A Question I Was Asked:

Isn't "Shepherding" A Good Thing?

Isn't 'shepherding' a good thing? My friend says you disapprove and we should be very suspicious of it. Where do you stand? Can you clarify further?

UK Apologetics Reply:

We take the term "shepherding" here to mean the control of new converts, or prospective converts, to Christianity, usually Protestant Christianity, a practice which has become quite common among certain of the newer Charismatic groups. Knowingly or not, in using this tool they are falling into a practice similar to what one finds in the cults and sects.

Many of the more cultic religious groups, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses and Latter Day Saints have long used "mind control" tactics; there is nothing new here, there is no excuse for anyone to be unaware of it; these tactics have often gone as far as to set certain leaders to literally spy on newer members, including seeking out details of their financial and marital lives, this is a sham and a disgrace but it has occurred very frequently. However, now some charismatic Christian groups are also using maybe a gentler 'control tactic' sometimes called "shepherding" or "discipling." I have been informed that the 'International Churches of Christ,' for example, employ this tactic. While not usually amounting to the rigorous control used in the cults and sects, it has often caused great concern and been seen as an unwarranted invasion of one's privacy.

Charismatic 'shepherding' is generally understood as group members, especially newer ones, pledging obedience to a particular personal authority within a congregation. In some cases such a person under 'shepherding' would not even be allowed to change the colour of paint on their walls without discussing the matter with their 'shepherd.' I have even heard of cases where those being 'shepherded' are not even allowed to go shopping on their own, or - if they are - are asked for a list of what they intend to buy! The programmes they might watch on TV are also sometimes closely controlled, as are their visits to family members. Financial matters are also often kept under scrutiny. If some of the allegations which have been brought to me are correct then charismatics are now often behaving like the cults and sects!

What Justification is Offered?

So how do these groups attempt to justify these controlling tactics? It sometimes said that this is simply the way the first churches operated back in the first century and that we should emulate their practice. Whether this is accurate it is hard to say, certainly there is no New Testament evidence to back up such an assertion. However, even if such a thing is true, that was a different sort of society at a far different time and place. The Gospel, of course, must remain the same but one should not simply assume that a general societal practice or behaviour of a particular time and place should always be applicable in every time and place. Yes, the first century culture was more heavily family, neighbour, and village-oriented and far less individualistic than the West now is. Individualism can be both lamented and welcomed (for varying reasons), just maybe the ideal society is somewhere in-between.

We now know that the first European missionaries were guilty of many mistakes when first going to places like Africa and South America when they set out to get the indigenous peoples to behave like well-mannered Europeans and Americans! In many cases, it was even insisted that national dress and costumes should be abandoned, giving way to western suits and ties! But the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not about the variations within societies, it is about a divine message which is extra-societal! We cannot turn the clock back, we now live in a more global society which is more individualistic and far less tied to a village and inner family culture. Frankly, moderns are no longer prepared to live within the 'pockets' of a tiny inner-family or inner-village group and are interested in a far greater breadth of experience. This, in itself, is not necessarily more ungodly, indeed, it can only be healthy for the dissemination of the Gospel.

One of the inevitable results of trying to impose a small group-oriented model upon an individual-oriented society can be a mushrooming failure of results. More independent and individualistic people will tend to resist such a group-tailored model. As a result, the only way to make the system "work" is sometimes to impose tighter and tighter controls upon the individual. People who would naturally resist tighter controls upon their lives could then be seen as resisting the Gospel, but they are probably not resisting the Gospel at all but - rather - resisting a return to a societal norm of a culture which died out hundreds of years ago.

One does not always doubt the sincerity of those who support 'shepherding' (although, without doubt, some very dubious characters have sometimes supported it!), yet it is not always the wisest practice in the 21st century West. For my part, I see it as legalistic and view it with suspicion and feel it should not be any part of modern evangelism. New people coming to Christianity should gradually mature in an atmosphere of liberty, not put in some sort of emotional prison; Satan has already done that to all of us. Paul the Apostle compared the 'veil' of the Old Covenant with the freedom believers now have in Christ. He said.

But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate[a] the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:16-18).

In times past constraints and shackles had a part to play but the revelation of Christ should bring liberty.

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1 ESV)

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. (2 Corinthians 3:17 ESV)

For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. (Galatians 5:13 ESV)

And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. (John 8:32 ESV)

So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:36 ESV)

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. (Galatians 5:1-26 ESV)

Robin A. Brace. March 21st, 2015.