Jeremiah 5:26 (The prophet speaking for God):…” for wicked men are found among My people…they set a trap, they catch men.” Then, “An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land. The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule on their own authority.” (vv. 30-31)
Jeremiah 6:13-14 For from the least of them to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for gain, and from the prophet even to the priest, everyone deals falsely. And they have healed the brokenness of my people superficially saying, “Peace. peace,” but there is no peace.
(special thanks to The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen)
The Shepherding (Discipling) Movement, which had disastrous effects on charismatic Christians in the 1970s and early 1980s, is now REFORMED and REVAMPED. Incredibly, some Calvinistic (Reformed) groups have latched onto shepherding as a method of control, which begs the question, “Is God truly sovereign if shepherding is the method churches use to control their flocks?”
How does a pastor implement “Shepherding”? The first step is the pastor becoming extremely AUTHORITARIAN. The decision-making responsibilities rest solely with the pastor(s), and the members have little, if any, input into the direction of the church. Such pastors begin to “lord” their positions over their congregants. Here are two examples of how this happens.
A well-respected doctor met with a pastor at his church, and the pastor warned him: “I am in authority over you.” The doctor, who was aware of a rise in pastoral authoritarianism prior to the meeting, was quick to set the pastor straight!
An extremely knowledgeable Christian man who had been teaching adult Sunday School for decades challenged his pastor on his interpretation of a certain Bible passage. The pastor quickly informed him that their pastor/congregant relationship is liken to a parent-child relationship, with the pastor assuming the parent role. Pastors are NOT to be questioned by church members.
After successfully exerting authoritarian control over their congregations, pastors can then begin implementing shepherding methods. Obviously, the term “shepherding” will never be used again because of its horrible past. Let’s take a look at a “family of churches” that has been extremely successful in using shepherding techniques.
Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) is an excellent example of ”discipling” or ”shepherding”. At the present time there are approximately 75 SGM churches worldwide (mostly in the United States) which are fairly uniform in their shepherding techniques. How does this technique work?
The individual who sits at the helm of Sovereign Grace Ministries is C.J. Mahaney, who accepted Jesus Christ as his savior in the summer of 1972. Prior to his conversion, C.J. was a drug addict who dropped out of college. He was one of those hippie-types who became a Christian within the charismatic movement. He and Larry Tomczak built a ministry together in Gaithersburg, Maryland, which was once called People of Destiny. Through a series of name changes, it is now called Sovereign Grace Ministries. They also established a local church that now goes by the name Covenant Life Church. When this ministry took a doctrinal shift toward Reformed Christianity, Larry Tomczak left; however, there is more to his departure that just a rejection of reformed beliefs.
C.J. Mahaney released a book in 2005 entitled Humility, which clearly describes the shepherding practices of Sovereign Grace Ministries. In Chapter 10 (Invite and Pursue Correction), C.J. states that humility is not a solitary endeavor. He then introduces the practice of “invite and pursue correction” as an effective way to “mortify pride and cultivate correction”. He explains that sin is a deceptive power which we have trouble seeing within ourselves. However, others can clearly see it. C.J. then explains that he is in an accountability group of men who care for and watch over his soul. Where have we seen such accountability before? The Fort Lauderdale Five should immediately come to mind.
C.J. and his accountability partners get together regularly and describe the sins they have noticed in their own lives and in the lives of each other. C.J. refutes the belief that we as Christians cannot understand our own hearts as well others can understand our hearts. He says God’s Word tells him, “No, C.J., sin is subtle, sin is deceitful, and sin blinds you. And you need feedback from others in order to understand your heart.” It seems that the Holy Spirit, on its own, is ineffective in bringing about conviction in C.J.’s life and the lives of those in Sovereign Grace Ministries.
The section in Chapter 10 entitled, ”Just Being Together Isn’t Sufficient”, summarizes how SGM practices shepherding. Here C.J. explains that, although you may be meeting regularly with others for biblical fellowship and accountability, these purposes in and of themselves are insufficient because they don’t ensure obedience. He goes on to explain that two things are required when you meet regularly for fellowship and accountability, and they are required as an expression of your faith.
The first requirement is that you must humbly recognize your need for others. Left to yourself, you will be unable to detect sin in your own life, and your growth in godliness will be limited. You need the “discerning eyes of others” in order to live a godly life.
The second requirement for effective small-group fellowship and accountability is that members must “humbly and aggressively participate”. In order to accomplish this, everyone must not only confess their own sin, but invite and welcome the correction of others in the group.
C.J. encourages SGM members to talk to their spouses or others close to them and ask the following questions
-Do I confess my sin consistently?
- Do I confess specific instances of sin and not just general categories or general references to sin.
- Do others find it easy to correct me?
- Do others know the areas of temptation in my life at present?
- Do they know the most pronounced patterns of sin in my life at present?
“The biblical doctrine of sin reminds us that indwelling sin remains, and it is active, hostile to grace, and hostile to the pursuit of godliness,” according to C.J. Mahaney. He goes on to explain that as we mature in our faith, we need the doctrine of sin more, not less, in our lives. He continues, “On our own, you and I will never develop a competency for recognizing our sin. We’ll always need help. . . . Others can exhort you, encourage you, and correct you. They are a gift from God in your battle against sin. And you never grow out of this need. Never.”
Although Scripture encourages us to both confess our sin and correct one other, Christians need to be cautious in this regard. All men have fallen short of the glory of God. Spiritually abusive pastors and leaders can utilize these confessions and corrections to further their power base. Unfortunately, there are a myriad of examples where these sorts of “accountability” groups have become abusive, particularly within Sovereign Grace Ministries.
In a nutshell, here’s what shepherding looks like in Sovereign Grace Ministries. C.J. Mahaney is the head shepherd, and he has an “apostolic team” who oversees the SGM “family of churches”. The pastors are the next layer of shepherds, with the “Care Group Leaders” being the shepherds that interface with church members on a regular basis. That’s the chain of command in this shepherding network.
Perhaps the fatal flaw in C.J. Mahaney’s book Humility best sums up the shepherding movement that SGM has been implementing for several decades. On page 20, C.J. writes:
“God is decisively drawn to humility. The person who is humble is the one who draws God’s attention, and in this sense, drawing His attention means also attracting His grace — His unmerited kindness. Think about that: There’s something you can do to attract more of God’s gracious, undeserved, supernatural strength and assistance!”
Did you catch the fatal flaw? Apparently, the many individuals who edited the book for C.J. missed it. There is NOTHING we can do to attract more of God’s gracious, undeserved, supernatural strength and assistance! It seems that SGM is trying to do “something” to merit God’s favor, and that “something” is called SHEPHERDING.
What concerns us the most is that C.J. Mahaney has some degree of influence among those who label themselves as “Reformed”, namely: Al Mohler, John Piper, John MacArthur, Mark Dever, R.C. Sproul, Ligon Duncan, Mark Driscoll, and others. We know of some evangelical churches who are providing copies of the book, Humility, to all church congregants in leadership roles. Only time will tell whether the reformed and revamped shepherding movement of a bygone era will become the framework for reformed churches in the 21st century. So much for God’s sovereignty in the lives of those who claim to be Five-Point Calvinists. . .