The Discipling Dilemma, Chapter 9

What Other Religious Groups Have Learned About Discipling

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

What have religious leaders found objectionable and/ or dangerous about the discipling movement? In this chapter, a number of observers will be quoted as they voice their concerns or their warnings about this movement which has transcended denominational barriers. The material is arranged generally in chronological order to demonstrate that the criticism has been expressed over several years and that the objections have been consistent throughout this period.

Early Warnings: The 1970s

Warnings against the abuses of authoritarian discipling appear as early as 1974. In 1974, Bob Buess wrote The Pendulum Swings which included warnings about the authoritarianism advocated by Watchman Nee.1 The following year, Buess wrote Discipleship Pro and Con which warned about the influence of Juan Carlos Ortiz and what Buess called "neo-discipleship legalism. "2 It was on June 27, 1975, that Pat Robertson published his Open Letter to Bob Mumford listing his objections to the approach of the Fort Lauderdale Shepherds as discussed in the previous chapter. In November of that year, Mumford replied in a "Circular Letter" which explained his views on such matters as authority,

shepherding, discipleship, submission, Scripture, and finances. Pat Robertson's Open Letter to Bob Mumford and Mumford's reply can be found in Volume II of Presence, Power, and Praise: Documents on the Charismatic Renewal.3

In September of 1975, Kathryn Kuhlman expressed her concern about this movement in a speech at Youngstown, Ohio. In this speech she said,

There's a new doctrine called "the discipleship and submission
movement You may have never heard of it before. But it is so subtle and
doing so much harm that if somebody doesn't do something to rebuke
Satan and stop this movement, it is going to absolutely destroy the
great charismatic movement. ... Not only do they tell you to give your
money to the shepherd, but to become involved in cell groups and to
"reveal your deepest thoughts." I'll tell you one thing. I'm not going to
tell anybody my inner thoughts.4

On October 10, 1975, Christianity Today published an article on "The Deepening Rift in the Charismatic Movement."5 The problem discussed in this article was the same discussed by Kathryn Kuhlman in her speech at Youngstown, Ohio. Both focused on authoritarian abuses by the Fort Lauderdale Shepherds.

The Fort Lauderdale Shepherds issued a "Statement of Concern and Regret" in March of 1976 at a meeting in Oklahoma City--a statement quoted in the previous chapter. This statement, however, did not put matters to rest. Warnings continued about the difficulties, doctrinal questions, and possible emotional problems connected with the discipleship/shepherding matter. It was in 1976 that Carl Wilson published his warnings against authoritarianism in his book, With Christ in the School of Disciple Building.6

While the idea of shepherding/discipleship was running rampant throughout the loosely-structured

charismatic movement, the older Pentecostal bodies such as the Assemblies of God and the Pentecostal Holiness Church already had their lines of organization. The General Presbytery of the Assemblies of God adopted a position paper on August 17, 1976, in which they took a firm stand against this movement. In this position paper, later published in tract form, the General Presbytery said,

It is true that many new converts look to someone to keep them from
error and to guide them into truth. However, where the individual relies
altogether on another person to protect him from all error, he will
cease searching the Scriptures and fail to develop his own ability to
withstand false teaching. . . . Some find the pattern for their new order
of discipleship in the relationship of Jesus with His disciples,
forgetting that this was done within Judaism before Jesus began to
build His Church. Instead they should seek guidance for church patterns
in the Acts and Epistles. . . . Along with this there is a current tendency to
downgrade democracy in the church in favor of submission to authority. . . . Jesus must be kept central. He is the great Shepherd of the sheep. The
only covenant we need is the one sealed in His blood.7

Earlier in 1976, in the April issue of Eternity, Russell T. Hitt discussed this controversy in an article entitled "The Soul Watchers." In this article he reported that "in one congregation an upper middle-class family found themselves in conflict in their church because they bought a house that was not approved by their elder or 'shepherd."' He stated that ". . . segments of both Roman Catholic and Protestant charismatic communities have been rocked by controversy over what has been labeled the 'shepherding' issue." He quoted the leader of a Roman Catholic charismatic commune who said, "Life in this community includes strict rules of

submission on the part of the members who are subject to the consensus decisions of the leadership and the specific orders of the individual to whom one is submitted."

He went on to comment on the authoritarianism in Campus Crusade, the Navigators, and Robert Coleman's book The Master Plan of Evangelism. He then presented a key objection to this kind of authoritarianism. He said, "One of the marks of the new life in Christ is freedom. Each person, though linked organically with the body, has the privilege of individual growth. . . .To dominate a redeemed person is demeaning to him even in a human sense. In the new humanity it is even more questionable."8

By the next year, 1977, Michael Harper, leader of a prestigious British charismatic organization, was sounding his concern in the book Let My People Grow. In this book he made several arguments that are especially relevant for the present study.

In more recent times some charismatics have been giving even more
emphasis to what they call "discipling." But what is important to notice
is that the New Testament carefully avoids using this kind of language
to describe relationships between believers. Instead it uses the
language of service. . . . If the language of "discipling" is used in place
of "serving," it will simply be a way of replacing anarchy with tyranny. .
. . One method which has been widely advocated is that adopted by Juan
Carlos Ortiz in Argentina.... Ortiz gets his mandate for using the term
"discipling" from Matthew 28:19-20. . . . It seems a strange way to

pret this command to say that Jesus tells us to make disciples for
ourselves. The master-disciple relationship is, of course, used
frequently to describe the relationship that Jesus had with others on
earth, and, therefore, can equally describe our relationship to the Lord
today. . . . But it is never in the New Testament used to describe the
relationship which Christians have with one another. . . . It is best not
to use the "discipling" terminology at all. Not only is it biblically
unsound, but it also injects into this area an authority factor which is

Bill Hamon's church history, The Eternal Church, was written from a charismatic vantage point. In this book, Hamon discusses the decade of the 1970s. One of the issues he cites is that of the discipleship, shepherding controversy. Concerning this movement, he said, "Some taught and developed a Christian leadership pyramid, chain-of-command. The pastor became almost a papal leader to those under him." He went on to observe, "All decisions had to be made by leadership, even daily and personal activities of members." Then he notes that "some disbanded the weekly united meeting of a large congregation, breaking it up into small house meeting cell groups only." Hamon concludes, however, that before the end of the 1970s, "most non-denominational Present-truth Charismatic churches had developed a balance in doctrine and practice concerning Discipleship, Shepherding, Family Life, and Church Structure."10

The difficulties being encountered and the subsequent criticisms, however, were by no means confined to those in the charismatic movement. In 1978, Bailey E. Smith, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, penned his disenchantment with the discipling movement in his book Real Evangelism. He wrote, "When one allows someone to shadow his life as his 'spiritual leader' and dominate his thinking, he takes on

the quirks, oddities and idiosyncrasies of his discipler. He becomes a disciple alright--of Tom, Henry, Bill, or Harold, but not of Jesus." He went on to tell about one leader who had produced hundreds of disciples--but every one of them had his obvious theological error. He concluded, "Their God-given distinctiveness has been absorbed by their hovering discipler."11

In 1979, Michael Green dealt with the discipleship/ shepherding issue in a book on evangelism, First Things Last: whatever Happened to Evangelism? In his balanced
comments that recognized both strengths and weaknesses in the movement, he wrote,

In recent years one of the fastest growing Christian organizations has
been the network of house churches throughout the world. . . . Part of
the strength of this movement has been the practical caring which
members show for one another, not only in the practical affairs of life,
but in spiritual growth and development. But so strong has been this
emphasis on individual caring and what is called "delegated authority"
(held in a chain going up through the pastor to the Lord) that something
dangerously akin to authoritarianism can--and sometimes does--ensue
. . ..Part of the value of being a Body, part of the value of a shared
eldership (as you always find in the New Testament) is to preserve Christians
from the vagaries of one individual leader. We need variety in those
over us in the Lord. 12

In April of 1979, David Breese wrote in Moody Monthly to answer the question, "Why Jonestown?" These words were written in the wake of the shock of Jim Jones having led nearly one thousand people to their death:

It was the deadliest communion service in history. One by one--children,
adults, the elderly--they took the deadly potion. Four hours later, 913
lay dead in the commune at Jonestown, Guyana. . . . The people at
Jonestown were seeking an authority figure, someone who would do
their thinking for them and to whom they could surrender their wills. . . .Only
Jesus Christ deserves disciples. Strong leaders, clever speakers,
commanding personalities--all can easily become mediators of our faith.
Even many "discipleship" programs are suspiciously cultic. Jesus Christ
is the only one who has earned the right to be the object of our faith.13

Later in 1979, David L. Waterman wrote an article on "The Care and Feeding of Growing Christians" which was published in the September issue of Eternity. In this article he warned,

Christians seem to be sprouting some new terms--phrases like "personal headship," "one-on-one," "the multiplication process," "discipling relationships," "spiritual parenting," and even "spiritual pediatrics." What's going on? Afoot in many different evangelical groups, irrespective of their different brand-names, is a quiet, but persistently growing revolution in interpersonal relationships called "discipleship." You are either a "discipler" or a "disciplee," depending on your "age" and maturity in Christ and where you stand in relationship to someone else.14

Then Waterman quotes Chuck Miller who said,

Discipleship is not "running people through a machine and producing Xerox copies." Too many people have seen discipling as putting people on a conveyor belt of godliness, and after so many weeks or months or years, having them go off the conveyor belt at the far end with a big "D" stamped on their foreheads meaning "discipled." Those who come off the conveyor belt seem so identical. This certainly disagrees with Scripture.15

He then concluded with this explanation,

Where does all this talk about "spiritual" parenthood and reproduction come from anyway? Well, you can credit the late Dawson E. Trotman, founder of the Navigators, for most of it, at least in our generation.. . . .What most people mean by discipleship today is nothing more than the post-war concept of "follow-up" in new wineskins.16

In October of 1979, Ronald M. Enroth, a sociologist, wrote in Eternity about "The Power Abusers." In this article he talked about the dependency needs of many people in our rapidly changing and often confusing world. Such people, he said, are attracted to authoritarian movements." He then charged, "The leaders of many of these groups consciously foster an unhealthy form of dependency, spiritually and otherwise, focusing on themes of submission and obedience to those in authority." He then observed,

The so-called shepherding movement exemplifies how well-intentioned Christian leaders can bring disunity to the body of Christ and unanticipated bondage to the individual believers. It is a demonstration of how a perfectly biblical concept like authority can go awry
The religious autocrat takes pleasure in requiring obedience and subordination. His style of leadership can be described as narcissistic. His message is so intertwined with his own personality (and his fear of being

weak) that he easily concludes that anyone who disagrees with him-who is not loyal to him-is in consort with the Adversary. 17

The Warnings Continue: The 198Os

In 1980, George Bryson wrote a booklet entitled, "Excuse for Abuse: An Examination of Heavy-Handed Authority Doctrines." This booklet begins by quoting one of the modern authoritarians who said, "What you need are people who will stand on their heads and spit nickels, merely because you tell them to, and never ask why." He then goes on to discuss some of the issues involved,

Today, submission can mean the unqualified yielding to the one(s) in authority over you. In submission, as well as in shepherding, discipleship, and covering, right and wrong are apparently no longer determined by the merits of the act. That is, the intrinsic rightness or wrongness of an act (so judged in the light of God's Word) is not of primary concern to those holding this view. Rather, obedience to the one in authority, regardless of the request or consideration, is of prime importance. . . . Under this false definition of "authority," right is determined solely by obedience or submission to that authority or its representative. It is also contended that if the authority misdirects its "subjects," the authority will be held accountable and not the subject who obeys, even if and when the act is obviously (from a biblical standard) wrong. ... The notion that we're responsible only to our "superiors" (and thereby absolved from responsibility to God) and that they will somehow have to answer to God for us, is totally foreign to Scripture.18

The false position which Bryson is refuting has a similar sound to the defense for the Nazi leaders at the Nuremburg Trials just after World War II. Even human courts of law will not allow one to be considered

innocent when wrongdoing is practiced "just because someone happens to say so."

In 1981, George Mallone continued these warnings in his book Furnace of Renewal. He noted that,

In the last few years, both charismatic and evangelical churches have been split over the "shepherding controversy." In its extreme, it is extortion and domination of the worst variety. . . . The movement has created alarm by its failure to understand the potential sinfulness of leadership within the church. It is only one small step from "pastoral leadership to spiritual domination" and from "biblical submission to communitarian subservience." What is true of Lord Acton's phrase in politics is also true in religion. "All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.". . . Contrary to what we would like to believe, elders, pastors and deacons are not in a chain of command, a hierarchical pyramid, which puts them under Christ and over the church. The leaders of a biblical church are simply members of the body of Christ. 19

That same year, 1981, Steve Coleman published a tract entitled "Christian, Who Is Your Covering?" Earlier, Coleman had lived in a "submitted house" in Austin, Texas. In the tract, he deals with the theology of "covering." He denies that obeying one's covering will offer atonement for sins which one might commit. He argues that only the blood of Christ is able to propitiate and atone. This comes to the believer through faith, not through obeying your covering. Coleman states,

It should be apparent why the Shepherding Movement is in such error: it has applied to men what rightfully belongs to God. Instead of saying the Lord is the covering, it claims that shepherds are the covering. When the Bible says people can trust God for strength and guidance, the Shepherding Movement says that a man is necessary too. In short, the Shepherding Movement casts doubt on God's ability to care for the Christian.20

During 1983 and 1984, Ralph Mahoney, who edits World Map Digest, published a series of five articles on "The Use and the Abuse of Authority." Mahoney describes himself as "charismatic, pentecostal, and fundamental in orientation." In his first article he states,

I carry grave concerns about the impact some charismatic teachers' concepts have on their disciples." . . . Teaching on submission has been developed by both Protestant and Catholic groups which go far beyond the scriptural concept of submission taught in the New Testament. . . . God's Sovereign Authority, the Scriptures' Veracious Authority, and the Authority of our Conscience are higher than any man, regardless of his office or title. No one on the face of the earth has a God-given right to command you to disobey your conscience, your Bible or your God. These are all above any human office or authority--be it Church, state, or otherwise.21

In Mahoney's fifth and last article, he gives nine examples from the Bible of those who disobeyed, with proper and good reason, someone who had "authority" over them.

In 1984, M. Thomas Starkes, a Southern Baptist writer, dealt with the new cult of neo-authoritarianism in his book Confronting Cults: Old and New. Starkes
discussed this new cult against the backdrop of the Book of Galatians. He observed that,

In the 1980s a new "cult" has arisen within mainline Christianity which expresses itself in various forms but may best be called "Neo-Authoritarianism." This new "cult" is of no less importance than it was in the days of Paul's letter to the Galatians in which he wrote: "Freedom is what we have--Christ has set us free! Stand, then, as free men, and do not allow yourselves to become slaves again . . . In his day, the legalists were Jewish men who promoted circumcision of the

flesh as a way to please God. In the 1980s, the new legalists promote submission of the human spirit in the name of Christian discipleship. The issue is not dead. Galatians still stands as a flagship surrounded by an enemy armada seeking to rob believers of freedom in Christ Jesus.22

In 1982, Joyce Thurman wrote New Wineskins: A Study of the House Church. She did research under the guidance of Professor Walter J. Hollenweger of the University of Birmingham, England. Her master's thesis is on the house church movement in Great Britain. Those of whom she writes are charismatic, and they have had contact with the Fort Lauderdale Shepherds at the time when these leaders still advocated the full program of thoroughgoing discipleship. Interestingly, the house churches of which Thurman writes see themselves as nondenominational and sometimes use the term "Restoration Movement" to describe themselves. One chain of churches within these house churches are called "Harvestime" churches. She reports that in these churches, young couples have to seek the permission of the Elders before they become engaged. She comments that "one very dangerous area seems to be the threat to individuality which is seen in the Harvestime Churches. Every personal wish has to be submitted before the Elders for approval before it can be acted upon. "23

Another British writer, David Watson, was a charismatic leader and an advocate of discipleship, but he wrote words of caution in 1982. He said,

I have seen Christians who once were relaxed and radiant, looking cowed, anxious, and fearful again, because they have come into the bondage of strict human shepherding. . . . If you show signs of thinking for yourself or personal initiative, there will be a major confrontation. Only as you conform will the fragile security of your submissive relationships with other

Christians remain intact. ... Dominant shepherding inevitably becomes divisive. . . . Unfortunate emphasis on shepherding, discipling and submission have been the cause of sharp controversy within the charismatic renewal (in particular) in different parts of the world 24

A. Boyd Luter, Jr. has written extensively on dIscipleship. In 1982, he wrote "A Theological Evaluation of 'Christ Model' Disciple-Making." In it he observed,

. . . discipleship devotees reason that the presupposed "Christ and the Twelve" model is valid. . . . In scanning the works on discipling that I could find which employ the Gospels as their Scriptural base, I was struck by the "cafeteria" approach they utilized. They "pick and choose" certain practices of Jesus and the Twelve as directly applicable for discipling today, but completely overlook others according to their "taste." For example, if "doing it the way Jesus did" is really their model, why aren't they still worshipping on Saturday or offering ritual sacrifices? Why aren't they still leaving their jobs and families to physically "follow" their "discipler" as the Twelve did? Or, if they take their Gospels model seriously, why aren't they investing the same amount of time in the discipling process that Jesus and the Twelve did? In that regard, Leory Eims has estimated that Jesus spent some 13,000 hours with the Twelve. He goes on to say that even in deeply committed discipleship programs today it would take roughly 36 years to log that much time. Do you know any discipleship groups that are "playing fair" with

these figures and these practices? . . . If Jesus Christ is to be the classic model for the "discipler," the human discipler is even doomed to mediocrity in comparison to Christ. . . . But if we attempt to employ the Gospels model, we will almost completely miss the overwhelming topic which fills Acts and the Epistles. . . . The major point here is that, if the Gospels model is adhered to, there is no obvious need for the church in the discipling process. I have even heard individuals involved in the discipleship movement say, "Why should I be involved in institutional religion? Jesus wasn't. I'm just following His example by being in a small-group discipling situation." . . . However, that attitude is exactly the opposite of the apostolic example seen in Acts. When discipling was taking place, it is clear that it was always in the context of a local church or church planting (e.g. Acts 14:21-23). . . . It is my sincere hope that the clarification attempted by this critique and alternative model will result in the further building up of Christ's church (Matt. 16:18). This will happen, however, only if the post-resurrection model is applied with the same energy and zeal as the faulty yet prevalent "Christ Model. "25

What finally becomes of people trampled and mangled by a juggernaut approach to evangelism, discipleship, and church growth? What becomes of people who are abused in authoritarian groups? It is not too early for Christian counselors to begin preparing for those wounded by authoritarianism. Gene Edwards appears to have such a ministry among certain ones hurt by authoritarianism. His book Letters to a Devastated Christian would be useful for anyone who wishes to know the bitter fruits of authoritarianism. Edwards writes his book in the format of a series of letters to a young man. In the third letter, Edwards deals with the question, "Could you assess the result of the damage that has come out of the present authoritarian movement?" Edwards answers this question with eight impressions.

--Young men and young women learned how to rebuke and criticize one another when they were in an authoritarian movement. This is something no one should learn well. Sometimes rebuke gets to be an almost savage thing. Christians, especially young ones, ought not to do such things to one another.

--Pride in people's hearts was appealed to, cultivated, watered, and fertilized.
--Men and women who left those movements lost all hope in even the theoretical honesty of Christian workers. That is doubly tragic. If you lose trust in Christians, you have absolutely nowhere to go.
--Families divided--splits, separations, divorces.
--Christians lost--or never got a chance to lay hold of--the wondrous, unshackling experience of liberty in Christ.
--Fear and confusion became the order of the day. --Young men and young women who might have grown up--and grown old-serving the Lord as workers were ruined . . . forever.
--Across our land have grown up little pockets of Christians who are bitter and shipwrecked. They seem to be able to find one another, move near one another, and fraternize together--like glazed-eyed beings in Dante's Inferno--forever dining on nightmares, partaking of mutual cynicism and hopelessness. That is the saddest of all scenes. . . . There appears to be an almost total disregard--by the leaders in these groups--of the mounting and appalling destruction resulting from authoritarianism.26

Churches of Christ cannot be blind to the bitter fruit everywhere visible from authoritarianism. Impressive numerical results must not close our eyes to the heavy

toll paid by other groups which have employed these authoritarian methods. We must open our eyes to these lessons from the past. As Santayana put it, "Those who disregard the past are bound to repeat it."


1. Bob Buess, The Pendulum Swings (Van, Texas: Sweeter Than Honey, 1974), pp. 11-13.

2. Bob Buess, Discipleship Pro and Con (Van, Texas: Sweeter Than Honey, 1975), p. 143.

3. Kilian McDowell (editor), Presence, Power, Praise: Documents on the Charismatic Renewal, Volume II (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1980), pp. 116147.
4. Jamie Buckingham, Daughter of Destiny (Plainfield, New Jersey: Logos, 1976), pp. 286-287.
5. Edward E. Plowman, "The Deepening Rift in the Charismatic Movement," Christianity Today, October 10, 1975, pp. 65-66.
6. Carl Wilson, With Christ in the School of Disciple Building (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1976), pp. 2324.
7. "The Discipleship and Submission Movement", a position paper adopted on August 17, 1976, by the General Presbytery of the Assemblies of God (Springfield, Missouri: Gospel Publishing House, 1976). Available to public in tract form, The Discipleship and Submission Movement, pp. 3-14.
8. Russell T. Hitt, "The Soul Watchers," Eternity April, 1976, pp. 12-15, 34, 36.

9. Michael Harper, Let My People Grow (Plainfield, New Jersey: Logos, 1977), pp. 74-75, 151-153.
10. Bil1 Hamon, The Eternal Church (Phoenix, Arizona: Christian International Publishers, 1982), pp. 286287.
11. Bailey E. Smith, Real Evangelism (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press, 1978), p. 18.
12. Michael Green, First Things Last: Whatever Happened to Evangelism? (Nashville, Tennessee: Discipleship Resources, 1979), pp. 57-58.
13. Dave Breese, "Why Jonestown?" Moody Monthly, April, 1979, pp. 4243.
14. David L. Waterman, "The Care and Feeding of Growing Christians,"
Eternity, September, 1979, p. 17.
15. Ibid., p. 18.
16. Ibid., p. 19.
17. Ronald M. Enroth, "The Power Abusers: When Follow-the-Leader Becomes a Dangerous Game," Eternity, October, 1979, pp. 23ff.
18.. George Bryson, "Excuse for Abuse: An Examination of Heavy-Handed Authority Doctrines," The Word for Today, Special Edition 2, 1980, pp. 1-7.
19. George Mallone, Furnace of Renewal: A Vision for the Church (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1981), pp. 83-85.
20. Steve Coleman, "A Christian Look at the Shepherding Movement," Personal Freedom Outreach, April-June, 1983, later published as a tract, "Christian, Who Is Your Covering?"

21. Ralph Mahoney, "The Use and Abuse of Authority Part One," World Map Digest, 1983-984. November/December, 1983, pp. 7, 8, 11.
22. M. Thomas Starkes, Confronting Cults: Old and New (Chattanooga, Tennessee: AMG, 1984), pp. 127ff.
23. Joyce Thurman, New Wineskins: A Study of the House Church (Frankurt: Verlag Peter Lang, 1982), pp. 99ff.
24. David Watson, Called and Committed: World Changing Discipleship (Wheaton, Illinois: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1982), pp. 45ff.
25. A. Boyd Luter, Jr., "A Theological Evaluation of 'Christ Model' Disciple Building," 1982, The Journal of Pastoral Practice, pp. 11-21.
26. Gene Edwards, Letters to Devastated Christians (Goleta, California: Christian Books, 1983, pp. 10-11.

End of Chapter 9

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