purpose of the command was fulfilled, literal adherence to the words of the command was unnecessary and could even be deceiving by distracting from the purpose. This is why Jesus condemns the Pharisees for their strictness in following the letter of the law while ignoring the heart of the commands. It appears from the New Testament approach towards the law that the fulfillment of God’s commandments is not determined by passionate yet wooden attention to the words, but by comprehending and entering into the heart of and intention of the Giver of the command.

Therefore, when the question of circumcision came to a head in the early church (Acts 15), the argument did not focus on the terminology of the command – that was clear and unequivocal. Rather the concern was how God’s intentions were fulfilled through faith. Peter declared, “God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:8,9).

From the way Jesus and the New Testament writers interpreted the law of God, it seems that we have been given a lesson in how to interpret God’s word. Rather than seeking to obey commands given in the Bible as if it was a law that must be adhered to in a word-for-word fashion, we are called to discern the intention and purpose of God in and through those commands. The meaning of the commands occurs in the context of following Jesus’ purposes, not by strict adherence to a particular wording. The one who obeys is not the one who focuses on the terminology, but the one who looks past the words into the heart of God. The approach of the apostles in the New Testament indicates that they were not preparing a manual of laws for Christians of all eras to follow like an algorithm even if they don’t understand the purpose; rather the apostles were discovering how to live out the gospel. This New Testament process serves as a pattern for us so that we also may work out our passion for the same kingdom purposes.

If this interpretive concern I have presented truly reflects the hermeneutic of Jesus and the New Testament authors, it provides support to accept into membership those who have not been baptized by immersion if their baptismal expression has fulfilled the purpose of expressing commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ. Even though the literal word of the command is “immerse,” the heart of baptism is the expression of faith of a good conscience (1 Pet 3.21). To reject such an expression of faith as a fulfillment of the command of God based on a literalist adherence to the words of a command is to oppose the interpretive heart of Jesus and Paul.

(NIV used unless otherwise stated)

99. Baptism and Obedience

I appreciate the passion for obedience from those who are “Immersionists” and their desire to see that passion reflected in God’s people. I also promote the importance of obedience, but from a different angle.

When I was fresh out of high school I got a job with a construction firm and one day I had the job of tarring the foundation of a house. The boss gave me a brush and a bucket of tar and I went at it with gusto. A while later he came back to see how I was doing and exclaimed, “What are you doing!?” As far as I was concerned, I was following the instructions. He jumped down in the hole and grabbed the brush and showed me what I was supposed to be doing explaining that the purpose was to seal the foundation so water would not leak through. Where I was painting the sides, he slopped the tar on the cracks and ridges. Once I grasped the purpose and function of the tar, I was able to do the job properly.

What I learned from the experience is that while obedience is essential, obedience alone is insufficient. It is impossible to truly obey unless we understand why the command was given. If we just follow commands without knowing the deeper purpose, then we interpret them from our own perspective and actually may miss the original intention. A further negative result that can occur when the full intention is not appreciated is the slavish adherence to the appearance or mere words of a command. This is well illustrated by the Pharisees’ rigid adherence to tithing (Mt 23.23). Their emphasis on getting the form right blinded them to God’s original purpose for the law.

To revisit the “brush on the paint” analogy: Suppose there were two painters, each on one side of the house and both received the same instructions to “brush on the paint.” However, one uses a roller. When they finish the one with the brush exclaims, “You didn’t use the brush! This side cannot be considered painted. Brushing on the paint means using the brush. Your side doesn’t count.” The other painter replies, “Your focus on the brush means that you have missed the point. The purpose and function of the task is to have the house painted. If you focus so much on the mode that you dismiss the essence of the task, then you are misunderstanding the boss’ purpose.”

My perspective is that to nullify a person’s baptismal experience because of mode is to declare the spiritual reality of what was experienced as unworthy, invalid or inappropriate – dismissing that which is a significant expression of the covenant in their life. This is a pastoral concern, but my focus is to uphold the theological and hermeneutical validity of that pastoral concern; a person’s baptismal experience of repentance and becoming “in Christ” should not be denied because the mode was not as good as it should have been. The primary meaning and purpose is fulfilled, even though secondary expressions may be less than desired.

I hope it is obvious that affirming the validity of those baptized by another mode does not derive from a carelessness with God or His word. My years of living in another culture and being involved in Bible translation has given me an ever growing sense of awe at God’s revelation of Himself and its relevance to both ancient cultures (OT and NT) and 21st century eastern and western cultures. However, the Bible is not particularly easy to understand. It requires sustained study and the work of the Holy Spirit. My desire is to understand the heart of God as I translate, study, meditate and preach. I believe understanding God’s heart requires knowing why commands are given. If we don’t understand why, we may miss the real point – God’s revelation of Himself, His heart and His will.

There is a phenomenon of people redoing their marriage vows and having a second wedding on their wedding anniversary. I have no objection to this and can see how that can be impacting. What I would object to is a demand of that re-enactment in such a way that the first giving of vows was considered invalid because certain symbolic aspects were not present. Rings at a wedding are a helpful and appropriate symbol, but the lack of them does not nullify the impact of the vows and ceremony.

98. Baptism and a Painting analogy

The National Fellowship is considering a motion that would allow those who have been baptized as adults through a mode other than immersion to be accepted as members of Fellowship Baptist churches.  Immersion would continue to be the sole practice of baptism. A discussion is ongoing between those who promote and those who oppose the move.  Below is my response to a comment made on a blog from the “Immersionist” side suggesting that there are some issues of language and interpretation that are not being fully considered.

[Gary V Carter’s blog post: Two Little Words … By … Is
There is more than one way to apply paint. You get to pick between rollers and brushes and sprayers. (Oh, the paint sprayer was invented in 1892.) But you don’t get to pick the mode of baptism. There is only one option because of the meaning of the word.
Baptism is not by immersion; baptism is immersion. There are no other biblical options. Those who truly believe that the words of scripture are inspired one word at a time know this and live by it if they have looked into it sufficiently. Sadly, most in Christendom haven’t looked into it yet. Have you done the study yet? Don’t you think you should?]

My Response:

Thank you for the painting analogy. It started me thinking and I wonder if the analogy more naturally supports the opposite perspective? That is, if I see a blue house, my concern is not how it was painted (the mode: brush or roller), but that it is painted (the result is that the house is blue).

Of course, the objection could be that the boss had specifically said to use a brush and not a roller, in which case the painter would have been disobedient if he refused to use a brush. But perhaps it was not quite as straightforward as that. What if the boss had handed the painter a brush and instructed, “Brush on the paint”? The literal understanding would be that the painter must use the brush. But what if the question of obedience and disobedience is not based on the literal word “brush,” but on an intended message to paint the house blue? If the essential concern is that the house be blue rather than how the house is painted, the painter might feel free to be creative with the mode (particularly if the boss considered the painter a friend and a partner in his mission who understands why they are painting the house) as long as the mission was accomplished and the house was painted blue.

Linguistically speaking, the boss said “brush” and handed over a brush. That should be evidence enough that the boss intended for the brush to be used. “Brush” is a clear and unambiguous term and “brush on the paint” is an unambiguous action. However, the meaning of the verb “brush” could also be intended as a more general “paint the house;” such use of language is not uncommon. For example, an appropriate response to the command “run to the store and get some milk” would be to drive the car. If the point of the task was that the house become “blue” then it would not be surprising if the boss came back and asked “did you paint the house?” with the full intention of seeing the instructions (“brush on the paint”) and the action (painting) as equivalent even though a brush was not used. In fact, when recalling the work done, it would not be surprising if “the house was painted” was used rather than “the house was brushed with paint” because the purpose of the work is fully represented with the one word “paint.”

Nonetheless, the objection could be raised that the point is not just that the house be blue but that the boss’ intention was that a brush be used to paint the house. Perhaps a roller would splatter, paint was limited, or the brush would leave a particular pattern. In any of these cases, the boss would be disappointed and point out that the painter had not entirely obeyed, even though the house was now blue. The questions then become: Is the house sufficiently painted blue so that the job does not need to be redone? Can the house be considered appropriately painted because it was not done using a brush as specified? Perhaps rather than repainting the whole house, it can be touched up, maybe in some symbolic way that would adequately indicate a concern for the use of the brush.

I guess it comes down to the purpose of the task and how we determine what the boss intended.

94. God as Artist: Expressions of Goodness

In the Beginning: the Word

When I was a young boy, one of the mysterious verses in the Bible was John 1:1, “In the beginning was the word.”  I remember puzzling over this phrase and thinking it must mean the Bible, because that was “God’s word.”  But when I realized that the Bible was written long after “the beginning,” I began to wonder if it referring to one special “word” (maybe “Jesus”?) that God spoke.  Of course, most people just looked ahead in the passage and said, “The answer is in verse 14: ‘The word became a human being.’  It’s Jesus!”  But that won’t do; we cannot substitute “Jesus” for “word” in verse 1 because that undermines John’s message. He wants us to first think about “word” before we get to the incarnation. We are not intended to equate the “word” with Jesus until we get to that verse.  The amazing revelation is that this “word” – whatever it is – actually becomes a human being. But in order to appreciate why this is astounding, we first need to understand John’s use of “word” as something other than Jesus in verse 1.

Translating the “Word”

In order to translate, we must first understand

When casually reading the Bible, we can skip over phrases that are puzzling.  However, that is not true for Bible translation. In order to translate, we must first understand.  Currently our Bible translation team is engaged in a review of the Sindhi New Testament1 and is partway through the book of John. So when we read, “In the beginning was the Word,” we had to think through what “word” referred to.

John does not begin his book with Jesus, a man who was born and lived in Israel 2000 years ago.  He doesn’t start with the Messiah, the chosen one of God to bring salvation to the nations, which is where Matthew starts. He does not commence with the title “Son of God,” which is Mark’s preference.  Instead, John describes something other than the man Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God.  He turns our attention to the “word.”  But what is it that we are to understand?

It is surprisingly difficult to obtain a clear meaning of this term.  Commentaries and theological dictionaries tend to provide English equivalents of the Greek word, logos, such as wisdom, teaching, speech, reflection, knowledge, truth, the fundamental law and order of the universe, understanding, comprehension, and rationality.2 But while these are all legitimate terms, they are not sufficient to allow us to grasp the significance and impact of John’s phrase.

Another approach is to explore the equivalent Hebrew words used for logos in the Greek translation of the Old Testament – after all, that was Jesus’ and John’s Bible at that time.  In the Old Testament, God’s “word” refers to a revelation of his character and will, a declaration of truth, or a command.

These insights are the basis for the Sindhi translation of “kalam” – that which God declares, the message that God speaks – used for a Muslim audience. The Scriptures are commonly referred to among Muslims as God’s kalam.  For a Hindu audience, on the other hand, we used the word “vachan,” which refers to a promise, God’s declaration that cannot be broken, his covenant. However, these legitimate translations still do not bring us much closer to understanding John’s purpose in using this phrase to set the stage for the climatic declaration that “the word became a human being.”

pay close attention to the context

Fortunately, there is a way to discover John’s meaning. An important translation principle is to pay close attention to the context.  The primary context used by John is the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis.  The meaning of “word” in John 1 is drawn directly from the image of God’s creative activity. In the first verses of Genesis, God’s Spirit is “moving” over the chaos, a reference to the formless, empty, dark ocean. It is as if God is studying a blank canvas and since God is a God of order, not of chaos, and of light, not of darkness, something magnificent happens.

God as Artist

Creation is God’s artwork that reflects his character and nature. When he speaks, he expresses himself and light appears. God reveals himself in the form of light – and it is good. God then separates that light from the darkness because light, as an expression of his goodness, reflects his holy and pure nature: “God is light and in him is no darkness at all” (1 Jn 1:5).

As God continues to speak, he expresses his goodness in visible, tangible forms, and the world comes into being.  He separates the waters (chaos) and brings land (order).  Again he says, “This is good.”  Finally, he creates human beings.  We become expressions of God, little icons created to reveal the goodness and character of God. This time God says, “This is very good.”

CS Lewis plays on the picture of God as artist in the Narnia series.  In the founding of Narnia, Aslan brings the world into being through a song.  It is an art form that expresses Aslan’s heart, passion, will, and desire.  A deep singing voice brings out the stars; the grass grows through the sound of gentle, rippling music, while lighter notes produce primroses. All this beauty comes out of the lion’s mouth – the word, the expression of Aslan.3

The Word: God expresses himself

With that image in mind, consider this rephrasing of the first verses of John’s gospel:

In the beginning God expressed himself,
He revealed his nature and his goodness.
And that expression which resulted in light and goodness, truth, order and beauty was with God,
It surrounded him, was part of him, because it showed who God was,
It was God’s nature and character overflowing into revelation.
God’s act of expressing his goodness was from the beginning.
In fact, everything was made by God as he revealed his nature.
Nothing was made that did not make him known in some way.
Everything has the stamp of God on it.
All creation says, “This is what God is like.”
In addition, when God expresses himself, when he speaks, when he reveals who he truly is, the result is life.

The “word” shows us God, is God; and God is good.

What does it look like in real life?  How can we grasp this grand picture of God expressing his glory and goodness and beauty so that it means something to us personally?  God answered that question for us:

The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, Generous inside and out, true from start to finish (John 1:14 msg).

God shows us what he is like in a language we can understand

God shows us what he is like in a language we can understand.  He expresses himself in a way that makes sense to us, in a way that can be heard, and seen, and touched (1 Jn 1:1).  Jesus is “God with skin on,” a living, walking, breathing, talking human being who reveals God. We look at Jesus and see God.  When Philip said, “Just show us the Father, that will be enough,”  Jesus replied, “Philip, open your eyes. When you look at me, you see God” (Jn 14:8-9, paraphrased).


  • 1 As a Pakistan Bible Society project, a translation of the Sindhi New Testament is being prepared for a Hindu audience, while simultaneously reviewing the version for a Muslim audience completed over 25 years ago.
  • 2 Brown, C 1971. The Occurrence and Significance of logos and legō in the NT in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol 3. Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1106-1119.
  • 3 Lewis, CS 1955. The Magician’s Nephew. Harmandsworth: Puffin books, 93-99.