Monday, February 11, 2013

Revisiting Shepherding's History and Influence in Light of the Scandal at Sovereign Grace Ministries

CJ Mahaney

Former members of Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM, formerly called “People of Destiny” or PDI) recently filed a class action lawsuit against the church system and individuals within it, seeking justice for the myriad of abuses they suffered as the church tried to cover up many incidences of both physical and sexual abuse.

 As people ask how so many ministers could repeatedly participate in such cruel activities, it seemed to be a good time to revisit the history of the Shepherding Discipleship Movement (henceforth abbreviated here as “Shepherding”), Evangelical Christianity's attempt at ecclesiocentricity (making church activity central to the church member's life so that specific events of their personal life become subject to governance by church leaders).

SGM may have changed their name from PDI, but they could neither change the history of the genesis of their core belief system nor the hidden curriculum governing how their Shepherding system operates. The virtuous end of the “peace and togetherness” of the greater congregation (along with the comfort of its leaders) continues to drive the life of the group. The leaders of the group believe that the illusion of peace somehow justifies the great injustice suffered by the group's own little ones and their families who are sacrificed on its altars in the worship of this all-encompassing ideal.

The History that Shaped Shepherding

To understand the Shepherding Discipleship Movement, one must first appreciate the society that helped to shape its development and why it became a welcomed answer to many difficult problems.

The Baby Boom generation began to flood the world of adults in the 1960s, fueling the many societal changes that the decade birthed. Young people wanted to cast off the way their parents had feigned perfect, wholesome lives – the way their parents' generation largely coped with the struggles of life following World War II. The “Boomers” coped very differently with the many difficult struggles of their own day including their own era's Korean and the Vietnam Wars. They often chose less wholesome alternatives than their parents did. All of these factors created the need for a cohesive idealism that couldn't be derived from the general culture as it had in generations past. A previous post explores in greater depth these many social factors that also created a need for these budding adults to become a part of something greater than themselves, part of the zeitgeist of their age, an idealistic cause that served a common good.

The concerns of youth soon became a focus for the Evangelical church. If the culture of young people met life with rebellion, the church would have to become the bastion of the very opposite through a renewed focus on the Christian's duty to respect and obey authority. The Charismatic Renewal intensified this concern when it swept in midway through the decade. Episcopalians and Lutherans who first experienced the phenomenon started worshiping together with people from all different Christian denominations, as many of them started the same spontaneous speaking in tongues, too. (Read a bit more about the history HERE.)

Even Catholics < insert sarcastic gasp for worried Protestants> experienced the widespread phenomenon, and many from different denominations would gather to worship together for many years to come, often sharing doctrines with one another. This drive for “love and togetherness,” the Christian version of the trend in larger secular culture, actually threatened many in leadership in the Protestant Evangelical church. Many denominations began to grow rapidly as the new experience of the Charismata (supernatural spiritual gifts) breathed new life into the dead orthodoxy of the previous generation. Church leaders feared that people, especially new recruits, would forsake sound doctrine along with the neglect of duty to church authorities. They were afraid that Christendom would be carried away by the ecstasy of a subjective, experiential, “anything goes” type of new religion, forgetting and forsaking sound doctrine as well as proper conduct.

The Original Model of Shepherding

Some of those who were in leadership within Evangelicalism sought to rise to these challenges by consolidating the power and authority of the Church. They sold this ideal to the youth of the day through their new conception of the First Century Church as the true, first model of genuine love and togetherness. The culture of young adults readily accepted this approach because it seemed to match this same secular ideal of their whole generation so strongly. The church preached that they already had the cures for all of the ills of society in this early church model. Their “one heart, one soul” sales pitch, God's very own special commune of real love, came right out of the Book of Acts. In some circles, this became known as the Covenant Movement, for Christians were in covenant with one another when they entered this mystical union with the Body of Christ. They understood their interpretation of the “'all things common' unity” as the means by which everyone could cooperate to advance the Great Commission.

As largely dispensationalist, the evangelical churches that embraced this concept also primarily embraced the idea that theirs would be the generation to witness the Second Coming of Christ. Many interpreted this togetherness and blurring of denominational boundaries a sign of the end times – that Christ was finally preparing His Church through revival, transforming her to truly be holy, blameless, radiant, and without spot or wrinkle (Ephesians 5:27).
And all that believed were together, and had all things common. (Acts 2:44) 
And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common. (Acts 4:32)

Shepherding's Methods

But how did this sector of the church seek to go about establishing this order? Different groups did it in different ways, but the core ideals became embedded in the hidden curriculum of many evangelical groups that were influenced by the Charismatic Renewal. Whether people followed the practice of formal accountability partners (assigned mentor overseers as was formalized by Christian Growth Ministries), or whether they just enforced the demand for suppressing conflict with a focus on having an older mentor in the faith, these imperatives became a significant influence and a driving force within Evangelical circles.

Along with the interdenominational meetings, the rise in new parachurch organizations became the means by which the ideals of shepherding were propagated. I believe that these parachurch groups also helped to more strongly establish Shepherding principles, as they could suddenly afford to use deregulated media through cassette tapes of sermons and limited television time, whereas before, only radio was available to them. (These factors also laid the foundation for the new phenomenon of the televangelist.) It seems rather simple in our current day of digital ease, but affordable cassette players and tapes which were previously unavailable to most everyone revolutionized parachurch ministry during this time. Prior to the late Sixties, one had to obtain reel to reel tapes or phonograph records to listen to a sermon recording, and making such recordings tended to be quite costly. Technology helped to further the cause and “spread the word.”

The primary means of limiting and controlling conflict came through the concept of the chain of command which many churches shaped through the cell group system, a technique that mega churches would also embrace. If you did not have a specific overseer assigned to you, your cell group leader would serve as your spiritual “covering.” What resulted? Rather than a spontaneous unity flowing from the change in individuals' hearts under the direction of the Holy Spirit, uniformity was achieved through human systems of control – the traditions of men. One cannot be truly and legitimately involved in the life of the Shepherding church apart from cell group participation. With hierarchical structure established, submission to authority and chain of command became the glue that would hold the created (artificial) sense of unity together among the Shepherding minded, usually without anyone realizing that a system of control had been established.

As David Henke observes in his description of the characteristics of spiritually abusive systems, such groups pursue and focus on a peripheral aspect of the Christian message – eventually to the exclusion of the primary message of central doctrine. These shifts seem subtle, because Shepherding never abandoned the primary goal of sharing Christ and “equipping the saints” for Christian life, or at least not in theory. The Great Commission remained a strong motivator – the understood reason for the Renewal. Doctrinal statements remained unchanged in most churches, but Shepherding placed more emphasis on the methods of achieving their purpose of unity than they did on the purpose of the Christian life or basic doctrine. In this sense, Shepherding made an idol out of the virtues of submission and good Christian stewardship through largely unwritten rules of proper conduct, and all other elements of faith became subtly secondary. As the submission ideal of the group itself became prominent, so the individual began to serve the group as opposed to the group providing benefit to individuals, a model wherein leadership serves the member. The end began to formally justify the means.

Subtly Spiraling Error

Doctrines soon shifted to accommodate this imperative of the unity and the“well-being” of Evangelical groupss. Leaders became willing to maintain this illusion of unity at any cost, believing that they were doing so in service to their congregations and for God's highest ideal. They were ushering in the Kingdom. Certainly, the Bible supports dutiful stewardship and sober submission to legitimate authority, but when those imperatives became the primary onus of every message preached, both doctrines and practice changed. Remember that the real goal was the same kind of one mind and one heart unity that sprang up spontaneously in the first months after Jesus ascended, ushered in by the very first incidence of widespread glossolalia (tongues) in the Bible. [Consider this... Even the First Century Church could not maintain this level of unity long term. The other epistles in the New Testament attest to many conflicts wherein Christians were not of one mind, facing many controversies. Trying to achieve this in the 1970s was chasing a fantasy, as I believe history attests.]

Click to hear R Zacharias 
Under the principles of Shepherding, submitting to elders and leaders and maintaining uniformity within the group failed to produce the unity that the system sought. That was obvious, because with people still being people, conflict arose. Crushing one's own will soon became the real way to achieve the objective, so groups came up with the ideal of an extreme submission doctrine that ensured a mental merging of the congregation to achieve this level of “unity.” If the individual really wanted to do what God desired, they would have to willingly surrender to God without questioning Him in any way.

Then came the doctrines that religious leaders and overseers were the mouthpiece of God and God's effective authority over them, and God himself had divinely imposed these leaders. (I believe that this concept also paved the way for many Dispensationalists to find Calvinism palatable. The demanding doctrines which challenged freewillism eventually force followers to the logical conclusions of predestination/predeterminism.) Serving and obeying any leader became tantamount to perfect service and submission to God Himself. (Note that service to leaders became an imperative as well.) Individuals who questioned leaders or failed to yield unqualified submission to God's earthly representatives were deemed willful, one of the worst sins a person in Shepherding could commit. The “independent spirit” was seen as a tremendous evil. Dissidents would likely be removed to some degree, either within the group by exclusion from activities/benefits or by shuning by the group altogether.

From the Watchman Fellowship website noting the ICC Boston Movement Profile (emphasis mine):

In a series of articles distributed to the membership of the Boston Church, Elder Al Baird wrote. . . "Let us begin our discussion of submission by talking about what it is not. (1) Submission is not agreeing. When one agrees with the decision that he is called to submit to, he does not really have to submit in any way. By definition, submission is doing something one has been asked to do that he would not do if he had his own way. (2) Submission is not just outward obedience. It includes that, but also involves obedience from the heart. It is a wholehearted giving-up of one's own desires. (3) Submission is not conditional. We submit to authority, not because the one in authority deserves it, but because the authority comes from God; therefore, we are in reality submitting to God.”

Following behind this submission imperative came the doctrines to assuage the problems one encounters in life when the individual displaces his critical thinking and decision making, assigning them to the group dogma or direction. We all make mistakes, and whether we make them of our own accord or we make them because another imperfect person made a poor choice for us, we end up suffering from those mistakes. The suppression of one's reasonable basic needs and personality traits (that contrast with the group ideal) also comes at a high cost, psychologically, emotionally, and sometimes physically. Some justification for these high costs many paid had to be created to satisfy reasonable doubt. Suffering became a newly embraced, venerated virtue, even becoming the super-spiritual sign of the high cost of achieving unity. Especially concerning conflicts, the truly spiritual could expect to suffer a type on martyrdom for the common good of the larger group. People would soon train themselves to “throw themselves under the bus” to prevent any criticism of the whole cause of Christ itself, as conflict was seen as a form of blasphemy through disgrace. These contrived doctrines helped to enforce the imperatives.

Larry Pile summarizes the primary problems (and systems of control) used within Shepherding in this way:
[Though captured in Pile's list I would pull out and specifically add aggressive discipline of children and young adults by the breaking of the spirit. Not all but too many groups break the spirit of their followers through not only psychological/emotional and spiritual abuse, but also through often violent, authoritarian, corporal punishment practices that trigger a type of moral disengagement by demonizing dissent, even in a child. The SGM lawsuit certainly highlights this problem. This practice is a sub-category of the submission/suffering imperative that is required of all group members.]

The Limits of Spiritual Abuse

The truth is that Shepherding never really solved any problems but just required followers to never talk about their conflicts. “Iron sharpening iron” had to be curtailed, dealt with sharply behind closed doors only. Subordinate followers had to drip with “ooey gooey love” (as I've heard more than one leader describe it), and to truly be in unity, one had to let that sticky love “cover” the sins of others who were given liberty to continue hurting them. Conflicts that couldn't be ignored had to be managed in a particular way as well, subject to rules that would prevent the process of private confrontation from seeming like dissent. Henke's model describes this through the distinctive of Suppressing Criticism and of Image Consciousness. Eventually, this became the perfect storm that leadership could use to abuse their own liberties for their own advantage, because their judgment (and their “needs”) were seen as God's divine will, the Sacred Science. And these factors also set up the system that would necessitate a new form of church discipline, the Dispensing of Existence.

The Apostle Paul tells us that human behavior is rather predictable, and when we attempt to do things by man's means, we end up with the predictable “works of the flesh.” I believe that because of predictable human nature, when used to control a group of people, the works of the flesh end up looking rather predictable as well. Whether you prefer Henke's description of Spiritual Abuse or Lifton's description of Thought Reform/Mind Control, when man lets the end justify the means by which he does things and does so by his own imposed methods of control, these predictable patterns result. It certainly happened with Shepherding and the churches that followed it. Human nature being rather predictable, certain measures work very well, and the Shepherding movement capitalized on them. Add a bit of propaganda and informal logical fallacy into the mix, and you have a high demand religious group, be it a church, parachurch group, a political group, or even a system of multi-level marketing. It can even affect one-on-one relationships which use the same dynamics, as the effects of spiritual abuse on a churchgoer has much in common with Battered Woman Syndrome.

The Four General Characteristics of Battered Woman Syndrome:
(To apply to a spiritually abusive Evangelical group, substitute “churchgoer” for “woman,” “Shepherding pastor” for “abuser,” and “family” for “children”.)
  1. The woman believes it’s her fault.
  2. The woman’s inability to place the responsibility of the violence elsewhere.
  3. The woman fears for her life and/or her children’s lives.
  4. The woman has the belief that the abuser is omnipresent and omniscient.

Quoting from a previous post, All About Authority: The Popularity of Submission Doctrine (in blue type):

So what started out as a greater good with a virtuous end that followed Biblical language and principle became a trap for many of these groups that allowed idealistic ends to justify the means they pursued to achieve their desired goals. But it is interesting to note how pervasive the zeitgeist of the day proved to be, for it saturated nearly all evangelical Christianity with the desire to
  • distinguish their faith as somewhat unique from to the work of God within previous eras within the Church,
  • realize the unity demonstrated by the Church as described in the Book of Acts,
  • reach the whole world for Christ within just one generation,
  • take dominion over the earth to usher in the Second Coming of Jesus,
  • promote the virtue of submission to distinguish the church from the secular culture.

I believe that 40 years later, we are coming to terms with the fruit of these zealous efforts and often misdirected foci that the previous generation developed as our legacy. Unfortunately, the previous generation often failed to recognize the skewed nature of some of their ideals, leaving the inconsistencies for *our generation* to reconcile (*whatever generations have followed the after the era of the first wave of Baby Boomers who came of age in the mid-sixties).

The Supposed End of Shepherding
(Excerpt from Shepherding: Many Variations on a Theme in blue type)

CGM disbanded after people in nearly every shepherding group began to experience serious problems because of spiritual abuse. Christians were emerging from these churches and parachurch groups with symptoms identical to people who were exiting any other non-Christian cult like a Moonies or Hare Krishnas. In 1975, Pat Robertson strongly denounced the movement, saying that “the only difference between shepherding and Jonestown was 'Kool Aide.'” Exiting members were being hospitalized in psychiatric wards, and I’ve spoken personally with exit counselors who attended to many of these survivors. Pile, a former member of the Great Commission group, notes in his article, The Other Side of Discipleship, that:

The movement began to disintegrate in 1986 when its magazine, New Wine, folded due to steady loss of revenue. In the latter years of the 1980s, Baxter, Basham, and Mumford officially “released” their disciples from their previous pyramidal authority structure – Prince had already severed his formal ties with the others in 1983. Yet even with Mumford’s public statement of apology – and in spite of Buckingham’s obituary of the “discipleship era” – the abuse of discipleship and spiritual authority continues unabated by other men and women in other churches and movements.

Originally in the CGM system of Shepherding, each person was assigned to another person, and married couples were assigned to married couples. When Mumford finally repented, I believe that all the denominations that followed the practice merely stopped the one-over-one, personal pastoring relationships only, shifting to a more informal “mentoring” concept. However, like so many groups that did not follow the formal structure of CGM, they did not repent of the authoritarian rule, the shunning, or pronunciation of curses that groups often issue to members as they exited their groups (leaving the protective “covering” of their spiritual mentors or authorities). 

More modern variations of shepherding generally include accountability to the leaders of cell groups that meet during the week (transferring paternalistic oversight from personal mentor to cell group leader or an elder). The practice of confession cell groups encourages believers to perceive themselves from a perspective of shame (facilitating manipulation) over their ongoing sins which they never seem to transcend rather than perceiving themselves as overcomers in Christ. As a consequence, cell groups stay informed about the problems of their cell group participants, generally collecting and reporting that information to leadership under the guise of offering very specific help and support to the sheep.

Just like SGM abandoned the title of People of Destiny, many churches dropped the formal practice of Shepherding's “accountability partners”, but they abandoned nothing else. They kept most of the systems of control in place. And as Philip Zimbardo's lifetime of work has demonstrated, exiting the group and practice remains terribly difficult, part of what enhances ongoing compliance with the belief system today.

How Could They Do It? Martyrs for the Cause

The recent actions of CJ Mahaney provide a good example of how leaders within Shepherding can completely lose perspective, allowing the virtuous end of the system to justify the means used to maintain it. In Shepherding, the paramount goal is that of maintaining the fantasy of a post-Pentecost unity, of one heart, one mind, and having all things common. People sit in wonder, trying to fathom the actions of men like Mahaney. How could a loving pastor believe that it was right to cover up sexual assaults and to protect abusers?

CJ Mahaney's son, quoting his father, recently published a blog post that was highly critical of Lance Armstrong's use of performance enhancing measures, all while Mahaney is being accused of many of the same errors, arrogance, and deception. Good people ask how a minister could be so blind to his own shortcomings? And what seems worse: using drugs and lying to win a title, or aiding and abetting child molesters, then shaming/punishing the victims and their families? Neither action is justifiable, but what action hurts more people and hurts them more deeply? (Mahaney and son would have been better to say something more like this, given CJ's own personal testimony before coming to faith in Christ and his reputation for self-deprecating humility.)

I believe that to understand the irony and total loss of perspective and self-awareness demonstrated by Mahaney, one must consider this imperative of unity demanded by the principles of Shepherding. Set aside your own beliefs and perspective for a moment, and pretend that the illusion of a contrived, Upper Room unity was the most important objective within your church. Consider that you also had no ethical, moral, or religious problems with the systems of control that Larry Pile lists as the primary problems with the practice of Shepherding. Now pretend that you are faced with a sex scandal. Throw in there an understanding of complementarianism which supports male privilege and scapegoats women, assuming that the primary victims of the sexual abuse at the church were all little girls. Consider also that women become something of an analogous Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 because women are supposed to be subordinate to men, according to the semi-arian theology of complementarian belief. (Concern for the interests and preferences of men is a priority within SGM, and as buddy John Piper teaches, women are at fault for the entry of sin into the world to start with. They're usually the root cause of sin somehow.)

I think that CJ's actions are quite understandable, given all of these factors. Imagine the following. By acting to keep matters quiet, he's serving the greatest good of maintaining the one accord of the church. He's protecting the Name of Christ itself from mockery because he's covering sins with love. The greater sin is not sexual misconduct but is rather sowing discord in the Body of Christ. Those who fail to abide by the measures of control that maintain the sense of mystical unity commit an even great sin than sexual assault because they challenge the most precious directive of the church. He's also the “servant” of the Body, so he takes upon himself the hard task of breaking some of the rules, something he likely sees as laying down of his his life and honor to preserve the community. Remember that Henke points out that spiritually abusive groups become unbalanced by majoring on minor doctrines, and everything else becomes secondary to unity in Shepherding.

It is very likely that CJ sees himself as a martyr to a great extent, or this might be what he tells himself. In the process, he lays the wounded little ones up on the altar to sacrifice to the virtue of unity, that idol of their distorted fantasy about love and togetherness. CJ very likely believes that he's thrown himself under the bus to save the collective. I believe that's why he's able to do what he's done so many times when he's effectively exonerated sexual predators within his church. It's why he can openly condemn others without seeing the irony of his statements and actions. Perspective is everything.

The Ongoing Legacy of Shepherding

The practice of Shepherding is not limited to Sovereign Grace Ministries. Geoffrey Botkin who is now affiliated with Vision Forum followed the Great Commission Ministries group since he was recruited on his college campus in the mid-seventies. They dynamics of both his past and current groups differ little. Bill Gothard still propagates his extensive teachings, documenting some of Shepherding's hidden curriculum, the generally unwritten rules governing how high demand groups operate. (Shepherding is alive and well within many homeschooling affiliated religious groups.) We also see similar authoritarian practices in Mark Driscoll's Mars Hill movement (read more HERE and HERE).

The churches that Charles Simpson helped to plant during the days of his traveling ministry still thrive throughout the US, maintained long after Simpson's group, Christian Growth Ministries, claimed to have denounced the practice of Shepherding. (Like SGM, they only dropped the titles and some of the formal practices but continue to worship the same ideals, subordinating the central message of Christianity to the togetherness ideal.) Some even note the this same influence that Simpson and SGM share with one another. Rousas J. Rushdoony of the Chalcedon Foundation used to participate with Simpson's group and even contributed many articles to their magazine, New Wine, lasting influences that remain significant for many.

Maranatha Campus Ministry, affiliates of Elim Bible Institute, the International Church of Christ, and many others also followed the principles, long after leaders supposedly renounced the practices of the movement. The Full Gospel Fellowship of Churches and Ministers International, founded by Gordon Lindsey, also observed the rules of Shepherding in their nationwide network of Calvary Temple churches, especially during the thick of the early days of the Charismatic Renewal. William Branham gave Lindsey as well as the Kansas City Prophets their start in ministry, groups also plagued by these same manipulative, spiritually abusive practices. Shepherding and the principles by which it operates continue to thrive within Evangelicalism, especially within independent churches that are not a part of larger denominations.

Please pray for these individuals in leadership over these organizations, because they become more deeply entrenched in the system which makes it infinitely harder to get out of them or to renounce these practices and beliefs. A foolish consistency is a hobgoblin, and while the private individual who walks away from a high demand group has a tremendously difficult time, the leaders of these groups have an even harder task. They've got to be willing to do their recovery process before the entire world – the world before which they once preached with such assurance. They've pledged their names and their holy honor in support of the scandalous system, and they must have great integrity to even begin to be able to come clean in private first. They've invested more in the process and teachings than most rank and file members have. Pray for them. Despite all of the exploitation for which they are responsible, they must also find sufficient strength to recant the aberrant beliefs and practices to which they were once devoted. Few find the strength to do it. They're too afraid of looking like fools, so they are reluctant to change. They become slaves to the image consciousness and their own pride. Pray for them. They need it.

Read more about Shepherding: