Indoctrination VS Discipleship


Historically, the meaning of these two words has often coincided, but in today’s usage they are very different. Understanding that difference can help us analyze why so many young people in the Western world have been lost to our faith, and can assist in preparing a new generation to be valiant in faith, commitment and effective Kingdom life.


The word indoctrination was once a positive term. It simply meant passing on a teaching or doctrine to another a person.

The central “Sh’ma” passage describes exactly this kind of intentional, repetitive dissemination of God’s words:

“You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down and when you rise up” (Deuteronomy 6:7).

In Christian history, children were taught to memorize catechisms. Catechisms were based on questions and answers that children would learn by heart. By the time of confirmation, young people had memorized a significant body of material and were ready for their first communion. I believe it is very important to provide a solid religious education which includes memorized verses and answers to key doctrinal questions. I developed a Messianic Jewish guide for this called Growing to Maturity Primer.

Today, in the Christian world, the idea of catechism and indoctrination are perceived as rigid, mechanical, and impersonal. Yet, no one has replaced catechism with anything similarly effective in imparting the body of basic biblical teaching to the next generation. Even among those who remain in the Church, the ignorance is often appalling. Surveys show a level of ignorance that is unprecedented. In my early teens (1960-1965), we did not use a classic catechism, but we did have very clear Bible lessons and memorized verses that were categorized according to different biblical themes providing us with a lot of important content. We learned it!

Muslims training the next generation
(Photo – Wikipedia)

Many of the world’s religious movements and cults – such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and Scientologists – engage in levels of indoctrination. It appears that the level of continuity, the percentage of those who remain within the group and are able to retain their children within the group, is proportional to the degree of indoctrination used. Interestingly, the world of radical Islam seems to be the most effective in indoctrination. Many Islamic families teach their children to chant and memorize most of the Koran. They teach them the responsibilities of Islam including prayer, pilgrimage to Mecca, and jihad, as well as hating Zionists, Jews and all infidels. Islamist schools are powerful centers of rote memorization. All of these things are abhorrent to the free styles of Western education. However, we have to admit that these children do get indoctrinated and do follow the call to be loyal Muslims according to their interpretation. The children of jihadists are also jihadists.

Indoctrination has taken on the meaning of robotic processes that produce unthinking people who do what they have been indoctrinated to do. Indoctrination is a key mechanism of control and, some would say, manipulation. Yet when we criticize indoctrination, we have to ask a question of our own faith communities: having given up indoctrination, having chosen fun things for our children and hoping for the faith to be imparted by osmosis, what are the results? The results are terrible. Our young have little clarity on what or why we believe other than that Yeshua died for our sins and that if we accept His death for our sins, we go to heaven. They also learn that we are to be nice to each other.


So with today’s definitions of indoctrination, how do we distinguish it from discipleship? First of all, we have to recognize that discipleship as well as indoctrination seeks to impart a body of information that should be known well enough to be recalled in an instant. I consider that a memorized body of material is helpful and even essential for growth and effective living – especially memorized passages of the Bible. This body of material to be fully learned includes the basic teaching of the Bible concerning what to believe, how to behave, and how to be empowered to live according to Scripture. With regard to a body of learned material, Yeshua said we are to disciple the nations and

“Teach them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).

The commandments of Yeshua are important,as is the content of the Torah since He commanded us to teach and apply the Torah (Matthew 5:17-19). Indeed, much of the New Testament was written in patterns for memorization!

However there is another element. We are seeking to raise people who can think, who can ask and answer questions. In Islam, asking questions is a sin. We are seeking to train people to know the Holy Spirit and to recognize His voice. We are seeking to raise mature, intelligent people, who are submitted to the Spirit first, and who are able to ask and answer questions as part of deepening and growing faith, without mind idolatry. The ability of our faith to face and answer difficult questions deepens our credibility among those who have questions. Writing to the Corinthians Paul states,

“We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Messiah” (2 Corinthians 10:5).

Discipleship has many dimensions. One is being able to face contrary worldviews and values – and respond in a convincing and consistent way. It also is to lead people into a direct experience with Yeshua and the power of God, just as Yeshua did with the Twelve. He demonstrated this when He sent them out to heal and cast out demons. They were able to ask questions and Yeshua gave convincing answers!

In feedback from our young adults gathering held a few months ago, many said that for the first time they found a place where they could freely ask questions and hear answers. This is part of discipleship. In this and other ways, congregational life is to be a school of discipleship. Our young emerging leadership couples want this kind of community, where there is deeper discipleship and where questions are discussed.

Making this a key priority will help in transmitting our faith to the next generation.