Go Make Learners:

A New Model for Discipleship in the Church

by Robert Brow

Church Models

THE WORD "MODEL" SUGGESTS something more than a two-dimensional, flat diagram. Models are used to represent exterior form, such as model planes or cars, but they can also be made to exhibit internal systems such as those of the human body. In the natural sciences, models are teaching aids but they may also serve to suggest new directions for advanced research. For example, the discovery of the double helix model for the DNA molecule by Watson and Crick triggered major developments in modern biochemistry and genetics. [1]

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas S. Kuhn has used the term "paradigm" to describe a way of "seeing the world and of practicing science in it."[2] I would like my use of the word "model" to include not only the functions of Kuhn's "paradigms," but also the moral factors which science excludes from its purview. If this book succeeds it will provide an illustration of the importance of theological models both for Biblical study and for the practical life of a local church.[3]

My hope is to demonstrate a discipleship model of the church. As an Anglican minister, my church model affects the way I baptize, welcome people to Communion, lead worship, and expect the church to grow. In preaching and teaching I find that my model flavors all the words that Christians use, including words such as faith, repentance, church, new birth, even the word Christian. One result of this is that those who attend St. James' Church, (or read this book) with another model of the church in mind, may find my terminology strange, if not upsetting. Each model of the church will mark off believers, or the Christian community, or church members, in a different way which will affect the practice of baptism and admission to Holy Communion.

What then do I mean by a model of the church? The philosopher Wittgenstein commented on the difficulty of giving a clear-cut definition of "a game."[4] And like games, models must be looked at, and preferably be engaged in, to be understood. After you have played a diversity of games such as field sports, card games, and children's games, you come to knew more or less what a game is. So it is with models in physics, biology, economics, sociology, and with what I call church models. As you grasp one model of church life, experience it in practice, and compare it with others, you will learn how the model works and how it differs from others. Its use defines it. Every theological model is, to some degree, a caricature, something far less than the whole truth, yet it may be effective enough to unmask inconsistencies, and to evoke responses such as anger, scorn, or the desire to act according to the model adopted. As long as we realize the purpose of the model or caricature, it can help us to see clearly what we must do, how we must change, and the moral implications of our behavior. Here, for example, are some quick caricature models of the church:

It is to be hoped that no responsible theologian would subscribe to any of these caricature models without many qualifications. But the very fact that such caricatures exist suggests that the models they represent are recognizable. We all know Christians whose beliefs follow one or other of these paths. I suspect that most ordinary church members have been taught to view themselves in relation to their church in terms of some such simple model. To theologians the caricatures may seem gross, but the fact is that such caricatures motivate action, and provide a framework for persuading others to function as the model requires. Once adopted, the model in some sense grips and molds us.

Corresponding to each model of the church there is a community of adherents who live by the set of traditions that the model requires. The tradition of each model is developed and expressed in popular books, magazines, Sunday School materials, in worship, in preaching, and in a host of unstated ways by the behavior, body language, and accepted norms of ministers and laymen in church and in social and family situations. The traditions connected with a particular religious model correspond to what Kuhn called "normal science."[7]

I propose to set out a discipleship model of the church which we could caricature as follows:

The Discipleship model holds that Jesus imparted his teaching to disciples. Disciples were enrolled by baptism. Before leaving his disciples, Jesus told his chosen leaders to go into all the world and enroll other disciples from all nations by baptizing them. The baptized were to be taught all that Jesus had imparted to his disciples. In place of his personal presence among them, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to superintend, direct, and apply his teaching among the baptized. The definition of a Christian is therefore a learner, a disciple under instruction by the Holy Spirit. A local church consists of the group of disciples gathered for teaching by the Holy Spirit in that place.

As I proceed, this caricature will be developed, given depth and inner structure. The first objective is to picture this model, in contrast to other models, as a possible form of church life by showing that the Discipleship model fits much of the New Testament evidence, is a practical way to picture the life of a parish, and dissolves many of the bothersome problems of other models. This does not prove that the discipleship model is the correct or ultimate model. It merely proposes one possible way of picturing the Biblical data.

How then do we know when a model is correct? As Kuhn shows, this is a wrong formulation of the question.[8] What we need to ask is, which model solves the most problems? It is on this basis that we should decide to use one model in preference to others. If a large number of church congregations begin to look at their work in terms of the discipleship model, obviously there will be revolutionary changes in the way Christians view themselves, and in the way others, in the world, view them. Whether or not that happens, this book will be worthwhile if it helps parish ministers and thinking members of their congregations to clarify the model they intend to use in the work of Jesus Christ.

In the discussions of baptism and Christian initiation over the past few years there have been scholarly arguments for many different models. Baptismal regeneration has been opposed by those who argue salvation by faith alone. Infant baptism has been widely attacked by those who are convinced that the Bible teaches "believers'" baptism. Some have recommended a more or less lengthy catechumenate. Many ministers who practice infant baptism have become rigorous in rejecting parents who do not believe or behave or otherwise shape up. It should be obvious that radically new thinking about baptism is needed to move us beyond the present impasse.[9]

Questions for Study and Discussion

  1. Try to identify at least one active Christian, whom you know personally, whose belief and behavior fits each of the models described in the Introduction. Next time you meet him or her, check your impression by friendly questioning (the purpose is not to win arguments, but to understand the viewpoints of others).

  2. Attempt to identify the models used by some of the churches of various denominations in your area. Later you may be able to correct your caricatures by asking their members how they view themselves.

  3. Does your own local church have a clear model that explains its work? Describe it.

  4. Are their strong-minded individuals in your church who are motivated by other models?

  5. See if you can propose a rough model of how you would like your local church to function. Though you may not agree with the Discipleship model as set out in this book, as you react with it, pray that you will clarify your own position as a Christian.


"Jesus Christ, Lord of the worldwide church, help me to see your plan. Give me a vision of what I have to do, and renew my faith to do it."

Chapter 2...


  1. James Watson, The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Structure of DNA, (New York: Atheneum, 1968). Back to text

  2. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd. Edition, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), p.4. Kuhn has been attacked in various ways, and has had to qualify his use of the term "paradigm," but the importance of paradigms and models has profoundly affected the philosophy of science. Back to text

  3. In his book, Models of the Church, (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1974), Avery Dulles worked with five models of the Church: as Institution, as Mystical Communion, as Sacrament, as Herald, as Servant. Where his models illustrate the nature of the church as a whole, I have concentrated on churches more at the point of taking in and teaching new members. Back to text

  4. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell), part I, sections 23-27, 31-38, 65-71. The best introductions to the implications of this mode of thinking is Donald Hudson's Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Bearing of his Philosophy upon Religious Belief, (London: Lutterworth Press, 1968). Peter Winch was the first to note the importance of Wittgenstein's thinking for the social sciences: The Idea of a Social Science and its Relation to Philosophy, (New York: Humanities Press, 1963). Back to text

  5. A form of the probationary model had been adopted in some churches by the end of the second century, as, for example, that of Hippolytus (c. AD 170-236), see Apostolic Tradition, Gregory Dix ed., (London: SPCK, 1937). I will be arguing that there is no trace of a period of probation to be seen in the New Testament baptisms. Many modern discussions of Christian initiation are flawed by the careless assumption that Hippolytus' model of baptism is a continuation of what the early churches practiced. It is in fact a serious perversion. Back to text

  6. Although huge numbers of Christians in the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Anglican churches have for long periods of time maintained variants of these models, modern theologians in all these churches would prefer an ex opere operato view of the sacrament. As we will see, the Discipleship model enables us to give force to the instrumental nature of the baptismal texts without the magical connotation which we find so difficult. Back to text

  7. Kuhn, op cit., pp. 10-11, 24,47. Back to text

  8. Kuhn, op cit., pp. 17-18, 81. Back to text

  9. The progress of the debate in the last forty years is outlined in the chronological bibliography at the back of this book. A cursory glance at this will indicate the incredible lack of unanimity among scholars. I have failed to find a good presentation of baptism from the eschatological point of view, which, with its variants, further complicates the modern theological scene. This is taught in Canada, for example, by Dr. Oliver O'Donovan at Wycliffe College of the University of Toronto. Back to text

Chapter 2...