The Discipling Dilemma, Chapter 8

Roots of Modern Discipleship Movement

Excerpted from the book The Discipling Dilemma, 1988
By Don E. Vinzant

Disciples need to be called Christians again. It happened first in Antioch (Acts 11:26) and it needs to happen today. The words "disciple, " "discipling," and "discipleship" have been so abused that they no longer communicate what they used to. The terms may some day be rescued and used again in the biblical sense. For now, however, other terms used in the New Testament for Christian growth will serve much better.

Where did the modern authoritarian discipling system come from? Who dreamed up this pyramid scheme of a young evangelist controlling the lives of converts so that they grind out huge work quotas and big number baptisms? What are the roots of this system?

This particular form of authoritarianism largely ran its course in other religious groups and has been abandoned. There is a large body of literature full of warnings and criticism of this authoritarianism as it has been tried by others. The fact that it has been tried by others is rather embarrassing to those who thought that someone in the churches of Christ invented this approach. The reality, however, is that churches of Christ are among the last ones to be damaged by the discipling movement.

A Search for Roots

As the following diagram suggests, there are five important roots of the modern discipling movement as it now appears among churches of Christ. Each of these roots will be considered in this chapter. Chapter Nine presents criticism of the discipling movement as it appeared in other religious groups. Statements from many religious leaders explain why they rejected the discipling approach.

The first root of the modern discipling movement may be found in the Roman Catholic Spiritual Directors of the fifth century and later throughout Roman Catholic history. The Spiritual Director system operated in monasteries and convents for many centuries. Those being trained were told to reveal their most secret thoughts to their Spiritual Director and submit themselves totally to their Spiritual director's decisions as to what is good and evil. This is essentially what is now called a "discipling relationship." The idea of confessing sins to a discipler obviously comes from the Catholic tradition and their doctrine of auricular confession. Because of abuses, the Roman Catholic Church built in a safeguard in their Spiritual Director arrangement. They found that personal domination and manipulation can easily run out of control when one person is both the confessor and the Spiritual Director. They began to require, therefore, that the confessor and the Spiritual Director could not be the same person. In this regard, the modern discipling movement is about where the Roman Catholic Church was almost 1,500 years ago. They have not yet learned the danger of having one

person serve both as the confessor and the Spiritual Director for another person.

In the Roman Catholic Church today there is much less emphasis on each person having a Spiritual Director and more emphasis on each person having spiritual direction. Based on his work with the Association for Psychological Type, Flavil Yeakley reports that the Roman Catholic Church was the first religious group to make widespread use of Jungian typology, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, and other approaches to personality differences as a way of counseling individuals about the spiritual direction their lives should take. They now clearly recognize the value of diversity and do not try to make members over after the image of the group norm.


A second root of the discipling movement is to be found in Pietism/Wesleyanism. Early in the Reformation, such men as Spener, Franke, and Zinzendorf wanted to breathe new life into ice cold state churches. John Wesley was impressed by Spener's use of small groups (collegia pietatis) for this purpose. This influenced him to establish Methodist societies within Anglican churches. These small groups soon came to see themselves as a church within a church. They believed that they had achieved a higher level of spirituality than that experienced by other Christians.

Eventually they broke with the Anglican fellowship and became a separate denomination.

This is similar to what happened when Crossroads-trained campus ministers went into churches of Christ throughout the nation and started using the discipling approach. The "Soul Talk" group became a church within a church. Those involved in using this approach saw themselves as being superior to the "lukewarm" or "dead" members who were not involved in the discipling ministry. They thought of themselves as being the "faithful remnant." They sought perfection through rule-keeping and thus demonstrated pietistic tendencies toward legalism. Such a spirit leads to divisiveness. It produces end-runs around good elders. It tempts toward elitism and a kind of self-importance. Study Pietism and you will find an important source of much that characterizes the discipling movement.2

Watchman Nee

A third root of the authoritarian approach to discipling can be found in the writings and influence of Watchman Nee. He is the favorite theologian of many modern charismatics. Nee is a somewhat heroic figure because he suffered a long imprisonment by the Chinese Communists. In his early career, he went through a brief association with the Plymouth Brethren and came under the influence of Pietism. In later years, he advocated very forcefully a strong role for those with "delegated authority." As Russell T. Hitt reported,

Watchman Nee, a prolific writer and leader of the indigenous Chinese church movement known as the Little Flock, makes a strong plea for the need for Christians to obey delegated authority in the church. "The church is a place not only for fellowship of brothers and sisters," says Nee, "but also for the manifestation of authority. "3

Nee's writings on spiritual authority and on the normal church life reflect the kind of Asian authoritarianism that prevailed before World War II. According to Bob Buess, Nee required blanket obedience regardless of morals or righteousness simply for the sake of obedience .4

Nee taught that each person must have a "covering" in the Lord. He used that term for a person who has delegated authority, who must be obeyed unconditionally, and who must be imitated. He also taught that Christians must confess their sins to the person who is their "covering." Jerram Barrs explained that the doctrine of "covering" means that ideas, decisions, and lifestyle must be covered by someone higher in the chain of command; thus the "covering" gives instructions on many secular matters and not just on matters of faith.5 This, of course, is what the discipling churches such as the Boston Church of Christ call a "discipler."

Nee had another doctrine that has been picked up by the Boston Church of Christ. He taught that there should be only one congregation in each city. Juan Carlos Ortiz later advocated the same thing. When Nee's "Little Flock" moved into a city, they proclaimed themselves as the only church (and the only local congregation) approved by God in that city. Study the writings of Watchman Nee and you will find that the discipling movement did not begin with the Boston Church of Christ or the Crossroads Church of Christ. It did not begin with Kip McKean or Chuck Lucas. It did not begin in churches of Christ at all.

Parachurch Organizations

A fourth root of the discipling movement is found in certain parachurch organizations. The term "parachurch" is applied to evangelical organizations with no church affiliation or sponsorship. Two parachurch organizations helped shape the discipling movement.

In 1934, Dawson Trotman founded a parachurch organization known as the "Navigators." Trotman, a strong leader and a true evangelistic entrepreneur, is remembered as having a somewhat authoritarian and dogmatic style. He ran a tight ship and was often confrontational and abrupt with those who worked under him. He would assign workers to any geographic location as it occurred to him. He often had Navigator "houses" where a number of Navigators would share living quarters--with no hint, however, of any moral improprieties. The kind of one-on-one follow-up after conversion that Trotman taught was very similar to the discipling approach practiced by the Boston Church of Christ and other discipling churches.6

Since Trotman's death, his successor, Lorne Sanny, has adopted a modified leadership style. A journal published by the Navigators recently warned against the abuse of discipling relationships. The article warned about authoritarian intervention into the private life of the one being discipled. The article suggested that such a practice can foster over-dependency in the recipient and furnish unhealthy ego-gratification for the discipler.7

Another parachurch organization that influenced the discipling movement is a group known as "Campus Crusade." Bill and Vonette Bright are its leaders. They are as cheerful and sunny as their last name suggests. Bill has been in campus work for almost four decades. Campus Crusade has led the way among evangelical fundamentalists in several areas.

Historian Richard Quebedeaux observed that Bright is an authoritarian leader with a chain of command placing himself clearly at the top as leader of Campus Crusade. Further, he says, there is a lack of any effective self-criticism within the organization. Concerning Bright, Quebedaux adds,". . . it has been very difficult for him to divorce himself from the pietistic tendencies

toward legalism and super-spirituality, despite his words to the contrary. "8 It should be noted that this criticism comes in a work about Bright and Campus Crusade that is highly favorable. Similar criticisms have been made concerning the leaders of the discipling movement among churches of Christ.


The last root of the discipling movement as it has appeared among churches of Christ is seen in the charismatic movement. This movement developed outside traditional denominational structures. Similar doctrines had been taught earlier in Pentecostal denominations such as the Assemblies of God, the Church of God, and the Pentecostal Holiness Church. In the late 1950s, however, a Neo-Pentecostal charismatic movement began. There was no structure to this growing movement. To this loose and amorphous group came five men offering leadership with a capital "L." They were known as the Shepherds of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. These five leaders were Don Basham, Ern Baxter, Bob Mumford, Derek Prince, and Charles Simpson. These men formed the "Holy Spirit Teaching Mission," later renamed "Christian Growth Ministries." They began producing tapes, books, and a monthly magazine called New Wine.

A 1975 article in Christianity Today discussed problems that followed in the wake of the new charismatic shepherding movement.

A dispute is taking place over issues of authority and discipleship. Powerful figures in the movement have built up a chain of command linking many local groups around the country to themselves. . . . Discipleship involves submission to the shepherd as he points the way-and points out flaws in behavior. . . . Some travel to Ft. Lauderdale to receive training directly from Mumford and his colleagues. . . . Those being

discipled must consult with their shepherd about many personal decisions. In some cases, shepherds forbid marriages, reject school and vocational plans, demand confession of secret sins. . . .9

The five Shepherds of Fort Lauderdale taught and practiced a style of leadership that they called "shepherding. " They used this term to describe attempts to control the private lives of their members. In 1972, shortly after they added the authoritarian tone to their teaching, Juan Carlos Ortiz came from Argentina to Fort Lauderdale. His presentations in Fort Lauderdale had wide reception--including some from the churches of Christ. Ortiz taught the same thing as Watchman Nee about one congregation to a city. He also taught authoritarianism to the point that he said disciples should be told which individuals they should take home with them for meals.10

Russell Hitt's article on the top religious news events of 1975 went beyond the discussion of Watchman Nee that was mentioned earlier. That article also discussed problems with the shepherding movement.

The charismatic movement's oneness in the Spirit has been badly strained by a disagreement on the nature and methods of discipleship training between Bob Mumford of Christian Growth Ministries, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and a variety of charismatic VIPs....Mumford is charged with constructing an overly rigid, denomination-like hierarchy of "shepherds" whose spiritual authority over their charges is called a threat to . . . the interdenominational character of the charismatic movement itself. Mumford denies wanting to form a new denomination, but his opponents so far haven't had ears to hear.11

Bob Buess attributes many of these problems in the shepherding movement to the influence of Juan Carlos Ortiz. In his book Discipleship Pro and Con, he wrote,

Juan Carlos Ortiz came from Argentina to America and is now traveling in various parts of the world spreading his version of discipleship. . . . The shepherd is treated like an earthly father would be treated. . . . In neo-discipleship groups there is absolute submission to the shepherd. Everyone is submitted in a regimented (army type) authoritarian chain of command. Someone is between you and God at all times.12

In an earlier work, Buess had warned, "Some pastors and elders set themselves up as little 'Hitlers' over the flock. . . . Some even go so far as to demand submission to themselves rather than to the Lord. . . . You cannot make a decision for yourself."13

Pat Robertson wrote an Open Letter to Bob Mumford on June 27, 1975, in which he complained about abuses associated with the discipleship-shepherd-submission teaching. He mentioned indivIduals who submit to shepherds instead of becoming responsible church members. He mentioned those who have little to say about Jesus but much about their relationship and submission to their shepherd. He told of a secretary at the Christian Broadcasting Network who had been turned into an emotional cripple by this movement. He said that she scarcely could type a letter without a long distance call to her shepherd. Robertson went on to tell about wealthy Christians being forced by their shepherds to reveal confidential details of their financial and family life. He told of one individual who was warned that he would miss out on the Kingdom of God and be ruined spiritually, physically, and financially if he did not submit to the shepherd's authority. Finally,

Robertson quoted a key figure in the shepherding movement who said that if God spoke to him and he knew that it was God speaking, but his shepherd told him to do the opposite, he would obey his shepherd.14

The Shepherds of Fort Lauderdale met in Oklahoma City in March of 1976 and issued the following "Statement of Concern and Regret."

We realize that controversies and problems have arisen among Christians in various areas as a result of our teaching in relation to subjects such as submission, authority, discipling, and shepherding. We deeply regret these problems and, insofar as they are due to fault on our part, we ask forgiveness from our fellow believers whom we have offended. We realize that our teachings, though we believe them to be essentially sound, have in various places been misapplied or handled in an immature way; and that this has caused problems for our brothers in the ministry. We deeply regret this and ask for forgiveness. Insofar as it lies in our power, we will do our best to correct these situations and to restore any broken relationships. (The statement is signed by Don Basham, Em Baxter, Bob Mumford, John Poole, Derek Prince, and Charles Simpson.)15

Over the years since this statement, the men who were the Fort Lauderdale Shepherds have attempted to distance themselves from the negative image the shepherding movement acquired. Charles Simpson might be the one who is still most involved with covenanted leadership relationships. Even Simpson, however, has made strong efforts to clarify his former situation as a leader and advocate of shepherding. In a recent book he said,

When the biblical qualifications for making disciples are ignored, bad things can happen. The Jim Joneses of history, the introverted cultic groups, the groups that produce serious perversions of the faith are not the re-

sults of true spiritual authority but of perverted authority. The qualifications for making disciples and the proper kind of accountability in the ongoing leadership of God's people are necessary to healthy discipleship. In 1985, I published a public apology through New Wine magazine because I felt that my teachings had been misused on some occasions. I felt I had not sufficiently guarded the truths of authority and that abuses had occurred. Disciple-making without accountability and a corporate mentality should be considered intolerable in the church for biblical and historical reasons 16

Then Simpson added this important warning,

The discipling relationship is not static. Hopefully, both the leader and the disciple are growing and maturing. Any possessiveness by the leader stifles this process. As I have said, it is easy for the leader to become possessive of a disciple. He may even use the phrase, "My disciple." The terminology may have a biblical basis, but it is loaded with poor connotations. A disciple belongs to the Lord. A leader only serves as a steward to help a disciple grow and mature in the Lord. 17

The discipleship/shepherding movement has surfaced in other forms, as well. In a Christianity Today article, Edward E. Plowman said,

One of the most colorful and effective Jesus-movement groups was the Christian World Liberation Front (CWLF). It was founded by Jack Sparks and a handful of fellow Campus Crusade for Christ staffers as a Crusade front in Berkeley in 1969. . . . Two months ago CWLF suffered a serious rupture. . . . Sparks was also allied with other former Campus Crusade staffers who head shepherd-disciple type ministries with a heavy emphasis on authority. A clash occurred among Sparks' house group in August on questions of authority.... The former Crusade staffers with whom

Sparks is now "mutually committed" in an "apostolic band" . . . see themselves as apostles or missionaries called to set up and oversee small church groups patterned after biblical discipleship. ... A chain of command already exists between the groups and the apostle-missionaries. This has already led to the same kind of criticism as that leveled against Bob Mumford, Derek Prince, and others in the charismatic-oriented Christian Growth Ministries of Fort Lauderdale, Florida.18

Strangely, the heirs of the parachurch organization known as "Campus Crusade" and the charismatic shepherding movement out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, are thus seen to be using the same system of authoritarianism and, consequently, receiving the same kind of criticisms. The CWLF has since gone through other name changes and has finally affiliated with the Syrian Orthodox Church.

The charismatic shepherding movement moved into Roman Catholic circles just about the time of Vatican II, when Pope John XXIII was attempting to bring Roman Catholicism more into line with modern times. One of the first places where this happened was at Duquesne University in January of 1967. Some of the Catholic charismatics from Duquesne met Don Basham and Derek Prince during the peak of the shepherding enthusiasm. Roman Catholics soon began applying shepherding principles at some "intentional communities," "Christian covenant communities"--a kind of Christian commune. Those involved in this Roman Catholic application of shepherding principles published a magazine called New Covenant. This magazine contained articles from the Fort Lauderdale Shepherds' magazine, New Wine.

By 1978, five ecumenical communities had entered into covenant relationship with each other as an outgrowth of this Roman Catholic-charismatic-shep -

herding movement. These five communities were "Work of Christ" in East Lansing, Michigan; "Word of God" in Ann Arbor, Michigan; "People of Praise," in South Bend, Indiana; "Servants of the Light" in Minneapolis, Minnesota; and "Lamb of God" in Timonium, Maryland. James Hitchcock studied the Roman Catholic charismatic movement and found the same kind of authoritarian abuses discussed earlier in the shepherding movement--abuses very similar to those now found in the Boston Church of Christ. 19 Bruce Barron also studied the excesses of these covenant communities. What he described sounds similar to the excesses reported by those who have escaped from the Boston network of churches.20

Margaret Paloma wrote about the situation among Roman Catholic charismatics in her book ,The Charismatic Movement. She explained,

Discipleship refers to the practice of making oneself personally responsible and accountable to another believer for all "life decisions." Such decisions may range from figuring a daily time schedule or financial budget to appropriate use of possessions. . . . The practice of discipleship has been advanced by a number of charismatic leaders (including Mumford 1973; Ortiz 1975). It is practiced in varying degrees in some churches as well as in many intentional communities. . . . Supporters and critics of the practice can be found among Protestant as well as Catholic charismatics.21

Every characteristic of discipling churches that sets them apart from other churches of Christ can be traced, directly or indirectly, to one or more of these influences discussed above. Others who have tried this approach, however, have rejected it. In a recent conversation with a leader of Maranatha Ministries, I was told, "What you are experiencing in the Church of Christ is what the charismatic movement vomited up." Maranatha Ministries is a campus movement built along the lines of the

shepherding movement. They are militant in evangelism, charismatic, and authoritarian in the personal lives of their members. Their growth may exceed that of any similar movement--even that of the Crossroads/Boston churches. It may be more than an interesting coincidence that the headquarters of Maranatha Ministries is in Gainesville, Florida, not far from the Crossroads Church of Christ where the discipling movement was first introduced to churches of Christ.

Influence on Churches of Christ

It would go beyond the purpose of this chapter and the information of this writer to trace out the full history of how the various elements of the discipling approach came into the Crossroads/Boston movement. That history can best be recorded when someone from the inner circle of founders wants to tell the story. The general outline of this story, however, is already obvious. It started with a desire to see the gospel make a greater impact on the university campus. In the late 196Os, a campus ministry organization among churches of Christ--a group known as "Campus Evangelism"--tried to learn and adapt some of the techniques Bill Bright developed in Campus Crusade. Jim Bevis, one of the Campus Evangelism leaders, went to California to train with Campus Crusade. Chuck Lucas was actively involved in the activities of Campus Evangelism at that time. It appears that some of the techniques he later introduced at Crossroads came directly from Campus Crusade. The chain, therefore, went from Campus

Crusade to Campus Evangelism to Crossroads to Boston.

In the late 196Os and early 197Os, it seemed that what was working in campus ministry was an authoritarian approach. The scene on secular university campuses was one of anarchy, rebellion, lawlessness, and rejection of all authority. What seemed to be the answer was to face the times with frontal attacks using crusades, blitzes, and militancy. This kind of environment led Campus Evangelism and its successor, Campus Advance, to adopt an aggressive "total commitment" stance. Some who were quite close to the Gainesville work could find no real fault with the approach Chuck Lucas used until well into the 1970s. At that time, the Crossroads congregation was making many converts on the University of Florida campus and looking for better ways to keep these new converts faithful. It was at that very time that the Fort Lauderdale Shepherds, Juan Carlos Ortiz, and Watchman Nee seem to have influenced the Crossroads work. It was at that same time that some connected earlier with Campus Crusade (Jack Sparks, Peter Gillquist, Jon Braun, etc.) were breaking away into their own brand of authoritarian shepherding. Some or all of these influences were probably having an impact on the Gainesville work. As time passes, however, someone formerly within this movement may tell all of this story with far more detail than can now be provided by an outside observer.

What about discipleship? If that term is used to mean being a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ and recognizing that He has all authority, then the term is proper as one of many terms that describe the Christian life. If that term is used to mean the kind of authoritarian discipleship/shepherding movement that ran its course in various denominations in the 196Os and 197Os, then Carl Wilson's advice is appropriate. In 1976, this Pentecostal author warned that certain leaders claim

authority that puts them between Christ and the people. He said that these leaders take control of the personal lives of their members by giving all sorts of orders with no biblical support at all. He concluded, "If the people of the churches concede to the clergy the right to make decisions of life and doctrine apart from the clear teaching of scripture, it will inflict the deathblow to disciple building in the churches, even as it did in the early church."21

Churches of Christ need to learn from what other religious groups have already experienced. They tried the discipling approach and rejected it. Churches of Christ should also reject this approach. It's time we called disciples Christians again.


1. Charles Hugo Doyle, Guidance in Spiritual Direction (Westminster, Mary. land: The Newman Press, 1959).
2. Dale W. Brown, Understanding Pietism (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978). See also: F. Ernest Stoeffler, "Pietism," in The Encyclopedia of Religion Volume II (New York: MacMillian, 1987), pp. 32326.
3. Russell T. Hitt, "Top Religious Stories Mark '75 as Pivotal Year," Eternity, January, 1976, p. 9.
4. Bob Buess, The Pendulum Swings (Van, Texas; Sweeter Than Honey, 1974) pp. 11-13.
5. Jerrarm Barrs, Shepherds and Sheep: A Biblical View of Leading and Following (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1983), pp. 39 - 57.

6. Betty Lee Skinner, Daws (Colorado Springs, Colorado: Navpress, 1986). See also: Robert D. Foster, The Navigator (Colorado Springs, Colorado: Navpress, 1983).
7. Gordon MacDonald, "Disciple Abuse," Discipleship Journal, November 1, 1985, pp. 24-28.
8. Richard Quebedeaux, I Found It (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), p. 176 ff.
9. Edward E. Plowman, "The Deepening Rift in the Charismatic Movement," Christianity Today, October 10, 1975, pp. 65-66.
10. Juan Carlos Ortiz with Jamie Buckingman, Call to Discipleship (Plainfield, New Jersey: Logos International, 1975).
11. Hitt, pp. 8-9.
12. Bob Buess, Discipleship Pro and Con (Van, Texas: Sweeter Than Honey, 1974), pp. 18, 48, 143.
13. Buess, 1974, pp. 11-13.
14. Killian McDowell, editor, Presence, Power, and Praise: Documents on the Charismatic Renewal, Volume 2 (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1980), pp. 123-126.
15. ibid. For personal reasons, John Poole removed himself from the Ft. Lauderdale Shepherds, leaving their number at five. Poole generally is not even cited with the others.
16. Charles Simpson, The Challenge to Care (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Servant Publications, me Books, 1986), p. 101.
17. Simpson, p. 115.
18. Edward E. Plowman, "whatever Happened to the Jesus Movement?' Christianity Today, October 24, 1975, pp. 46-48.
19. James Hitchcock, The New Enthusiasts and What They Are Doing to the Catholic Church (Chicago, lllinois: Thomas Moore Press, 1982), p. 127.
20. Bruce Barron, If You Really Want to Follow Jesus (Kentmore, New York: Partners Press, 1981).
21. Margaret Paloma, The Charismatic Movement (Boston: Twanyne Publishers, 1982), pp. 235-236.
22. Carl Wilson, With Christ in the School of Disciple Building (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1976), pp. 23-24.


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