98 Use and abuse of Scripture

ft-lauderdale-fiveIn a comment made to me recently, it was suggested that many of the cultic facets that afflict parts of Christianity in Britain are the result of the Charismatic movement. Whether this general point is or is not true, what is apparent is that many charismatics in Britain took a severely wrong turning when they embraced the shepherding movement in the mid-70s. There was a particular gathering in Britain in 1975 when a large numbers of British charismatics heard an American speaker, Ern Baxter, address them on the topic of discipling. The idea that ‘submission’ was a necessary part of Christian discipleship was enthusiastically welcomed and it passed into the mainstream of charismatic thinking for a number of years. The Fort Lauderdale four (or five), who were a kind of overseeing group to this movement the USA, in fact soon found that what had been unleashed on both sides of the Atlantic was a kind of monster. To summarise the history of Shepherding, the original four, Derek Prince, Don Basham, Bob Mumford and Charles Simpson, all in different ways repudiated the teaching that they had promulgated in the early 70s. Officially it was dead by 1985. But the genie had been let out the bottle. Too many people had benefitted from the cultic notion that submission of all Christians to a leader was necessary and biblical, for it to die that easily. The Bible had been mined to extract passages to support these ideas and many leaders who had started to run their churches in a cultic, authoritarian and controlling way chose not to tell their people that the ideas had been discredited, both on biblical and psychological grounds.

I may well return to this topic of the history of the discipling/shepherding movement as it is a fascinating one. But in this blog I want to talk about a book that appeared as recently as 2001 trying to revive the appalling ideas of shepherding on biblical grounds. The focus of this post is to demonstrate the principle that individuals who want to prove some theological point from their reading of the bible will use and abuse the words of Scripture when it suits them.

In 2001 Thomas Nelson published the book by John Bevere entitled Under Cover. I understand that it has become a best-seller, being translated into 20 languages. It could be seen to imply a revival of all the ideas and practices that made charismatic Christianity so unhealthy and cultic in the late 70s and early 80s. Perhaps this toxic side of Christian leadership has reasserted itself so that the ‘sheep’ can once again be brought into submission. I need to do a lot more reading to discover whether the shepherding impulse is equally strong as it was thirty years ago. But we need to look at the Bevere book to see if the biblical material has any credibility.

The title of the book uses a concept that is itself not biblical. The only time the New Testament talks about covering is in connection with women’s heads. But the word sounds biblical and can disguise that what is being talked about is in fact old fashioned submission and shepherding straight out of the 70s. The book is, as far I can tell from the summary, an examination of the biblical texts, both well-known and obscure, which appear to support this position. I have not, of course, got the space to examine more than a handful of these texts but I want to give some examples of the abuse and distortion of scripture that Bevere goes in for. This is, in this instance, not a case of conservative interpretations being chosen over more liberal ones but examples of what seems to be wilful manipulation of the Bible text to suit the writer’s purposes.

One of the texts examined is the account of the council held in Jerusalem and recounted in Acts 15. In some translations the summing up by James is described as a ‘judgement’. From the whole context of the passage it is clear that there has been a debate and discussion and that James was articulating the consensus of the gathering. That the council was a consensus-led affair is also indicated by the fact that immediately after James’ words of ‘judgement’, the ‘apostles and elders’ decided to choose people to support Paul and Barnabas in Antioch. There is absolutely no way that this passage reads like a hierarchical theocracy which is what Bevere wishes. Such misreading of Scripture, to further a support for submission, is dangerous and sloppy to put it mildly. The use of the word ‘judgement’ does not mean that everyone was in submission to James as some kind of hierarchical apostle. It is worth noting that Derek Prince, mentioned above, uses this passage to argue for the complete opposite, that ‘the final decision…… was a unanimous decision of the whole group’.

Teachers of covering theology find various examples from the Old Testament with which to buttress their arguments. The confrontations between Moses and the Israelite people in Numbers might suggest an excessive use of power to many of us. The shepherding writers quote the fact that the followers of Korah were swallowed up and burnt for opposing Moses in Numbers 16 with approval. Watchman Nee, an early and influential proponent of the submission theology ideas, declares ‘God and his delegated authority are inseparable … If they would submit themselves to the authority of Moses and Aaron they would then be in subjection to God.

Many of us would not see Moses, as revealed by the book of Numbers, to be a blameless paragon to be followed by Christian leaders today. Bevere wants to press for the infallibility of Christian leaders and suggest that any rebellion against a Christian leader is not only out of order and can even be seen as a kind of witchcraft. To arrive at this startling conclusion, he takes an idiosyncratic interpretation of I Samuel 15.23. Most translations render the passage as ‘rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft.’ Samuel wants to get Saul’s attention by making such a comparison. The natural meaning of the Hebrew (I am told) is to compare the two things but not actually to equate them as being the same thing. Because the King James version has the ‘as’ in brackets, Bevere thinks it is optional to the meaning and so he is able to say that disobedience to Christian authority is opening your self up to the demonic realm. That is a very strong claim but Bevere really wants to beat down the idea that the Christian ‘sheep’ have any right to challenge their leaders. He arrives at this conclusion by his ability to misread and mistranslate the actual words of scripture. (There are other examples in my sources)

I have now crossed my thousand word limit for a blog post, so I cannot go further in examining this highly discreditable and distorted use of the Bible to resurrect a highly dangerous form of cultic theology. Sadly, particularly as my American readers will testify, shepherding theology is alive and well among some Christians who occupy the world of charismatic theology. Thankfully for those who find themselves trapped in this dreadful place of shepherding, there are resources to help the individual read other approaches dealing with the well worn texts, and see that there are other ways to be a Christian.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

31 thoughts on “98 Use and abuse of Scripture

  1. Acres of harvest:
    I will ask, please consider, who are the brain police?
    My memories are coloured by the pain of loss. At a certain point in my life, and in the lives of my fellow victims, they, (The brain police) entered into a sacred place, my brain!
    Again, I put out a call to all those involved with the (Modern) Christian religion to consider this. The fertile ground that allowed the evil of ‘Shepherding,’ was created by a triumphalist view of society, directly linked to ( and apparently church approved) capitalist right wing ambition and career motivation.
    This evil will continue till we stop this mass betrayal of Christ. Christ who in my opinion gave the greatest ‘drop out’ call of all history.
    I, (and the aging 60’s troubadour in me) Love these words, Chris Pitts calls on the whole church to, ‘Tune in, turn on and drop out’.

  2. I hadn’t heard of the shepherding movement before I read this blog, and I suspect I am not alone. The language of submission is Biblical, and familiar in tradition, too, the monastic tradition for one. There are Biblical proofs about submission to lawful authorities. Basically, this is about good organisation, if you will. And of course, submission to God. It can be difficult to read God’s will, so we should “bounce” the ideas off our churches and Christian communities in order to test them. It might be worth pointing out, for the sake of the odd stray reader who tunes in, that submission is something that is in a way a normal part of Christian life, and what is happening here is that it is being subverted by those who have their own agenda. Stephen will put this rather better than I can.

  3. I have started reading up about ‘shepherding’ because I came to see, during my trip to the States that all forms of cultic Christianity owe something to its influence. It is nothing like monastic obedience, believe me. It was, to give one example, because of immature 20 year olds extracting tithes from other students that the originators of the idea called a halt to the idea. Unfortunately too much had been invested in the whole notion for it to be let go. The Charismatic movement in the mid-70s did need some discipline because it had become anarchic and out of control. So discipling, covering or shepherding all seemed to bring the indiciplined monster of freedom into some sort of order. Fine idea but disastrous in practice. Giving authority without responsibility is not good psychology as I am sure you will agree. There are many victims of discipling who will think that your not having met it in your Christian life, EA, makes you indeed blessed. Perhaps our American readers can tell us more. Cindy K writes a good blog on the subject. To do this she had had to suffer under it for many years. Put http://www.undermuchgrace into Google.

    1. Thanks. Much to think of in Cindy’s blog. Too much all at once. I’m glad she made it out. From where I’m sitting, I’m not surprised that some Christian groups function like the Moonies or the Witnesses, individual churches can do so as well. The tale of desperately trying to find someone within a Christian context who would help is terrible. But can I just say, that is what happens within the good old C of E. No matter where you go, you can’t find anyone who is prepared to admit of the possibility that Rev’d John Smith, who is a “good man” could possibly be the problem. Even those who believe you when you describe what has happened support the church tacitly by doing nothing, and so become accessories after the fact.
      Cindy’s story makes sobering reading. I will return to it from time to time to learn more. But am I right in supposing that by and large, such extreme cults are rare? Much more common, surely, is the situation where there is abuse of a lesser sort. And because it is common, it needs to be addressed. And in any case, refusing to believe ill of a cleric, or at least refusing to discuss it, is the same institutional sin as allows child sex abuse to flourish. It is therefore something that should be rooted out in our institutions.
      For the record, I can identify incidents in my own life alarmingly similar to those described by Cindy. I have not been damaged as much, but it has gone on for 20 years, and I did feel trapped. This is why I describe what happened to me as abuse. The language is liberating. I have not endured the nightmare that Cindy has, and I don’t want to pretend I have. But the damage done and the harm caused is not so very different, it is just as difficult to get help, and it is just as little acknowledged.

      1. Trauma is in the eye of the beholder. I think that spiritual abuse is so hard to take because of the expectations we have of ministers. Who else should be the best experts on what is right and good? What do we do when it’s obvious that, in all good conscience, they prove to be cruel and wrong? You don’t necessarily have to experience something tragic to be deeply affected by it. Religion and our expectations make us especially vulnerable, I think.

        I think that all of evangelicals were strongly affected by the Shepherding Movement, and though the Presbyterian influence and the followers of Spurgeon, tentacles have spread into the Southern Baptist Convention. The account for approximately 17 million in the US. I’ve been shocked and grieved to see this happen.

        I’ve heard some experienced therapists say that the zeitgeist of society has changed. People used to get help for feeling abused and wounded. Now they tend to have problems with anger. There is a whole generation of “New Calvinists” who actually embrace the descriptor of “Young, Restless, and Reformed.” They are angry people and are set on purifying the church, though they are much more aggressive than Shepherding ever was.

  4. Thanks once again for interesting reading. Here’s a thought. The way I protect myself from scams is to have picked up from varying sources what scams there are out there, and what I need to do to avoid being taken in. I’m told the way to avoid forged banknotes is to know the true article very well indeed: I confess, I need to take more rouble over this. (A delicious typo, worth leaving in I thought). A combination of these two approaches seems helpful in avoiding ending up in a cult, that is to be aware of what nasties are around (well done survivingchurch.org) and to know the Bible really well, so that you have an instinct for what is scriptural and what isn’t rather than relying someone else to tell you.
    We simply don’t know our Bibles well enough to my mind. When I was on the gate at New Wine a few years back, people would arrive back late, and as a bit of fun, I would ask them questions from the Bible before opening up. “Did Jesus say, ‘I am a stone that’s dropped in deep water’?” stumped a surprising number of delegates. It meant they were not familiar with all four gospels. The question, “Where does a tent peg come in the Bible?” was never answered by anybody that I recall. We were all campers, hence the question! I thought it came just once, in the OT, until I bumped into a second occurrence again in the OT recently. Do you know either of them? (Hint – those who don’t know the first one should be sent to Jael…)
    To put it succinctly, those of us who make claims for the Bible should master its contents.

    1. In some ways the joy of the Bible is that it defies mastery! There is always another level. Certainly I don’t expect to have “mastered” it in my lifetime, but I respect those who have clearly gone much further than me and can help me on my way.

      What mastery would consist of it another question too – familiarity with all the contents is of little use without depth of understanding and interpretation… and of course one person’s “depth” is another’s “heresy”.

      Incidentally there is also the joy of rapid online concordances – Oremus Bible Browser (a great resource) returns 21 verses containing the word “peg” – about 11 of these relate to pegs for the tabernacle as described in various books and chapters; 3 relate to the Jael story, and there are various rather random references, eg Zechariah 9.4
      Out of them shall come the cornerstone,
      out of them the tent-peg,
      out of them the battle-bow,
      out of them every commander.
      (Beware too its false positives – the verses it give you containing the word scaPEGoat!)

  5. Dear Blog friends,

    I would still like to receive comments about my above blog, is there a link between self seeking capitalism in our present society & the power control of shepherding. Chris

  6. Chris – I think what you are saying is that there is a parallel between the contemptuous way some Christian leaders treat their followers – ie only worth what can be extracted from them in terms of money and fawning praise to feed the leader’s narcissism – and capitalists – their customers an undifferentiated mass who need to be kept consuming the firms products. In both cases there is an objectivication of people which is the very opposite of love. Is this what you are talking about? When I twigged about the wide-spread occurence of narcissism among Christian leaders, I realised that the most serious aspect of this disorder is an indifference to the real needs of other people. That is bad news in a Christian organisation but the leaders of big Christian organisations seem just too important to be bothered by mere individuals. I know you complain of this yourself. Power control and indifference to real people is a toxic combo.

  7. To misquote St Paul; “In the capitalist world we live and have our being”

    The correct rendering of that quote is; “In Him we live and have our being”

    St Paul was in some heavy discussion with the leading ‘thinkers’ of the day.
    What I’m saying and I hope to make clear is that our present society (with all the mask of ‘the unacceptable face of capitalism’) has normalized a professional Christian religion, and, as a result left a threshold beyond which it does not wish to reason. Indeed it is not required to ‘Think’ outside that box, and recognises no moral requirement for it to do so. This in my opinion has left thousands disempowered, not understood and unseen. That ‘Church’ whether it be state or (So called) Free/non conformist is crippled.
    The reason that those control freaks who started the ‘Shepherding’ thing, had such an easy time of it, was directly linked to the capitalist mindset that they were born into? Servant, master, employer, employee, knowledge, power.
    Sooner or later this has to be faced. The language of limited definition that word paints around this crucial issue fascinates me.

    Thank you Stephen for grappling with my bewilderment. I have tried to describe my thoughts on this. All I can say to settle this in some way is this, if I was facing a firing squad at this minute I would die standing by every word I have said.

  8. Thanks, haikusinenomine. It was the Zechariah reference I bumped into recently. I suppose the new wine campers outside the gate were not hooked up online at the time (Hebrews 13:13). Fun.

  9. David, Hebrews 13:13 is a bit mysterious to me, however, verse 14 although giving a ‘glorious hope,’ can lead to a misuse of scripture. I refer to those preachers who use such scriptures to excuse themselves and their followers from liberating the underdog, and, any involvement with real social action! Brain Police again.

    1. Just type the words ‘under much grace’ into Google and the web-site should appear. No one else is using it.

  10. Chris, sorry, the Hebrews 13:13 reference was meant as a bit of humour – New Wine campers suffering with Jesus outside the camp with me on gate duty seemed droll.
    In all this discussion, motiver is important to my mind. Am I trying to show love and compassion? Or am I wanting to gain power over people? I hope the former.

  11. Thanks David, I just used the next verse to show how a verse can be abused.
    I got your humor fist look. You would be the last person to use power over people. My memories are raw and at times the ghosts get under the lines. PEACE to you my friend, Chris

  12. In my shepherding church, I was accused of being a son of Korah and was also told that I had “spiritual leprosy” (like Miriam) for questioning the leadership for condoning abuse. What a thing to say to someone! The Sons of Korah reference didn’t bother me, but I identify with Miriam who danced with joy. That one played with my head for awhile, but it didn’t “take.”

    1. In my experience your mind goes over and over these nasty comments. Even if you are angry, which tends to protect you from other kinds of hurt. And you still end up asking yourself if you could have done anything to prevent it.

      1. That is what can happen – which makes forgiveness difficult. But why are we Christians, unless we try to understand and live what was clearly one of Jesus’ main messages:
        if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

        1. Theologically, isn’t it like cricket? In that people are supposed to ask for forgiveness? What if they couldn’t care less? Are you still obliged to take the knocks? Well, I think you are. But I also think the 3rd party ought to stick up for you. If I’m not allowed to stick up for myself, then I am dependent on other people for my protection. I’m content to leave them to God, but what about the fact that the people who abused me, and Cindy, are free to abuse others?

          1. This is such a big topic it deserves several posts on this blog (unless they are already there and I missed them!). Of course it is right to stick up for those who are abused or injured. But I don’t see that forgiveness = not being allowed to stick up for yourself or protect yourself. Protecting yourself may well mean getting away from an abusive situation before there is any hope of the long journey towards forgiveness

            A terrible aspect of Christian abuse in particular is the abused being told they must forgive – it becomes part of the abuse. Yet actually being able to forgive someone for something is a release for the forgiver, as well as for the forgiven, if they accept it.

            I think that the start of a deeper spirituality comes from recognising that I too need forgiveness, even if I have been wronged. Then, the accepting of being forgiven dances together with the ability to forgive, and there is joy and renewal of life and relationships in that. Or forgiveness can be there without the possibility of a restored relationship.

            But I see forgiveness more as a gift from God than a duty.

            Sorry these are random thoughts; it’s such a big topic and I have a long way to go on it.

            1. Forgiveness is enlightened self interest without a doubt! But it is also something you do yourself, not something the abuser or a third party can demand as of right. And especially if the abuse just continues. Moving away isn’t always possible. Everyone needs a job!

  13. Well Done Cindy K, I only wish you were in this country so we could communicate face to face ( I’ve assumed you are in the USA?). The shepherding abusers put the brain police in when we are at our most venerable. It takes years to exercise out, it did me anyway. Remember, “It is not he, she, them or it, that you belong to” Belonging to God can only be understood in terms of perfect freedom. PEACE, Chris Pitts

  14. I see that the call to forgive can at times be part of the abuse, I pause here seeing the long shadow of shepherding and mind control fellowships. Example, do we forgive because the particular mindset of a denomination (Or fellowship) has told us to do so? Do we give the abuser more power by doing so? If we forgive and then go back into an abusive situation, what then? And so we go on to ask what of Justice, God’s custodial justice, does not the abuser become more of a bloated kipper when he can call on this law (His/Her) Law of forgiveness? I most certainly believe in forgiveness when it is really in tune with the historic Christ, But, is it always?


    1. Historically, victims of domestic violence have often been expected by churches to forgive violent husbands and stay with them. This has been widely criticised and attitudes have changed in many quarters – but perhaps not in some very reactionary ones?

      For me there is no “law” in forgiveness – that’s partly why I see it as a gift from God When it is real for the forgiver it releases them bit by bit or even sometimes miraculously suddenly from the burden of resentment, anger, hatred, vengeance, guilt etc that comes from being mistreated.

  15. haikusinenomine
    I follow the logic you are using but, my problem rests in this, the (traditionally) top down authorities always expecting the poor, the led,to forgive, in order for that system to continue. This will eventually lead to a smoke and mirrors evasion and an acceptance of the captivity of a whole class of people? My experience in the tangle of that society will always cause a debate within my thinking on how we exercise forgiveness? Chris

  16. I agree that telling the poor to forgive but not change things or work for justice is wrong. I don’t think that was Jesus’ message. I think he showed us how we can both forgive *and* work for a better world, and both are important parts of our social, psychological and spiritual lives.

    In the example above, the old authoritarian, patriarchal message to battered wives was “forgive him and stay put – if you’re lucky he may get nicer”. The better way is the suggestion “see if the relationship can be saved, or get help/we will help you to leave and build a better life for yourself. That building may include (as well as the practicalities of a new home and life), working towards forgiveness, so you can start to let go of the pain, self-loathing and bitterness which are so destructive and will continue to make your life a misery. It’s not easy, and no-one should tell you how you should feel, or condemn you if you can’t forgive.”

    The building a new life may involve cutting your relationship completely if necessary, and/or the justice of bringing a wife-batterer to book for his offences. That building a new life could also for example include wanting to campaign against domestic violence, or support the work of a refuge. This is not incompatible with forgiveness. What is incompatible with forgiveness is revenge.

    The same kinds of principle can apply to poor people who are economically oppressed working for economic justice.

    1. We have to forgive and remember. That means the sense of injustice and the harm done will remain and will have to be dealt with. It doesn’t just magically disappear when you forgive someone. You can also forgive through gritted teeth! It isn’t a warm and fuzzy feeling, it’s an act of will. Consign them to God, pray for them. You don’t want them to go to hell on your account. And, you don’t have to remain in relationship with your abuser. Many Christians seem to think you must show what a brilliant Christian you are by accepting the abuse!! The only thing is, if you leave, you have to face the fact that no-one will ever apologise, and no-one will ever put things right. And that’s hard.

        1. Hi, Sis. I think we’re slightly at cross purposes. What I meant was that God, being perfect remembers our sins no more at all, while we ain’t and we don’t! We remember perfectly well. Which means we live always with those memories. I do think it’s reasonably easy to push small things to one side, though. Most bad memories are there if you dig for them, but mostly they are, in effect, forgotten. Hope you’re well.

  17. This is a vexed and difficult issue. Words are not able to give the sting in the tail of this reality. When I look back on the way the miners were treated when fighting for their lives and community, and also knowing that right wing ‘christians’ supported the illegal methods that were used to break them, I despair. I encourage all who seek to get inside this issue to read: ‘The Enemy within’ (Seumas Milne)? Finally, a quote:
    “Never underestimate the British establishment’s ruthless determination to destroy its enemies” Roy Hattersley (former deputy leader of the labour party. 1993.) That right wing mindset he describes is still in organized christianity!



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.