By Tom Burghardt Bay Area Coalition for Our Reproductive Rights (BACORR)


My purpose is to introduce the concept of the cell church structure in general and the shepherding/discipleship phenomenon, in particular, as it applies to the authoritarian mode of Christian Right organizing.

The shepherding paradigm is not readily apparent to the casual observer of the Christian Right. Even for those of us who track anti-abortion or other Christian Right organizations on a regular basis, are often struck by the irrationality and zealotry of adherents. While not all anti-abortion organizations are run by "shepherds" using the discipleship model, many public groups, particularly in the late 1980's, frequently adapted many of the "leadership" concepts derived from shepherding.

The cell church structure can be analyzed according to the following criteria:

1. Shepherding/discipleship is almost wholly a phenomenon within Protestant evangelical/charismatic churches. The vast majority of Protestant fundamentalist's consider the practice to be heretical, an anti-Biblical "abomination."
2. Shepherding/discipleship practices can also be found within a small minority of Roman Catholic churches. By and large however, the practice is derived from various charismatic Protestant sects.
3. Shepherding/discipleship ideology believes there is a hierarchy of spiritual "discernment;" therefore, a pyramid of power relations (and control) determine overall placement within the group.
4. One must be "equipped" by pastoral leaders (shepherds) in order to attain a higher level of spiritual discernment; therefore, indoctrination and initiation into various aspects of group belief demands a disciplined commitment over time.
5. Prestige (and authority) within the group is conferred by spiritual leaders who in turn, are "equipped" and "submitted" to those higher above them on the pyramid.
6. Each shepherding church congregation is organized into cells, comprised of no more than a dozen members.
7. The "small group" structure is preferred over larger, amorphous groupings such as can be found in the contemporary "mega-church." Individual practice and discipline are valued more highly than congregational size.
8. All cell members are accountable to their "small group" leader. Discipline for infractions oftentimes take the form of public "rebukes" either before the "small group" or the entire congregation. Individual public "confessions" and penance are encouraged as a means to rein-in undisciplined members. As a last resort, unruly congregants are expelled from the church; "shunning" by the community at large, even including family members, has been documented -- with tragic results.
9. Each cell has a group leader who in turn, reports to another group leader directly above him; (inevitably, group leaders, shepherds, etc., are males).
10. Cell members bring personal problems and confide intimate financial, emotional and sexual details of their lives to their "small group" leader.
11. The "small group" leader, in consultation with his shepherd, will render an opinion on the particular problem brought to him by his "lamb."
12. All major congregational decisions of the cell church are made after consideration by a Church Council comprised of "small group" leaders. The Church Council itself, "submits" to the decision-making authority of the "shepherd."
13. Individual Church Councils "submit" to an additional level of pastoral authority: the local or region-wide Church Council comprised of leading pastors selected (though often self- appointed) for their "spiritual discernment."

While shepherding/discipleship is not as widespread a phenomenon as it was during the 1970's-early 1980's, there continue to exist large pockets of support within various evangelical/charismatic denominations. Examples include the Assemblies of God and a multitude of non-denominational charismatic sects such as Evangel Christian Fellowship in San Jose, CA.

What is of interest here, is the ease with which wholly personal decisions made for "sheep" by "shepherds" slip over into the secular world, especially as a preponderance of Christian Right congregations are mobilized for political action.

While some researchers of the Christian Right (Sara Diamond in particular) believe that the shepherding wave crested by the early 1980's, due to scandal and cult-like abuse of "sheep," I believe that the phenomenon has taken a more "underground" route through the labyrinth of Christian rightist groupings and, more or less, is now a permanent feature of charismatic life.

The Coalition On Revival (COR), is probably the largest and most influential Christian Right organization which has adopted the shepherding/discipleship model, and have applied its principles as an organizational mechanism for political mobilization.

One of the most influential members of COR is the Rev. Dennis Peacocke, a leading proponent of shepherding/discipleship cell structured churches. While purposely NOT a well-known public figure on the Christian Right scene, Peacocke's influence is felt primarily through his extremely low-key, Strategic Christian Services ministry, in Santa Rosa, CA.

During the Reagan/CIA contra war throughout Central America in the 1980's, Peacocke was responsible for legitimizing the genocidal regime of Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, in Guatemala. Bob Weiner, "shepherd" of the disbanded Maranatha Ministries, was another leading Christian Right figure who did much to support the Reagan administration, through campus-based mobilization and political action.

Another top Christian Right leader who continues to exert ideological influence over the wider movement is Ralph Martin, the current director of the ultra Orthodox Catholic, Word of God/Sword of the Spirit (WOG/SOS), shepherding/discipleship cult. Martin is currently a Board member of Fr. Michael Scanlon's Franciscan University of Steubenville (Ohio).

Scanlon's campus is a major center of Catholic orthodoxy and political reaction. Suffice it to say, that numbered among the WOG/SOS hierarchy, one finds rather strange bed-fellows indeed, such as Thomas Monaghan, chairman of Domino's Pizza and The Domino Foundation and none other than Paul Weyrich himself, the President of the ultra-conservative, Free Congress Foundation.



Much has been left unsaid in this brief introduction. For further information, see the sources below:
€Sara Diamond, "Shock Troops of the Christian Right: SHEPHERDING," "Covert Action Information Bulletin," Spring 1987, Number 27
€Sara Diamond, "Spiritual Warfare: The Politics of the Christian Right," (especially Chapter 4, "Life in the Spirit"), 1989, South End Press
€Russ Bellant, "When Right Goes Wrong. World of God network wants to 'save the world,'" "National Catholic Reporter," November 18, 1988
€Russ Bellant, "The Coors Connection," 1990, Political Research Associates (also, South End Press)
€Linda Blood, "Shepherding/Discipleship: Theology and Practice of Absolute Obedience," "Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 2, No. 2, 1986
€Frederick Clarkson & Skipp Porteous, "Challenging the Christian Right: The Activist's Handbook," 2nd Edition, 1993, Institute for First Amendment Studies (IFAS), multiple citations and articles on the Coalition On Revival/National Coordinating Council (COR/NCC)

NOTE: BACORR's knowledge of the contemporary shepherding/discipleship phenomenon, particularly as it applies to the direct action anti-abortion movement, is derived from first-hand reports on cell church practices within various Bay Area churches. Evangel Christian Fellowship and The Home Church, continue to serve as major organizing centers for the anti-abortion movement in the S.F. Bay Area. Both denominations are affiliated with the Coalition On Revival (COR).