This is one of the most important and most controversial chapters in the recent history of the church. If you are charismatic, then whether you know it or not, your church and movement were impacted by either accepting or rejecting Shepherding teachings.
Here is the basic context. At the height of the cultural revolution of the 1960s, some hippies started getting saved. Soon, through the powerful anointing on Lonnie Frisbee and the organizational skills of Chuck Smith, this became a major movement now known as the Jesus People or Jesus Movement. The Spirit of God literally swept the youth of the nation from coast to coast as kids who had left their parents for “freedom” found it wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be.
In this context, a group of older, more experienced charismatic ministers came together to bring a corrective. The occasion of their meeting was a moral failure of a ministry in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Believing themselves to be equally vulnerable to moral failure apart from better accountability they mutually submitted themselves to one another. When this happened, they described themselves as having a supernatural experience binding their ministries together for life. Initially the group was made of Derek Prince, Don Basham, Bob Mumford, and Charles Simpson. Eventually, former Branham campaign manager Ern Baxter was added to the group, and they became known as “The Fort Lauderdale Five.”
The five very talented men immediately began to teach on authority, submission and discipleship. Although there were a number of important doctrines, the central doctrine—the one that reshaped the church—was that every person must be submitted to another person (Shepherd/Pastor/Discipler), and that all of your major life decisions should be submitted to this person. Effectively, if unintentionally, this put the individual in the position of having two masters– Jesus and a personal shepherd. With time the personal shepherd gains more power, as Jesus gets less. And in time, this creates a system where those who have unquestioning obedience to man are promoted. All kinds of ungodly things came in through these doors. Several books have been written detailing the kinds of abuse suffered as a result. The scary thing about the whole system is that it started out with the intent of promoting accountability, and eventually enslaved people.
When someone says “Who is your covering?” They are asking the basic Shepherding question. Ironically, Jesus was asked this same question by the Pharisees: “By what authority do you do these things?” His ministry was not submitted to them, and they didn’t like that so they tried to shut him down, but the work of the Spirit was the validation of His ministry. Paul deals with the issue more theologically when he says “the head of woman is man, the head of man is Christ, and the head of Christ is God.” The covering for a man of God is Christ himself, and the covering for a (married) woman is her husband.
The second dangerous doctrine had to do with “Covenant” relationships or “Spiritual Family.” If being absolutely submitted to another person was an imprisonment, then the covenant relationship was the iron padlock on the door. The idea here is that when you enter into these discipleship relationships, they are permanent, and more broadly that your association with a specific group of believers is permanent. You were in a “Covenant” and if you left the relationship or the fellowship group, you were breaking a covenant. This quickly becomes a very dangerous situation: no matter how terrible your experience becomes with a group or person, you can not leave, and if you do, you believe that you’ve broken a covenant with God, so to get right with God you’d have to go back to the abuse! You slowly become enmeshed with the other members of the group and separated from the outside world. Your “spiritual family” becomes more important than your natural family or other believers you’ve had relationship with. You slowly become more and more isolated and more and more dependent upon the group or leader. At a certain point if your leaders do not check the pattern, it becomes a full fledged cult. Normally, however this pattern is held in tension with Biblical expectations so these groups rarely become true cults, while still exhibiting cult-like features. Scary.
After a couple of years, the fruit of these doctrines became obvious to those outside of the movement such as Jack Hayford, Pat Robertson, Demos Sharkarian and others, and they confronted the “Five” in the infamous “Shootout at the Curtis Hotel,” in 1975. The result was that the Five issued an “apology” which did not really represent repentance on their part. They rejected the excesses of some who had followed their teachings to their logical conclusions, without accepting that the doctrines they were teaching had been the direct cause. Their persistence created a split in the charismatic movement between those who accepted the authority teaching, and those who did not.
This split is still evident today but under different names. No one dares be associated with the “Shepherding Movement” by name because it was so discredited. But many still believe in the basic principles to some degree or another, and find support in classic authors such as Watchman Nee. The “Prophetic” stream of the church became the branch of the church that did not accept authority teachings, and the “Apostolic” branch became that which did. The tragedy is that the basic observations of the Five were correct (i.e. need for discipleship, accountability) but their solution of hierarchical personal submission was not. Therefore the “prophetic” stream still tends to reflect the lack of authority that the rebellious hippies brought into the church through the Jesus Movement. Chaos in the meeting is welcomed and even praised as spiritual, and generally everyone does their own thing, hears from God totally in isolation, etc. On the other hand, those with the Shepherding heritage value “order” over all else. While they speak in tongues and claim to be charismatic, often in practice, the gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy are not welcomed, because order is valued over the moving of the Spirit. Or prophecy can only come through an established authority in the church hierarchy.
In summary, the Shepherds were right right to raise the issue of authority, but they were wrong about submission to other men. Christ is Lord of all, and each should be in submission to Him by the conviction of the Holy Spirit. Because we need order and peace, we should submit to those who lead ministries over us just like we would to our bosses at work. But this is far different from owing them allegiance in our personal or spiritual lives. And when we come to the place where following them violates our conscience, it’s time to move on.