123. Obedience Based Discipleship (OBD)

Responding to Theological concerns about Disciple Making Movements #1 

Disciple Making Movements (DMM) have made a significant impact in evangelical missions efforts over the past few decades, both in terms of kingdom growth and as a challenge to traditional missions’ philosophy and practices. As with all new initiatives, there have been enthusiastic promoters as well as detractors and skeptics. As a firm believer in the importance and role of the body of Christ, I am encouraged when partners in ministry speak up about their concerns.  Such conversations, when handled with grace, openness, and the desire to grow together can serve to advance the cause of the gospel as we understand each other, learn from each other, and humbly receive correction from each other. In this and the following two articles, I address three significant concerns raised by those committed to the cause of Christ, but who, for biblical and theological reasons, believe that some DMM principles and practices have deviated from what God has called the church to do.

The theological analysis provided in these blogs is not intended to be the “final word;” it is an attempt to shed light on Fellowship International’s (FI) adoption and adaptation of DMM principles and practices (DMM P&Ps) and to encourage an ongoing conversation so we can work with each other to handle God’s word well and discover his will. In the spirit of “iron sharpening iron,” we partner together to join Jesus in his mission as he redeems the world.

The theological concern addressed in this article is Obedience Based Discipleship (OBD). In the following articles I will consider Discovery Bible Study (DBS), and People of Peace (POP).

Theological concern: Obedience Based Discipleship (OBD)
OBD is a key practice of DMM where seekers are encouraged to read God’s Word as a revelation of God’s character, will, and mission, and then respond with obedience to the implications of that revelation. Some critics believe that OBD conflicts with New Testament teaching, primarily because it obscures the nature and doctrine of conversion. If people are taught to obey biblical teaching before they are called to repent and believe, they will downplay the necessary and sufficient work of Christ in salvation and may develop an inappropriate conviction that they can save themselves by conforming to the principles found in God’s Word.  This is human-centered legalism rather than grace-filled humility with the conviction that all is gift, and all is of Christ.

Friends of mine have raised their children with a kind of casual Christianity promoting select values and teachings that are meant to help their children succeed in life. As a result, these young adults approach spirituality as a set of principles and practices that they can adopt (or not) in order to live well. This type of narrative is pervasive in Canadian society and communicates the attitude that, “we can save ourselves. Through science, psychology, or meditation we can gain all we need. The teachings of Jesus are helpful, and we can adopt and adapt them to our personal needs – we can work out our own path.” This narrative has rejected a life commitment to Jesus as Lord and Savior.

Is OBD in danger of teaching people to view the Bible as equivalent to a self-help manual? Does obedience-based discipleship encourage seekers to identify and select appealing principles and commands they can control and live by while ignoring the One who demands submission and allegiance? Rather than being confronted with their sin and helplessness so they humble themselves before the Savior, are people guided to chart their own spiritual course with little concern for repentance and faith resulting in a belief that they can become good people (righteous) through their own actions (works)?

In response to this concern, this article will

  1. Summarize three key issues found in public critiques of OBD,
  2. Affirm those convictions that are consistent with Fellowship International’s theology,
  3. Provide a summary explanation of how Fellowship International’s use of OBD is theologically consistent and appropriate and does not fall into the theological trap outlined above, and
  4. Respond to specific critiques of OBD found in various articles that have particular biblical or theological significance.

A. Summary of the case against OBD

The following OBD critique is summarized from podcasts by Berger & DeMars and articles by Clark, Kocman and Vegas. Bibliographic information can be found in the list of references.

  1. Obedience and faith: Because OBD promotes a process that focuses primarily on obedience as even more important than knowing the truth, it creates a system of works-righteousness through which people believe they can be saved. Reducing the gospel to a call to be outwardly obedient to God’s Word distorts the message that we are saved by grace. OBD conflates faith and obedience by teaching that obedience is a necessary part of faith, thus incorporating our own efforts for salvation together with the working of God’s Spirit in the human heart. This is legalism and undermines the Protestant belief of “Sola fide” – faith alone and “Sola gratia” – grace alone.
  2. Unbelievers as disciples?: OBD is the practice of leading groups of unbelieving “disciples” into regular obedience to the imperatives of Christ, independent of conversion. Calling unbelievers to obedience prior to any proclamation of Christ’s redemptive work and before repentance and belief on the part of the unbeliever is inappropriate and unbiblical. It is contradictory to claim that an unconverted person can be an obedient disciple.
  3. First grace, then obedience: OBD bypasses the call to believe and declares that people must first obey the Father’s commandments in order to merit his forgiveness and favor. The biblical order is first to be saved by grace, and only then obey out of a grateful heart. True Christian obedience flows from a regenerate heart that has been renewed by the Spirit of God. This is the obedience of faith (Rom 1). To reverse the order from faith to obedience is a deviation from true faith since only a regenerated person can truly obey Jesus in any meaningful sense.

B. Fellowship International affirmations of theology

  1. Obedience and faith: Fellowship International affirms that Christians are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, as revealed by Scripture alone, to the glory of God alone (sola gratia, sola fide, solus Christus, sola scriptura, soli Deo gloria). Any use of OBD as a call to obedience must be in harmony with these truths. Obedience is not a means of salvation, nor is it equivalent to faith. It is not a necessary human act that adds to the saving grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. Obedience is a response of submission before, commitment to, and trust in God and is simultaneously a gift of God’s grace.
  2. Unbelievers as disciples?: Fellowship International affirms that unbelieving and unrepentant people who live in rebellion against God and in rejection of the gospel and who do not acknowledge Jesus as Lord and Savior are not true disciples, nor can they participate authentically in a discipleship relationship. Anyone who rejects Jesus and the message of the gospel cannot at the same time be a disciple of Jesus.
  3. First grace, then obedience: Fellowship International affirms that true obedience is a response of belief and trust from the heart. Even as all truth is God’s truth, so all authentic obedience stems from a heart that is being changed by God’s Spirit. Any action that is hypocritical, self-serving, or is viewed as the means of salvation rather than based on the will and grace of God alone is not true obedience.

In light of the above declarations, Fellowship International believes that OBD is an appropriate and effective practice for presenting the gospel as part of DMM strategy/methodology to lead seekers to saving faith in Jesus.

C. How Fellowship International’s use of OBD is biblically and theologically appropriate

1. Obedience and faith: Obedience-based discipleship as perceived and applied by Fellowship International is viewed in contrast to knowledge-based discipleship which describes a tendency to engage in Bible study without evidence, necessarily, of obedience and missional application. OBD is therefore not in contrast to grace-based and faith-based discipleship; it is intentionally consistent with and embraces both. True faith does not include obedience, rather obedience is a response to true faith. True faith has three dimensions: knowledge, conviction (belief that it is true), and trust (allegiance and commitment) (Trousdale 2018:103). It is the third aspect of trust that requires a response expressed through obedience. That is, the fruit of true commitment and trust in Jesus (faith) is seen in active submission to God’s character, will, and mission.

Obedience is not a means of salvation, rather it is an act of, and evidence for, faith. No one can understand the gospel without obedience, for the beginning of Jesus’ gospel proclamation – “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Mt 3:2, 4:17) – is a call to obey.  The one prerequisite by which the Lord of Life delivers sinners is for them to respond in obedience to his command. Responding to Jesus’ call to repent and committing our lives to him (believing) is not the same as salvation, but it is the necessary faith requirement so that Jesus will save. There can be no salvation without this act of obedience, but the salvation itself is from Jesus.

Similarly, as a seeker discovers God’s character, will, and mission, they are encouraged to respond to what the Spirit is saying to them. This, too, is an act of faith, perhaps not yet the saving faith of commitment to Jesus, but part of the journey towards the time of full submission and commitment. Such obedience is not an act of self-improvement, but an acknowledgment of the Lordship of Christ and a step towards full allegiance.

An attitude of responding to what God has revealed prepares seekers for the covenantal commitment of dying to self and living for Jesus. Knowing cannot be just an intellectual endeavor; to truly know one must respond and act. Until a person begins to conform their life to what God wants, they do not truly understand the message and their faith is not authentic. This reality can be seen in John the Baptist’s response to those who came to him to be baptized:

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.

John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

– John 3:7-14

 John rebukes the people for professing repentance without demonstrating the fruit of repentance. He is calling them to change in a way that fits with the call to repentance. The obedient response of those being baptized is part of their repentance. Without it, repentance has not occurred. This is not “works-righteousness” but the response of faith. A person “cannot make himself pure, but he can leave that which is impure; he can spread out the ‘defiled, discoloured web’ of his life before the bleaching sun of righteousness; he cannot save himself, but he can let the Lord save him” (MacDonald 1892:7).

Because of the misunderstanding that can occur from the term “obedience,” which stems from the concern about “works-righteousness,” a more acceptable term than obedience-based discipleship may be “allegiance-based” discipleship[1]. The term “allegiance-based” puts the focus on the Christ-centred relational aspect that motivates the seeker or believer to respond in obedience. As Trousdale (2018:104) points out, allegiance and trust are based on our love for God, and love for God includes obedience (Deu 6:4-5, cf. Jn 14.15,21,23, 1 Jn 5.1-5); the primary motive is our allegiance to the Master. At the same time, the reciprocal is also true: if we do not obey, we are not loving. Love for God and love for others requires action, not just acknowledgment or feelings.

2. Unbelievers as disciples?: Critics of OBD tend to divide humanity into two groups – regenerate/unregenerate, believers/unbelievers, filled with the Spirit/lacking the Spirit, obedient/disobedient. Both groups are evident in this world and in Scripture. However, there is a third category to consider – those whom God is drawing to himself, people who could be considered “seekers” or “Godfearers.” They are not yet committed followers of Jesus, but they are sincere and their hearts are open to the gospel. DMM P&Ps are focused on identifying these people and inviting them into a process of discovery of what God is like (his character), what God wants (his will), and what God has done through Jesus and is doing through his Spirit (his mission). The seekers’ spiritual hunger is interpreted as the Holy Spirit working in their lives, and their journey toward commitment to Jesus is referred to as a discipleship process toward conversion. They are not yet in a covenantal relationship with Jesus, but, through the prompting of his Spirit, they are responding to how he is revealed in Scripture. Perhaps it is helpful to make a distinction between the term “disciple-making” and “discipleship” when speaking of seekers. “Discipleship” points to an ongoing process of faith development for both seekers and believers, whereas “disciple-making” indicates the end goal for seekers to become committed disciples of Jesus.

3. First grace, then obedience: True obedience is a response of belief and trust from the heart whether the person is a committed follower of Jesus or has just begun the journey towards repentance and a covenantal relationship with Jesus. Obedience does not replace or supplement God’s grace nor does it occur apart from God’s grace. Each obedient response to God on the part of the sincere seeker is simultaneously the act of God drawing people to himself. Obedience in the sense of submitting to God’s call for allegiance is part of God’s plan for spiritual development that does not warrant pride or credit; it is our appropriate response to God’s self-revelation.

In OBD both the written word (Bible) and the Living Word (Jesus) are presented as God’s grace to humanity and people are called to respond. In my article, Reflections on the Theological Validity of Disciple-Making Movements (DMMs), a courtship analogy is used to emphasize the relational theology that drives DMM, a relationship with Jesus as Lord and Savior that is initiated and driven by the Spirit of God calling people to life, and that is expressed in their obedient response:

DMM practitioners have observed a process through which people grow towards a covenantal relationship with God through a gradual increase in understanding, commitment and action. Through the DBS method, which is ideally done in a group setting, all are immediately confronted with God’s words and challenged to commit to a path of obedience at the level of their comprehension, conviction, and belief. This is one step in a journey of faith that establishes a consistent expectation and pattern of following Jesus, a pattern maintained both before and after their expression of full commitment to Jesus, thus affirming the maxim, “what you win them with, is what you win them to.” An analogy of courtship is instructive; a couple meets, develops a relationship, becomes engaged, and then commits their lives together in a marriage ceremony. The entire process consists of ever increasing levels of understanding and commitment, culminating in a covenant[2]. In the walk of the disciple, the covenant of faith is expressed through baptism, with the Lord’s Supper acting as the ongoing reminder of that covenant.

Naylor 2021

D. Responses to specific critiques

Is a call to obedience before conversion appropriate?
In his article Is ‘Obedience-Based Discipleship’ Biblical?, Alex Kocman proposes that the book of Acts records an invariable, apostolic pattern of ministry:

  1. The risen Christ is proclaimed as Savior, Lord, and Judge (Acts 2:36, 4:10-12)
  2. Repentance and faith are commanded (Acts 2:38, 17:30-31)
  3. Those appointed to eternal life respond in faith, being baptized (Acts 2:41)
  4. Those baptized are numbered among the disciples and commit themselves to continued learning and obedience to the teachings of Christ and the apostles (Acts 2:42-47)

Although Luke takes occasional authorial liberty to telescope some of the apostolic preaching and conversion narratives in Acts, nowhere is this fundamental order reversed so as to place point 4 prior to point 1.

Kocman 2021

Response: Each of the four steps Kocman provides as the pattern in Acts is an invitation for human response. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus begins his ministry with proclamation and invitation, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Mt 4.17). This was a call for people to act, to respond by turning away from a false orientation to life and turning back to God by following Jesus. (Mt 4.19). OBD is that same call: It presents the Bible as God’s self-revelation and the authoritative proclamation of the gospel to give people the opportunity to discover what God is doing in the world and what he requires of them. Response to Jesus is the pathway to faith in Jesus and that occurs by engaging what God has revealed in the Bible.

OBD assumes that even those not yet fully committed to Christ can respond to God as part of their journey to saving faith because the Holy Spirit is already at work drawing people to faith that grows over time to full allegiance. Mt 28:19-20 says “make disciples … teaching them to obey…” The assumption is that from the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus was making disciples. His goal was to teach, not just to enlighten people (knowledge-based), but also to challenge them to move past understanding to action. He said, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ but do not do what I say” (Luke 6:46).  The setting for this pericope is the Twelve, “a large crowd of disciples” and “a great number of people” (Luke 6:17). The expectation that disciples are called to live a life of obedience was not a secret for the inner circle, but a clear call for any who considered following Jesus. DMM practitioners assume that there are people God has prepared; people who are hungry for spiritual life, who seek after truth and who are open to the message that in Christ Jesus there is redemption from sin. Their trust in and love for Jesus grows and develops over time. 

Undoubtedly, there have been people who exhibit only unbelief, rebellion, disobedience, and spiritual death (no influence of the Spirit) until there is a sudden 180-degree turn at the point of conversion. The apostle Paul is the most famous example: from “kill the followers of the Way” to “Who are you, Lord?” in one blinding flash (Acts 9:5). But this sudden conversion is not the only possible scenario. OBD practitioners are convinced that the more likely path is for people to grow in faith as they engage the message of the gospel through a study of the Word. They are people who have the heart of the Bereans and diligently search the scriptures (Acts 17:10-12).

OBD does not replace conversion with a path of obedience; it provides a biblical pathway towards conversion expressed as repentance from sin and allegiance to Jesus.

Can an unconverted person with no faith in the gospel be considered an obedient disciple?
In the same article, Kocman declares that OBD answers “yes” to the above question. He goes on to say,

Biblically, however, the answer is “no.” Regeneration proceeds (sic) not only faith but a life of loving obedience. There are no meaningful definitions of “disciple” or “obedience” that do not assume the reality of regeneration. The natural person’s mind is “hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot” (Rom. 8:7). Spiritual things, a category which certainly includes the commands of Jesus, can only be understood by those who possess the Spirit (1 Cor. 2:14). Jesus taught that without new birth, one cannot even see the kingdom (John 3:3), much less obey spiritual truths. To obey God’s law willingly from the heart can only be accomplished by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit (Ez. 36:26). This is the very content of the new covenant, into which one must enter through faith alone. Only a regenerated person can truly obey Jesus in any meaningful sense.

Kocman 2021

Response: Kocman’s argument assumes that OBD practitioners believe that obedience to Jesus is possible without the work of the Spirit. However, if people are responding positively to Jesus’ teaching, OBD practitioners consider this evidence of the Spirit moving people towards faith in Jesus, even though they have not experienced regeneration.  The apostle Paul describes this kind of person when he states,

For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them. 

Rom 2:14-15

No one, apart from the Holy Spirit, is capable of responding positively to God’s will or being convicted of sin (Jn 16:8-9, 1 Co 2:4-5,14). The possibility that God’s Spirit also works within unbelievers and seekers is what drives us to expose them to God’s Word in the hope that they will be led to salvation.

OBD suggests that the last sentence in Kocman’s quote above should be revised to say, “Only a person in whom the Spirit is working to bring them to regeneration can truly obey Jesus in any meaningful sense.” Obedient response to God’s Word is an indicator of a regenerative process through which the Holy Spirit is at work. The natural person is “hostile”; yes, but a seeker is not hostile. Spiritual things can only be understood by those who possess the Spirit; yes, but people impacted by God’s Word do demonstrate understanding.  Without new birth no one can see the kingdom; yes, but seekers are being drawn to the kingdom. They appear to be obeying from the heart, which indicates the power of the Spirit. Such obedience is not a distraction from salvation, but an important part of a process by which their need for a relationship with God through the Lord Jesus Christ is realized. The new covenant is the allegiance towards which they are moving. They are like someone in a courtship who is not yet married, not like a person who despises marriage and the opposite sex.  For a seeker, the “meaningful sense” of their obedience is that they are on a journey towards regeneration.  This, of course, does not mean that all seekers will become disciples and eventually embrace the covenant with Jesus. Even if some make a profession, they may not be truly converted and instead be like the grumblers in John 6:66 who are referred to as disciples (having made a commitment to follow Jesus presumably through baptism) and yet turned away from him.

While Kocman is right to declare that to “advocate obedience among unconverted ‘disciples’ apart from empty-handed faith is bald legalism,” this complaint does not represent OBD which advocates for a fitting response to God’s Word from those hungry to know God’s character, will, and mission. OBD guides them into a journey of knowing what being a Christ follower means (including obeying the command to repent and believe) and evidences spiritual growth towards a covenantal commitment.

Is OBD a rejection of the gospel of justification by faith?
Quoting Gresham Machen, Kocman calls OBD a “drift away from the gospel of justification by faith” so that “salvation is thought to be obtained by our own obedience to the commands of Christ. Such teaching is just a sublimated form of legalism. Not the sacrifice of Christ, on this view, but our own obedience to God’s law, is the ground of hope.”

Response: In Fellowship International, we agree that the Bible teaches that obedience is a work of the Spirit, salvation is a gift, and the ground of hope is the death and resurrection of Jesus. In fact, I have never encountered a DMM practitioner who would not affirm these truths.  At the same time, we agree with the apostle James that faith without works is dead.  Obedience without faith is legalism and faith without works is dead. We obey because of Jesus. Watson & Watson (2014:45) confirm that is it the motive that determines whether obedience stems from legalism or from true faith:

Our motives for being obedient determine if we are doing so out of love or out of legalism. If we obey God’s commands to fit in with peers or to please those in authority, then we are bowing to legalism, whether it’s a response to the rules of the group or our feeling that we can get something positive by behaving in an obedient fashion. Obedience motivated by love is not about any group. It’s about Christ.

This, we believe, is true for anyone, whether believer or seeker.

Critics make the claim that a call to obedience is a move to replace or supplement faith. If obedience is viewed as a human solution to sin, then this critique has merit, for salvation would then be attained by our own efforts. However, if OBD is a call to allegiance to Jesus and obedience is the expression of faith lived out as both seekers and believers engage God’s truth in the Bible, then it is a helpful corrective to mere knowledge-based discipleship. Obedience is the proper and necessary response of faith, whether at the beginning of the journey to Jesus or for the mature disciple. Obedience is the call to live out a life that conforms to a developing trust in Jesus. Faith and obedience are not equivalent, but they are related. Faith finds its expression through action, not mere words.

A young man was led through a discovery Bible study of Gen 2, focusing on God’s purposes for the relationship between men and women. At the end, the question was raised, “In light of God’s character, will, and mission as revealed in this passage, what change should you make in your life?”  To the surprise of the facilitator, the young man humbly replied, “I guess I need to stop visiting prostitutes.” This confession was based on a conviction that he should follow the will of God in his life. Was that an act of faith indicating the movement of the Holy Spirit, or a shift away from faith and God’s grace toward a deception that he could save himself?  We suggest that it is the former and represents one step in the young man’s journey toward the only One who can save him from his sin.

Other articles on OBD

Mark Naylor, Defending DMMs

List of References

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

Clark, Elliot (2022). The Trouble with Results-Driven Missions. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/trouble-results-driven-missions/

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

MacDonald, George (1892). “Salvation from Sin” in The Hope of the Gospel. Public Domain.

Naylor, Mark (2021). 116. Reflections on the Theological Validity of Disciple-Making Movements (DMMs)

Trousdale, Jerry &  Sunshine, Glenn (2018) The Kingdom Unleashed: How Jesus’ 1st-Century Kingdom Values Are Transforming Thousands of Cultures and Awakening His Church. Murfreesboro: DMM Library.

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

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

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/

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,

[1] Suggested by Ken Jolley in a private conversation.

[2] For further development of this analogy and its relevance to the disciple-making process, see Naylor 2020, 109. Defending DMMs.

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Author: Mark Naylor DTh (missiology)

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