Guest Post: Van Rue, Former Member of Mars Hill Seattle Writes About Shepherding Theology

This is a guest post from a former member of Mark Driscoll Mars Hill Seattle. Van Rue in this article does an overview of what shepherding theology is about. This is the first installment in a long article. The Wondering Eagle is grateful for Van Rue for his contribution to this blog. 

“It is not the the bruises on the body that hurt. It is the wounds of the heart and the scars on the mind.

Aisha Mirza

“There are far too many silent sufferers. Not because they don’t yearn to reach out, but because they’ve tried and found no one who cares.

Richelle E. Goodrich

Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways!

Romans 11:33 NLT

Mark Driscoll 

Mark Driscoll screaming at his congregation 

This is a guest post from Van Y Rue in  the Seattle, Washington area. Van Rue was involved in Mars Hill Seattle. He wrote up a long article about shepherding theology that is 19 pages. I am going to break it up over several posts. Van Rue has a lot of wisdom, and like many people has seen a lot of issues in evangelical Christianity. This post by Van Rue is an overlook at shepherding theology. What is it and how does it work? What are the characteristics? I will get up the second post in a couple of weeks and then I will do one post that will link all these together. Some of what you read here applies to Acts 29. From Remnant Church in Richmond, Virginia to Matt Chandler’s The Village Church. It also applies to Sovereign Grace and 9 Marks churches. Van Rue thanks for your work, I appreciate you bro and hope that one of these days we can meet. 

This is a series on the Shepherding heresy covering both its development from 1970s with a focus on how it’s expressed today.  In most histories of the heresy Shepherding dies out in the mid-1980s after it was publically refuted, and that is not true, it’s just morphed into diverse, but more clever and covert forms.  Rebranded forms of Shepherding are alive and growing and some aspects of Shepherding have even become silently embedded deep in the fabric of the wider Evangelical church, to our grievous harm.

The former Mars Hill Church of Seattle WA reached a peak attendance of 22,000 on Easter of 2013, yet by the end of 2014 it was hastily dissolved facing enormous financial shenanigans, abusive behavior, theological issues and irreconcilable discord.  In just over a year’s time it went from 22,000 to zero, making it the largest church disaster in history outside an armed invasion.  A modern and covert version of Shepherding played a starring role in in the Mars Hill disaster.  The former Pastor of Mars Hill Mark Driscoll, also co-founded the Acts 29 Church planting network and thousands of churches were influenced by the “Mars Hill Model” adopting many of the same theological issues and attitudes that destroyed Mars Hill.   Shepherding is an error of inches, and some of those churches today may be slowing inching towards disasters of their own.  I hope to shine a new light on the old Shepherding heresy to prevent further damage to the Bride of Christ, his church.


Shepherding Today, Part 1: History, Background and Basics of the Shepherding Heresy

“Shepherding” is a wonderful marketing name. You can imagine a compassionate shepherd diligently watching over their sheep, leading them fresh grass and water, and tirelessly protecting them from harm day and night. It shares the same root word as “pastor” so it also sounds biblical, protective and caring yet it’s not any of those… in reality Shepherding heresy is a wolf leading the sheep to a slaughter. The terminology was adjusted both then and now to make it more popular, it was also once referred to “Church Growth Ministries”, “Discipleship Training” and “Covering Theology”. Shepherding has morphed, and some aspects have crept into the church at large, but it’s been reinvented and repackaged to become the foundation of the modern heresy of “Membership Covenants and Church Discipline” , “The Heresy of Prosperity (AKA The Prosperity Gospel)”, “Prophet, Priest, Apostle or King (PPAK)” and “New Apostolic Reformation (NAR). It may go down among the most damaging in Christian history for both is adaptability, foundation for other heresy and its propensity for damage. In its lighter version it will enormously stunt Christian growth and ministry, and at its extreme versions it often leads horrific spiritual abuse and even cult-like behaviors.

A strong case could be made that Joseph Smith the founder of Mormonism was the first to introduce many of the concepts and archetypes Shepherding later barrows. But the Shepherding heresy as a system we know today first formalized in Fort Lauderdale Florida by pastors Bob Mumford, Derek Prince, Charles Simpson, Don Basham, Ern Baxter and John Poole around 1970. Their stated and seemly admirable goal “to bring Spirit-baptized Christian to maturity, and teach church building”. Their pastoral educations were diverse but seemingly reputable organizations such as the Southern Baptist Seminary, Reformed Episcopal Seminary, Disciples of Christ Seminary and even Cambridge University. In 1970-74 they formed Church Growth Ministries and Holy Spirit Teaching Mission and New Wine magazine to promote their teaching to a receptive and eager international audience. Bob Mumford was further inspired by the book by fellow Shepherding adherent Juan Carlos Ortiz “A Call to Discipleship” who advocated a pyramidal structure with power descending from the apostles at the top through a hierarchal Apostles, Prophets, and Shepherds to the lowly “sheep” at the bottom.

Originally hijacking the Charismatic movement which was exploding in the late 1960s Shepherding seemed to provide a sense of order and emphasis on spiritual growth and discipline to what was an ad hoc movement without defined leadership. It found ripe soil among Pentecostal and Charismatic Churches but also spread without the Pentecostal tone into Calvary Chapel, Presbyterian (mine) and Conservative and Calvinist Baptist Churches as “Church Growth” or “Spiritual Growth” seminars. They hosted large expensive conferences, sold books and tapes and worked as church growth consultants, and collected compulsory “tithes” from the sheep beneath them. Shepherding was enormously profitable movement, so parts of it were later repurposed into the foundations of the Mega-Church Movement and the Christian Industrial Complex.

In the mid 1970’s to the mid 1980’s it was biblically refuted by a wide variety of both Pentecostal and Evangelical leaders, mostly inside their own denominations or in magazine articles.  Sadly for some, it was the money Shepherding was siphoning off that bothered them more than the heretical theology.  One of the larger issue was that the authority of the “Shepherd” to which obedience was demanded was on par with Scripture.  The role of the Shepherd began to take a larger role than Christ, and was essentially idolatrous and led to cultish behaviors.  Initially Shepherding leaders made only small attempts to placate the criticisms, and staunchly defended their core beliefs, and blamed “excesses” on over-zealous followers.    I only have clear evidence that only Derek Prince and Bob Mumford repented publically, around 1990.  It was watered down and rebranded the effort continues today by Charles Simpson and many others.  For the rest the heresy was taken apart, repackaged and in resold in more palatable forms. Even though the neon billboard of Shepherding was taken down it remains strong today and is once again expanding rapidly in much more covert forms.


What Is Shepherding?

Shepherding is is an error of “inches” expanded across multiple fronts.  The basic tenants of Shepherding begin with strong leader who has an implied “special” relationship with God, the Shepherd (who can be either a Pastor, Prophet or Apostle or even a small group leader) who takes charge of the spiritual development of his “sheep” (or today’s “members”) either on a small or large scale.  These pastors are often built up by associates with boasts of “numbers” (baptisms, converts, crusade size) or even stories of miracles. Each “sheep” is submitted to this leader, who is then submitted to their “shepherd” above them and so on.  Blessing and guidance, spiritual growth and hearing from God all allegedly flows down through this pyramid that is conditional on this “submission” to finally reach the “sheep”.  This Shepherd often has a very in-depth influence on the “sheep’s” entire lives, sometimes influencing basic life decisions. There is also a measure of implied protection the “shepherd” brings and if the “sheep” or member strays from, leaves or even worse, questions the shepherd, they step out of God’s protection, blessing and guidance for their lives because that person is their implied “covering”.   This is all very implied and covert today, the relationship is only rarely defined openly along these concepts.  In reality that unhealthy relationship often becomes one held in check by fear and intimidation, and the “sheep” is used for their adoration, time, money and their volunteer efforts… which too often results in some of the most horrific spiritual abuse in modern church history.

Although leadership, authority, giving, volunteering to serve and church discipline all have some legitimate biblical backgrounds, Shepherding in as an error of inches takes these biblical concepts one or two steps farther than Scripture… primarily ignoring Paul’s warning “Do not go beyond what is written.” (1 Cor 4:6)  They seem small and mild individually, but when combined they can create a controlling mechanism on the level of a cult that spiritually abuses and emotionally destroys people.  I know one person so damaged by Shepherding in the 1970s, they didn’t attend church for over 34 years, and some have still not returned.  Many end up in therapy, and many relationships, marriages and families remain damaged for decades.  Shepherding is probably the largest source of spiritual abuse in modern history. 

Today Shepherding is vastly more covert than in the 1970s, and each version barrows differently from the core beliefs, and the language continues to change, and its wrapped different so it’s a challenge to spot.  So how do you tell if a church has crossed the lines into Shepherding?   Shepherds pick and choose from the menu to create their own customized versions, and features are frequently slowly added over time, helping it to stay under the radar.  But here is a list of features, you will often see at least 2 of the first 5 features, and 3 of the second set in modern shepherding churches.

  • Anointed Authoritarianism. The leader is held up as something special, either by subordinates, or their own boasting.  Claims of miracles, and even trips to Heaven, or the frequent use of “numbers” especially baptisms, attendance or crusade size are used impress people on the skill of this “ministry”.   The implicit claim is that this Pastor/Apostle/Prophet/Ministry is better and more successful than others.  And the implied claim is since you want that blessing to spill over into your life you better be “under” their authority.
  • Covenant Memberships: Signed membership agreements are becoming more common. 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 concept of “local church membership” is not even biblical, and “Membership Covenant” contracts are even less so.
  • They Use the Offices of Prophet, Priest, Apostle or King (PPAK). Most often appearing in Pentecostal Shepherding churches, but also Mars Hill in Seattle, they usually only choose 3 of the 4, most often excluding Priest.  Its barrowed from Joseph Smith the founder of Mormonism, One of the trends among Pentecostal Shepherding churches is to re-assign these titles to people today.  The biblical requirements of an Apostle list they must be a first-hand witness to Christ’s resurrection (Acts 1:2) so the office of Apostles passed with John and the closing of scripture (even if the gift is still expressed by missionaries today).  Their used today is often a sign of other extreme theological errors of various types.
  • Brutal Shunning and members, friends and even family can’t talk to or even contact another former member or even staff person. Shunning to this degree is not Biblical, and designed to create fear and squash dissent rather than foster reconciliation. See more below.
  • Compulsory and Manipulative TithingExtra-Biblical methods are used to encourage and even coerce obligatory tithing, and in extreme cases it’s even tracked. But pressure to “give” of various kinds almost always accompanies a shepherding church.

Other behaviors that are always troubling, and often seen in Shepherding churches:

  • Leaders who get frequently Angry or in Public Conflict
  • Leaders Who Resent Questionsand often people who ask them are considered “off mission”, a humble and biblical leader will always welcome sincere questions and even critism.
  • Leaders who Frequently Criticize Other Ministries or Pastors, often subtly,  painting them as inferior… subtly setting themselves and their ministries as superior.
  • Isolationism people 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.  This is a large sign a church is devolving into a cult.
  • Basic Life Decisions Are Monitored, or Controlled, even like dating or changing jobs.
  • External Piety… like the Puritans they emulate, there is an emphasis on both external piety and perceptions that is really legalistic in nature.  They often emphasis that Christians should be “set apart” from the world, but this is a contextual error.
  • A Pyramid-Like Hierarchal Leadership Structure. This taken from Amway and other MLM schemes and is not Biblical, it diminishes the biblical ministries of Elder, Overseer, Deacon and Pastor and elevates those at the top, closer to God. It’s at its core idolatry
  • Reduced Role of Elders.  It’s common among Shepherding Churches to reduce, or even secretly eliminate the role of Elders in ministry or as desion making body.  Mars Hill for example continued to have Elders after the 2007 by-laws change, but because those by-laws were kept secret few people knew (even the Elders themselves) that Mark effectively turn the Elder board into an advisory only role.
  • Church Discipline is Used Frequently. Biblically, Church discipline is reserved only for extreme problems, like open extreme unrepentant sexual sin of false teaching.  If Church Discipline is used for lesser issues, it’s a sure sign of Shepherding.  This is an intimidation tactic combined with Shunning to “keep people in line” and minimized public dissent. See more below.
  • Fear Based Language is Frequently Used. Either for end-of-the-world scenarios or politics.
  • The Leaders are frequently controlling… and 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 was greater than the law.
  • 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 Scripture reference wasn’t even close to the subject, but who really looks those up?
  • Over Emphasis on 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.
  • “Complementarian” view of WomenFar more frequent in Evangelical, Neo-Cal, and Neo-Puritan versions of Shepherding, the church may emphasize “complementarian” views of women as this complements a hierarchal or pyramid structure used by some 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”)
  • Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS).  Increasingly a new theology is appearing more frequently in Shepherding and Complementarian churches, where Jesus didn’t just Subordinate himself to the Father and give up his full power just while on earth, but he did so for all eternity.   This is a semi-Arian heresy that is growing rapidly in Evangelical and Neo-Calvinist/Neo-Puritan churches today, and is used to justify both hierarchal or pyramid-like church governance structure, that frequently diminishes the biblical role of Elder, and used to justify “Complementarian” views of women.  Combined with Complementarianism or Anointed Authoritarianism, it has many similarities with Mormonism.
  • Exit “Notifications” When Members Leave. Membership Covenant/Contracts often require people if they leave the church, to notify the pastor or elders.  Again, the Bible never mentions this at all.  This controlling of basic life decisions and limiting people who leave is a sign that a church thinks its superior to others with an intent is to steer you to another shepherding church and to keep people in bondage.  It’s also a lighter form of Isolationism common in cultish churches.
  • High Staff Turnover… or staff leaving suddenly, often with no explanation or announcement, they just disappear and when asked, the congregation is given vague answers.
  • 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.  
  • Staff or Leaders must to Sign Non-Disclosure and Non-Compete Agreements. This goes beyond keeping private counselling and ministering confidences in private, and goes to keeping business functions, meetings, staff teaching, salaries and even by-laws secret from members, the public, and even sometimes elders.
  • 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.  Anointed Authoritarians avoid anyone holding them accountable, and secrecy is a large part of that.  In some cases even the “Elders” don’t know what the Senior Pastor is making.
  • Churches Registered as Non-Profits. An increasing tactic among Shepherding churches is register as non-profit, often changing their incorporation secretly, instead of a church to have greater control. This is completely different from having a separate non-profit under a church, for specific ministries or needs, this is the main church organization. Non-profits under a church can still be an issue if they are used to hide spending.  But non-profits don’t have pesky Elders who could if pressed, keep the leader accountable. 
  • Defend Practices using mostly Historical References. When pressed, these wolves will often defend their practices with historical references and not biblical references.  But think about this, I could defend all and even the most abhorrent behavior this way, but if church uses historical reference but not scripture… be afraid, very afraid.


Matt Chandler on men

Shepherding Today: Lingering Effects of Shepherding on wider Evangelicalism

It’s important to understand Shepherding never really died it, it just morphed leaving behind an enormous but subtle impact on a wide swatch of Evangelical Churches today. Shepherding began as a paid Church growth and consulting service and its emphasis on tithing was very profitable.  As a result Shepherding ideals of Compulsory and Manipulative Tithing fed the Mega-Church Movement, Christian Industrial Complex and Church-itainment….

Shepherding Churches emphasize tithing over giving.  Tithing is promoted with a carrot and stick approach, a promise of blessing if you tithe, the implicit threat of being cut off from blessing if you don’t. This moves giving into a greedy self-absorbed business exchange with a wheel and dealing God.   However biblically the word “tithe” never once appears in the context of Christian believers or the Church.  Paul reaffirms explicitly what Jesus hints in the Gospels,  “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” ( 2 Cor 9:7).   Giving and sharing are completely voluntary concepts that emanate from the heart alone, and the decision what to give is amount is of the believer alone.  Paul in 2 Corinthian’s 9:7 and Jesus by exclusion have ELIMINATED obligatory “tithing” from the lexicon of Christianity.  Christians should give and share, “Nevertheless, the one who receives instruction in the word should share all good things with their instructor.” (Gal 6:6).  But the amount of this gift is up to the believer in Christ.  Pastors have no biblical authority to influence that amount. Did you know that EVERY single example of an offering in the New Testament Church is taken only for outside the local church?  Notably for Paul, and the poor in Jerusalem.  NOT once in the entire New Testament is an offering ever taken by a local Christian congregation for itself!  Churches that use manipulation, obligation, guilt and false promises commit the sad hypocrisy that in asking believers to “trust God” when they “give” yet they refuse to trust him themselves.  I am sure I just attacked some sacred cows on this issue, but there is not one verse in the New Testament in the context of the church that can refute this.

Tithing ended at the Cross forever.  This obligatory sense of transactional religiosity is exactly what Jesus came to set us free from!  “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire— but my ears you have opened..” (Psalm 40:6a)  Additionally many people use the story of the “Widow’s Offering” seen in Mark 12:41-44, Luke 21:1-4 to promote tithing but more often neglect to mention she was not making an obligatory tithe but making a FREE WILL offering  instead (see Leviticus 23:38, et al). They seem to leave that part out don’t they?   Manipulative tithing is essentially stealing a free-will act of worth-ship…. from God himself and steering both that worship and money to a person.  Please don’t be that person!  God wants his children to worship and give generously from their hearts instead of either obligation, threat, a false promise of a lucrative business deal, or any sense of religiosity.

Volunteer-ism is often promoted the same way as “tithing”… People should volunteer, but they should be volunteering to grow God’s kingdom, not our own under the name of “church”.  What if instead of having a “Purpose Driven Life” we have a “Jesus Driven Life” instead?  Evangelical Churches have pragmatic approach to welcoming Shepherding teaching, if the money is good, and the labor is free, it’s a great teaching!  Shame on us.

The third thing Evangelicals have borrowed freely from Shepherding is how many Evangelical leaders today respond to complaints and questions.  People who complain or even offer suggestions, are considered “off-mission” and grumblers, and even expendable.  The implied theology is that if God wanted the big us to know he would have told us himself.   Sadly this non-Biblical thinly disguised contempt leaders have for the Bride of Christ today damages Koinonia and leads to horrible spiritual pride… the church today is often starving for love and true fellowship as result.  Proverbs 27:17 says in contrast that “You use steel to sharpen steel, and one friend sharpens another.”  But don’t you realize that sharpening only happens through friction, noise, heat, dust and sparks?    Churches are dull (pun intended) today because so many Pastors have been both conditioned and taught by the influence of Shepherding to dismiss both complaints and the people who bring them.

Think about this for a moment, when God called both Cornelius and Peter in Acts chapter 10, he both called Cornelius first, and gave Cornelius more information than he did Peter, and Cornelius wasn’t even a Christian yet!   For a leader to ignore the input of believers is to deny the sovereignty of God.

For one shocking example of this attitude, we can listen to Mark Driscoll predict the pile of bodies he will crush under the Mars Hill bus he was in this case very true to his word.  There was a pile of bodies beneath the Mars Hill bus in the end, but more on Mars Hill soon.

Compulsory and Manipulative Tithing wasn’t enough money for some people, so they expanded that false teaching into the mostly Pentecostal Heresy of Prosperity (aka, as the Prosperity Gospel).  More on that link later…

5 thoughts on “Guest Post: Van Rue, Former Member of Mars Hill Seattle Writes About Shepherding Theology

  1. Ah, Shepherding(TM).
    The control freak’s wet dream.
    Shepherd’s boot stamping on sheeps’ faces in the Name of GAWD SAITH.

    I was mixed up in a shepherding group (and end-of-the-world cult) back in the mid-Seventies; even love-bombed me to Come out from among The Heathen (as in family) and move into their Compound for “Discipling”. You can see where this was going. Very much into “Discipling”, even to the point of “snapping” after which you are Fully Discipled and never ever doubt again. This “snapping” phenomenon is also familiar.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is spot on…my kids were in Mars Hill and our family is still unfortunately being impacted by the lasting effects of this movement. The damage doesn’t stop when the church falls apart.


  2. Pingback: Guest Post: Van Rue Formerly of Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill in Seattle on Shepherding Theology. Looking at Membership Covenants and Church Discipline | Wondering Eagle

  3. Pingback: Combined Guest Post: Josiah Callaghan of Bethel in St. Paul, Minnesota on What Romans 13 Application Means. Plus Van Rue Formerly of Mars Hills Seattle on the Immigration Situation on the Southern Border | Wondering Eagle

  4. Pingback: Guest Post: Van Rue Writes a Biblical Rebuttal to the Evangelical Shepherding Movement | Wondering Eagle

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