“Heavy shepherding” (also referred to as the “Discipleship Movement”) is a method of psychological control used by abusive churches and cults. It came out of the Shepherding Movement of the 1970s. The International Churches of Christ from the Boston Movement is perhaps the most well-known group that practices heavy shepherding. Another infamous group to come out of the Shepherding Movement was Christian Grown Ministries in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Heavy shepherding churches and cults can be identified by the following practices:
- Submission to “discipleship partners” or “shepherds” and those in authority
- Obligation to confess sin to “discipleship partners” or “shepherds”
- Unquestioning loyalty and obedience to all those in authority
- Obligation to intensively recruit others to join the movement
- Authoritarian leadership and group experience
- Conformity to the movement’s standards
- Spiritual manipulation and intimidation
- Hierarchical system of accountability
- Legalism and control over members
- Prohibition against reading any literature not approved by the leadership
- Whistle-blowing on members suspected of being nonconformists
- Total dependence on the movement and the leaders for approval
- Fear of punishment or humiliation for questioning the leadership
Any leader who demands blind obedience and submission is building on a false basis of authority. True authority comes only from God and cannot be seized by men who simply seek power and authority over others, who want to be in charge and admired. If a group or a person assumes authority based solely on role, office, or position, then he is abusing his position. Heavy shepherds are religious power brokers who control others through fear. They preach about authority, submission, judgment, prosperity and end-times. These false shepherds present themselves as the source of all knowledge and authority. They punish people who do not meet a certain standard and ostracize them as not earning God’s approval. They ignore the fact that Christians already have God’s approval through the shed blood of Jesus Christ—no person can “earn” God’s approval.
There is a biblical basis for structure within the church. Hebrews 13:17 tells us to obey our leaders and submit to their authority because “they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.” But when leaders tell their flock not to think, not to ask questions and to ignore problems, they are abusing their position. When people who think, ask questions and confront problems are branded as un-submissive, unspiritual or divisive, then they are being abused by false prophets who “come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (Matthew 7:15).
John 10:1–18 shows that the church should be modelled on Christ Jesus, who is the good shepherd. When He calls His sheep, they recognize His voice and follow Him. And, most importantly, Jesus says, “I lay down my life for the sheep” (verse 15). A good shepherd leads his flock to safety and guards them from predators that seek to hurt them.
Jesus instructs His disciples to obey His commands, just as He obeyed the Father. But there is nothing heavy-handed about this command! “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you … I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me but I chose you, and appointed you to go and bear fruit … This is my command: Love each other” (John 15:9–17). Nowhere does Jesus suggest that we have to blindly submit to men. Instead, we must submit to Christ, who is the head of every man (1 Corinthians 11:3). And in all things, we must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).
This is how shepherding should be done: “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.… All of you, clothe yourselves with humility towards one another, because ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’ Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:1–7). A heavy shepherding pastor is the exact opposite of the humble servant-leader whom Peter endorses.
Jesus told His disciples, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves” (Luke 22:25–26).
Christian leaders are under obligation to follow Jesus’ example of humility and compassion. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28–30).
Beware of any religious group that practices “shepherding,” “submission” and “covering” concepts. We have been bought by the precious blood of Christ Jesus and “brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).
 Got Questions Ministries. (2010). Got Questions? Bible Questions Answered. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.