An apology from one of shepherding’s pioneers has resurrected discussion of the pros and cons of the movement.
In the summer of 1982, participants in the “shepherding” movement from across California gathered at San Jose State University to hear speakers call their movement “as revolutionary as the Reformation, as radical as the Anabaptist movement.” Bob Mumford, one of the movement’s five founders, told listeners of his 11-year-old vision of six well-trained horses pulling the king’s carriage.
Mixing giddy humor and fiery preaching, Mumford suggested that believers, undergirded by shepherding, would be that team of horses. But he warned that other groups once had enjoyed the same privileged mission, only to lose it through disobedience: “One day, God said to the Methodists, ‘That’s all! It’s finished as a movement!’ ”
Ready To Unravel
It was a heady time for those in the shepherding, or discipleship, movement, whose teachings on the believer’s need for “spiritual authority” had caused a deep split within charismatic circles. But the shepherding movement—so-called because its members had “shepherds,” who exercised strict control over them—was about to unravel. Its five founders—Mumford, Charles Simpson, Derek Prince, Ern Baxter, and Don Basham—would soon begin to go their separate ways. In 1986 the remaining leaders would meet in Chicago to disband quietly. While Simpson and some other leaders would continue to keep their people together under new associations, the controversy began to subside.
But old feelings were stirred anew recently when Mumford issued a formal, public apology for his part in the movement. More than five years after he abandoned shepherding in 1984, Mumford is seeking forgiveness from those who were hurt. And he has challenged anyone still affected by the movement’s practices to “take whatever steps necessary to return to a Christ-centered life.” (See interview on facing page.)
Mumford’s apology aroused strong reaction among former members and launched a new debate on shepherding and its shortfalls. Those with differing judgments of the movement agree that Mumford’s apology comes at a time when the charismatic movement remains long on experiential theology and short on sound doctrine. Ironically, the shepherding movement was in large part a response to what its founders saw as a lack of spiritual maturity, sound doctrine, and discipline within charismatic churches that were then growing by leaps and bounds.
“We Touched A Raw Nerve”
It was to address this void in the charismatic community that Mumford joined with Simpson, Prince, and Basham in 1970 as part of Christian Growth Ministries in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Baxter came aboard later. The men published the magazine New Wine and held conferences at which they addressed such topics as the need to hold believers accountable. Mumford, now based in San Rafael, California, said that by 1975 he knew the movement would grow rapidly because it “had touched a raw nerve in the body of Christ.” “People were so hungry,” he said, “so desirous for a place to belong and for someone to care.”
Simpson estimates 50,000 members took part in shepherding at its peak. Mumford said the group touched upwards of 100,000 people directly or indirectly. But as the movement began to plant churches or take existing ones under its wings, it met with stiff criticism, especially from Pentecostal and charismatic leaders, who charged that shepherds were overstepping their bounds by virtually ordering their disciples in such areas as whom to marry and where to reside.
Moreover, concern arose about the movement’s aims. A 1976 report by the Assemblies of God maintained that some leaders in shepherding “claim their mission and the church’s mission is no longer evangelism, but the setting up of a new order on earth in prospect of bringing in the Kingdom. But the New Testament does not indicate we can set up a purified external order in this age.”
Picking Up The Pieces
Such views on the movement—and the problems it caused—have changed little with time. Jack Hayford, in an article for Ministries Today magazine on the restoration of Mumford, wrote, “Multiplied hundreds of pastors, like myself, have spent large amounts of time over the past 15 years picking up the pieces of broken lives that resulted from distortion of truth by extreme teachings and destructive applications on discipleship, authority and shepherding.”
It has fallen largely to Simpson, considered the one leader still carrying the movement’s banner, to defend its practices. In a lengthy interview, he maintained that the group and its leaders have been barraged for years by false accusations from church leaders and from both secular and religious media.
Simpson acknowledged that during the explosive growth years of the late 1970s, many, including himself, had been too domineering and had hurt others as they tried to find ways to lead the movement. But he said these leaders already have apologized for those hurts and changed practices to prevent their recurrence.
“We’re 20 years older as a movement,” Simpson said. “In a word, I would say we’re a lot more flexible than we were 20 years ago.”
Beyond that acknowledgment, Simpson strongly defended the movement. He denied that the group as a whole lost focus on the lordship of Christ. He suggested the younger shepherds were given too much blame for what went wrong. And he denied any aims to set up a “perfected church” before Christ returns. “I never did teach we were going to bring in the kingdom apart from the Lord,” he said.
Simpson did acknowledge rubbing shoulders with people who held such a view. “When you’re preaching something on the cutting edge,” he said, “you’re going to be very close to people off the edge.”
Today Simpson is the founder and chairman of the Fellowship of Covenant Ministries and Churches. Based in Mobile, Alabama, he helps oversee an organization of 150 churches and 10,000 people. To him, the many people helped through shepherding vindicates his efforts. And he sees new vistas.
“The seventies were a time of focusing and discipleship,” he said, “the eighties were a time of focusing on churches, and in the nineties the focus is on nations.” Along with current work in Africa and Central America, Simpson said his group is optimistic about ministry opportunites in Eastern Europe and the Orient.
Those who left the movement went in various directions. Some got involved for a time with the activities of the national organization Coalition on Revival, which consists of evangelicals, fundamentalists, and Reconstructionists. A few, like Mumford’s former disciple Dennis Peacocke, have dabbled in Reconstructionism. Peacocke, who keeps close ties with former shepherding churches in northern California, dedicated a 1987 book to Mumford and to theonomists Gary North and R. J. Rushdoony.
Some former leaders, according to Craig Hawkins of the Christian Research Institute, have been drawn more into what is sometimes labeled the “latter day restoration” movement, which emphasizes perfecting the church in anticipation of Christ’s return. Still others have sought out denominations to provide them with more of a sense of roots, while others have simply become part of the larger, more traditional charismatic movement.
Basham died in 1989. The group’s other founders continue to be in demand as teachers. Baxter, about whom observers differed on whether he had “released” his disciples, was teaching in Australia and unavailable for comment. Both he and Prince are in charge of independent Christian ministries.
By Robert Digitale.
Mumford: Application, Not Doctrine, Was Flawed
Bob Mumford, 59, was one of five prominent leaders of the discipleship, or shepherding, movement. He left it in 1984 and recently made a public apology for the damaged lives that have resulted from abuse of the shepherding concept. Mumford discussed that apology and other aspects of the movement with CT correspondent Robert Digitale.
Briefly explain what it is you’ve apologized for.
I got involved in spiritual-growth ministries because I have a love for ministry and a concern for the unity and spiritual maturity of the church. But there were deviations in the proper application of biblical truths I espoused.
What are those truths and how did they contribute to the movement’s growth?
The discipleship movement was born during a time in which every kind of authority was being challenged. People needed to belong, to be a part of something. There was also a widespread cry for personal discipline; people hungered to get their lives together.
Out of the need to belong came the emphasis on covenantal relationships. From the need for discipline came the idea of mentoring, or discipleship. Leaders took responsibility for the spiritual growth of followers. Today I wonder why the church didn’t approach it more carefully. It seems self-evident that these doctrines lend themselves to abuse. Yet I believe the truths themselves are biblical and that the error was in the application.
Do you include yourself among those who didn’t approach these truths with enough caution?
Yes. If I’d had a clear church history perspective, I would have seen where this thing was going sooner than I did. The problems were not new. In 1 Peter 5, Peter tells the elders not to lord it over the flock.
In 1974, the godly theologian Kilian McDonald warned me that the movement had no mechanism to bring leaders, especially young leaders, to maturity. More than anything, I’m apologizing for deaf ears. But in my own defense, by this time the movement had gained a certain momentum. And there was no steering wheel.
How bad were the abuses? I’ve heard, for example, of a leader who told a man his wife was rebellious and following God’s will might mean divorcing her.
I would consider that an extreme. Those in authority directed job changes, they encouraged or discouraged marriages. Pastors have always offered counsel, but in our movement it took on a dimension of spiritual authority, leading to injury, hurt, and in some cases, disaster.
If the doctrine was sound, what went wrong?
Some of what went on was badly motivated, but most of the abuses resulted from what Paul called zeal without knowledge. To illustrate, people assumed that if one vitamin is good, six are better. So when personal discipline wasn’t “working,” the response was to increase the authority. It put leaders into a sphere where biblical limitations on their authority were not clear.
People took something that began in the spirit and attempted to perfect it in the flesh. Ends began to justify means. The attitude became, “I’m going to help you walk straight, even if I have to coerce you.” This is not the spirit of the gospel.
Part of the motivation behind my public apology is the realization that this wrong attitude is still present in hundreds of independent church groups who are answerable to no one. I’m trying to get people still attached to a church of that nature to recenter their lives on Jesus Christ and to re-examine how these truths are being applied.
What lessons have been in this for you?
I have a basic biblical conviction that is hard to resolve. I call it the law of direct proportion. I believe that if the truth doesn’t have the power to hurt, it doesn’t have the power to help. Sometimes the church doesn’t help anyone because it’s afraid to hurt anyone.
I still believe that discipleship within covenant relationships has the power to change lives, heal churches, and enable the kingdom of God to progress. It also has the potential to injure people. But I don’t want to be afraid of the truth. I believe these truths are going through a death and resurrection, that they will return to help the larger body of Christ. The important thing is always to be accountable to others.
Do the problems with the shepherding movement illustrate the need for a sound theology within the charismatic movement?
Charismatic renewal was never designed by the Lord to be an entity in its own [right], to be isolated from mainline Christianity. In the Second Great Awakening, the accusation was also emotionalism with an absence of teaching. But we’re seeing less and less of a charismatic/noncharismatic distinction. We saw convergence at Lausanne in Manila, and it’s happening with the National Religious Broadcasters. My hope is for the mature charismatic and the open evangelical to coalesce so that the body of Christ can have both biblical orthodoxy and a vital Christian experience.
What do you see happening, then, with the charismatic movment in the nineties?
It is in a serious transitional time. Because of its inadequate theological foundation, I see things coming unglued ethically and morally. I think Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart are only the first birth pangs of that kind of thing. I predict we’re going to see a loss of leadership because men are motivated by selfishness and are preaching an essentially crossless Christianity.
But I believe Jesus loves the church, the local church, in all its subnormality, and that he intends to make it what it ought to be. I believe that in the next 10 years we’re going to see various disturbances, theological changes, and an insistence from the Lord for the church to become what the New Testament describes it to be.
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