Spiritual Abuse, Shepherding & Authoritarian Heresies

Spiritual abuse broadly defined as any abuse done under the guise of religion that results in emotional, spiritual or physical damage to an individual.  The abuser(s) are always in a position of authority or perceived authority over the victim (ie, celebrity), and most often committed by an individual leader, but also may be performed by a leadership group exercising power maliciously or to protect the image of an institution.  Spiritual Abuse most frequently includes an abuse of power through manipulation, control, humiliation, severe anger, financial exploitation, false accusations, or demonization of a person.  It also includes more subtle but still very damaging harm such as shame, neglect, isolationism, intimidation, fear, loss of individual identity, unhealthy dependency, excessive discipline, overly controlling behavior or decisions, separation or estrangement, revelations of confidential information, or the requirement to submit to a spiritual authority without any right to dissent.   

Spiritual Abuse on a personal level may include threats, debasing, demeaning and degrading comments, lies, slander or insults by someone in a role of spiritual leadership or authority, often combined with severe anger, yelling and intimidation to ensure silence or enforce conformity.  Some of the most extreme cases although rare involve some form of blackmail often by threatening exposure of personal information in exchange for conformity or silence, although this is taken from Scientology its increasingly being seen in Protestant churches today.  Sexual abuse performed by someone in a position of religious authority is almost always also spiritual abuse.  It may also be caused by broader institutional belief systems or how beliefs themselves are enforced if either leads to harm and errs in either intent or degree.  For example a legalistic environment can be abusive on its own, and leave people spiritually drained and wounded.  Any religious organization that puts the image of the institution or external social conformity over the spiritual and emotional health of individuals in its care is ripe for Spiritual Abuse.  In cases of long-term or systemic abuse, there are almost always enablers who knew something was wrong, and who’s actions or inactions contributed to those of the primary abuser.  At this point Spiritual Abuse becomes both a systemic institutional sin as well as a personal one. Today Spiritual Abuse in the Protestant Church most often occurs of under the guise of the recently re-branded and re-invigorated Shepherding Heresy, 

Shepherding was an authoritarian heresy first developed by a group of 5 well educated Pastors in the in 1970s.   It was also called “Discipleship”, Church Growth Ministries, and Covering Theology.  It  spread like wild fire first in the growing Charismatic Movement, but jumped to other denominations with slightly modified form.  I saw it first-hand infect Presbyterian, Calvary Chapel and Fundamentalist and Calvinist Baptist Churches.  It was among Fundamental and Calvinist Baptist churches where it was re-branded with new language, and in far less visible form it stewed quietly and hidden for almost 2 decades.    Shepherding in its newer covert forms is exploding in popularity today.

The theology both direct or implied (more implied today) was an individual blessings, protection, spiritual growth and teaching came down from God through their “anointed” “Pastor” or small group leader, to whom submission was a requirement.   The fundamental defining aspect of Shepherding is a leader who exerts authoritarian control in a “its my way, or the highway” tone. This person may (but not always) exerts influence over life decisions far outside the realm of biblical authority or they may just run their church or ministry as their personal fiefdom  Another common version today over-emphasizes or alters the process of resolving issues and disagreements the Bible lays out in Matthew 18.  In this distortion “Church discipline” is often over emphasized.  These churches most commonly err by bring in a Pastor or church representative earlier in the “discipline” process than Matt 18 allows and “disciplining” congregates for things the Bible doesn’t specify.    Many versions today includes Membership Covenant’s which are contracts, that most often authorize the leaders to by-pass the Matt 18 process and add other non-biblical doctrines.  A failure to comply with even non-Biblical mandates often resulted its victims being harshly rebuked, shunned or ex-communicated, or expelled from the building.  Willow Creek Church in Chicago even went so far to have a lawyer threaten people with arrest for trespassing if they returned, often without informing them at of what they did to earn such heart breaking scorn.

Today this new relabeled version is making a strong come-back and growing rapidly especially among Neo-Calvinistic Churches often associated with the Acts 29 Church Planting network and the 9Marks Ministry.  It also appears in a different version among the New Apostolic Reformation (which is ironically none of those things) and some Pentecostals.  Today Pastors and church leaders often create their own custom version of Shepherding  and by customizing the the names, labels and rules to avoid detection.

Shepherding often leads to terrible spiritual abuse as victims are increasingly exploited and made vulnerable.  For those  victims of such horrible abuse, they are often traumatized for decades by suddenly loosing their church home, friends and even family without recourse or often explanation.   Even those who are not direct victims suffer as Shepherding alters the entire church relationship and destroys personal ministry under fear and suspicion.  Shepherding is horribly damaging emotionally, psychologically and spiritually as its victims often leave the church for the rest of their lives.

The Bible refutes the tenants of Shepherding and Authoritarianism at multiple points, but 2 are specifically clear:.  

“Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so among you…” Matt 20:25-26a. 

“Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” 1 Peter 5:2-3  

Church leaders are to specifically contrast the world system of authority by not LORDING authority OVER those in Christ, which makes any type of even implied hierarchy unbiblical.  An Authoritarian style of leadership is taken from worldly philosophies and does not reflect the heart and gentleness of Christ.  A Pastor centered church, ministry or relationship is really not Christian at all as Christ is quietly dethroned, and stands as a hindrance to those who would seek Jesus.  It robs both God and his Bride of their rightful place, and eventually leads to terrible trauma and pain to sincere followers of Christ, especially those who are new to the faith.

Theologically Shepherding is the Protestant version of Sacredotalism, the formerly Catholic belief that believers need a priest or pastor to interact with God.  In the Catholic version the priests “role” is to gain access to God, where in the Evangelical version of this hersey a pastor is needed to receive blessing and protection from God.  The Protestant version is vastly worse however because more false teaching can be injected in the process.  This is in radical contrast to historical Protestantism where the every believer has unhindered access both to and from God.

The greatest damage falls on those cruelly shunned, but it effects everyone in the church.  Authoritarian Heresy like Shepherding destroys the trust and love needed for healthy Koinonia ministry and sows horrible dependency and distrust.  

Note: I will link to a wider and deeper refutation here soon.

Shepherding today is an pot-luck where false teachers take only the elements they want, rename and re-brand them, and present the heresy in tireless  and unique combinations.  This how it has remained so hidden and undiscussed now for over 20 years.  A church, a friend or even yourself may be caught in the Shepherding Heresy if they have any of these attributes. (Each attribute will be specifically refuted in future posts)

  1. “Anointed” or Celebrity Authoritarianism. The leader is held up as something special, often indirectly the boasting of their subordinates.  They are almost always very charismatic and terrific orators and always successful from an earthy perspective. The frequent use of “numbers” especially baptisms, growth, attendance or crusade size are used impress people, and may cite claims of miracles   The implied claim is that this Pastor/Leaders is better and more spiritual than others and if you want to be blessed like/by them, you must submit and stay close.  If you hear congregates or other leaders tireless praising the founder/Senior Pastor, be very wary.
  2. Covenant Memberships Contracts: Signed membership agreements are exploding in popularity. If members have to sign a “Membership” agreement or contract to be members, which is not biblical, it’s a sure sign of today’s version of Shepherding.  The primary goal of these contracts is to expand the Matt 18 process beyond what is biblically allowed.   Beside the damage this does directly, this is a very dangerous practice because it elevates non-biblical commentary contained in these contracts to be equal with or even superior to scripture, which opens the door to even more false teaching.
  3. Using the Offices of Prophet, Priest, Apostle or King (PPAK). Common in Pentecostal Shepherding churches, but also Mars Hill in Seattle, they reassign the old offices of Prophet, Priest, Apostle or King to leaders in the church today.  PPAK originated from Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism.  The biblical requirements of an Apostle state they must be a first-hand witness to Christ’s resurrection (Acts 1:2) so the office of Apostle no longer biblically exists, and anyone using it is likely abusing power with a very distorted view of biblical leadership.  Anytime the offices of PPAK are used Shepherding is probably at work.
  4. Church Discipline is Emphasized. Biblically, Church Discipline is extremely rare reserved only for very extreme issues, such as sleeping with your step-mother, defrauding other Christians or openly promoting false teaching.  If Church Discipline is used for lesser or even non-Biblical issues, it’s a sure sign of Shepherding.  Additionally its common in Shepherding church to bring church leaders in on the first step, and not the final steps of a biblical Matt 18 process. This is an intimidation tactic combined with shunning to “keep people in line” and minimized public dissent.  Its subtle form of legalism, and when its done under the rumors and secret reports, creates a climate of fear and suspicion that will damage the entire church.  If a church includes anything about Discipline in its doctrinal statements its probably a Shepherding Church. For example, Willow Creek’s Elder Response Teams would often discipline congregates based on rumor, not allow those to face their accuser, and often discipline members without telling them why, and even sending threatening attorney letters to expel them, with threat of arrest if they didn’t comply.
  5. Frequent Shunning or Excommunication of Members., often for small or no reasons and with no recourse.  Shunning to this degree is not Biblical, and designed to create fear and squash dissent rather than foster reconciliation.   It’s most often the result of a distorted process of “church discipline” where the punishment doesn’t fit the crime, or people are “disciplined” for issues other than the 7 prescribed in scripture.  This creates a climate of fear that destroys love, and can be extremely traumatizing to its victims and the church.
  6. Leaders who get frequently Angry or in Public Conflict. Angry outbursts are often used a fear and control mechanism, and are often a sign of a leader who has heretical view of their own authority.  If the leader is in frequent or angry conflict with others both inside or outside the church, it’s a sign of Shepherding and may even be a sign of a cult.
  7. Leaders who are more concerned with the Church/Pastors image, than truth. Frequently in Shepherding Churches scandals are hushed, crimes are not reported, and if they are they are minimized. In cases of sexual abuse Shepherding churches often claim that this is the “first instance we know of”, and yet stories of previous knowledge are later revealed.  Biblically we have no mandate or call to protect the “image of the church”, and we can only protect the image of Christ himself through open and honest truth, even if that truth is public, painful and shameful. 
  8. Leaders in Response to a Crisis: Urge Attendees not to Read Blogs or the News. Secrecy and controlling the narrative are key Shepherding attributes, and instead of tackling issues head on Shepherding churches blame and criticize the messenger, and urge their members not to read their stories or blogs.  Leaders have no biblical right to control their members/attendees this way and its an abuse of authority, which is often how they came to the crisis in the first place.
  9. Leaders in Response to a Crisis: Fail to Believe, Comfort or Minister to the Victims.  When a church endures a crisis, how it treats the victims says everything about that church and their true relationship to Christ. Shepherding churches most often criticize, tarnish or minimize the victims of a crisis. They sometime sue those people bringing issue to light.  Healthy churches repent, apologize both individually and publicly (and both those statements should be consistent) and minster to the victims offering counseling and help. If a church is not rushing to comfort and provide counseling to its victims, its probably caught in the Shepherding heresy.  Churches with Christ as their Lord minister to their victims and publicly repent of their sins, churches who worship themselves (or their founder) do not.
  10. Leaders Who Resent Questions or Dissent, and often people who ask them are considered “off mission”. A humble and biblical leader will always welcome sincere questions and even criticism. When people who ask questions are shut down, or rebuked, or considered “off mission”, don’t just be afraid, run.  When this happens there are already bodies buried somewhere.
  11. Leaders who Frequently Criticize Other Ministries or Pastors, often subtly, painting them as inferior… subtly setting themselves and their ministries as superior. This works to create a sense that you will be blessed more as part of “our” ministry, and is subtle form of cultist isolationism.
  12. Isolationism.  Congregants are either kept very busy in ministry, or discouraged not to associate with people of “lesser” churches, or both. They are often warned not to read discernment blogs.  Exit interviews and inciting fears of persecution are also subtle forms of isolationism and may represent a church devolving into a cult.
  13. Basic Life Decisions Are Monitored, or Controlled, even like dating or changing jobs. Here at Mars Hill I know people who were brutally ex-communicated simply because they dated without permission of their “leaders”.  This is a horrific abuse of authority with enormously damaging results to the entire congregation.
  14. A Pyramid-Like or Hierarchal Leadership Structure. This borrowed from Amway and other Multi-Level-Marketing schemes and is not Biblical, it diminishes the biblical ministries of Elder, Overseer, Deacon and Pastor and elevates those at the top, allegedly closer to God. It’s at its core idolatry of a few individuals who ostensibly have a “special” relationship with God.  
  15. Fear Based Language is Frequently Used. Either for end-of-the-world scenarios or politics. Fear is a huge motivator especially when combined with anger. God repeatedly says “do not be afraid” and any church or pastor who uses fear to motivate congregants is in grave danger.
  16. The Leaders are Frequently Controlling… and don’t accept input from the rank-and-file congregation. In in the case of Sovereign Grace Ministries, they forbid staff and pastors from reporting cases of sexual abuse to the legal authorities, as required by law. The church authority is sacrosanct and greater than the law.
  17. Non-Scriptural Support or Twisting of Context and Meaning. Often the verses they quote don’t mean what they say they mean.  I read one “Membership Covenant” where the Scriptures referenced were not even close to the subject, but who really looks those up? Today false teaching is often spread by the line “we have researched the matter” but don’t provide and biblical proof.  Where anyone claims that something is “biblical” but fail to actually cite a verse, false teaching of some kind is afoot.
  18. Over Emphasis on Local Church Membership if they don’t use Membership Covenants (see above) they can still over-emphasis local church membership by calling it “good” and “healthy”. Adding spiritual value to something the bible neglects to mention once is VERY dangerous, and often a warning sign of other errors.  Local Church membership is NOT biblical (We are all members of the church through Christ at the moment of salvation) and its often resold to promote a false sense of importance to the local church and leader.  We can never add spiritual value or call local membership good and healthy, because this is never mentioned in scripture, every time the Bible mentions membership it does so only in the context of something every believer in Christ already possess.
  19. Hyper Complementarian and Demeaning views on Women, especially if they are included in their doctrinal statements. Far more frequent in Neo-Cal, and Neo-Puritan versions of Shepherding, the church may emphasize “complementarian” views of women as this supports a hierarchal or pyramid structure used by many Shepherding churches. Even though they most often use the term “complementarian” to describe their beliefs, their views are often in reality Patriarchal, and even Misogynistic.   (search Google:  “Mark Driscoll’s demeaning views of women penis homes”)  At the Village Church, a missionary who caught her husband using child porn was commanded to not divorce him, and her, not him, was placed under “church discipline”.   If a church includes “complimentarian” beliefs in its doctrinal statement, its probable they have fallen into heretical misogyny which is borrowed from Mormonism.
  20. Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS). A new theology is appearing more frequently in Shepherding churches where Jesus didn’t just Subordinate himself to the Father and give up his full power just while only on earth, but he did so for ALL eternity.   This is a semi-Arian heresy drawn from Mormonism and is used to justify both hierarchal and pyramid-like (and non-biblical) church governance structures and misogynism toward women.  Its utterly heretical and extremely dangerous.  
  21. Exit Notifications or Interviews When Members Leave. Membership Covenant/Contracts often require people if they leave the church, to notify the pastor or elders and submit to an interview or approval of their new church home.  The Bible never mentions this at all.  This also a lighter form of Isolationism common in cultish churches.
  22. Love Bombing is a cultic technique to appear to be deeply concerned or interested in people, often used by small groups today, but in reality is trying to subtly keep tabs and control them. If your new church is overly or creepy nice, be very careful.
  23. Staff must Sign Non-Disclosure, Non-Disparagement, and Non-Compete Agreements. This goes beyond keeping private counseling and ministering confidences in private, and goes to keeping business functions, meetings, staff teaching, salaries, events and even by-laws secret from members, the public, and even sometimes Elders. This is concerted effort to control the narrative and public image of the church, often in contrast to the facts.
  24. Senior Pastor and Staff Salaries are Kept Secret. There is an increase in Shepherding Churches to keep the Senior Pastor’s and staff salaries secret, even from members and in some cases, even the Elders.  Anointed Authoritarians avoid anyone holding them accountable, and secrecy is a large part of that.  The Elders at the Harvest Bible Chapel in Chicago didn’t even know the James McDonald was making almost $1 million a year, nor about the secret slush fund for hundreds of thousands a year that were beyond anyones accountability. 
  25. Compulsory and Manipulative Tithing.  Extra-Biblical methods are used to encourage and even coerce obligatory and compulsory tithing. But pressure to “give” of various kinds almost always accompanies a Shepherding church.  For example when Willow Creek Church was founded, early members were encouraged to take out enormous loans and give that money to the church. 

Membership Covenants and Church Discipline Shepherding Advocates:  James McDonald, Mark Driscoll, CJ Mahaney, Mark Dever, John Piper, Tim Challis, Matt Chandler, Brian Houston, David Platt, Hillsong United, 9Marks Ministry, Acts 29 Church Planting Network, Sovereign Grace Ministries, many others especially among the Neo-Puritanism, Neo-Calvinism movements.  Many “Church Growth” Seminars, experts and speakers who emphasis that healthy churches need “discipline” and strong “membership” are really advocating for the Shepherding heresy. 

Other advocates today: University Bible Fellowship, Samuel Chang-Woo Lee, and Sarah Barry,

Historically, the original proponents in the 1970’s to 1980’s were:  Bob Mumford, Derek Prince, Charles Simpson, Don Basham, Ern Baxter, John Poole, Juan Carlos Ortiz, Carl Stevens Sr., Howard Carter, Church Growth Ministries, Holy Spirit Teaching Mission, New Wine Magazine.

Carl Stevens Sr., Bill Hybels and the Willow Creek Association deserve great credit for adapting Shepherding to its far more covert and modern form and quietly promoting the heresy from the 1980s on to the present, and injecting many aspects into the Mega-Church Movement (aspects of Shepherding were combined with aspects of the Heresy of Prosperity into the Mega Church Movement). Tony Jones deserves credit for adapting another version of Shepherding for the Emergent Church movement of the 2000’s.  Juan Carlos Ortiz was instrumental in adapting Shepherding for the modern Pentecostal and New Apostolic Reformation movements today.

Research is ongoing for aspects of Shepherding specific to the New Apostolic Reformation (which is none of those things) and Pentecostalism. and this will be updated as more is discovered.

Topic:  Spiritual Abuse, Shepherding, Discipleship and Authoritarian Heresy

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