Data, Dogma, and Drama: Three Things We Confuse with Discipleship


You’ve probably noticed, if you’ve spent much time reading the Gospels, that Jesus doesn’t like phony spirituality. And he seems to have this innate “counterfeit detector.”

Here’s what it sounds like when Christ’s phoniness meter is pegged: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matt. 23:27-28). And this is just an excerpt from an entire chapter of this kind of language!

It turns out that exposing the counterfeits was a prominent feature of Christ’s teaching on discipleship. Unfortunately, these same counterfeits persist today.

Here are three such forgeries that we often confuse with discipleship.

1.  Data

How could we possibly confuse data with discipleship? We do it every time we pat ourselves on the back for being able to recite the books of the Bible in order, quote a section of Scripture from memory, or identify which of the kings of ancient Israel were good and which were bad, as if knowing this information makes us better disciples.  

Don’t get me wrong. These are all worthwhile pursuits that can build our biblical understanding and fuel our spiritual growth. (I’ve done these things myself.) But there’s a subtle danger of confusing our expanding knowledge of biblical facts with spiritual maturity. Mastering the biblical data doesn’t necessarily mean we’re becoming more obedient to Jesus.

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees of Jesus’ day were like walking Bible encyclopedias. Here’s what Jesus said about them: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.  So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach” (Matt. 23:2-3). Evidently, it’s possible to be a Bible scholar and not even be a disciple of Jesus.

We must not confuse mastery of the biblical data with a growing discipleship to Jesus.  

2.  Dogma

A growing understanding of theology is vital to a maturing discipleship to Jesus. But dogma, if viewed as blind adherence to a particular doctrinal system, can actually hinder discipleship. Elevating our denominational traditions over our allegiance to Christ is not discipleship. It’s hypocrisy.

To those who were more concerned about keeping their religious traditions than obeying the teachings of Scripture, Jesus said, “You nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites!” (Matt. 15:6-7).

We must not confuse loyalty to our particular dogma with a growing discipleship to Jesus.   

3.  Drama

Acting spiritually minded isn’t the same as being spiritually-minded. Jesus said, “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matt. 6:1). Whether it’s giving (vv. 2-4), praying (vv. 5-8), or fasting (vv. 16-18), if we’re doing it to impress people, then we’re practicing something other than discipleship. Jesus is not impressed by showy displays of pseudo-spirituality.

We must not confuse dramatic displays of religiosity with a growing discipleship to Jesus. 

Discipleship is not about assimilating more biblical data, defending our dogma, or acting out our good deeds for the accolades of others. These are cheap substitutes for authentic discipleship, by which we open our hearts to the transforming power of Christ.