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The Dark Side of Discipleship

- By Lawrence A. Pile

During the past 20 years or so numerous books and articles have appeared advocating a return to the New Testament concept of discipleship, both in terms of being true disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ and of making others into true disciples of Christ.  This has been a much needed emphasis after decades--possibly centuries--of neglect.  Unfortunately, as with most recovered truth, extremes and abuses quickly began to be reported throughout the discipleship movement, especially in segments associated with a handful of Christian leaders.  As recently as November 1989 one of these men, Bob Mumford, publicly apologized for the abuses that took place under his leadership and asked for forgiveness from those hurt by his ministry.

Most Christians probably have difficulty conceiving how such a biblical concept as discipleship could be harmful or abusive, and yet personal testimonies and reports abound to show that it can be, and specifically through the over-zealous demand for submission to authority in the discipler-disciple relationship and beyond that in the church at large.

As long ago as April 1976 Russel T.  Hitt wrote an article for Eternity magazine entitled "The Soul Watchers" in which he described spreading abuse of pastoral and discipling authority in several well- known Protestant charismatic, Evangelical, and Roman Catholic movements and denominations.  In an editorial in the February 1979 issue of World Vision magazine Stan Mooneyham warned that "Emotional Cloning is Never Christian," even--or especially--in the context of Christian discipleship.  And in a 1985 article with the title "Disciple Abuse" (Discipleship Journal, Issue Thirty) Gordon MacDonald wrote, "Abusive discipleship begins when someone seeks people with the conscious or unconscious aim not of growing or leading them, but of controlling them.  Sadly, this can be--and often is--effectively done in the name of discipling.  The extremity of this tendency is cultism."

In spite of the reported dissolution of the movement led by Bob Mumford and others (Ern Baxter, Don Basham, Derek Prince, and Charles Simpson), there are plenty of other movements and independent churches practicing the same or similar styles of discipleship and leadership, and thus disciple abuse is still taking place.  Such groups and churches have been dubbed "sheperding groups" because of their teaching that every Christian needs to be submitted to a "shepherd" who is responsible to teach and guide the "sheep." They have also been called "discipleship groups" because of their heavy emphasis on discipleship.  But because both shepherding and discipleship are biblical terms to which these groups have given new and unbiblical meanings I prefer to call them "totalist aberrant Christian organizations" (TACOs).  They are genuinely Christian groups or churches in that their fundamental doctrine is in line with that of historic orthodox Christianity.  But they are "aberrant" in that they teach secondary doctrines and practices that, while not actually heretical, are out of line with what the Church has taught and practiced down the centuries.  And they are "totalist" by virtue of their attempts to control almost every area of the member's life and secure his total commitment and loyalty to the group, its leader(s) and its teachings.  The term TACO is appropriate for another reason: these groups are so close to the truth, and the error is so subtle, that when one tries to get a grip on the problems one has great difficulty holding things together long enough to get a good "bite" on it!

The following are seven identifying marks of TACOs, together with specific examples illustrating them.

1.  Scripture Twisting.

All other characteristics of shepherding/discipleship groups derive from this one.  Carelessness in reading, interpreting, and applying Scripture often leads to harmful teachings, wrong conclusions, and silly notions, not only in TACOs but also in otherwise good churches.  Failure to read carefully and employ sound principles of interpretation is the primary source of the unbiblical concept of autocratic church leadership which is perhaps the hallmark of all TACOs.  When Scripture is read without regard to its historical, cultural, and textual context it can be made to say things the Holy Spirit does not intend.  Thus some groups insist on communal living because the first Christians lived that way; others prohibit dating on the basis that young men and women did not date in Bible times.  There may be other reasons for urging such things, but the mere presence or absence of biblical examples are not among them.

As a matter of fact, probably all totalist Christian groups make the mistake of confusing biblical examples with actual commands, insisting that because Paul (or Abraham or Moses or David or whoever) did something or lived in a certain way, therefore every believer should too.  But without clear biblical commands to that effect this is unwarranted.  Perhaps even more serious in such groups is their common practice of elevating to the status of biblical commands their own individual applications of general principles.

For example, in Ephesians 4:27 the Apostle Paul urges, "...do not give the devil an opportunity." This is actually a general principle expressed in the form of a command.  In order to obey this command/principle we have to decide what it means to give the devil an opportunity--are there certain activities, places, attitudes, etc.  that tend to open us up to influence by Satan? If so, what are they? Paul doesn't say in this passage (although unresolved anger is a clear implication from the preceding verse), but TACO leaders are very generous with their own suggestions as to what gives the devil and opportunity.  But unless the Word of God specifically agrees with them, their applications of this principle are just their own opinions and thus not binding on others.  Each believer needs to learn to go to God directly in prayer and the study of the Scripture to seek guidance in such matters.  No church leader has the right to legislate where the Bible is silent.

A more far-reaching type of Scripture twisting is what someone has called "hermeneutical anarchy"--a near total failure to apply sound principles of interpretation in seeking to determine what a particular Scripture passage means and how it should be applied to life.  The consequence of this failure is often a confusing and chaotic jumble of verses pasted together to force the Bible to say something far different from what it does.  Especially guilty of this error are those (such as Jehovah's Witnesses, Unificationists, and some extreme Pentecostal) who revel in setting dates for the Lord's return.  However, this method (or rather, non-method) has been used to "support" any number of fallacious and idiotic notions.

Another consequence of this interpretive lawlessness is the spiritualizing of Scripture.  Words, phrases, or whole verses are taken out of their context, given a semi-mystical spin, and--voila!-- God's will for my life! One young man I counseled at Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center (the cult rehab center where I work) concluded from reading Gal.  3:25 that he didn't need anyone to teach him spiritual things because Paul had written "...we are no longer under a tutor." But Paul was talking about the Jewish Law as having been our "tutor" (actually, "supervisor" would be a better word) and that now that Christ has come its supervisory job is done.

The founder of one extensive TACO found assurance that he would one day be married by discovering the clause "None will lack its mate" in the middle of Isa.  34:16, when in fact neither the verse nor the entire chapter has anything to do with marriage--it's a description of the total devastation of the nation of Edom, graphically illustrated in terms of the settled "domestic life" of a number of specifically named wild beasts and fowl! In reading and applying Scripture we just be careful to observe what the text actually says, determine its meaning by accepted principles of interpretation, and then make application to our lives in a way that is consistent with the original meaning.

2.  Autocratic Leadership.

As already indicated above, TACOs, by definition, are groups or churches which expect or even demand near- total submission of the "sheep" to the "shepherds" with little or right to question them concerning their teaching or actions.  It is often wise to seek advice when making important decisions on such things as purchasing a home, a car, or a major appliance; changing jobs; choosing a mate; or raising and disciplining children.  In TACOs, however, such advice is often considered as commands and is given whether requested or not.  Indeed, authoritative "advice" is frequently offered in matters that are quite trivial and mundane.

Some members of totalist Christian groups become so dependent on the "guidance" of their leaders that they literally have difficulty deciding what to eat for lunch or what style and color of shower curtain to purchase! One national director of a TACO that grew out of a respectable denomination is on record as having taught that 20% of the Bible is black, 20% is white, and 60% is gray.  In the first two areas God's will is clear and unmistakable; in the last the elders have the authority to tell the individual what to do.

As Chuck Smith has written, "[Shepherds] seek to exercise complete authority and control over your life...  You must submit to the shepherds in all areas of your life that they deem important and necessary.  To refuse to do so is to be marked as a rebel" ("Shepherding or Discipleship?," The Answer for Today, No.  6, 1979, emphasis his).

One or two verses such as Heb.  13:17 are typically given in "support" of such authoritarianism.  However, no mention is made of other passages that balance the New Testament teaching on leadership and authority by admonishing elders not to "lord it over" those in their charge, and to serve rather by example (1 Pet.  5:3; Mt.  20:25- -28; 3 Jn.  9-11).  In other words, elders are to be true shepherds, out in front of the flock leading the sheep, not cowboys riding herd on the sheep.  The disastrous consequence of the totalist style of leadership is that the individual under such authority is deprived of his right and responsibility to seek God's guidance directly or even use his own intelligence to make decisions in areas where the Bible is silent concerning matters of conscience, opinion, or taste.  Thus the Holy Spirit is put in a box as far as the individual believer is concerned, and the group members fall into an uncritical acceptance of whatever the leaders say.

3.  Isolationism.

Totalist Christian groups commonly hedge in their members to one degree or another from the world outside in an attempt to protect them from harmful influences.  One wonders, though, whether, as Ronald Enroth suggests, such isolation is not really "a not-so- subtle attempt to limit access to legitimate supplementary teaching which may, for various reasons, be viewed as competitive and even threatening" ("Churches on the Fringe").  Many former members of "shepherding groups" with whom I have spoken assert that this is indeed the case.

This isolation includes restrictions even in regard to other Christian churches, organizations, and individuals.  Members are frequently discouraged from listening to Bible teachers outside the group because they have not seen the whole truth--if they had, then they would be "with us." What literature the members read what tapes they listen to, what conferences they attend--all are monitored to some extent by TACO leaders.

The "progressive" elder of one local fellowship invited Operation Mobilization director George Verwer to speak at a conference being planned, only to have the founder of the TACO to which the fellowship belonged demand the invitation be withdrawn.  It seems the latter feared Verwer might teach something contrary to his own brand of doctrine, or that he might "lose" members to OM.  Thus, in this "ecclesiastical introversion" all Bible teaching ultimately originates within the rarefied atmosphere of the movement or group out of fear that outsiders might "poison" with contrary ideas the minds of impressionable members.

As for relationships with the opposite sex, most TACOs strongly discourage dating, and some actually forbid it outright.  Most such groups teach a semi-mystical notion of divine match-making, and many require couples to obtain permission (not just counsel) before marriage, and some go so far as actually to arrange marriages.  And regardless of the specific group, all TACOs consider only other members as ideal or even proper marriage partners.

4.  Spiritual Elitism.

Closely related to this isolationism is what a former member of a totalist Christian group has called the "Laodicean syndrome"--that is, the labelling of every other church or Christian organization as "Laodicean" or lukewarm because "nobody else is following the New Testament as closely as we are." Ronald Enroth quotes an ex-member of one of these groups: "Although we didn't come right out and say it, in our innermost hearts we really felt that there was no place in the world like our assembly...  We thought the rest of Christianity was out to lunch" ("Voices from the Fringe," Moody Monthly, October 1989).  Another former TACO member wrote, "[Our movement] was founded on a divisive basis as an alternative to the Laodicean churches from which most of its leaders came.  .  .  The movement survives only as long as its adherents can with a clear conscience label outsiders as Laodicean,' otherwise the movement loses much of its raison d'circ."

Although there have been some recent exceptions, by and large TACOs rarely cooperate with other churches or organizations, including other TACOs, unless they see a chance to do a little "sheep stealing." The founder of one movement had the gall to say, early in his group's history, that he would be glad to work with Campus Crusade for Christ, but Bill Bright would have to submit to his authority! Related to this is the tendency of many totalist groups to imitate others by publishing their own newspapers, magazines, daily devotionals, or witnessing aids; establishing their own political action lobbies, pro-life organizations, recording companies, home-schooling institutes, or even investment firms; and sometimes purchasing their own radio stations.

TACO members have also been known to attempt to acquire a controlling influence on collegiate publications boards and to seek public office by specific group plan and policy.  The apparent intent is to provide a total package for their members so they will not have to go outside the organization to "second-best" sources for any reason, and at the same time to exert as much influence on non-members as possible to convert them, not just to Christ, but even more to the specific views of the group.

5.  Regimentation of Life.

TACOs uniformly have the commendable desire to create not just converts, but disciples of Christ.  Unfortunately, "uniformly" is the right word, because they have quite specific and limited ideas as to what a "true disciple" of Christ is.  Members of totalist groups are given very definite rules and regulations by which to live.  These too often go way beyond the biblical standard of explicitly expressed morality, ethics, and values.  As stated above under characteristic 2, these rules and standards intrude into areas that most people, including most Evangelicals, would consider no business of anyone else.  Professionally conducted studies of some well-known TACOs have revealed that members are being remade into, not the image of Christ, but the image of their leaders.  There is a very definite transformation (at least externally) of members into judgmental, feeling-oriented extroverts, regardless of what their natural personality had been.  Such artificial personality change eventually can have devastating effects psychologically.

The most serious spiritual consequence of such lifestyle regimentation is that it produces a Galatian-style works righteousness.  In Galatia the chief heresy was not justification by works, but sanctification by works.  Paul asks the Galatian believers, "Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?" (Gal.  3:3).  This question is just as apt for those involved in TACOs today.  It's as if they think their faith in Christ just got through the door into the Kingdom, and now their continued progress as Christians depends on their own efforts.  Paul says, "No!" Righteousness "is by faith from first to last" (Rom.  1:17, NIV).  Paul's words ring as loudly and truly today as when he first penned them: "It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery" (Gal.  5:1).

6.  Disallowance of Dissent.

One of the chief reasons for isolationism is, as already stated, so members will look only to their leaders for instruction and counsel.  It follows from this that members would therefore be expected to submit unquestioningly to such instruction and counsel, and suppress any objections or questions that may arise in their minds.  This attitude is reinforced by repeated teaching on the importance of "unity" in the church.  In fact, in all totalist groups unity ranks just below the fundamentals of the faith in importance.  However, in practice what is taught and required is more like uniformity as members are expected or required to adopt not just similar life-styles, but also the same beliefs and biblical interpretations, even in things concerning which most other churches would grant relatively wide latitude.

Until recently one TACO with about 70 or 80 local fellowships required unanimity concerning what its leaders considered the biblically mandated strategy to evangelize the world--a "spiraling out" process they found commanded in Acts 1:8 and reinforced in Rom.  15:19.  Even though neither verse contains a command (only a statement of fact), members were literally excommunicated from churches associated with this movement for publicly disagreeing with this teaching.

In most TACOs the prohibition of dissent extends to anything that could be construed as "undermining the authority" of the groups leader(s).  Even when one attempts to do correct a leader privately (even for rather minor misstatements of historical fact) the leader may respond with accusations of insubordination.

Especially if one comes with questions or disagreements about certain aspects of the group's teachings or practices he may quickly find the tables turned against him.  Rather than acknowledge any validity to the member's concerns, the leader will contend that the only problem is in the questioner's heart-- if he were more submissive to God's appointed leaders he would under- stand the rightness of the thing he's questioning.  Should one persist in such questioning, and share such doubts or disagreements with other members, one will ultimately experience the 7th and final characteristic of all TACOs.

7.  Traumatic Departure.

The persistent questioner or dissident can expect to experience a very painful confrontation with the leadership, often referred to by ex-members as a "surprise party" or "gang-up."  Held (usually without advance warning) sometimes in the home of an elder or other leader and sometimes in the home of the dissident himself, the "gang-up" frequently consists of a hostile and accusatory 4 or 5 to one interrogation session, often lasting several hours until late into the night, with the object of persuading the dissident of the "error of his ways" and of the need to cease his "factious" questioning and recant his "slanderous" charges.

In some TACOs leaders have reportedly forced their way into the homes of dissident members in order to confront them about the "sin" and "rebellion," again usually in lengthy night-time visitations, and sometimes even resorting to physical violence.  Such tactics are often successful, at least in the short run.  The experience of the "late- -night gang-up" is usually so traumatic that the recipient of it will frequently agree to anything just to avoid a repeat.  He may eventually choose simply to leave the group rather than continue to stifle his objections or risk another such encounter.

Occasionally the dissident will have the fortitude to withstand such a confrontation and continue to insist that the leadership deal seriously with the issues he's raising.  It is extremely rare that this ever occurs, however, and the ultimate conclusion of the matter is that the dissident will be excommunicated from the fellowship on charges of "faction." But sometimes these sessions bear permanent fruit, accomplishing such a total transformation of the objector that he is really convinced that he, not the leaders, was in the wrong, and he may even become more fanatical than the leaders in promoting the things which he earlier objected.

Regardless of how a dissident leaves a TACO (voluntarily or by compulsion), the process is almost always quite painful.  The dissident ex-member invariably finds himself cut off from most or all of his former friends in the group (sometimes the dissident who leaves voluntarily is later "excommunicated" so he can be formally declared "off limits" to the faithful).  It often happens that he must find new living quarters, having previously lived in communal housing or roomed with one or more group members.  In some cases ex-members have found it necessary to change jobs because they no longer felt comfortable working with (or for) members of their former fellowship.  Even marriages have been destroyed as the dissident's partner remains so committed to the group that the union is fractured by relentless stress caused by the controversy.

Even more tragic are the numerous nervous breakdowns and suicides of individuals no longer able to cope with the totalist environment and unable to see any way out.  After following a friend out of their TACO one girl wrote to describe her state of mind when she left: "When I left, I knew something was wrong, but I thought it was me.  I thought they were right, even to the extent that I equated leaving them with leaving God.  And I was so unhappy I was ready to take even that step to escape...  When I left...I felt that I was running for my life" (emphasis hers).  One measure of this girl's desperation is the ironic fact that the means she used as an excuse to flee the group was enlisting in the army!

It should be apparent to all serious followers of our Lord Jesus that no church or Christian fellowship should ever tolerate, let alone create, such an atmosphere that would lead even one of its members to consider running away from God in order to find relief from pressure.  Unhappily, this is not an uncommon situation in America today.  In their earnest and sincere efforts to obey the Great Commission the founders and leaders of the various TACOs that have come into being in the last 20-25 years have in actuality created a "spiritual hothouse" to "force" spiritual growth more quickly than in the traditional churches.  In the process, however, they employ methods and instill attitudes that are foreign to the Scriptures, unwittingly quenching the Holy Spirit, giving him little opportunity to do his own work in his own way and in his own time.  The Holy Spirit is, in many respects, replaced in the member's life by the group, it's leader(s), and its teachings.  God never intended for us to be governed by extra-biblical rules for living (explicit or implicit), to abdicate to human guides for every decision in life, or to measure spiritual growth by human endeavor or achievement.  Rather, he wants us to rely on him and his written Word.  He graciously gives us teachers and pastors to help us make the right decisions and sort out truth from error; but they are not to take his place in our lives.

It was this kind of works-oriented "gospel" the Apostle Paul had in mind--particularly in the form of sanctification by works--when he exclaimed to the Galatians, "I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you, and want to distort the gospel of Christ.  But even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed" (Gal.  1:6-8).  Paul calls Christian legalism "a different gospel" and says it is a distortion of the gospel of Christ.  Jesus did not give his life on the cross in payment of the penalty of our sins just so we could exchange one bondage for another one.  No, he died to liberate us from sin and slavery, and we dishonor him as well as disobey him when we subject ourselves to any form of slavery involving attempts at self- perfection.  In sanctification as in justification there must be nothing of human effort, nothing of which man may boast.  Again, the Apostle Paul said it best: "But may it never be that I should boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world" (Gal.  6:14).

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