At the zenith of the Charismatic Movement in the 1970s, a pseudo-movement that came to be known as the Discipleship or Shepherding Movement emerged. That purely humanly-devised campaign was led by an alliance of five ministers who employed their influence to rapidly proliferate in the emerging Charismatic Church a collection of doctrines related to authority that were patently hyper-authoritarian. In sum, the unscriptural teachings posited and promoted a multi-tiered, pyramid-shaped system of governance that conveniently positioned these five ministers at the apex of the pyramid. Coincidentally or not, the multi-level paradigm these teachers proposed mirrored the multi-level marketing models that were exploding upon the scene across the nation at the time in the business world.
If the claims of the many pundits and preachers who tersely dismiss the whole matter as being a mere relic of the past since rectified and resolved in the Neo-Charismatic Church Age, that would certainly be a glorious outcome of an extremely destructive and disgraceful period in church annals. However, those claimants are galaxies removed from being right. The fact of the matter is that the false doctrines and unbiblical practices the Discipleship proponents fostered were never fully extirpated from the Post-Pentecostal Church, but rather were actually surreptitiously infused into its fabric, foundation, and functions. Much of what the Neo-Charismatic Church espouses concerning church government, local church polity, and Fivefold Ministry functions, as well as a host of other topics, is predicated on the hyper-authoritarian teachings propagated during the Shepherding Movement, which were actually recycled doctrines indigenous to The New Order of the Latter Rain Movement birthed in 1947 in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Canada, that produced The Manifested Sons of God heresy.
A fundamental and essential tenet of the hyper-authoritarian Discipleship/Shepherding system is a dogma which is best described by the term “absolute submission,” in which followers are required to, in effect, surrender their personal will unto the many ascending echelons of leaders in the pyramiding chain‑of‑command, and to obey explicitly and comprehensively the dictates and whims of those many “leaders.” Followers are taught that they cannot simply hear from God themselves, but that they must “submit” virtually every matter of importance requiring a decision in their life unto their “leader.” They are taught that God requires them to “be in submission,” which in hyper-authoritarian cults extrapolates into total obedience and obeisance to the chain of human leaders of their group, and into those leaders making most or many of their decisions for them, whether overtly or by employing subtle manipulation that leads the member to the conclusion to which the leader wants them to arrive.
In these groups, it is quite common for members to be compelled to receive the approval (which is usually spoken of as a “confirmation”) of their “leader” with regard to such mundane decisions as major and even minor purchases, going on a trip, visiting with relatives, matters concerning the care and nurturing of children, dating, marriage, relocation, and a host of routine decisions individuals and families must make as a normal course of life. Moreover, it is not uncommon for the member’s “shepherd” to take on the role of de facto advisor and confidant in legal and fiduciary matters, such as estate wills and financial planning, probate, trusts, capital investments and expenditures, and court litigation, even though the “shepherd” is not a professional and has little or no expertise in those fields. Some “shepherds” have even been given power‑of‑attorney to act as a legal agent on behalf of an “underling.” Not infrequently, so‑called “shepherds” have used the color of their authority to wrangle their way into being made a beneficiary of estates and death benefits of members as well as interest‑holders in business enterprises in exchange for their “advice.”
On this last topic, as somewhat of an aside, allow me to point out that it has become vogue for mega-churches to recruit salaried “estate/trust planners” whose primary goal is to raise funds for the church, which they accomplish by advising and assisting well‑to‑do and usually elderly members to invest their money in a host of fiduciary investment vehicles available today that will produce returns on their money, provide tax shelter, and provide on‑going funds for the church as a living and death beneficiary or assignee. Though these professionals are typically licensed insurance salesmen and securities brokers who often reap additional compensation from commissions paid by the carriers and firms they represent, these churches have the unmitigated gall and lack of integrity to unashamedly anoint them with the title of “pastor” in a thinly veiled attempt to lend additional credibility and confidence to their schemery by giving the impression that the function of these professional money‑makers is spiritual and that their advice has spiritual merit and underpinnings. In my opinion, this is sheer deception and nothing less than a modern‑day, more sophisticated version of money‑changers in the Temple! What makes it especially deplorable, despicable, deceptive, and outrageous to me is that it is all done under the color of spiritual authority.
Absolute submission is an integral and essential element of the Discipleship/Shepherding theories and practices. However, it is manifest in varying degrees of covertness and overtness by different groups employing them. At one end of the spectrum are proponents and practitioners of these doctrines who hold to and implement an extreme and dogmatic version of absolute submission to the group’s leadership, which is very manifest in the structure and modus operandi of the group, both publicly and behind‑the‑scenes. At the opposite end of the spectrum, are groups who employ a much more subtle and oblique form of absolute submission, which is deliberately kept out of the public services in order to give the impression of freedom and liberty. It is only manifest in the behind‑the‑scenes aspects, among those who have completed all the requisite indoctrination, initiation, and “proof of loyalty” “tests” prerequisite to them becoming a part of the “inner circle” of leaders and prominent “insiders.”
In any case, however, absolute submission is by no means a benign and inconsequential premise, but is an extremely malevolent and destructive mechanism the sole goal of which is unauthorized and ungodly predomination and control. Invariably and inevitably, in the case of those who have accepted the premise of absolute submission as being meritorious, and have integrated it into the structure and operations of their ecclesiastical society, whether it is manifested privately or publicly, it becomes the basis for a demonic and extremely injurious form of “brainwashing” and psychological “conditioning” of the constituency. Multitudes of naive and unsuspecting individuals as well as whole families have been psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually damaged by these very powerful mechanisms of domination‑ and control‑oriented indoctrination. Some have suffered such total spiritual shipwreck and disillusionment that recovery requires the supernatural intervention of God.
Be assured, however, that most hyper-authoritarian groups, from the leaders to the members, will vehemently deny adhering to the premise of “absolute submission” or any of the Discipleship doctrines or practices, for that matter. Moreover, they will adamantly insist that their group does not employ any of the techniques, mechanisms, and methodologies inherent in all such aberrant, cultic and occult theosophies.
Because of the disrepute and disfavor into which the Discipleship/Shepherding doctrines and practices as well as their proponents fell in the Seventies, many Discipleship/Shepherding groups, as mentioned in Chapter Two, simply “went underground” with their methodologies, resorting to a more subtle and obscured, “kinder and gentler” modus operandi, disguising their mechanisms, and implementing alternate, less overt terminology. By and by, most Discipleship/Shepherding groups became increasingly more esoteric (a practice expounded upon further in Chapter Eleven), only implementing their methods and mechanisms of domination and control upon new initiates gradually, incrementally as they progressed through the various stages of development in their relationship and status in the group, while redoubling their efforts to give the appearance of liberty in the public services. Before long, the unsuspecting victims are “caught in the web” of religious enslavement, from which, because of the illusive and delusive strands of indoctrination, many will never escape.
Now, though there have been countless truly innocent and unsuspecting victims of this demonically‑inspired system of unauthorized domination and control, there are a significant number of participants who, driven by selfish‑ambition, were actually attracted to it by the allure of becoming so‑called “leaders” within the sphere of a group‑society where they could attain some measure of “authority” that would give license and sanctioning to their innate desire to dominate and control other people.
A now infamous truism attributed to Nineteenth Century English Parliamentarian and historian, Lord Acton, states: “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely!” Absolute authority coupled with carnality inevitably produces corruption. Those who crave power and authority over others are operating out of a destructive dementia, which, if not arrested by the Cross of Christ, ends up destroying their own lives as well as the lives of many others. Authority in the hands of those who crave it is the most destructive force known to mankind. It is an historic fact that those selfishly‑ambitious would‑be world‑rulers who craved power and world‑dominion down through the ages, eventually became corrupted and demented by that power, and once having obtained some measure of it, used it not for good purposes and constructive advancement, but for evil and destruction.
All this is why the Lord consigns legitimate authority only unto those who have surrendered their self‑will and who have humbled themselves to comprehensive obedience unto the authority of God. In other words, God grants true authority only unto those who, like the Roman Centurion, are men “under authority”—God’s! The last person to whom God entrusts authority is the person who craves it. God’s Way is to humble the exalted and exalt the humble. He does not entrust authority to those who crave the status of being someone great and first, but those whose genuine desire is to be a servant and a slave of all, following after the example of Jesus, who “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:42‑45).
All this is also the reason these absolute authority structures and the dogmas advocating absolute submission to human leaders are unequivocally not of God—because they contravene totally His Word, His Will, and His Ways! Notwithstanding, proponents of the Discipleship doctrines in general and the absolute submission dogma in particular twist and pervert certain passages of Scripture and use them as purported “proof‑texts” by which to corroborate their corrupt and excessive claims that such slavish obeisance to mere mortals is what the Word of God prescribes. Such cases of perversion of Scripture are far too numerous to examine each one here, but just three of the more stellar examples will suffice to make the point.
One of the most frequently quoted texts by the Discipleship proponents pertinent to the matter of absolute submission is Hebrews 13:17, which, for purposes that will soon become clear, I quote here from both the New American Standard and the King James Versions:
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. (NASV)
Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch over your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you. (KJV)
This particular verse is an outstanding example of how the poison of deception is concocted by subtle twists and perversions of otherwise perfectly valid truths by expositors of hyper-authoritarianism. When they teach on this subject, invariably they use these verses as a basis to spin an expository yarn that leads listeners to believe that God is in this verbiage telling believers that they are to be virtual empty‑headed marionettes, walking around like zombies in a catatonic‑trance, automatically and immediately responding in hypnotic‑like total obeisance to every tug on their strings by their leaders. In the case of the extremist proponents of these doctrines, this is not a figurative assessment, but rather precisely what they seem to want out of their followers. As CBN founder Pat Robertson once quipped concerning the band of leaders who started the Discipleship heresy, the only difference between some of them and Jim Jones essentially is the Kool‑Aid.
It is the assignment of corrupt connotations to the key words and phrases of this text that results in their extreme and erroneous extrapolation. The Greek word translated obey, for instance, does not connote a slavish, cowering, cringing‑in‑fear, obeisance and servility, and total subjugation. Rather, it signifies to be “persuadable.” The dictionary definition of “persuasion” is the act of causing someone to believe or accept, or to do something by appealing to their sense of reason or understanding; to induce to believe or act; to influence; to convince. Concerning the meaning of this word in this passage, Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words states: “The obedience suggested is not by submission to authority, but resulting from persuasion” (p. 806).
Additionally, Vines indicates that this Greek word translated obey in many English versions, peitho, is closely related to the word pisteuo, which means to trust, and that the difference in the meanings of the two words is that the peitho (persuasion‑obedience) is produced by pisteuo (trust). In other words, the obedience spoken of here in the original language is more of a willing compliance and cooperation based on persuasion resulting from established trust and confidence.
Hence, the import of what God is saying here is that believers should display an attitude of willing compliance, cooperation, persuadableness, and convincibleness, toward their spiritual leaders, based on the trust those leaders have established with regard to their spirituality, integrity, and wisdom, juxtaposed to the contentious, argumentative, non‑compliant, and uncooperative attitudes some purported believers display toward their leaders.
Beyond all of this, is the overriding point that is being established here, which is that the specter of “absolute authority” vested in an elite cabal of leaders linked together in some humanly‑devised ecclesiastical hierarchy simply and indisputably is not prescribed or supported by Scripture. The only “absolute authority” that exists is the sovereign authority of God Himself. Unredeemed and partially redeemed humans will never be fit to share in that level of Divine Authority.
This article is an excerpt from the book, Charismatic Captivation, by Dr. Steven Lambert. The book exposes the prevalent problem of authoritarian abuse in Neo-Pentecostal churches in particular since the “Shepherding Movement” of the 1970s. The volume spotlights the salient signs and symptoms of authoritarian abuse, dissects the fallacious doctrines behind it, and offers victims clear, concise steps for recovery from the psychological trauma and spiritual damage they experience. It has been praised by scholars, ministers, and layman alike as one of the most convincing as well as comprehensive treatises written to date regarding Neo-Pentecostal authoritarian abuse. The book is available from Amazon.Com, Barnes and Noble, bookstores, or from the publisher, Real Truth Publications.