Defending Multiply: A Response to Frank Viola at Patheos
Earlier today, Frank Viola wrote up a review of Multiply at Patheos.com. The review was positive overall, but he brought up five great questions he’d like to hear Francis respond to. I think Frank’s questions are important, so I’d like to take a minute to respond as the co-author of Multiply. I’ll let Francis speak for himself if he so chooses, but mainly I think the necessary response comes down to clarifications.
Here are Frank Viola’s questions, with my responses listed below each question:
1. Most of the discipleship books and programs today fail to mention the essential ingredient of being a disciple according to both Jesus and Paul. That ingredient is – learning to live by the indwelling life of Christ. This is the central tenet of New Testament revelation, yet it’s grossly neglected today. What is the reason why this wasn’t discussed in your book?
The only disagreement I have here is the assertion that it’s not addressed in the book. It’s true that we spent the first sections of the book exploring the command to make disciples, but we definitely discussed the indwelling presence of God as a necessary empowerment for the task. When we discussed the New Testament in Part V, we included a whole chapter on the Spirit of God. (We also touch on it in Part IV in the chapter on God’s Presence on Earth.) Perhaps we’re talking about a difference of emphasis, but this is a reality that both Francis and I consider essential and all-important for the Christian life, and I don’t believe we short-changed the role of the Spirit. No one would expect you (Frank) to keep up on every book that Francis has written, but he has demonstrated his concern for the church trying to fulfill its mission apart from the Spirit in Forgotten God and in his BASIC video series.
2. While there’s a lot of discussion on how to read the Bible, I didn’t see a presentation of God’s Eternal Purpose, which is the grand narrative of Scripture. It is also God’s ultimate intention in creation, redemption, and discipleship. While there were elements of it here and there, there was no discussion on what it exactly is and how all Scripture and authentic spiritual experience is tied together by it. Why was this left out?
I don’t know what to say to this. In Parts IV and V, we devote nearly 200 pages to God’s eternal purpose as revealed in the Old and New Testaments. In discussing how to read the Bible (Part III), we are trying to give people the tools to begin reading the Bible so that they can hear directly from God’s word as to what his grand purpose is. Then we guide them through God’s mission as it is revealed in the storyline of the Bible. I’d be curious to hear if there is something specific you were hoping we would say in this regard.
3. There’s a recent emphasis in Christian circles today about making disciples rapidly. We know from the book of Acts that the way that the apostles carried out Jesus’ word to make disciples was to plant ekklesias. Paul, who was the premier church planter, strove for quality rather than quantity (he planted about 14 ekklesias in his lifetime). How do you distinguish the emphasis to make disciples rapidly from the principles of network marketing in the business world?
I’m not sure there is an emphasis on making disciples rapidly. That’s a slippery term, anyway. What we wanted to emphasize was not the rate at which disciples are produced, but the ratio of Christians who are involved in the disciple-making process. In Part I, we explore Jesus’ command to make disciples and define what a disciple looks like. But in Part II, we explain that discipleship and the church are inseparable, that an isolated Christian is a contradiction in terms. So I agree with you completely in this concern, but I don’t believe we gave the opposite impression. Multiply in itself is designed to help people understand what discipleship is and to get them in the game of making disciples. But we certainly didn’t intend to put a growth rate on it or suggest that each disciple must be making x disciples per month.
4. One thing I’ve observed is that many of the authors who are promoting “discipleship” today are unaware of the history of the Discipleship Movement in North America in the 1970s and the tremendous damage it caused. I believe that if we don’t learn the mistakes of the past, we will unwittingly repeat them. Given that you are now promoting the modern-day discipleship movement, what are you doing to safeguard God’s people from falling into the same errors of the former discipleship movement?
I’d love to hear what specific mistakes you have in mind here, and specifically how Multiply falls into those traps. Our intention was not to look back to the 1970s and revive an old movement. Rather, we were looking back to the overall mission of God as expressed in the story of the Bible and to Jesus’ command to make disciples. You are right that the church has latched onto these things in misguided and even harmful ways at times, but that’s no reason not to promote biblical concepts like discipleship. So I’d be curious to hear if this was a concern relating to the way discipleship was presented in the book or if it’s a general concern that comes to mind when you hear people talking about discipleship. Either way, it’s an important concern that we’ll want to address.
5. The modern idea of discipleship is intensely individualistic. So I was glad that you and Mark talked briefly about community in the book. But talking about community is one thing. People recontextualize what they read into their own experience. In my on-the-ground experience over the last two decades, I’ve not seen discipleship be very effective unless believers were living in a close-knit, face-to-face community that is seeking the face of Jesus Christ regularly outside of scheduled corporate gatherings and which includes a regular gathering for every-member functioning under the direct headship of Christ. Every letter in the NT was written to such face-to-face communities. Those face-to-face communities were the native habitat in which spiritual growth and transformation took place. Many churches are nothing like what I’ve described here, despite the fact that they might use the rhetoric of “community.” So if we get the church wrong, we get discipleship wrong also. Do you think this is possible?
Amen. The church living as a vital community is essential. I’m not sure if this is a straight question or a concern about the book though. It’s a book, and all we can do in a book is “talk about community.” I agree that modern people read things individualistically. That’s why we emphasized the church and the essential nature of community. We were careful to emphasize it throughout. To answer your question at the end: I think you’re right that when we view church as a service we attend rather than a community or a body of which we are an essential part, we end up getting discipleship wrong.
I hope that’s helpful. We certainly don’t claim that Multiply is perfect or that we will agree 100% in content or emphasis with every solid Christian. Whenever you emphasize x, it can be difficult to convince people that you are not inherently denying y. What we wanted to do with Multiply was renew the church’s focus on discipleship—a focus that we believe has gotten lost in the church-activity shuffle—and give people a tangible first step in guiding others down the road of true discipleship.
I’d love to continue the discussion, Frank (and anyone else interested in chiming in). Thanks for treating the book so carefully and for raising your questions with a gentle and edifying touch.