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The Shepherding Movement's Interpretation

One of the factors leading to the rise of the shepherding movement was the belief that once the church made new converts, too little emphasis was placed on the discipleship process which would turn them into mature believers. One of the early teachers of shepherding described it like this:

acceptance of Christ makes one a potential disciple. Unfortunately, many people who have what they call a genuine conversion experience never seem to grasp what it means to be a disciple or how to live and grow in the faith. (emphasis his) --Don Basham, "Forum: Discipleship," New Wine, March 1974, p. 27.

Along with this teaching was the clear belief that evangelism alone was not effective, to the point that new converts who were not properly discipled were in real danger of falling away:

Much harm is done when meeting after meeting is devoted to "soul-winning" messages at the expense of the teaching of the flock. --John Poole, "What a Shepherd Can Expect from His Sheep," New Wine, May 1974, p. 7.

The same apprehension towards traditional evangelism is found in the following statement:

A lot of what we call "God's servants" are organizers, professional sermonizers, (much of which is based on theory) who have dived head-long into mass-evangelism, mass-literature crusades, mass-TV programs. We pretend we have discovered a short-cut, a way of getting the "job" done quickly. But we are slowly awakening to the solemn conclusion that we have been laying bricks in the air, and have not been "building the walls of Zion." (emphasis his) --Ivan Martin Baker, "Forum: Discipleship," New Wine, March 1974, p. 31.

One of the biggest controversies about shepherding, however, involves the methodology devised to accomplish discipleship within the church. These teachers believe that discipleship can only occur through a submitted relationship to a "shepherd" (using their definition of a shepherd). They state the following:

All disciples of Jesus belong to Jesus. They are His, not ours (I Peter 5:3,4; Acts 20:28), but He "allots" or assigns them to mature brethren for overseeing and maturing. --Charles Simpson, "Making Disciples," New Wine, March 1974, p. 5.
It means that after the Lord, who owns them, gives them to us as a sacred trust, that we make them in His image. --Charles Simpson, "Forum: Discipleship," New Wine, March 1974, p. 30.

The process of assigning disciples to mature believers to be under their care, protection, and "covering" is the essence of the shepherding movement, to which this article will give some biblical answers.

Biblical Definitions of Discipleship

One of the problems in the above quotes is in the definition of discipleship. The Bible describes coming to Jesus Christ as the process that makes one a disciple. On the day of Pentecost, all the believers were together in one place (Acts 2:1). The believers continued to meet together, to break bread, to pray, and to receive teaching (Acts 2:42). In Acts 6:1, these believers were called disciples. Acts 6:2 says:

And the Twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples (NASB)

What does this mean? Were they called "disciples" because they were submitted under the authority of the Twelve apostles and thus taught by these men just as Jesus had taught the disciples? No, because right afterward the church faced persecution and was scattered from Jerusalem. As these disciples preached to non-Jews, new churches sprang up, with new disciples. Antioch became the first recorded church to be made up largely of Greeks (Acts 11:20). The Bible says:

the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch --Acts 11:26 (NASB)

This is significant because these and other passages give a more generic definition of disciple as being a Christian--not the contrived defintion put forth by the shepherding movement.

The word disciple was used in a Jewish context. The Pharisees said they were disciples of Moses (John 9:28), while they themselves had disciples (Matt. 22:16). John the Baptist had disciples (Matt. 9:14), and of course Jesus had His disciples. The fact that the Pharisees were disciples of Moses, a historical figure, shows that discipleship does not have to involve direct, one-on-one teaching as the shepherding movement assumes. My argument on the point of discipleship has more to do with emphasis than definition. All Christians are disciples of Jesus Christ, according to the Bible--they are not potential disciples. While the shepherding movement's desire to teach young Christians is commendable, it reaches the point of error and spritual danger when Christians are in fear that they must have an elder or shepherd teach them or they cannot be true disciples.

Some Further Teachings on Discipleship from the Shepherding Movement

The following is from the article "Making Disciples" by Charles Simpson in New Wine, March 1974, pp. 4-8.

... a disciple is one who is under the discipline of another, for instruction to produce maturity ...

So discipleship is a matter of one who is living in the way of the Lord, showing someone else how to live in the way of the Lord (Acts 9:2; 18:25,26; 19:9,23) ...

We may make many converts and not make any disciples. Discipleship is vastly more than making converts. In fact, we may do many religious things and yet miss His commandment to make disciples. Be sure that though discipleship is Jesus' own method of reproducing and maturing, it has been abused and will be abused by less noble causes such a communism and numerous false religions. But the method has brought success to them, erroneous as they are. Discipleship works. The more disciplined the approach, the better it works ...

To produce disciples who will walk in Jesus' ways one must himself be an example of Christian maturity and stability. Jesus is not only the pattern for making disciples, He is the pattern disciple. Isaiah refers to Jesus as the Father's disciple and a servant (Isaiah 50:4-11), and Paul reminds us that Jesus emptied Himself and became an humble servant.

The first quality that is necessary for making disciples is a life that is an example of Christ's ways. This is the very basis of our authority (1 Peter 5:3). When one ceases to be an example, he foreits (sic.) his right to instruct. Since life, not information, is being imparted, a man will only produce the measures of life that he has. Words are conductors which convey our spirit to people. A nervous man may teach on peace, but his very words will make people nervous. Weakness as well as strength may be imparted by example.

A second necessary quality is being under authority. This is where Lordship becomes a practical reality. An entire article could be given to discuss the necessity of this attribute. A rebel will begat rebels. One can only transmit the authority to which he submits (See Matthew 8:5-13) ...

All disciples of Jesus belong to Jesus. They are His, not ours (1 Peter 5:3,4; Acts 20:28), but He "allots" or assigns them to mature brethren for overseeing and maturing. These brethren will give an account to Jesus, the Chief Shepherd, for each disciple ...

Generally speaking, all true Christians are disciples of the Lord Jesus. However, the practical process of being discipled by someone has not been part of this experience, even though many of us have been "discipled" by several mature Christians in the course of our spiritual development. In the event that being discipled "by man" may trouble some of the readers, 1 Corinthians 4:14-17 may serve as an example. In Acts 9:1 (N.A.S.), the disciples were called "disciples of the Lord." But in Acts 19:9-10, Paul drew away disciples and taught them daily. So again we say, disciples belong to the Lord, but they are shaped by stewards of His ministry ...

Others will draw back because they are willing to "submit to God," but they are not willing to "submit to man." The Scripture teaches us that man is a rebel ... in 1 Peter 5:5-6 humbling oneself under elders is equated with humbling oneself under the mighty hand of God.

The question is not whether to submit, it is where to submit. That should be the subject of much prayer and fasting ... Wherever and whenever, submission must be done with the conviction that God has led you in it, and therefore you are relating to your leader as unto the Lord. The decision should bring peace and joy. The relationship as a disciple is not contrived or strained. His yoke is easy and His burden is light -- but His yoke is a yoke ...

The door to any flock is the shepherd (John 10:7). Desiring the fellowship of a body without a commitment to its leadership is spiritual thievery . . . "Something for nothing" (John 10:1) ...

If we truly trust God, then we can trust those to whom He entrusts us.

When one truly denies himself he confesses, "I cannot run my own life . . . will you help me to bring it under the government of Jesus Christ the Lord. I want to be His servant." ...

Believing leads to discipleship. Discipleship leads to maturity . Maturity makes one capable of freedom. To grant undue freedom to the immature is to destroy. Our baby is not free to play in the street. If he continues in our discipline he will become mature and know the truth about the street. Then upon maturing he will be free to use it ...

Jesus gave His disciples practical tests of obedience. He challenged their trust in Him ...

Often a disciple is told to do something of no seeming value, other than its contribution to obedience training.

You pick up the stick and look at your playful dog. Showing the stick to the dog you throw it away.

"Go get it, Pal!"

Poor Pal probably thinks, "If he wanted the stick why did he throw it away?"

Why did you throw it? You did it to teach him obedience. One day obedience might save his life.

The purpose of a true disciple is to carry out the will of Jesus Christ. To do that, his own will must be broken. I believe it is accurate to say that our "cross" is where His will and our wills cross. Obedience puts our will to death, and reveals the will of God ...

A true disciple cannot minister, or be promoted, beyond the recognition of his leader ...

Wait for the recognition of your leader. Let him promote you. When he feels you are ready, he, as Jesus did, will begin to take you into his confidence ...

By discipleship Jesus distributed His ministry and success. Instead of keeping the ministry to Himself, He taught ordinary men how to enter the extraordinary purpose and power of God ...

Discipleship had left the disciples in a community or fellowship. That community had as its cornerstone their common Lordship. Without a willingness to be governed, we cannot know true disicpleship, fellowship and community. Protection and sustenance were found in community. That community was referred to as "The Way" (See Acts 9:2, N.A.S.). They were different from those who went "their own way." ...

I believe if Christianity is to return to these principles, and I believe it will, it will come about through a rediscovery and practice of New Testament discipleship. Then we may fulfill our commission: Go make disciples.

A Rebuttal

The article by Charles Simpson really gives a good idea of what shepherding is all about, and explains the true motivations of the movement. These long excerpts are included so the reader may see these statements in context.

The idea that "disciples" and "Christians" are different people has already been addressed. Of course, someone "who is living in the way of the Lord, showing someone else how to live in the way of the Lord" is a scriptural concept. The main problem with shepherding is the manner in which they try to spiritualize discipleship, turn it into a formal structure, and say that you must submit to the one discipling you. Instead, the Bible has a different emphasis, saying in Ephesians 5:21 "be subject to one another in the fear of Christ."

One of the biggest problems with discipleship as taught by the shepherding movement is the "obedience" being asked of the disciples, analagous to a dog chasing a stick--in other words, blind obedience. The Bible does teach obedience, such as in Hebrews 13:17 which says, "Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you." (words in italics are not in the Greek text).

The word "obey" in this verse is the Greek word peitho which means, "to persuade; to influence by persuasion; to seek to please, to conciliate; to appease, to render tranquil... to yield to persuasion, to assent, to listen to, to obey" (George Ricker Berry, The Interlinear Literal Translation of the Green New Testament with the Authorized Version, Chicago: Wilcox and Follett Company, 1897, p. 77 of the Greek-English New Testament Lexicon).

While a dog may obey when you throw a stick, this is not the spiritual context for a Christian in a shepherd/ disciple relationship. The whole idea of obedience in Greek is to be "convinced" or "persuaded" by something to the point that you follow through with action. Only GOD has the right to teach us "obedience training." When we obey human leaders it should be because we are persuaded, and this should be because it is in accordance with what the Bible says. It is not that our will must be broken to follow a shepherd when he "throws a stick to teach us obedience training," but rather through God's word the "old man" is broken and we obey those in the church as part of our new life of following Christ and His teachings.

A Personal Note

I included the above except so the reader can begin to see the full impact the shepherding movement has had on the lives of believers. This kind of teaching by some prominent church leaders has filled well-meaning Christians with fear and anxiety to the point that they have not been able to function effectively in the church (just the opposite result as that which was intended by the shepherding movement). Many young Christians and others have thought, "If God commanded obedience to my shepherd, then this must be right." Many have had reservations about this kind of blind obedience (I believe these reservations come from the Holy Spirit) but have "submitted" anyway because of the strong teaching given by the shepherding movement. In some churches today a combination of this type of teaching and a lack of effective balance through the group's inward emphasis is producing the same type of fear and anxiety. I am trying to show through the Word that the Lord does not want fear and anxiety in Christians. Let the full counsel of God persuade you as to the truth--not some new teaching that is trying to pressure you to submit in order to be spiritual.

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©2005 Steve Coleman

Biblical Response