Shepherding – a story.
Among the books on my shelves is a small green volume written by one Juan Ortiz, a pastor from Buenos Aires in Argentina and published in 1975. This small book, called Disciple, was a reflection on his ministry over the previous ten or more years. It was to help cause a small revolution in certain parts of the evangelical churches of his time. The history of shepherding is something I discussed in my book Ungodly Fear but I did not have then access to this key foundation document by Ortiz.
I want to list some of the key Biblical ideas that Ortiz picks up in explaining the ideas that led to the so-called Shepherding Movement. Reading them one can see how innocent ideas can be turned, as indeed happened, into something monstrous and abusive.
According to Ortiz we are slaves of Jesus Christ and he bases this teaching on Luke 17.10. In other words Jesus owns every part of our lives. The idea of being the slaves of Christ is one worthy of exploration but when it becomes combined with Ortiz’s other key ideas about discipleship, it becomes subtly much more oppressive.
Ortiz in chapter 14 of the book Disciple sets out two ‘laws’ of discipleship. The first is that ‘there is no formation without submission’. Formation is for him a key factor in the way that Jesus discipled his followers. In accepting his call to discipleship, the disciples submitted to his authority. In short undergoing formation for discipleship through submission is to be a key task for every member of the church. Most members would also have others ‘below’ them who needed to be discipled. This process of discipling is not dissimilar to the role of parents ‘forming’ or bringing up their children. But Ortiz quickly recognises that submission has to be something that everyone has to agree to, including the pastor. So Ortiz sets out the second law ‘there is no submission without submission’. Everyone was thus tied into an interlocking hierarchical structure that placed everyone in a situation of submitting to someone else but also having others submitting to them. The church then dropped the word member in favour of the word disciple to describe an individual who formed part of this pyramid structure. Thus everyone except the very newest members was both discipling and being discipled. As can be imagined this networking idea proved fairly successful in the context of Argentina where the ravages of poverty, high inflation and political oppression meant that individual lives were fairly fragile. The vision of the church that Ortiz wanted to share was one which gave nourishment, both spiritual and practical to its members up and down the network of the church. The cell structure in his church helped to bind people closer together in the context of oppression and persecution. Also because the way that all disciples are interlocked with others above and below them, it provided for rapid communication within the whole.
Cell structures and mutual submission might sum up the insights of Juan Ortiz who inspired the Shepherding Movement in the States and across the world. The historical details of how shepherding spread do not concern us here but suffice to say that however well it had succeeded in Argentina, the shepherding idea was a disaster when it hit the wider church beyond South America. When you take the words ‘submission’ and ‘discipleship’ together and draw everyone in the congregation into this structure, you give those with a penchant for enjoying power a field day. The churches where shepherding ideas were put into practice gave to naive young Christians the power to enforce their will in every area of life over others ‘below’ them. Thus one Christian could tell another how to live their lives – how to spend their money, the relationships they were to have and who they were to invite into their homes. Being in submission to another did not, as it turned out, prevent excesses of immature and irresponsible behaviour. Far from it. The situation in numerous churches became so dire that the leaders who had welcomed the ideas into America recanted on their approval by 1975. Needless to say, and Chris will confirm this, these ideas continued to hold sway for many years after this. Most of the House Churches which flourished in the 80s were deeply influenced by these ideas and ideals. As with the cults, the idea of living a communal life, sharing and submitting to a community ideal seems very attractive. No doubt some succeeded in sustaining the ideal for a period but the snake of power abuse at work in the Garden of Eden appeared very quickly and destroyed what seemed so good at the start.
Somewhere in the writing of Ortiz are some interesting and profound insights and perhaps they should be revisited at some point. This can, however, only be done when the sad history of the Shepherding Movement has been revisited, the countless lives wrecked and destroyed are mourned and we acknowledge in repentance what happens when scriptural ideas are taken and misapplied.