Lesser Moments in Discipleship: “Mass” Production Techniques of the 4th Century

It was a perfect bureaucratic play. Basil, the lead Bishop was in a tough spot. There just weren’t enough clergy to go around. To send a formally educated priest to the rurals was unthinkable, at least it was to the priests, complaining to Basil.

But they had a plan. Reset the standards for priests in the hinterlands.  In other words, simply appoint a few locals as “country bishops” so the real clergy can stay home in the city. You mass-produce untrained locals to be bishops by fiat, and there’s almost instantly no need to send the city boys out to the farms anymore.

Operating a ChurchIts Complicated

How do you run church when, instead of twelve disciples walking with Jesus, you’re the lone pastor facing the fifty, five hundred, or five thousand scattered out in the country without a leader? It’s hard enough for one pastor to keep up with the city folk. Now you have to be a circuit-riding preacher in the farmlands? So, you deputize. That will fix it, right? Let some local laity lord it over their country kinfolk.

But there were complications. Newly appointed country pastors often decided they were now power-brokers. What to do when Gaelic gurus started selling titles and church roles to uncouth friends and relatives? What to do when weird and cultic practices are being taught by some untrained bozo bishops outside Belfast?

The chorbishops (Country pastors, appointed but not discipled) were an embarrassment to the schooled and elite bishops, and to their boss the Pope. And word might even get back to the Pope’s El Jefe, the Emperor.

Something had to be done. So, a plan was formulated. The plan for dealing with these un-trained leaders came right out of a script for the TV Show The Apprentice: “Two strategies. #1: Blame somebody else when things don’t go well. #2: Fire them.” The lay bishops, the “Chorbishops” were the scapegoats. Not that they hadn’t pulled off some bone-headed goofs. They had. But with no discipling, no training, low standards of admission and the not-willing-to-travel city clergy? It all left Basil with few viable options. The long approach would have been to face a few years of tough travel and inconvenience, which would have allowed the chor-bishops the opportunity to be discipled. Instead, the expedient route was taken—appoint, wave farewell and hope it all works out OK.

We of the modern world would often take a more sophisticated approach. We would go halfway: reduce what discipling means for the laity, and raise the bar for the clergy. First you teach ordinary believers that their job description as disciples was to stay in the pews, to contribute funds, and do as you’re told. Second, tell the clergy to do the rest. All the rest.

The pros would do the really important Christian stuff: teach, baptize, bury-the-dead, counsel and take confessions. This clergy-exclusive approach came to be known as “Clericalism”—where only formally trained and specifically curated (usually men) disciples do the special things that Jesus had actually directed all disciples to be trained and equipped to do.

Both sides—pastors and pew people—would be OK with the specialization arrangement. For the folks in the seats it meant comfortable belief. For clergy it was job security. Discipleship would become organizational, hierarchical. Technical credentials determined class, power and influence. No liturgies without a license. Pastors do the pro-stuff. Laity would be listeners, fans and funding sources. Of course a few laymen would be advisors and lay leaders. But laity nonetheless. Such is a common variety of modern Christian discipleship. But it isn’t the form of following that Jesus gave us to go with.

What should discipleship look like for Christ followers? Check out this short video featuring 3DM’s Gina Mueller.

Ironically, clericalism was a result of the lack of disciple-making in the first place.  If the clergy were the only ones getting educated, and for the most part, nobody is being discipled outside of the clergy, it does not take long to deplete the true form of discipleship: we are all called by Christ as disciples, called to be and to make disciples.

Disciples have to give away their experience and teach others how to pass the faith along, which is literally, what it means to make disciples.

When the under-discipled become the default, it doesn’t take long until there are not enough disciplers to go around to sustain Christian community, and the Church becomes irrelevant in a society.

Could our deconstruction of discipleship have come from the explosive growth of the Church? What if the demise of Christ’s discipling, starting way back in the 4th Century drives our impoverished discipleship in the West today?

The “Lesser Moment” of discipleship? Clericalism’s failure to disciple ensures the crisis of increasing numbers of confused, uncertain and unprepared followers, evermore dependent on the clergy to save the day. That’s not how Christ meant discipleship to work.

For more on this topic see The Disciple Dilemma: “Clerical Distancing—No Liturgies Without A License”.

© The Disciple Dilemma


Dennis Allen and his wife Karen live in the Washington DC area and are members of Reston Presbyterian Church. Dennis is the Author of “The Disciple Dilemma” and works as a CEO, specializing in corporate turnarounds


#discipleship #leadership #culturechange #evangelicalism

© 2024 Dennis Allen | Morgan James Publishing

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