This is the final post by Van Rue on shepherding theology. Van Rue is a veteran of Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill from Seattle. In this post Van Rye looks at how the Neo-Calvinists are duplicating some of the mistakes from Catholicism and how to exit a shepherding church.
“I cannot trust a man to control others who cannot control himself.“
Robert E Lee
“Religion is just mind control.“
“What sorrow awaits the leaders of my people—the shepherds of my sheep—for they have destroyed and scattered the very ones they were expected to care for,” says the Lord. 2 Therefore, this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says to these shepherds: “Instead of caring for my flock and leading them to safety, you have deserted them and driven them to destruction. Now I will pour out judgment on you for the evil you have done to them.
Jeremiah 23:1-2 NLT
This is the last post from Van Rue which examines shepherding theology. In this post Van Rue looks at how the Neo-Calvinists who practicing shepherding theology are emulating some of the issues in Catholicism. For example mega churches are the new cathedrals. Plus according to Van Rue Neo-Calvinists are creating mini-popes and practicing their own version of indulgences. Plus the veteran of Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill in Seattle writes about exiting a shepherding church. I am going to compile all these posts by Van Rue into one comprehensive post in the near future. With that I will turn this over to Van Rue and let him share his thoughts.
At its basic level Shepherding leaves an army of toddlers who can’t spiritually nourish themselves, and who often struggle to make simple life decisions. In its strongest forms it’s clearly Cultic in having a charismatic and even worshiped hyper-authoritarian leaders who demand worship, and it leaves a wake of destroyed people in its path. But let’s first unpack a surprising parallel in the middle that many not have occurred to you.
Catholicism has received much criticism from Protestants over centuries because it advocates the role of a “priest” or a Saint as having or requiring intercessory access to God. Protestant Shepherding acts in a similar but inverse way requiring the role of a Pastor, Prophet or Apostle to receive access to blessing and protection from God. In many ways the Protestant version is vastly more harmful than the Catholic, because a human is taking over the work of both the Holy Spirit and the Word of God in the believer’s life. Vast amounts of other false teaching can pour through that gaping open void that this creates. This is direct contrast to historical Protestant’s belief that every believer can have a personal relationship with God in both directions.
Let’s look at this further, Membership and Church Discipline being held up as “good” and “healthy” (which are not biblical) are quickly becoming de facto Protestant sacraments, as is voting with and for the “Republican” political party. It is important to understand that at no point the bible supports “Republicans or Conservatives” nor condemn “Democrats, Liberals or Progressives, if you disagree please quote me a verse. To add spiritual value to anything to in effect create a sacrament that the Bible never mentions is enormously unhealthy and dangerous, “do not go beyond what is written”!. This is the Galatian heresy Paul rebukes them sharply when they add spiritual value to circumcision that is not supported in scripture (see Galatians: All). You can easily see today’s political battles in the pointless battles and rhetoric of Pharisees and Sadducees of scripture. Biblically, no political party can represent the character of Christ that is the role soley of Christ’s body and bride, the Church. Anyone who believes a certain political party has spiritual value is turning that party into a sacrament of sorts, and none of that is supported biblically (in fact, Jesus refutes it fairly clearly).
Mega-Churches are becoming the new Cathedrals, where programs are replacing relationships and people, and worship is becoming a “performance”. Pastors who can’t be questioned or challenged especially those with multi-campus “ministries” and appear only on TV screens are becoming modern mini-Popes and saints at the same time. And Compulsory Tithing is akin to ancient Catholic indulgences, which in many ways is exceedingly worse because we seek blessings for our greedy selves, at least with historical indulgences they were trying to release someone else from Purgatory. Large segments of the Evangelical Church is rapidly plummeting rapidly back to a new set of Catholic archetypes sacraments, human intercession, just with more Protestant names. Cathedrals and popes but with vastly larger potential for even worse false teaching. And todays false teachings of Dominionism and Theonomy today parallel the Catholic belief in the middle ages of a political Christendom. Europe still hasn’t recovered from that theological error 700 years later, the fruit of that false teaching is often centuries of atheism.
Ironically it’s the Neo-Calvinists, often those who are historically the most critical of Catholicism who are leading the charge toward their own modern version of neo-Catholicism. The Protestant Neo-Catholic De-formation (PNCD) is rapidly expanding across a wide variety of evangelical movements and Shepherding is the driving force behind this bizarre return to Catholic archetypes.
Shepherding Heresy Today, Part 7: What Should You do If Your Church is a Shepherding Church? And Conclusion and further resources….
What should you do if your church is a Shepherding church? No one can answer this question definitely, what you do is between you and God. For me, my response has always been to speak up but its among my giftedness. According to Matthew 18 I urge you to bring evidence to your leaders first, politely and alone. A copy of this article or others may do and simply ask them if they can defend their theology using only scripture. If they fail to respond, or fail to defend confidently, return with someone you trust who has deep biblical knowledge, and experience of such issues.
Pray, pray for the perpetrators especially for “truth” and “humility” as pride is a huge motivator to this false teaching. Pray also for the victims, that a bad experience with a church won’t deter them from following Christ now or in the future. Many of the victims may be emotionally and spiritually torn to shreds. Many of these churches use the guise preventing “gossip” to demean silence biblical criticism, stop dissent, and seek to keep real issues secret. Many people heal enormously just knowing there is someone else who knows how they feel and understand what they have gone through, you may be called to be that person.
If you were wounded these churches and situations distort the character of God, I urge those so effected to read the 4 Gospels over and over, especially Luke. Jesus himself is the best antidote to false teaching.
In many cases especially if you are wounded, it might better for your own personal and spiritual heath to leave first, heal, pray and find a church that is healthy. Shepherding has a low repentance rate historically, of only about 30-40%, most adherents stay ensconced to their lucrative false teaching to the end. Sadly historically most of the leaders don’t repent nor will the elder boards act until the money dries up. The Elders at Mars Hill ignored hundreds of Matthew 18 complaints over 12 years… until the money stopped coming in…. then they paid attention only when bankruptcy was looming on the horizon. Shepherding leaders of the 1970s didn’t repent until after the business went belly up. So I urge people at the very least, to stop giving to any organization that practices this heresy. One way is to give to a charity instead, or hold the money in trust until they repent. But it’s your money, it’s up to you.
If you signed a Membership Covenant that includes any non-biblical commentary, a requirement you notify them when you leave (an exit notification), and especially outlines a disciplinary process, I would urge everyone to renounce that contract in writing as soon as possible. That contract *might* keep you in some spiritual bondage of some kind depending on how it’s written, they are all unique. At the very least you should renounce them for your own faith in Christ them because by signing them you have elevated the non-biblical commentary they all contain to be above scripture in authority, and the only way to reestablish the bible as your only and final authority it’s to renounce that contract. At the very least I urge you to verify the scriptural references they contain, over half cite verses incorrectly or out of context, some are not even close. Ask them for the biblical references on local church membership, covenant membership, exit notifications, and where they have biblical right to use church discipline and shunning for minor issues. The bible doesn’t support any of these in a single verse.
For many people here in Seattle, the Matthew 18 process at Mars Hill against abuse and theological errors began 12 years before the church dissolved, and in only 1 case out of thousands was ever addressed by the “Elder board” (who wasn’t even aware their authority had been taken away). Most ended up being round filed into the waste paper basket. However scripture allows people in two circumstances to make these issues public, and even bypass the Matt 18 process. Paul rebukes Peter publicly, and without a private conference because Peter’s theological error was both public and heretically damaging, and Peter was a leader who set an example others were following (Gal 2:11). For such cases of theological errors by public leaders that are leading others astray is so dangerous, no private process is required. The Matthew 18 process was designed for two believers who had a dispute with each other, but it can in theory be used for believers who have a dispute with the theology and praxeology of their church. But even the Matthew 18 process allows if the church doesn’t listen to an issue brought by 2 or more witnesses, those witnesses can make that issue public to the entire church “if he refused to listen to them, tell it to the church” (Matt 18:17). So I urge believers in families and groups to bring their issues to the elders first together, and if they fail to respond you can then biblically make the issue very public. Additionally, John the Baptist publicly rebuked Herod for marrying his brother’s wife, and although it earned John a prism sentence it never earned him a rebuke from Jesus.
Christians can publically call out public leaders both within and outside the church for immorality, theological errors and abuse.
When does a Shepherding Church cross into cult status? It’s often seen in how they handle their “dissent”. The worst church will often try to stifle biblical dissent by claiming those speaking out are guilty of “gossip”, and this is enormously and tragically manipulative. It’s blaming the victim for their theological failures and personal delusions of pride and greed. Sadly these self-acclaimed bible experts don’t know Matt 18 or Galatians 2:11 very well, and they don’t even know what gossip truly is. Falsely calling biblical dissent “gossip” is one huge sign they have stepped across into sociological cult status. It will take a lot of empty seats in a heavily mortgaged room to get their attention. More on what gossip really is to come in a later post.
Additionally, churches that abuse will often claim the “ordinary” believers can’t touch God’s anointed according to Psalm 20:6-7, but they are 1) taking that verse out of context, and 2) fail to realize that ALL believers in Christ, not just special leaders, are God’s anointed. “But you have an anointing from the Holy One …. the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you” (1 John 2:20-27). In cases of Spiritual abuse, they are guilty of the same scripture they falsely try to hide behind, so they add to their sin and judgement. Because all leaders are subject to failure and sin while we remain on this earth, ALL leaders are subject to mutual accountability, and any leader who claims otherwise is also claiming to be God.
When churches don’t listen, Christians must speak out against heretical teaching and spiritual abuse, and its not gossip to call out either even publically. The secrecy they seek to maintain is not biblical, and is extremely dangerous, and is subject to public rebuke, “Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways…” 2 Cor 4:2. To “renounce” something is to speak publically outloud against it, and secrecy and darkness are the breeding grounds of the evil one. Speaking out is where there is biblical error is to bring in the light Christ.
Conclusion and Further Resources
It’s been long held that the Shepherding heresy died out in the 1980’s, and that its effects were primarily in only the Pentecostal/Charismatic Churches. Neither of those are true Shepherding is thriving today in new, rebranded and more subtle forms often infecting wider Evangelical circles…. and like a shark attack it’s not often seen until blood rises to the surface.
The Evangelical Churches love for Shepherding was demonstrated to me recently when an unrepentant Mark Driscoll, former pastor of Mars Hill received a raucous and enthusiastic standing ovation from 3,000 Pastors and church leaders when he spoke at Thrive Leadership Conference in 2015… long after his vast array of horrible sins were made very public in detail (and Mark to this day has only confessed to “moving too fast” for his many sins). Because we conveniently ignore the aspects of Shepherding and even continue to celebrate its most horrible proponents today, this tragically demonstrates its found a welcome and receptive home in many if not most Evangelical churches. Shepherding in all its forms continues to damage churches and believers, and worse, become as a very effective springboard to launch new false teachings almost every year.
Because Shepherding is an error if inches, it can adapt and mask itself with slightly altered forms and different language. Shepherding today is greatly influencing and been the key root of many heretical movements in a variety of church backgrounds. On the Evangelical side some aspects have infected the wider culture of all Evangelicalism. Additionally stronger and more brutal forms are growing rapidly especially in Neo-Calvinist/ Neo-Puritan church circles, and Shepherding lies at the root of the distortions of Christian Industrial Complex and the Mega-Church Movement. In the Pentecostal side Shepherding is at the root of both the Heresy of Prosperity (Aka the Prosperity Gospel) and the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR). Interestingly, different aspects of Mormonism are impacting both Evangelical and Pentecostal currents, but especially the increasingly popular heresy of Prophet, Priest, Apostle and King (PPAK) which not only foundational to the NAR, but also crossed over into Mars Hill. This could all in theory come together in Dominionism as both the NAR and Neo-Cals are pushing increasingly similar forms of this heresy.
As such Shepherding remains one of the greatest theological dangers in Protestant church history. If left unchecked and at its current growth rate, it may effectively undo the entire Protestant Reformation in as little as 40 years.
The tragic stories from Mars Hill, Sovereign Grace Ministries and Village Church and others sometimes reach the news, but in reality more people are severely damaged and discouraged in their faith than we can ever know. There is a strong desire to overlook these terrible issues and continue to support these leaders because of the money, but never once does Christ sacrifice the spiritual health of his children for the sake of a few dollars.
Capricious Church Discipline and brutal Shunning can lead to immense emotional and spiritual damage, and holds place among the most damaging heresies in all of Church history. These are practices taken whole from cultic sects like Jehovah’s Witnesses and Scientology and have no place in the true Body of Christ. When we attempt to replace the role assigned to God himself with a human, we all invariably meet with failure and even terrible suffering. Even when members somehow escape direct discipline, they are still damaged by the implicit manipulation and the failure of church to function in true health found in fellowship with Christ. The net effect of this horrible heresy can never be measured, but all too often it’s the roots of a variety of church failures today. Oh Lord please forgive us for not only tolerating this teaching but for our tireless work in rebranding it into newer and more subtle forms. May you grant us conviction, discernment and courage to fully love first you, then your Truth.
“Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture!” declares the Lord. Therefore this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says to the shepherds who tend my people: “Because you have scattered my flock and driven them away and have not bestowed care on them, I will bestow punishment on you for the evil you have done,” declares the Lord.” Jeremiah 23:1-2
1) “The Other Side of Discipleship”, Pile, Lawrence http://gcxweb.org/Misc/LarryPile-OtherSideOfDiscipleship.aspx;
2) “Charismatic Captivation” Lambert ThD, Steve, 2003 and online at https://www.charismatic-captivation.com
3) “The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse”, by Johnson and Van Vonderen, 2005
4) “Damaged Disciples: Casualties of Authoritarian Churches and the Shepherding Movement” Ron Burks, 1992.
5) “Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements” Burgess, Stanley,…Hunter, Hocken, et al, Zondervan, 1988