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Why Church Disciple Programs Yield Religious Bullies

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So many of the discipleship programs I have been through have focused on teaching me to do religious things like prayer, Bible study and tithing.

These are all good things to do. But here’s the thing that stands out to me as I read the gospels: Jesus rarely told his disciples to do religious things.

For example, Jesus didn’t talk about prayer much. In Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, it’s the disciples who approach him asking that he teach them to pray (Luke 11:2-4).

That wouldn’t be necessary if teaching them to pray had been an emphasis of his discipleship program.

You won’t find Jesus talking about the study of Scripture at all, really. This is not surprising when you consider the widespread illiteracy of the day and the unavailability of personal copies of the Scriptures.

With regard to church (synagogue) attendance, once again he never commands it or instructs his disciples to attend synagogue each week.

What about tithing? Jesus said very little. When he did address the topic, he spoke critically of material offering devoid of a lifestyle of justice, mercy and fidelity (Matthew 23:23).

Again, I’m not saying these are bad things or that we shouldn’t do them or that Jesus never spoke about these matters.

Rather, I’m pointing out that Jesus didn’t make them as central to his discipleship program as we do to ours.

He didn’t need to, of course. He assumed they were doing these things. Each of these was a part of a Jew’s life in first century Israel.

This is what the Jews did as a part of normal life: They prayed three times a day, went to synagogue on the Sabbath, where they heard Scripture read and explained, and they tithed.

But that proves my point: These things hadn’t led to a transformed life, a life in which devotion to the personal agendas or the agendas of the world had been supplanted by devotion to God’s agenda.

Things in Israel were a mess even though they were doing these religious things. And, in fact, the Jews who did them the most and the best were the Pharisees – and Jesus consistently warned us not to be like the Pharisees.

The Pharisees did all these things, plus some, and rather than getting in line with God’s agenda, they were working against it and not being very nice about it. They were religious bullies.

So, in other words, doing religious things doesn’t necessarily lead to a transformed life. In fact, doing religious things without a transformed life produces religious bullies.

And it’s true today. There are church bullies in our churches, right? You know who they are. Not every church has them (I’m guessing and hoping), but a lot do.

I know enough churches and enough pastors to know that many congregations have to deal with them.

The bones of once-alive churches and the bones of once-alive pastors litter the Christian landscape because of mean Christians.

It’s a sad reality that the Baptist convention my church belongs to has to have a church conflict resolution ministry.

What’s sad is not that there is conflict in our churches – that’s actually to be expected – but that we might lack the will or the ability to resolve it ourselves. It ought to be a basic skill of a disciple, and it’s not.

But the really sad truth is this: The people in the center of these conflicts, the ones who cause the most trouble in our churches and who end up being the bullies are not the new members, new Christians or even non-Christians.

Like in the Israel of Jesus’ day, the ones causing the trouble are too often the ones who have been through all our discipleship training programs.

They come to all the church events, they never miss a week of church, they serve on various committees. They are the leaders of our churches.

When conflict resolution consultants go into a church and sit down with the combatants, they are sitting with the leaders of the church – the “mature” Christians.

When I think of the church bullies that I’ve had to deal with, I know for a fact that they read the Bible every day, pray every day, give at least a tithe of their income, serve on various committees and make contacts with visitors.

They do everything our discipleship programs tell him they should do – and yet they can be the meanest, most manipulative persons you’ll ever meet.

I can only conclude that our system is perfectly designed to give us the results we are getting. Our programs are designed to give us skilled church men and church women but not people with transformed hearts.

Something more is needed.

Larry Eubanks is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Frederick, Maryland. A version of this article first appeared on his website and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @EubanksLarry.