Cultic Studies Journal, 1991, Volume 8, Number 1, pages 81-83

Book Review - The Discipling Dilemma

Flavil R. Yeakley, Jr., Editor; with articles by Howard W. Norton, Don E. Vinzant, and Gene Vinzant. Gospel Advocate Co., Nashville, TN, 1988, 205 pages.

Reviewed by Fr. Walter Debold


This is a good book. It can be recommended, with only a few cautions, to anyone who has a need to know about the shepherding/discipleship movement. It incorporates a good history of the phenomenon with the names of all the leading personalities who have played a part in its spread and development since the early 1970s.

Edited by Flavil R. Yeakley, the principal author, and with articles by Howard W. Norton, Don E. Vinzant, and Gene Vinzant, the book focuses on the discipling movement as it manifests itself within the Churches of Christ. The authors have an understandable concern to defend their churches against the coercive methods of the disciplers, yet what they have to offer is of great value for every denomination.

This book records the great initial impulse for the discipling methodology which came from Gainesville, Florida, where Chuck Lucas shepherded the Crossroads Church of Christ and the campus ministry of the University of Florida. The book then reports on the powerful impact of Kip McKean and the Boston Church of Christ, a church that has nourished many daughter congregations. Yeakley notes the historical background in the Restoration Movement fellowships. Some readers may be familiar with these when they are described as "restoring churches" or "multiplying churches."

A unique feature of this book is the editor's technique of using boxes spread throughout the text to highlight some of the thoughts expressed. While this method was not intended to serve as an outline of the material, it does prove useful for a rapid review. For example, the first box informs the reader that "most of the churches that employed Crossroads-trained campus ministers eventually divided into discipling churches and churches that oppose this approach." Another box summarizes the problem: "Members are controlled in such a way that their personalities are changed to conform to the group norm."

What is the dilemma that the authors are concerned with? In their words, "It involves the question of how we can help others become more and more like Jesus Christ without making them over in our own image and thus changing them in ways that have nothing at all to do with Christianity." One could say, I think, with somewhat more directness, that the dilemma is, "How do you deal with the destructive control employed in this sort of ministry?"

Yeakley is surprisingly optimistic that the Church of Christ can "correct its many failings." He should be in a good position to make a judgment -- in 1985 he undertook a study of the growth of the Boston Church. It was a methodical and objective study in which he assessed personality changes among 900 members. He used the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator which assumes that a person's "true type" does not change and that when there are changes they do not indicate normal healthy growth. "Healthy growth takes place," he notes, "within a person's true type and does not require denying one's true type and trying to become a copy of someone else." 

However, the Yeakley study concluded that the Boston Church of Christ is producing in its members the very same pattern of unhealthy personality change that is observed in the studies of well-known manipulative sects. He notes that this pattern of personality change was not found in other Churches of Christ nor in members of five other mainline denominations. He adds that the Boston Church now teaches that Christians must obey their disciplers even in matters of opinion.

Yeakley, a trained researcher in growth, makes an observation which, in view of the facts he has brought to light, seems strange. He contends that the Boston Church is growing not because of what it is doing that is wrong but because of what it is doing that is right. One has to believe that this sentence (which appears on page 72) has escaped his own proofreading. The author's research and this reviewer's experience argue to the contrary. The decisive factor in the expansion of these shepherding/discipleship groups is precisely the manipulative techniques that they employ.

There is another judgment that could mislead the unwary reader. Yeakley says, "Discipling churches are doing many things that are good. Do not reject the good when you reject what is bad." Such an attitude would be seen as extremely tolerant by the people who have escaped from confinement within any of these organizations.

Howard Norton, in his first essay on the missionary effort of the Boston Church, is liberal in praise of the "zeal" and rather uncomplaining about the "methods" of that church. However, in a second article he expresses his own re-evaluation of their approach in Brazil. He notes that the leaders are exalted to the position of dictators and that "submission and loyalty are the coin of the realm." Leaders must be obeyed; followers must submit blindly to their direction.

Norton warns against "adopting an attitude toward these zealous brethren that would preclude the possibility of unity and peace." Some will see this ironic disposition as overly generous and this may be where the dilemma really lies. What is the most prudent and most charitable tack to take in countering the destructive methods of the shepherding/discipleship movement?

Upon reaching page 111 the reader will certainly wince if he or she happens to be Catholic or Protestant. Norton does not like either one very much. He really should be above that. He and this reviewer are at one in a desire to defend and promote authentic religion, to protect it from this ersatz variety which constitutes a spiritual virus for our contemporaries. Similar prejudice mars the following essay by Don Vinzant who grasps the fact that shepherding groups burden their members with guilt. However, when he reaches back to Christianity's fifth century to find the Roman roots of authoritarianism he reads history in a strained way. One can easily share his distaste for the terms "direction" and "spiritual director" in the vocabulary of religion, but it is only in the past two decades that I have seen the exploitation or manipulation of the faithful that he and I now lament.

As for recent history, Vinzant can be thanked for listing the chief contemporary figures: Nee, Ortiz, McKean, Lucas, Mumford, Basham, Baxter, Prince, Simpson, and the exploiters of the charismatic movement within the Catholic church. Vinzant appeals for the Churches of Christ to reject the discipling approach. No doubt he is pleased that since the publication of this book there have been a number of public statements of repentance by some of these early shepherds. One hopes that these conversions are sincere. In charity we must assume that they are. Meanwhile, books such as this one are necessary to caution the public that it is not always a shepherd who appears in shepherd's clothing.

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1991