What’s the difference between discipleship and indoctrination?

At several points, I’ve sat through sessions in which young people are being taught about the Christian worldview. Some have been quite good. Yet in others, I’ve had the following snippet of thought: “This is not discipleship; this is indoctrination.”

But what’s the difference?

In terms of literal meaning, there is nothing wrong with being brought “in” to certain doctrines (from the Latin, doctrina). That’s good. Yet words connote as well as denote. And “indoctrination” connotes negatively.

Here’s an incomplete attempt at a distinction:

  1. Discipleship embraces questions; indoctrination quashes them.

If you’ve ever read the Jesus story, you know how frequently he answers questions with more questions. This is not mere evasion, and it is not way a saying that there are no answers.  Instead, it is quintessentially Jewish and a method of discipleship.

I was reminded of this recently as I heard a quote by a Nobel laureate in physics, Isidor I. Rabi. He said that following:

Every mother in Brooklyn would ask [her child] after school: “So? Did you learn anything today?” But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. “Izzy,” she would say, “did you ask a good question today?”

Discipleship is fueled by good questions, while indoctrination gives rote answers. At its worst, it is an encouragement to flip happily to the back of the book and copy down conclusions that one has not worked through (and which may not even be correct).

Not all questions are benign (e.g., “Did God really say…?” [Gen. 3]), but that doesn’t mean that we can ignore or oversimplify them. That last bit brings me to the next point.

  1. Discipleship involves persuasion, not propaganda.

I sometimes ask my students: “What is propaganda?” In many cases, the response is vague, but often similar to that of the Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart when defining pornography. He said, simply: “I know it when I see it.”

But do we always recognize our propoganda?

By my definition, propaganda presents a view of reality that is appealing but intentionally distorted. Indoctrination often does likewise.

Such slanted viewpoints are appealing, because we would like to simplify the complexities of life. Example: “Why don’t I have a job?” Donald Trump: “Mexicans. Obama. Everyone is stupid.”

For some, such caveman logic is appealing because it identifies clear “bad guys,” and then breaks problems into (sparsely punctuated) solutions. “Tarzan build wall.”

But while discipleship rejects religious propaganda, it must involve persuasion.

There is an objective. The goal is that people would be conformed to the image of Christ by the renewing of their minds. And this means tapping into emotion and desire. That’s not bad.

As Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) famously put it:

I should think myself in the way of my duty, to raise the affections [emotions] of my hearers as high as I possibly can, provided … that [1] they are affected with nothing but truth, and [2] with affections that are not disagreeable to the nature of what they are affected with.

When this is done, we are in the realm of gospel persuasion (discipleship). But when the latter two shortcuts are taken, we slide into the bog of propaganda for the purpose of indoctrination. The ends do not justify the means.

  1. Discipleship requires dirty feet.

A few years ago, N.T. Wright wrote a fairly scathing critique of a book purporting to offer a “pilgrimage” approach to studying Jesus. Wright thought that the book did not engage enough with the ancient context of Jesus. Thus, as he put it:

“Real pilgrims would get their feet dirty on the dusty roads of ancient Palestine.” Yet what this book offered was a “pilgrimage by helicopter,” resulting in “pilgrims with suspiciously clean feet.”

Indoctrination often results in something similar:

“Disciples” with suspiciously clean feet. And that’s an oxymoron.

True discipleship happens in the midst of life, in all its messiness. It happens “on the way.” This does not mean, of course, that classroom learning is bad (I’m engaged in it). But it does mean that our “doctrines” must lead to engagement, and our theory must embrace praxis. If it doesn’t bring life to hurting people, then it is of little value.

In short: Discipleship requires dirty feet; indoctrination doesn’t.

Thus, to quote the Scriptures: “How beautiful are the [dirty] feet of those who bring good news” (Isa. 52.7; Rom. 10.15).


So here’s a closing question: What are some further differences between discipleship and indoctrination?




4 thoughts on “Discipleship or Indoctrination: What’s the difference?

  1. Thank you for sharing this. I’ve been reading some works on discipleship lately, and this provided valuable insight into my research for my studies.


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