This teaching of a human needing to have another human as spiritual “covering” has done great harm to the body of Christ through the Shepherding Movement that placed everyone under a spiritual “covering”. The man who was the “covering” was called a Shepherd and the ones who were covered by that Shepherd had to clear their every decision with him. While the movement may have started with sincere desires to protect the flock, when a mere sinful human is placed in a position of complete authority over others who must obey their every word, the stage is set for controlling and abusive behavior.
If you thought the Shepherding Movement (sometimes called the “Discipleship Movement”) suffered a humiliating demise back in the early 1980s, guess what . . . its B-A-C-K!!! Actually, it never really disappeared – it just went underground for a few decades. Why focus on a movement that gained a horrible reputation because of its controlling and abusive behavior? You may be startled by what we have discovered.
What happened in the Shepherding Movement is one of the most disturbing chapters in recent church history, and its effects are still being felt today. For those of you who don’t know anything about this movement, let’s take a look back at a bygone era.
At the height of the cultural revolution of the 1960s, some hippies converted to Christianity. A major movement now known as the “Jesus People” or “Jesus Movement” swept through the United States from coast to coast. Not surprisingly, teenagers who sought “freedom” soon discovered that being free wasn’t the panacea they thought it would be.
The catalyst that started the Shepherding Movement was a moral failure in a charismatic ministry in South Florida. In response to this failure, four well-known Charismatic leaders – Bob Mumford, Derek Prince, Charles Simpson, and Don Basham – came together as the crisis response team. These men, realizing they were equally vulnerable to moral failure apart from accountability, agreed to submit themselves to each another. This mutual submission became a supernatural experience for them, and they bound their ministries together. Eventually, Ern Baxter joined the core group, and “The Fort Lauderdale Five”, as they became known, was established.
These five “anointed” men began to teach on authority, submission, and discipleship. The doctrine that reshaped the charismatic community was that every individual must be submitted to another person and that all major life decisions should be submitted to a “shepherd or pastor”. It became a system in which elders or “shepherds” acted as spiritual leaders responsible for the entire church. Individual church members were assigned to specific elders and were “submitted” to them. Over time, a religious system developed in which a blind obedience to “man” was promoted.
Another doctrine that these leaders emphasized was “Covenant” relationships or “Spiritual Family”. When one entered into a discipleship relationship, it was permanent, as was one’s association with a group of believers. Members were in a “Covenant” with one another. If someone left the relationship or the fellowship group, they were breaking a covenant. These kinds of religious systems often place more emphasis on one’s “spiritual family” than one’s natural family. If a misguided shepherd is in charge of such a system, cult-like behavior is the logical result.
The end result of shepherding is that it puts the submissive person in a position of having two masters – Jesus Christ and a personal shepherd. Over time the shepherd gains more power and control over the one being shepherded, and Jesus Christ is terribly overshadowed. In other words, shepherding becomes nothing more than an idolatrous religious system. Unfortunately, all kinds of abuse resulted from the shepherding movement. Extensive documentation exists describing the abuses that took place. In hindsight, what started out as a method of accountability morphed into a system of enslaved people.
As time went by, the fruit of these doctrines became obvious to charismatic leaders outside the movement. Some of these leaders confronted the “Five” in what has been called the “Shootout at the Curtis Hotel.” The Fort Lauderdale Five eventually parted company, and Derek Prince and Bob Mumford distanced themselves from the teaching. Derek Prince, who withdrew in 1983, explained publicly that “we were guilty of the Galatian error: having begun in the Spirit, we quickly regenerated into the flesh.” Bob Mumford issued a “Formal Repentance Statement to the Body of Christ” in 1990 and was quoted as saying: “Discipleship was wrong. I repent. I ask forgiveness.”
However, the Shepherding Movement continues today under the leadership of Charles Simpson, who prefers to call it the “Covenant Movement.” His ministry is based in Mobile, Alabama.
Unbeknownst to many Christians, shepherding has been “reformed” and “revamped” and may be coming to a church near you. Your church may even be putting it into practice – you just haven’t been able to recognize it.
Jesus dealt with the foundation of the spiritual covering movement contrasting the worldly leadership pattern with body ministry.
Matthew 20:25 But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.
Matthew 20:26 ”It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant,
Matthew 20:27 and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave;
Matthew 20:28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”
“Lording over” or “exercising authority” over others is not the way of the Master. Jesus said “It is not this way among you”. Jesus is not just condemning abusive leaders but the entire system itself. Power and authority from a top down hierarchical flow is the worldly way, while true leadership is a servanthood model based on bottom up support. Those who are the greatest, Jesus said, are to be at the bottom in a position of servanthood for the benefit of others.
In God’s kingdom, authority is based on godly character not on strength, position or rank. This is why we are all allowed to have the authority to use our gifts. Authority is in using what we have been given for the service of others (1 Peter 4:10, 11).
Serving one another in love and maintaining fellowship with one another. That’s the mandate.
To Clarify: This teaching doesn’t mean we have no accountability… it means we have no excuse.
To misinterpret this teaching in such a way as to infer that without a “keeper” we will somehow run wild is to grossly underestimate and devalue the living power of the Holy Spirit within the believer. Those looking for an excuse to misbehave will always find it, and that is simply a testament to their personal maturity in – and proximity to – Christ.
As with any teaching or opinion piece we post, it is within the context of being presented to mature Christian leadership, not to baby Christians. It is presented with the assumption that we are all in individual submitted two-way relationships with the triune Godhead, and endeavor to manifest His vision of the Bride of Christ…
Gal 5:13,15 – It is to freedom you have been called, my brothers. Only be careful that freedom does not become mere opportunity for your lower nature. You should be free to serve each other in love… But if freedom means merely that you are free to attack and tear each other to pieces, be careful that between you, you destroy your fellowship altogether!
Col 3:2,7-10 – Be concerned with the heavenly things, not the passing things of earth… Consider yourselves dead to worldly contacts:.. And never forget that you had your part in those dreadful things when you lived that old life. But now you must put away all these things: evil temper, furious rage, malice, insults and shouted abuse! Don’t deceive each other with lies any more, for you have discarded the old nature and all that it did, and you have put on the new nature which, by constant renewal in the likeness of its Creator, leads to a fuller knowledge of God.
It is within this meaningful fellowship with one another we all have Biblical mutual accountability… not one micro-managing the whole. We stand – each of us individually – within a great cloud of witnesses, in the physical and spiritual realms.
Hebrews 12:1 says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”
You HAVE a “Spiritual Covering”… Jesus Christ Himself sent the Holy Spirit to do that job.
Outside of a meaningful, intimate relationship with Him… none of this makes sense.
(special thanks to The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen and The Wartburg Watch for eloquent and edifying consolidation of facts presented here. Portions of this article are excerpted from our study Does a Woman Need a Spiritual “Covering”? )