On "Shepherding"

Many religious groups have used "mind control" tactics; some Christian groups (such as the International Churches of Christ) have used a milder sort of tactic called shepherding or discipling. This is generally understood as group members pledging obedience to a personal authority, even if that person is in the wrong.

Critics say that it is a dangerous practice that leads to church leaders and/or members selfishly trying to control one another. Supporters reply that discipling reflects a Biblical practice and retort that Jesus discipled people (and was also thought to be an extremist) and that they do not endorse the extremes of obedience described.

What both sides are missing is a very important social difference between our society and that of the people of the Bible. It explains why "discipling" does not work as well for us and why it is inevitably interpreted, and too often leads to, the extremes of "mind control."

We have reported in several contexts that the ancient Mediterranean, in which the NT took place, was a "group-oriented" culture. We, in contrast, are a culture that is oriented towards the individual. What we will see is that the ICOC and other groups, in trying to use the Bible to justify their methods, are doing so without awareness of this important distinction.

The inevitable result of trying to impose a group-oriented model upon an individual-oriented society is a snowballing failure of results. Individualists naturally resist such a group-tailored impositional model. As a result the only way to make the system "work" is to impose tighter and tighter controls on the individual.

None of this would have been an issue among the ancients, for whom such ingroup monitoring was a way of life. Malina and Neyrey note that "in group-oriented cultures such as the ancient Mediterranean, we must remember that people continually mind each other's business." [Portraits of Paul, 183] Privacy was unknown and unexpected. On the one hand, neighbors exerted "constant vigilance" over others; on the other hand, those watched were constantly concerned for appearances, and the associated rewards of honor or sanctions of shame that came with the results. (This is another great difference, since our society is oriented towards guilt as a feeling, not shame.)

It's the same in group-oriented cultures today: if you ever wonder why we have trouble spreading "democracy" you need look no further than that 70% of the world is group-oriented and doesn't want democracy. The individual in a collectivist society doesn't desire the power and autonomy that we as individuals and individualists do.

In the ancient world, then, control came not from individuals controlling themselves, but from the group controlling the individual. Ancient people controlled one another's behavior by watching them, spreading word of their behavior (what we call "gossip"), and by public dishonor. This was normal for them -- but it is decidedly NOT normal for us.

It is therefore inevitable that when groups like ICOC anachronistically try to impose Biblical ideas of "discipling" the inevitable result will either be gross failure and/or an effort (by leaders and participants alike) to "clamp down" or "submit to authority" in order to try to make the system "work".

-JPH