The Discipleship And Shepherding Movement

Rock of Offence Commentary

The following article discusses a widespread religious practice that is alive and well today. Terminology and methods have changed (hidden more from the general public) since the fall of the original movement in the 1980's. Yet, unbiblical authority practices continue within the leadership and among "committed" members. A new generation of leaders continue where the old leadership left off. The movement is not dead--just "camouflaged". Most of the old "Discipleship and Shepherding" movement has taken up the successful "suburban church" image using "family and relationship" themes. As a result of the cultural war against family values, most Christians hunger for these things. In their zeal, Scriptural warnings are ignored about the dangers of spiritual authority abuse. In our morally bankrupt society these "family friendly" themes can entice an unsuspecting public consisting of young families desperately looking for alternatives. It is through these ideologies that authority abuse continues in the church. Family values are not the problem. The exploitation of these issues to advance the unbiblical agenda of some leaders is the problem. It's not uncommon for these churches to have 2000-3000 members in attendance.

I carry a special burden for this subject. In the article below, Lawrence Pile accurately describes the experience we had in a shepherding church in Maryland. Why do Christians get involved in situations like this? The reasons are inexperience, the desire for committed relationships with other Christians , a zeal to serve Jesus and a disregard for the warning Jesus gave about unbiblical authority. Many fail to understand the powerful motivations that exist in a person's devotion to God. It's the strongest and most intense of all human emotion. In the recent terrorist attack in New York and Washington we witnessed the power that is loosed when this motivation is twisted for evil purposes. Many throughout history died as the result of having this power misdirected. Good Christians of great integrity, education and Scriptural knowledge are seduced into manipulating this "holy" part of human nature thinking they are helping believers spiritually mature. Jesus warned his disciples about using a "dominant" form of authority. He said, "it shall not be so among you". Yet, today this warning is generally ignored or redefined. Many believe the attaining of "spiritual maturity" justifies the use of authority that Jesus commanded his followers NOT to exercise. The intentions are noble but the end result is destructive. In the 1970's, hundreds of misled victims in a place called "Jonestown" committed suicide because they thought they were obeying God. Jesus warned his disciples that some would kill them thinking they're doing God's will. Never underestimate the power of this motivation in yourself--or in others. Godly zeal is a wonderful thing when it agrees with God's Word. Problems arise when leaders redefine and distort God's Word--a common practice discussed repeatedly on this website to the point of of being boring and redundant. Redefining the truths of God's Word is the way a person's devotion to God is redirected for man-centered religious purposes--or the success of an organization or movement. This is the reason authority abuse by religious leaders is such a serious sin in God's eyes. It is an illegal intrusion on the Lordship of Jesus. I consider it spiritual wickedness--and I'm unyielding in that assessment. Regardless of the assertions of some popular religious teaching--Jesus doesn't share his "Lordship" authority with anyone--especially spiritual leaders.

Twisting and redefining Scripture is normal in groups that abuse spiritual authority. Anyone with little or no previous Christian experience who receive their spiritual "foundation" from an abusive group are seriously compromised. Unless God's Holy Spirit intervenes they will stay in spiritual bondage the rest of their life, while thinking they are on the cutting-edge of God's end-time purposes. Leaders keep members loyal by making them feel "privileged" to hear "sound doctrine". They emphasize that others outside the group don't have this advantage. Many in this situation possess a "distorted" conception of our heavenly Father's true nature. It's hard to think of a greater tragedy--maybe because I was so deeply shaken by its deceptiveness--and by learning how easy anyone can get ensnared when their devotion to God is used against them.

My wife and I avoided some of the devastation others experienced. Our spiritual foundation existed years before we became involved in the group. Having this advantage along with the help of the Holy Spirit made a critical difference for us. When the abusive practices began we kept our eyes open. Yet, we still suffered emotional scars that last to this day. You can't imagine the psychological damage that occurs when trusted friends you've known for years accuse you of being "defiled" and disfellowship you. This happened when we attempted to leave the church. It's especially destructive when it divides a loving family. The experience carries almost the same impact as being rejected by God! No matter how spiritually "mature" you think you are--it's devastating. Today, 20 years later, I'm stronger because of this ordeal. God used this experience to sharpen my discernment abilities about many accepted things in the Christian church. It's a shocking and life-shattering revelation.

God "uses" many things to bless his people. He approaches us where we're at because he's motivated by love. Some people say, "Well, I've visited the church and God's presence was very strong during the worship...there couldn't be anything wrong." This common response is no surprise because Jesus keeps His word. The people are gathered "In Jesus name"--and He promised to "be in the midst" of such a gathering. Yet, it would be a serious mistake to equate the presence of the Lord during the worship service with His approval of the leadership's doctrine and teaching. This apparent contradiction confuses people because they don't separate the two. This is why you find some abusive churches where God makes his presence known during worship. If you consider the plight of the congregation it should not be surprising that God desires to reach out to them. They're caught in a spiritual trap that only He can free them from.

The leaders never admitted wrong doing in spite of the damaged lives. Instead, like a camileon, they change their appearance to match the environment. Some of the same practices continue using different names and themes. . .and a new inexperienced congregation.

The following article by Lawrence Pile is offered as a warning and for informational purposes. The inclusion of this article should not be considered an endorsement of everything the author believes or an endorsement of Wellspring Retreat Center. I'm still angered when I think about all the damaged lives "shepherding churches" and other like-minded religious movements leave behind. The leaders may have "moved on"--but God still remembers. Some lives were so shattered that professional help was needed. I'm sure Mr. Pile has witnessed far more spiritual abuse than I ever will. We should take the teaching of the Bible seriously when it tells us to "prove all things".

The Other Side Of Discipleship--Lawrence Pile

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Most recent revision September 2003