Before preparing this article I had never heard of “shepherding.” What exactly is “shepherding”? What does “shepherding” have to do with the subject of authority and submission? The teachings of this movement focus upon accountability, obedience, and submission to spiritual authority. However “shepherding” equates the authority of and submission to a leader to the authority of God. The religious leader’s voice is equated with the voice of God. Those who disagree with the religious leader are seen as in rebellion to God. This movement teaches that religious leaders provide a “covering” for their congregation. Step out from under the “covering” and you expose yourself to the full attack of the devil. At least that is what is taught. The question then becomes: is this teaching supported by scripture?
This type of teaching is common in some religious circles. There is a love of invoking Old Testament (O.T.) imagery. Theological conclusions are then drawn from that O.T. imagery. However, the conclusions are drawn without taking into account the discontinuity between the ways God established for Old Testament Israel and the fact that there has been a tremendous change under the New Covenant. Drawing upon O.T. imagery is used to stress, in particular, the authority, power, and rights of religious authorities.
1 John 4:1(KJV) – “… believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.”
Why test every spirit? Why? Because the Bible says, there are many false prophets! No one should want to be deceived. The Bible warns us that even the “elect” can be deceived. The best way to ensure that we are not misled is by testing all things. Moreover, we must test all things ourselves. We cannot afford to rely solely on any human authority figure to protect us or give us their “covering”. The word “covering” only appears once in the New Testament in 1 Corinthians 11:15. In that passage, it is used in connection with a woman’s head covering. We do find the word “covering” in the Old Testament, but it is never used in a spiritual sense. It is never used in reference to the authority of one person over another.
Thus, we cannot afford to put ourselves under the unbiblical “covering” of human authority. What I believe you will find is that in churches that teach a distorted view of leadership authority, the idea of “covering” will also be taught. Although many of these denominations deny having a hierarchical authority structure, they admit to eldership or pastors “covering” the flock. Moreover, often they believe they are under the “covering” of another man or ministry. Now please understand me. I am not saying don’t seek the wise counsel and advice of elders and other Christians. However, each of us is responsible to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12).
In the end, we are responsible for our Christian walk. We are all under the headship of none other than Jesus Christ. If anyone, including our church leaders, speak error, it is our duty to reason with them. We must attempt to correct their doctrinal error with patience and love. If we are in error, the same applies. Our only authority is Jesus Christ and His Word.
As far as submission is concerned, many of those in the “shepherding” movement today require absolute submission to the authority of the church elders. People are not to contradict elders or speak out against their sin or false teachings. The church congregation is cautioned not to “touch God’s anointed”. They are told to stay in submission to the elders. They are taught that their obedience to the elders of the Church provides them with a spiritual “cover”. Obedience to human authority is emphasized while neglecting to mention obedience to God.
Paul, the chief Apostle to the Gentiles, used only the Word of God to correct people in the church, never his authority. Paul never used his position to demand obedience. We see in Corinth, a church that had its share of problems. Paul went to the Word of God, the highest authority to solve church difficulties.
2 Peter 1:3 (KJV) – “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through the full knowledge of the one who called us by his own glory and excellence.”
The problem in shepherding churches is that they teach absolute submission to religious leaders as well as the Word, (if that were possible). Who then oversees the religious leaders? Shouldn’t it be Jesus Christ? How do we know that they are not leading the church into error if they cannot be challenged?
Any Christian that is into shepherding or submitted body ministry has a real problem if the leaders go astray. There simply is not a mechanism for correction. There is no system of checks and balances. If correction is necessary who is going to be administering the correction? The answer is in 1 John 2:26-27, which tells us that we are given the Holy Spirit.
1 John 2:26-27 (KJV) – “These things have I written unto you concerning them that seduce you. But the anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you: but as the same anointing teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it hath taught you, ye shall abide in him.
The “anointing” mentioned in the passage above applies to all born-again Christians, not just to the “ministry”. It’s the Spirit of Christ that gives that “anointing”. The anointing “abides” or lives in those who “abide” in Jesus Christ (John 15:1-11).
The scriptures clearly reveal that all “authority” comes from God. We are to “submit” to God thru His Word. It is impossible to separate God from His Word. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Religious leaders must declare the truth of God’s Word. Human leadership in the biblical sense is necessary and acceptable. However, hierarchical and authoritative leadership is not acceptable. Submission is Godly when we are persuaded that what the minister says lines up with the Word of God. Jesus came to earth, not as a king, but as a servant and we are called to imitate Him.
We have the responsibly to seek out the truth and obey the commandments of God. Jesus says, “If you love me, obey my commandments” (John 14:15). It is unscriptural to submit to human authority if that authority does not come in harmony with the Word of God. We need to choose – either follow the Word of God or the word of man. Where there is error, reason with one another. However, let the Bible be the basis for our beliefs. Moreover, we can either stand up and speak out or stand up and leave when confronted with error. We should not simply sit and tolerate the error.
Most abusive leaders use their position to demand loyalty and submission. They may demand obedience based simply on their position. In essence what they are saying is “because I am the leader, you must follow me.” Their demands are not based on truth but their position or title. Appealing to position is ultimately a false basis of authority. The only authority God recognizes is the truth of His Word.
Many religious leaders are fond of using titles such as “God’s man”, “the Lord’s anointed” or “the man of God”. This is done so that others will treat them with special reverence and to keep themselves above accountability. While never admitting it, they want to hold the congregation accountable to them and not to God. We are to “honor” men but give “reverence” to God. The purpose of appealing to position, unique claims or special anointings is to create a hierarchy in the church. This allows abusive leaders to easily control those beneath them. They can also defend themselves against any who might challenge them. This is the very same error that Jesus warned us against in Matthew 20:25-28 and 1 Peter 5:1-4. In summary, Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ only is our “covering”. No man, no matter how knowledgeable, loving or wise can provide that for us.