By Steve M. Irvin (C&MA missionary), Bogotá, Colombia

In recent years, one of the most-studied cell church strategies has been the Groups of 12 (G-12) model as practiced by the International Charismatic Mission Church (ICM) in Bogotá , Colombia . Just as church leaders once flocked to Seoul , Korea to learn from Yoido Full Gospel Church , now thousands from all over the world have come to seminars in Bogotá, drawn by the incredible growth of ICM through cell and leadership groups. The influence of the G-12 model has reached into many churches and denominations both in Colombia and in other countries. The Colombia C&MA has even adopted it as the preferred church growth strategy for its churches.

However, for those of us who live in Bogotá, there is another side to this model. I know that “a prophet is without honor only in his own country.” I also know that one can lose sight of the forest for the trees. I don’t pretend to be an expert on analyzing the G-12 model. I do not advocate throwing out the baby with the bath water. But, despite these aphorisms, there is a growing uneasiness in my spirit, and in that of some other local pastors, namely, that at the core of the G-12 paradigm is a dominating, controlling view of leadership that not only runs counter to balanced, Biblical teaching, but can lead to harmful manipulation and the abuse of followers. This observation is made after knowing of several cases of Christians who have left ICM. Some area pastors have had to lead people like these in a process of healing and restoration. The G-12 model demands submission on the part of followers. Any questioning of authority is met by threats and, in some cases, cursing. That is, if one leaves ICM they are sometimes pronounced to be under the curse of God. I know of one instance where a leader (let’s call him “L”) left ICM and, in at least one public meeting, the pastors involved were casting out “the spirit of ‘L.’” In one case a young couple, very effective leaders, left ICM. The wife was pregnant and, upon officializing their separation from the church, they were told that if they did not return they were under a curse as they had rebelled against divinely instituted authority. Their baby was born with a defect and their fear was palpable as they sought support in prayer for their child. It took weeks of prayer and encouragement before they were convinced the Lord had given them this baby as a blessing, and not as a curse.

Such manipulative practices reveal something at the core of ICM’s concept of leadership. I would like to draw a few contrasts between G-12 leadership as practiced by ICM and what I consider to be Biblical principles of servant leadership (SL), the leadership taught and practiced by Jesus. Contrast between Groups of 12 and Servant Leadership

  1. G-12 leadership exercises control over followers. SL serves fellow believers. “He who wants to be great in the Kingdom of God must be the servant of all.” (Matthew 23:11; Mark 10:44 ) 2. G-12 grants affirmation and value on the basis of merit (i.e., multiplying cells). SL emphasizes the grace of God in the life of the believer and accepts the child of God on that basis.
  2. In G-12, the disciples serve the leader and obey unquestioningly. SL considers disciples as brothers and friends mutually serving the Lord. (See Mark 10:42-43)
  3. G-12 leadership sometimes motivates people negatively with threats of cursing. SL motivates with love.
  4. G-12 authority is rooted in power and position. SL authority is rooted in character and humility.
  5. The G-12 model encourages members to depend on the leader. SL encourages members to depend on God. “There is only one mediator between God and man, the man Jesus Christ.” (I Timothy 2:5) 7. Followers in G-12 are to accept their leaders’ instructions unconditionally. SL encourages followers to develop Spirit-directed discernment. 8. G-12 followers are driven to seek position within the church. SL followers are encouraged to serve one another without regard for power positions.
  6. G-12 emphasizes results. Unproductive people are disregarded. SL places personal relationships at a premium, valuing the individual and helping the weak.
  7. G-12 promotes competition among leaders. SL promotes unity and synergism with one another.

These are just some of my concerns. The hierarchical leadership structure at ICM is a strictly top-down design. Control and standardization are prime values. The leader speaks for God and anyone who doesn’t think so is not from God. This attitude leads to blind followership and the temptation to abuse authority. It is not right. It can lead to cult-like practices. So convinced are G-12 proponents of their model that they insist that it was divinely revealed to the founding pastor. Anybody who doesn’t think so is just not in tune with the Holy Spirit. So great is the importance of the number 12 that it borders on numerolatry. Some proponents of G-12 have said that churches will be judged on the basis of “the government of the 12.” One teaching has it that Elisha, if he had been plowing with only 11 oxen, would not have been chosen as Elijah’s successor. I was drawn to the cell church movement because we were told that “people are more important than programs.” In G-12, the number “12” seems to be more important than people are. Anyone who would like to implement the model in their own church is told that “adaptation” or contextualization is out of the question. If you want to use G-12 you must “adopt” it like it is practiced in ICM. To do otherwise would be to lose the “anointing.” Cell church has meant the application of transferable principles rather than the mimicking of models. G-12 takes the opposite approach. With all this present in G-12, why are so many people ready to jump on board, accepting the model uncritically? I met a Canadian brother who resented my even questioning the applicability of G-12 to his church. I think there are at least two reasons. One, most people who come to a G-12 conference or who hear preaching on the subject only get the good side. And there are some good things. But many from outside of Latin America do not speak Spanish and do not stick around to really “dig in.” They simply are not exposed to these abuses. In the meantime, many Latin American pastors accept the G-12 leadership concepts as normative. Secondly, pragmatism replaces serious reflection. One colleague in Ecuador took me to task when we debated G-12 strategy, insisting that God must be in it or there would not be such impressive results. I am not prepared to say how much “God is in it” or not in it. But big numbers are bewitching and many people have taken G-12 hook, line and sinker with only one criterion for acceptance: explosive growth. It’s time to look deeper into this area of leadership practice and the beliefs that undergird it. It may mean we discover that such practice is not built on Biblical principles at all but on concepts of highly structured, top-down leadership borrowed from other sources.

NOTE (my response)



The quote is from Major League Disciple Making: An Overview of the Best Research on the Cell Church, an online course developed for the Institute for Discipleship at www.BeADisciple.com in 2009. Course materials, including these lectures, can be downloaded here: http://www.disciplewalk.com/IFD_MLD_Class_Links.html

All Scripture quotations are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1946, 1952, and 1971 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please review the page How and Why We Use Quotes.

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