I was hired by a college campus ministry in 1981 to bring balance to their staff and members. They had become involved in 'The Shepherding Movement'. That was a mentoring program that soon turned into a program where church members could not make any life decision without permission from church leadership. Soon there was so much hurt, it just fell apart.
A little history, because it's still around today in different forms
The 'shepherding' became so controlling some church leaders were telling people who to marry, or break up with someone they loved because 'they had a word from the Lord', or 'it didn't bear witness', and other such things invoking God to support their counsel.
Soon, the whole movement fell apart. The college ministry and church fell apart and that's why they asked me to bring balance. Nationally, many churches and individuals had their lives destroyed with much hurt and confusion. Many people fell away from the Lord, many marriages that never should have been, that had been put together through the manipulation of elders, ended in divorce.
That off-balance teaching and practice remains alive and well in many churches to this day. Some 15 years after that college campus ministry, when I was on staff with a mega-church, a young, unmarried woman who was a student at the Bible school where I was Director, asked to talk to me. She felt condemned for talking to a church leader who wasn't part of her church, but she wanted someone 'neutral' to talk to about her own pastor's teaching - she needed help.
From the pulpit her pastor had said that anyone who went to church somewhere else was opening themselves up to the devil's attack.
He had said if they aren't there at every service at his church they are opening themselves to the devil's attack. Today we see this type of thing with online ministries as well, telling people if they don't sign on to watch the next meeting, they are opening themselves up to the devil. If they don't give money to their cause, they are opening themselves up to the devil. They don't want to take a chance of 'missing God' so they better tune in, or they are opening themselves up to the devil. And many other such means of manipulation involving and keep people in fear of both God and the devil.
But inside herself, this young woman was conflicted. She knew even though God was invoked by her pastor and leaders, something wasn't right with the idea that if she got out from under their 'covering' she was opening herself to attack, because she realized, she too had Christ in her. Isn't He enough? Something was wrong she felt, that she and Christ in her couldn't make decisions for her life. Something didn't sit well inside her at the idea she had to submit all decisions to the leadership for permission or 'a word' for direction.
She had entered into the 'mentoring' program in her church...
...with an elder in that church who was at least 20 years older than her, and married. The mentoring program had turned into a means to control her, and she felt there might even be some hidden sexual motive for this leader to take charge of her life's decisions. She knew she was being manipulated, but the leadership always showed chapter and verse, so she didn't want to sin against God, nor open herself to the devil.
Her story includes most of the elements we see in church manipulation today: Using God to justify immoral or unethical behavior, taking control over people's decision-making rights, making the person they control feel they would be offending God if they disobeyed their mentor, and having control over another's emotions in the name of God, making lust, fantasy, or other motives part of the dynamic between mentor and the mentored.
In times past and present they talk of the elders 'covering' someone, and of 'covenant relationships'. I've heard of 'prophecy' over someone that included telling someone 'thus says the Lord', but always the prophecy comes from the pastor or elder.
You don't want to miss God - fear based
Submission and authority are often topics of small groups, always set up as a pyramid structure with one at the top telling others what they should or should not do, and always invoking God in their counsel. (See my book, Return of the First Church for more on the pyramid structure of the auditorium church)
I've heard many stories of pastors saying people who left 'their church', have demons, commanding everyone in the church to shun the former members.
Did Jesus act this way in the gospels?
In John 6:66-67 when Jesus spoke a difficult to understand parable which offended many, He asked of the 12:"Are you too going to leave me?" He didn't tell them what to do, He simply asked.
When the Rich Young Ruler of Matthew 19:16-23 left Jesus, did the Lord run after Him? In Luke 9:59-62 two men said they wanted to follow Jesus. One said he first wanted to attend a funeral, and the other said he wanted to first go home to say goodbye. Did Jesus run after either? No. He just commented to each the cost of discipleship, and then let them make the decision.
Jesus is always like that. He will always show us deep in our hearts the consequences of each choice we are thinking of making, and then letting us and Him in us choose. Jesus said the Holy Spirit will 'lead you into all truth'. He doesn't drive us from behind using fear as a motive. He leads, goes ahead of us, and asks us to follow.
Next week I'll share signs of spiritual manipulation, coupled with the balanced of each of those signs, so we can compare God's way with the perversion the devil puts on people.
Until then, blessings,
http://www.cwowi.org and email me at firstname.lastname@example.org