Let’s look into this question.
In order to be saved, we must confess with our mouth and believe in our heart that Jesus is Lord and Savior.
Romans 10:9 If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
The Greek word translated “Lord” means the one who is supreme in authority. If Jesus is our Lord, we will submit to his authority and obey his commands. This leads us to the definition of “disciple.”
What is the requirement to be a disciple of Jesus Christ? In the gospels, the disciples left everything to follow him. Jesus described his disciples in the following terms.
Luke 14:33 In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.
Luke 14:26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters–yes, even their own life–such a person cannot be my disciple.
Luke 14:27 And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
Whatever these verses may mean, it is abundantly clear that the great majority of “believers” in Jesus Christ are not disciples. Are they saved? Let’s see what the Scriptures teach. Should such believers grow up to become fruitful disciples? The answer is yes. That is clearly God’s will.
But why is it that most believers never become disciples?
Jesus offers a glimpse of understanding in the Parable of the Sower, where there are four types of people.
Matthew 13:18 “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: 19 When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path.
This is the person who does not understand the message of the kingdom, and is not saved.
Matthew 13:20 The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21 But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.
This is the one who receives the word of God initially, but later falls away. They are likely not saved, and should not be considered to be believers.
Matthew 13:22 The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful.
These are “believers” who have every intention to obey the Lord’s commands to bear good fruit for him after hearing the word. But the worries of his life and the deceitfulness of wealth make them unfruitful. Nevertheless, for some reason they probably continue to go to church week after week and year after year bringing their tithes and offerings. They may or may not be saved, but clearly they never mature to become disciples. The vast majority of believers fall into this third category.
There are, however, some troubling verses which point to these “believers.”
John 15:5 “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.
Fruitless “believers” are thrown into the fire and burned. Whatever that may mean, it is certainly not good and sounds terrifying.
Let’s go back to the Parable to read about the fourth category of soil.
Matthew 13:23 But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”
Believers in this fourth category mature to become disciples of Jesus Christ. True disciples will bear much fruit for the Lord.
John 15:8 This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
Why is it that most believers never mature to become disciples? If we interpret the Parable in a semi-mathematical way, we would expect roughly one-half of believers to fall into the third category while the remaining half into the fourth category. But in the Church today disciples are far less than one half of the total and form only a tiny minority.
Here is one likely reason for this disparity.
Revelation: the teaching of the Nicolaitans which Jesus hates
Revelation 2:6 But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
Revelation 2:15 Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.
Nicolaitan literally means “conquest of the laity” in Greek. Translated into terms we see in the Church today, it refers in the author’s opinion to a system in which professional clergy hold unquestioned authority over the laity—that is, the common people who are non-clergy. In much of the Church today, although certainly not all of it, there is a wall of separation between the professional clergy with their ecclesiastical titles and theological degrees and the ordinary people who lack expertise and training in the area of theology.
Professionals like doctors and lawyers and accountants must understandably meet a host of specific requirements to be allowed to enter the brotherhood and practice their profession. And so it is with those who aspire to the title of “Reverend”: those who are worthy of reverence. Traditionally, only those who have seminary training and then ordination, and so forth are allowed entrance into this elite group. In such a way, they appear to be set apart from the people. Certainly the clergy are worthy of respect, but should there be a wall of separation between them and the people? Should we not respect all believers in the family of God? (Perhaps reverence should be reserved for deity alone.)
Although humanly speaking this separation may sound quite reasonable and desirable as it is for human professions, I believe that Jesus hates it when applied to servants of God. Let’s seek to understand why this might be so.
Pastors (not to mention apostles, evangelists, prophets and teachers) have for the most part failed to “equip God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:11-13)
Due to the structure of the church today and man’s nature, most (but not all) pastors prefer their church members to remain in their church until they go home to the Lord, if at all possible. They want no one to leave by the back door, thus insuring a church which continues to grow numerically. There are different kinds of earthly benefits—financial benefits, power, respect from one’s peers, self-esteem and satisfaction to name a few—to be gained by having a large church. However, I’m sure that most pastors do not see these as the primary motivation for church growth. Rather, they see them if anything as only fringe benefits to the accomplishment of reaching many lost souls and gathering them into their church in obedience to the Great Commission. Having a large church might even be a reward for years of hard work and skillful leadership.
It’s clear that most pastors therefore want their church to grow, and to grow as large as possible. One unspoken and perhaps unintended way of keeping the people from leaving the church is to keep them from maturing and attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. We keep them as spiritual children (or at most adolescents) and thus dependent upon us so that they don’t leave the nest to start their own fruitful ministries—which is actually what we expect our own children to do after they grow up. Few of our people will attain to our professional status by doing what is necessary to gain ecclesiastical titles and enter our exclusive club. The great majority will not reach mature adulthood and not be equipped for fruitful ministry. They will not be sent out. They will remain in our church and serve under our authority as laymen. (We are here making no distinction between “full-time” servants of God and “tentmakers”. In the eyes of God they are equivalent.)
Of course, few pastors deliberately keep their people from maturing; it is rather an unwitting course of action pre-determined by the Nicolaitan system. Most pastors fear God. But because of the church system and structure in which they grew up and to which they were exposed, they know of no other way. The system which also limits the feeding of the word of God to believers to only once or twice a week in formal meetings in church of course stunts their growth and prevents many believers from reaching adulthood in Christ. Most pastors will say that they desire their members to mature to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. But at the same time for the most part they don’t want people to leave their church because of the various pressures on them for church growth. So there can be conflict for a pastor. It’s not difficult to see which side usually wins the conflict.
But will children become responsible and productive if their parents force them to remain at home as dependents, and never allow them to launch out on their own?
Pastors might not mind if a few of their people mature and become missionaries or evangelists, and may even support them financially. But clearly there is a definite limit to such a scenario. Not only will they be losing tithing people, they will be an outflow of funds as well to support them. That’s no way to run a church under the Nicolaitan system. Perhaps there is something wrong with this system.
In the author’s opinion this is the system which Jesus hated. The Roman Catholic Church of course excelled in it. The Protestant Reformation which was in part meant to abolish the Nicolaitan system and restore the priesthood of believers has fallen far short of Martin Luther’s goals. In some cases today around the world the Protestant Church has backslidden to make even the Catholic Church blush. Look at the following instances.
In some Third World countries, the teaching of the Nicolaitans has resulted in extreme perversions and abominations. “Anointed” pastors put their church assets into their own name and run them like profit-making businesses. One retired pastor in Indonesia owned a luxury estate which has an actual Rolls Royce Phantom (price tag on a new 2012 model: from US$447,000 to $528,000) perched right over the front of his big swimming pool like some kind of trophy. Since he is too old to drive it, he simply comes out to polish it every day. Every Sunday following the two church services, bank officials would come to pick up the offering to count it. Only by Wednesday later that week would they finally complete counting the large offering consisting of barrels of small Indonesian currency. Where would it be deposited? Although that is not known, it would not be unusual for it to go directly into the current pastor’s personal bank account. Such a system is not at all rare in Third World countries among charismatic churches.
Another well-known Indonesian pastor urges the faithful during offering time to give whatever they can. If they give a chicken, God will bless them with a goat. If they give a goat, God will give them a bull. If they give a bull, God will give them a….tractor?
An “anointed” superstar pastor in Malaysia is stirring up controversy by alleging turning his megachurch into a private family enterprise. I have heard of some pastors in other countries as well doing similar things, bringing disrepute onto the gospel in the eyes of the lost.
Once we taught The Elijah Challenge for a church in Germany. The pastor’s wife was very concerned that we were teaching their believers how to heal the sick and cast out demons as Jesus did. Her fear was that their people would no longer depend on them or need them after they were trained.
The practices of the Nicolaitans, along with contemporary teaching on “touch not the Lord’s anointed” and the extreme prosperity gospel—none other than the teaching of Balaam and Jezebel both of which Jesus also detests—have combined to give rise to such perversions in the Church of Jesus Christ. “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” “Touch not the Lord’s anointed.” Could there be a parallel here?
Why do most believers not mature into disciples?
It’s obvious why Jesus hates the practices and teaching of the Nicolaitans which can and will evolve into abominations given man’s fallen nature. And the Nicolaitan teaching is also one reason why most believers do not mature into disciples. Let’s see why this is so.
Like the Israelites in 1 Samuel 8, many believers desire an “anointed” king to lead them and to go out before them and fight their battles for them—essentially rejecting God by doing this (v. 7). This is the fruit of the Nicolaitan teaching which holds that believers constantly need a specially “anointed” servant of God to lead and teach them, thus relieving them of the responsibility to study the Scriptures for themselves and mature in their personal relationship with the Lord. But it was an “evil thing in the eyes of the Lord” as Samuel warned the Israelites in 1 Samuel 12:17 when they asked for a king. Samuel moreover warned them what their king would demand of them in return.
1 Samuel 8:15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. …17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. …19 But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. 20 Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”
This is so reminiscent of what “anointed” pastors will demand from their flock in terms of offerings in return for leading them and fighting their battles for them. And the people do not mind “paying” their professional clergy for their valuable services. This is the inevitable consequence of the institutionalization of the Church of Jesus Christ by man through the teaching of the Nicolaitans. In this way, some pastors are professionally-speaking no different from doctors, lawyers, and accountants. It is not wrong for members of these latter professions to keep an eye on the bottom line and to want to maximize their income since they are essentially businessmen. But as “professionals” some pastors and servants of God have now learned to operate in quite the same way. Just follow the money trail and you will understand why some do what they do—including inviting well-known guest speakers who will draw crowds and their offerings.
Again, certainly not all pastors have adopted the teaching of the Nicolaitans; many serve the Lord in fear and trembling. Moreover, there is a wide spectrum of accommodation to this teaching into which pastors can be classified. I have ministered in the churches of some very godly pastors. But many well-meaning servants of God, not having been exposed to any other system in the Church, have innocently to some degree or another adopted the model which Jesus hates.
Let us remember that Jesus had only twelve disciples in whom he invested most of his time and efforts. He distrusted the crowds, knowing what was in their hearts. It was his disciples who ultimately impacted the world for the gospel. It was because of their labors that we can hear the gospel today 2,000 years later, and receive eternal hope.
Recall what Jesus said to his disciples: “If is for your good that I am going away” (John 16:7). Only by his going away could his disciples mature as they were taught directly by the promised Holy Spirit. In the same way, disciples must at some point in their development be released to walk with the Lord and to serve him, and no longer dependent on their human mentor who is usually a pastor.
Indeed what is presented in this article is radical and offensive to some in view of the current structure of the Church. A tiny minority of pastors might even see it as a threat to their job security, as did the pastor’s wife in Germany mentioned above. But I believe we can agree that the Church as a whole is making believers—and not disciples. In the Great Commission as recorded in Matthew 28:19, Jesus commands us not to make believers, but to make disciples of all nations. Clearly the Church as it is today is not what the Lord had in mind. He commands us to repent.
Revelation 2:14 Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. 15 Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 16 Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.
Therefore what should disciples of Jesus be doing?
John 14:7 If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” 8 Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” 9 Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. 11 Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. 12 Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.
Perhaps there is no greater threat to the Nicolaitan establishment of a professional clergy and its specially “anointed” ministers lodged in certain circles of the Church than these cryptic words spoken by our Lord Jesus regarding what “ordinary” disciples should be doing.
For more on the teaching of the Nicolaitans, click on: