UK Christian Bookshops Directory: Christian Book Reviews: Savage Shepherds
Savage Shepherds Savage Shepherds
One Man's Story of Overcoming Spiritual Abuse

Adam Harbinson
ISBN 9781860245749 (1860245749)
Authentic, 2006

Category: Biography

This book will — or certainly should — make you angry. In it Adam Harbinson recounts and reflects upon his experiences at the hands of Northern Ireland's 'Shepherding Movement'. It's a movement that, before reading this book, I'd heard of but knew little about beyond the fact that it originated in the USA. A Google search threw up around 232,000 results including this Wikipedia article and an excerpt from Elwell's Evangelical Dictionary of Theology: it all makes somewhat disturbing reading, a tragic tale of male dominance and control, supposedly in the name of Jesus, the one whose attitude to Lordship turned the entire concept upsidedown.

To the book, however: Adam relates something of his own life and faith journey, from his "profligate lifestyle" as a "hard-nosed, hard-drinking, fast-living, moderately successful businessman" (p.1) involved in an illicit affair to his conversion to Christianity and subsequent involvement in what can only be sensibly described as an illicit church, the "River of Life Fellowship" (although that's not the church's real name). Welcomed at first, it didn't take Adam long to realise that the RLF's leadership structures were seriously skewed, with the so-called shepherds more concerned about controlling the flock than serving it. Anyone who dared to challenge their dominance or methods was labelled a rebel, not simply against the leaders but against God himself: after all, these were God's appointed leaders!

Not surprisingly, Adam himself was soon labelled a black sheep: other members learned to blank him out when he asked awkward questions. More surprising is the length of time — some 10 years — that he tolerated the situation before breaking away. Sadly, it was at this point that the true nature and savagery of the "shepherds" became clear: members of the fellowship turned on him and, in the face of allegations about financial irregularities, his business as a financial adviser and his home life collapsed. Adam explains:

The elders who ruled by fear were now driven by fear. There had been a number of occasions in my decade-long membership of the River of Life when I had teetered on the edge of freedom. Ironically, although I had come to regard the community as my family, it was fear of rejection, not acceptance and love that kept me there. (From chapter 4, 'The Backlash', p.37)

At this point many would undoubtedly have given up on Christianity entirely, yet Adam, by God's grace, held on. Quoting Ephesians 6:12 about evil forces at work, he writes:

My understanding of that Scripture enabled me to see past my accusers to the dark forces ranged behind them, but the challenge for me was to recognise that whilst they had chosen to do a great evil, they too were victims... But whether victims or willing perpetrators, to gloss over what they had done would be to dilute the power of grace and forgiveness. Yes I can and must forgive them, but the reality is you can't forgive someone without first acknowledging there's something to forgive. (From chapter 5, 'The Nightmare Begins', p.55)

And in the end, grace and forgiveness is the story that emerges from this book: people being people, abuse and bullying will always take place, even — dare I say especially? — in the church, but Adam's account takes the lid off the situation, demolishing the idea that such things should be kept under wraps and demonstrating that escape and survival are possible.

This makes Savage Shepherds doubly powerful, not only as a personal testimony to one man's survival but also as a salutary reminder to us all — especially those in church leadership — of the very real need to listen, look out for and deal with abuse, whatever form it may happen to take.

More Info
Author's Blog
Author interview in the Irish News (3rd May 2007, pdf, 2.1 MB)
Publisher's Info Page
Publisher's Press Release (pdf, 444 KB)
Review in Christian Marketplace magazine (review by Clem Jackson)
Watch a Video

Phil Groom, May 2007

Phil Groom is this site's Webmaster and Reviews Editor. He's a freelance blogger, writer and web developer who spent ten years managing the bookshop at London School of Theology alongside eight years writing web reviews for Christian Marketplace magazine before he came to his senses and went independent. You can find him on facebook or follow him on twitter @notbovvered.

Author's Website: read an excerpt

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