Calling disciples to obedience has been one of the central elements of the movement ministry paradigm. A return to the Great Commission command to teach disciples to obey all Jesus has commanded, not to merely believe it. This has been a needed corrective – from focus on right beliefs to focus on right lifestyle; from a merely theoretical belief system to living out the faith. However, too much of a good thing can become a bad thing. I see indications that obedience has been over-emphasized in some parts of the movement world and turned into a problem. What is biblical obedience and what is its rightful place in discipleship? What practices help instill biblical obedience in disciple-making? This article addresses these questions. It reviews current realities in movements and points out ways forward – so that obedience-oriented discipleship remains a good thing.
Obedience – a necessary corrective
My global research into more than 170 different movements has confirmed that movement leaders consider obedience an essential value. Effective catalysts make disciples through “Intentional Bible-centered teaching […] that leads to heart obedience, encompassing spiritual disciplines and character formation” (Prinz, Lewis, & Goldhor, 2021:50). When interviewing catalysts, I asked them to what extent this statement applied to them: “My disciples give me the feedback that my discipling of them has led to character formation and greater obedience to God.” The effective catalysts’ answers averaged 4.65 on a 1-5 Likert scale. This high value compares to 4.07 for other pioneers who have not started a movement (Prinz & Goldhor, 2022b:19). Of all qualities that distinguish effective catalysts from non-catalysts, this is the second highest. This table depicts the comparison:
Table 1: Discipling Leading to Obedience among Catalysts and Non-Catalysts
Discipling leading to obedience
Average of catalytic qualities
Clearly, “Catalysts put more of an emphasis on obedience to the Bible in their ministry” (Prinz, Lewis, & Goldhor, 2021:72.77).
The emphasis on obedience-oriented discipleship has undoubtedly been a positive contribution of the movement ministry paradigm. In too much of the Church, following Jesus had degraded to merely holding a set of beliefs.
Personally, I experienced a paradigm shift early in my ministry when someone mentioned that George Patterson (1976) used the term “obedience-oriented education.” Something in me clicked and connected the dots between that term and the Great Commission. I concluded that in my discipling I needed to guide every Scripture conversation toward practical obedience to that Scripture.
Obedience in the experience of new disciples
Let’s take a look into a house group of former Muslims in an emerging movement in East Africa, which I visited and talked to its leaders and disciples. When I asked what it means to them to follow Jesus, they said: “We have to obey Jesus and his teachings. We have to read the Bible and pray every day. We have to come to our group meetings. And we have to share Jesus with others. And at our meetings we pay tithes.”
To understand the discipleship dynamics of this group beneath the level of behavior, we need to realize what spirituality they practiced before they became Jesus-followers. From their previous spirituality, which is their point of reference, they frame their new Jesus-spirituality. As Muslims, their spirituality was encapsulated in the Five Pillars of Islam. 1) They said the shahada, the Islamic creed, in public prayer. This is essentially a ritual. 2) They prayed the memorized salat-prayer five times a day, another ritual. 3) During the month of Ramadan, they fasted between dawn and dusk (but were allowed unlimited food and drink during nighttime; essentially a reversal of hours for eating and drinking). 4) They paid alms for the poor. In Islamic countries, the zakat tax is automatically deducted from a worker’s gross pay, a financial transaction. 5) Finally, once in their life they were supposed to make the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, Islam’s most holy site, and participate in prayer rituals there. All the Pillars of Islam are external behaviors. All of them can be carried out without any heart involvement, without any love, and without any desire for God. They can be performed externally. I know that many of my Muslim friends perform them out of devotion to God. Yet they’ll admit that many Muslims all over the world carry them out as necessary religious observances. This table summarizes the nature of such Muslim “discipleship.”
Table 2: The Five Pillars of Islam and Their Nature
The Five PIllars of Islam
The Nature of the Pillars
Profession of faith (shahada)
Praying five times a day (salat)
Fasting Ramadan (sawm)
Change in food intake hours
Giving alms (zakat)
Financial transaction of paying a tax
Pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj)
Travel and ritual
Since this was their spirituality, imagine what our group of Jesus’ disciples from a Muslim background might hear, when their disciple-maker calls them to obey Jesus. To pray every day. To read the Bible. To join group meetings. To pay tithes instead of zakat. And to share Jesus with others. What has changed for them is who they obey – Jesus. And the shape of obedience: praying every day at morning devotions instead of at five set prayer times, etc. What may not have changed, is the nature of their obedience. Human nature is such that we can quickly replace a few external behaviors, but internal transformation can be slow and difficult. These new believers may simply have replaced the old “Five Pillars” with five new “Pillars of Obedience to Jesus.” Look at the summary in this table:
Table 3: The Five Pillars of Islam Compared with Elements of Obedience to Jesus
The Five Pillars of Islam
The “Five Pillars of Obedience to Jesus”
Profession of faith (shahada)
Sharing Jesus with others
Praying five times a day (salat)
Praying and reading the Bible every day
Fasting Ramadan (sawm)
Fasting and prayer times
Paying alms (zakat)
Plus (not a pillar but key practice):
Going to the mosque
Going to house church meetings
Disciples from other religions, where ritual holds a central place in spirituality, might share a similar experience.
When obedience consists only of behavior change
Similar to the new disciples described above, Christians in many places live an outwardly obedient life. But what’s happening inwardly? A soldier could be 100% obedient to his officer in his acts, yet resent him in his heart. This can happen in Christian discipleship too – not only in movements, but in any expression of Christianity. We find it in the contemporary Church in various strands and localities across the globe.
If external behavior modification were the sum total of becoming a Jesus-follower, that would be shocking. But I have seen with my own eyes that this can be the result of obedience-based discipleship. We may have merely altered the external forms of a person’s behavioral obedience, leaving hearts largely unchanged.
A soldier may be 100% obedient to his officer in his acts, yet resent him in his heart.
The disciple-making in many movements has brought about deep transformation of hearts and lives, there is no denying that. Yet, in some places I have seen tendencies toward an overemphasis on obedience. This overemphasis results in two problems. First, it drives disciples to ever-increasing efforts at self-reform, rather than creating opportunities to recognize that without the Spirit’s enablement, even our best human efforts fall short of obeying wholeheartedly. Such a shortcut prevents us from gaining recognition of our need for God, His kindness and compassion. Second, with an overemphasis on obedience, the self remains the agent and in charge, through willful control of one’s life. It is not challenged to surrender fully to God’s grace and throw itself on his unconditional love and embrace.
Of course, no movement catalyst intends such outcomes. However, we need to address the reality that they are produced in certain movements. Because obedience is essential to biblical spirituality, we must conclude that emphasizing obedience in discipleship as such is not the problem. The problem is either an imbalanced over-emphasis on it or a distorted version of biblical obedience.
What then is biblical obedience? That is the question we need to answer well, so we can avoid unwanted fruit and practice a healthy version of obedience-oriented discipleship.
What is biblical obedience?
Let us explore the place of obedience in New Testament spirituality and discipleship. Jesus makes crystal clear the primacy and center of discipleship. When asked “which commandment is the most important of all” (Mat 22:34ff), Jesus did not say: “Obey the Lord your God with all your behavior.” Jesus highlighted as most important: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments” (Mat 22:37, 39-40 – NIV, emphasis added). In other words: all God’s instructions for following Him depend on these two, they all hang on or are suspended from them.
This teaching of Jesus was not new at all. He merely quoted Old Testament law (Deut. 6:5 and Lev. 19:18). Love as centerpiece was God’s original intent in the entire Old Testament. Theologian Ajith Fernando recognized this, giving his commentary on Deuteronomy the subtitle “Loving Obedience to a Loving God” (Fernando, 2012).
Love is most important – not obedience.
Love has the primacy – not obedience.
Love is the fixed point – not obedience.
Love is the foundation – not obedience.
This is how Jesus’ disciples understood and lived discipleship. The Apostle John sums up Jesus’ teaching thus: “And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us” (1 John 3:23). Note that John uses the singular for “commandment,” referring to the overall message of Jesus. We can rightly infer that “all that I have commanded you” in the Great Commission refers less to approximately 50 explicit commands recorded in the Gospel, or His full body of teaching, than to His greatest commandment of love: the centerpiece and essence of his teachings.
So, we need to understand how love and obedience relate to one another. Let’s look at a few key Scripture references about obedience.
Paul emphasizes that as disciples we have become obedient not just in behavior, but “obedient from the heart” (Romans 6:17 - ESV). Biblical obedience thus is more than behavioral compliance; it flows from the very center of our being, our heart.
New Testament obedience is always loving obedience.
Jesus predicted, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Obedience is not identical with love. Love comes first, then comes obedience. Obedience is an outflow of love. A loving heart, Jesus says, will result in an obedient life. Therefore, New Testament obedience is always loving obedience.
John again echoes Jesus’ words in his own words: “Whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected” (1 John 2:5). Keeping God’s word indicates that God’s love indwells a person. Love is “perfected,” made whole or complete, when expressed by keeping God’s word. The Watsons rightly state that “love is demonstrated and proven by our obedience" (Watson & Watson, 2015: 45).
Christian psychologist and author on spirituality, David G. Benner rightly concludes: “Christianity puts surrender to love right at the core of the spiritual journey” (2015: 53). “There is nothing more important in life than learning to love and to be loved” (Ibid., 14). Poignantly, he points out: “But we can and do frequently offer a substitute – obedience” (Ibid.) Obedience can become a substitute for what Jesus and John present as the core – loving surrender to a loving God.
In light of all we have said, I want to define Christian obedience in concise form as “surrender to love, not submission to a duty” (Bennet, 2015: 63).
Relations between obedience and love
We have said above that in discipleship: Love has primacy over obedience, love is the fixed point.
Now we can add:
There is no love without obedience.
There can be obedience without love.
Obedience is meant to be an outflow of love.
Obedience is not the primary indicator of discipleship, rather love and surrender are.
With the movement paradigm’s emphasis on obedience, we’ve experienced a necessary corrective. Faith has moved from the head to the hands and feet also. Our discipleship needs an orientation toward obedience.
However, in some movement situations, the locus of obedience moved from the head straight to hands and feet, bypassing the heart.
Where obedience focuses on outward behavior, we bypass the heart; we no longer produce biblical behavior “from the heart” (Romans 6:17 - ESV).
Where obedience focuses on moral rules rather than a motivation of love, we end up promoting religiosity.
Where we emphasize obedience more than love, it becomes too much of a good thing. And too much of a good thing becomes a problem.
To answer our initial questions:
Can a disciple obey God too much? No.
Can a discipling process overemphasize obedience? Yes – if love is underemphasized. Such overemphasis will make the discipling imbalanced.
Can a disciple obey, yet with the wrong kind of obedience? Yes - if it isn’t loving obedience.
Implications for disciple-making
The central disciple-making activity needs to be cultivating love, not instilling obedience (Bennet 2015:63).
“Our focus should not be so much on obedience as on knowing his [God’s] love. For once we get that solidly in place, obedience begins to take care of itself.”
Whenever we find that we ourselves or those we disciple aren’t obeying God out of love, the remedy is not to emphasize obedience more but to focus on God’s love and on instilling greater love for him in our hearts.
I suggest disciple-makers consider these practical measures in their discipling:
Teaching on the nature of Christian obedience as loving obedience to our loving God. I suggest that every time we use the word “obedience,” we qualify the kind of obedience we mean – “loving obedience.”
Teaching on the relationship between the love for God and obedience. Love for God is the fountain of any obedience from the heart.
Teaching disciples how to receive God’s love, how to let themselves be loved by Him. This will lead to growth of their love for God.
Creating or using balanced sets of DBS passages and stories, emphasizing not just right moral behavior, but also addressing the heart: areas like love for God, trust in God, and love for our neighbor.
If and when exploring the discovery question, “What example can we follow?,” make sure people don’t only address the behavioral level.
Asking the more varied discovery questions, especially when working with more mature disciples who can be trained to move beyond a basic fixed set of questions. The questions we ask determine – to some extent – the answers we get. Instead of asking exclusively, “How will you obey?,” ask questions like:
How will you follow this?
What attributes of God we see in this Scripture can we love?
How can we trust God and His character?
What aspects of our lives do we want to surrender to God more fully?
What are your thoughts?
I would love to hear from you. What are YOUR thoughts? What is your experience? Leave a comment below! If you prefer to private message me, you can use the contact form.
Learn more about the Best Practices of effective catalysts in my book Movement Catalysts. You can order your copy here.
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Emanuel Prinz – Father’s Beloved & Movement Activist
Bennet, David G. 2015. Surrender to Love: Discovering the Heart of Christian Spirituality. Expanded Edition. Downers Grove: InterVarsity.
Coles, Dave. 2021. “Addressing Theological and Missiological Objection to CPM/DMM.” In Motus Dei: The movement of God to disciple the nations, edited by Warrick Farah, 37-57. Littleton: William Carey Library. (see especially the section “Objection 6. “Obedience-based discipleship” is a dangerous paradigm, running the risk of bypassing grace and teaching legalism”, pp. 50-53)
Fernando, Ajitah. 2012. Deuteronomy: Loving Obedience to a Loving God. Preaching the Word. Wheaton: Crossway.
Patterson, George. 1976. Obedience-Oriented Education. Revised 2004. Downloadable from: www.Paul-Timothy.net
Prinz, Emanuel, Lewis, David, and Goldhor, Alison. 2021. Catalyst Competence Research: An Empirical Investigation into the Traits and Competencies of Effective Movement Catalysts and Other Factors Contributing to and Impeding Movements. Bloomington, MS: Bethany Research Institute. (Unpublished).
Prinz, Emanuel, and Goldhor, Alison. 2022a. “The Effective Catalyst: An Analysis of the Traits and Competencies of Pioneers who have Catalyzed a Movement.” Global Missiology 19(1):37-52.
Prinz, Emanuel, and Goldhor, Alison. 2022b. “Does the DMM Approach Lead to Movement Breakthrough?” Global Missiology 19(1):12-21.
Watson, David L., and Watson, Paul D. 2015. Contagious Disciple Making: Leading Others on a Journey of Discovery. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.