Sheep and Shepherds

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Shepherding is probably the most frequently used model to illustrate the church, yet Americans are largely unfamiliar with shepherds and sheep. There are large sheep ranches in America, but a flock being led and cared for by its shepherd is a rare sight. We have almost any desired information literally at our fingertips using "search engines." But most people are quite ignorant when it comes to sheep and shepherds.

Unfortunately, our concept of the New Testament church is nearly as sketchy as our understanding of shepherding.

The New Testament uses other models to illustrate the church and its functions, but many of these models are also difficult to apply in the world we live in today. Ephesians 5 compares the church to a married couple, but in today's America, there are few intact marriages and the very word has been redefined to include same-sex unions. Single parent households are probably more common than those with two parents. In John 15, the church is compared to a vine with branches and I Corinthians 3 uses different agricultural terminology ("husbandry"), but here again, few Americans are familiar with agriculture. Comparing the church to a body with many members living in subjection to the head (Romans 12 and I Corinthians 12) is perhaps more commonly known, but even here the model has its shortcomings. Many if not most members of modern society function exactly the opposite to this model. The head conforms to whatever feels good to the body. Peter wrote of a building made of living stones (I Peter 2), and Paul uses a similar analogy in Ephesians 2:20-12, but we are not accustomed to such analogies and fail to comprehend.

We live in a world of buying, selling, banking and doing business of every sort. We are familiar with the professional services and trades, computer technology, educational institutions, sports, the entertainment industry and the military. Because few Christians understand sheep and shepherding, they tend to introduce concepts with which they are more familiar.

Military Model
There are some parallels between the church and military, so a certain amount of military experience could prove beneficial. There are matters which should not be handled in a military fashion, like raising children and relations with a spouse! Do you recall those scenes in the Sound of Music film in which Admiral VanTrapp’s household was regimented in a military fashion? Fortunately, Maria was able to restore some semblance of a family atmosphere.

Members of the military are expected to submit to a higher authority, and awareness of a dangerous and clever enemy is crucial for survival. This is also true in the church, but there are many differences. In modern America, membership in the military is voluntary, but few make it their career. The military is temporal and the church is eternal. The military is subject to a human government and carries out aggressive and/or defensive operations in accordance to the orders of its commanding officers, who may err. The church, however, is God’s chosen institution to carry out his rescue mission in the world. The ultimate goal of the military is to defeat the enemy while the goal of the church is to win the enemy.

Business Model
Experience in business management can also be helpful in the operations of a church. Most church business meetings are run according to Roberts Rules of Parliamentary Procedure which allows business to be carried out in an orderly fashion. Churches use modern book-keeping methods to assure that their status as tax exempt organizations is not endangered. There is nothing wrong with this as long as it doesn’t lead to dependency or distract us from following our Master’s plan for his church.

Secular management practices have left their mark on church leadership. A church normally has many workers including trustees, an organist and a custodian, positions that are not mentioned in the Bible. Some workers may be democratically elected and others appointed or hired. Few are selected by casting lots (Acts 1:26), but then the Bible doesn’t command us to do everything the way early Christians did them.

Business managers deal with employee and customer relationships, but relationships in the church have an entirely different significance and members are not just customers or clients. Unfortunately, many churches equate numerical and financial success with God’s blessing and approval.

All churches have problems, some of them quite serious. This is nothing new. Neither the “foolish Galatians” nor the carnal Corinthians provide us with good role models to follow. The Lord identified with each of the seven churches of Asia Minor (modern Turkey), but he was close to vomiting Laodicea! Many churches show a strong tendency to deal with difficult problems in a worldly fashion without taking the time to pray or research the biblical response.

The Sheep and Shepherd Model
It would be profitable to do more research into sheep and shepherding before we simply discard this model as obsolete. We need to remember, however, that this model is also imperfect. All the parables of Jesus are meant to help us understand the truth, but we should never attempt to extract doctrine from parables.

A shepherd watches over and cares for the sheep in his charge. He notices when a sheep is sick or injured. He keeps a watchful eye on sheep that tend to roam too for from his flock. If water or grass is in short supply, the shepherd compensates to assure the health of his flock. Even when the sheep are sleeping in the fold or grazing peaceably in the pasture, the shepherd is constantly watching for lurking danger. He learns to recognize the early warning signs, such as bird sounds that could indicate the presence of a predator.

When the Good Shepherd leaves 99 obedient sheep to seek one "lost" sheep (Luke 14:4-7), we are not talking about evangelism, but restoration. The sheep belonged to the fold, but strayed from the rest of the sheep. And there was celebration when the wayward sheep was found. Church discipline and counseling always have restitution as their objective. There are, of course, serious offenses that require drastic and immediate action including exclusion, but even in the military, court marshals are rare and seen as a last resort.

There are aspects of the church that can hardly be illustrated by the sheep/shepherd model. The ministry of the shepherd is mainly to his own sheep. In the case of the church, a pastor's primary duty is to the members; it is on-going edification - perfecting of the saints. But there is much more to the church of Jesus Christ than the Shepherd's care, protection and provision for his sheep.

Jesus came to seek and to save sinners. How can we understand missions and evangelism in the context of the sheep/shepherd model? How does conversion fit into this picture? When Jesus sent out the twelve in Matthew 10:16, he sent them as "sheep in the midst of wolves." When he later sent out the seventy in Luke 10:3, he sent them as "lambs among wolves." Sheep are fearful, clumsy and defenseless creatures. And they are also dumb. The flock is their refuge, and the shepherd is their protectorate. This is particularly true of lambs. What shepherd would lead his flock of sheep or lambs among wolves, yet the "Good Shepherd" actually SENDS them -- two by two -- into places where he himself had not yet been -- into a pack of wolves! <>

When we served in Linz as missionaries in Austria, we conducted a week of prayer meetings during the first full week of each new year. Anyone was invited to attend these meetings, but only those who were committed believers and believed in prayer usually attended. We asked the local Mayor and other prominent people in Linz (population 250,000) for a list of needs and matters for which we could pray, so the news got out. Occasionally, a prominent politician or businessman would attend out of curiosity.

Friday evening was normally "Youth Prayer Night" and our youth were put in charge. I introduced the youth who read scriptures, led in prayer, brought musical numbers or led singing. One boy was a member of the Lutheran Church, and not wanting to give the impression that all the youth came from our Baptist Church, I introduced him as a representative of the Lutheran Church. After the prayer meeting, the Lutheran Pastor approached me and said that I must be mistaken. "I have never seen the guy!" he said. I quickly went over and introduced the two. He had baptized the boy as an infant and never saw him again until that night, but he was still a member. I was then accused of stealing sheep! He later joined the Baptist Church and married one of the girls in our youth group, so perhaps he was right.

The Shepherd’s Reproach
“…for every shepherd is an abomination unto the Egyptians” (Genesis 46:34)

I often hear pastors complaining that some of their membership do not show sufficient respect for the spiritual leadership of the church, pastors in particular. I am not contesting this fact, but feel that their understanding of their pastoral ministry is perhaps flawed. Unjust criticism of the pastor is one of the leading causes of pastor resignations. Criticism hurts, but I view this as a challenge rather than a reason to retreat. If everything and everyone in the church was functioning harmoniously, I would look for another church where God could use me.

Most Americans show a high degree of respect for uniformed public servants but it is different with “men of the cloth.” Some of that lack of respect is due to scandals involving members of the clergy. Anyone who serves the Lord must expect wrong treatment and even persecution (II Tim. 3:12). It is not only the heathen who cause us pain, but sometimes those closest to us. The most difficult experiences in my missionary career were often “caused” by fellow workers. I put that word in quotes because the other parties probably felt the same way about me! One of the Lord’s disciples betrayed him for money and another disciple who belonged to the so-called “inner circle,” denied him with cursing. Should the pastor of a church expect better treatment? It isn’t easy to know how sheep feel about their shepherd, but I can imagine that some of their "baaas" are complaints.

The High Priests, Pharisees and Sadducees wore ornate robes and demanded respect of the people that servants of the most high God deserved. Jesus, however, humbled himself, took on the form of a servant and even endured the shame of the cross (Hebrews 12). And he told his disciples, "If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all." (Mark 9:35).

Opposition to and criticism of the Lord’s work and workers is wrong, but it must be expected. It hurts, but we must learn longsuffering and deal patiently with those guilty of offense. Many pastors have fallen by the wayside because they chose to appease, avoid or fight their critics. In doing so, the servant of God loses sight of his mandate and focuses on himself.

Following World War II, many Austrians found it difficult to feel at ease when they saw people in uniform. Even saluting a flag was suspect. When we suggested a uniform and system of merit badges for the youth organization we helped found in 1985, there was quite a bit of opposition from Christians who argued that this reminded them of the war years. The reason for this aversion can be found in the fact that the Nazis insisted on being shown absolute respect. Anyone who refused to salute was ostracized. The least problem was not finding employment, but many Jews, pastors and others who refused to do obeisance to Hitler and the champions of the Third Reich, were sent off to concentration camps. Incidentally, “Heil Hitler!” means "Hitler saves" and "Sieg-Heil!" would be the German equivalent of the Hebrew "Hosanna," which means "Victory and Salvation."

Servants of God must overcome through the blood of the Lamb and by remaining faithful. God promises to bless his faithful servants, and he promises that his Word will not return to him void or ineffective, but accomplish whatever he intended to accomplish through it. These are not conditional promises. We need only to claim them and remain faithful.

The Supreme Purpose of Sheep and Shepherds
We have probably all heard the statement, “The main thing is that the main thing is the main thing.”

Although the 23rd Psalm is one of the best known and most beloved passages of scripture, few Christians understand the full reality of its message because we are no longer familiar with shepherding. I recently heard an excellent series of sermons on the 23rd Psalm, but the preacher failed to mention the most important aspect of this profession. Jews and early Christians were familiar with sheep and shepherds. They would have had the main purpose of this occupation in view when reading Psalm 23 and John 10 (The Good Shepherd). What is obvious to sheep farmers can be entirely missed by others.

The disciples may have been fishermen, but they were certainly familiar with shepherding. Sheep were raised to be sheared and slaughtered, and the best lambs were set aside to be sacrificed in the temple. The shepherd would of course do all in his power to protect and care for his sheep, but always with this purpose in view.

When John the Baptist greeted Jesus as “The Lamb of God” in John 1:29, it must have caused confusion, but when Jesus declared that he would be sacrificed for his sheep (John 10; Mark 10:45 etc.), no one could fathom what he was saying. When a shepherd was killed while caring for his sheep, it was considered a great tragedy. For a shepherd to willingly give his life for the sheep was unheard of, yet Jesus claimed to be the sacrificial Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world! Jesus died in place of his sheep – so they could live eternally!

This must have sent a shockwave among his listeners including the disciples, but modern Christians read the 23rd Psalm and quote John 3:16 without blinking an eyelash.

This knowledge deficit is a major reason for the popularity of self-serving, feel-good churches in America today. We hear much about the Good Shepherd who seeks to protect, nourish, lead and heal his sheep. His love for us is the theme of many worship songs and we sing about the wonderful grace of Jesus. The atonement of Christ is a major doctrine of the church. We are well informed of what Jesus has done for us and continues to do for us, BUT WHAT ABOUT THE SHEEP?

We dare not overlook or neglect God’s main purpose for his sheep. Some sheep may be kept for shearing and others to produce lambs, but most if not all will ultimately end up in the slaughter house! Jesus said it clearly in three gospels, "Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me." (Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23). Jesus made this statement before his own crucifixion, and all who heard his words knew exactly what he was talking about.

We SHOULD be eternally grateful for forgiveness, for salvation, for the Good Shepherd’s loving care and for the hope of the resurrection, but we must be careful not to draw a false conclusion from all this. Sheep are NOT indispensable nor are they simply the object of the shepherd’s devotion. As long as we are in this world, we are saved and nourished and led with one distinct purpose in mind.

A historical document discovered in the dusty archives of the Austrian city of Steyr, shows that some 16th century believers had gotten the message we are missing today.

A Lesson From History
The letter was written on October 3,1527 and signed by six imprisoned Anabaptist leaders (they rejected this term which means re-baptizers, arguing that the baptism of infants was not a true baptism). The prisoners had already been tortured repeatedly during their confinement in the Austrian city of Freistadt.

Shortly before their martyrdoms, they were given paper, ink and a quiver to write an appeal to Emperor Ferdinand. Their captors made it plain that the only possibility to escape being burned at the stake would be recanting of their “heresy” and returning to the teachings of the Roman Church. Instead of this, the Anabaptists wrote an evangelistic tract in which they politely encouraged the Emperor to consider, accept and follow the teachings of Jesus Christ.

For centuries, their letter gathered dust in city archives until it was finally discovered and published by a church historian in the 20th century. This letter has had a great impact on me and caused me to realize how little I have comprehended the great salvation we have in Christ Jesus. It has also helped me to deal with the cost of ministry including opposition and even persecution.

The prisoners first admitted their own human limitations and frailties. Then they explained that in his teachings, Jesus always used parables. They then proceeded to write their letter using parables.

They explained that a wild tree cannot be improved without the loving care of a gardener, and that animals fulfill their purpose only when trained and taught by men to submit to their will. In the same manner, men can only fulfill the Creator’s purpose by learning to submit to His authority. Just as man has been entrusted with the rule over all creatures and is commanded to make them subject to his authority, so men must learn to submit themselves to God and his authority. As with animals and plants, the prisoners explained that submission is not learned without suffering and pain, at times demanding the ultimate sacrifice.

In order to illustrate this process of submission, the prisoners explained, “Man sometimes loves an animal most after knocking it unconscious, killing it, skinning it, cooking it, cutting it in pieces and eating it.” They drew a parallel in showing that Christians too must suffer, and that some may end up as sacrifices of sweet savor to God. The prisoners cited Acts 14:22 and dozens of other passages of scripture, including Bible references. They must have quoted from memory, since there was of certainty no Bible in their cells.

The ultimate goal of the shepherd for his flock is productivity. Hopefully, a healthy church will experience "organic growth. By this I mean the children of members are taught God's Word and give their lives to Jesus. Sheep also produce wool, but have you ever considered the fact that they also provide meat for the master's table?

All Christians are Sheep
The church is the body of Christ in this world, but it is still an imperfect body of imperfect beings – including the pastor and deacons. All members, from the newest believer to the senior pastor, are still sheep. The pastor is both a shepherd and one of the sheep. He may hold a special office and carry an extra weight of responsibility, but he is included among those believers who are commanded to be subject to the Master and to one to another in all humility (I Peter 5:5).

In John 10 we read of the hireling who is engaged to do the work of a shepherd. Because the hireling flees when a wolf comes, most pastors prefer to view themselves as good shepherds rather than hirelings. There is no way to get around the fact, however, that even the best and most faithful pastor is a hireling, accountable to the Good Shepherd. Just as Christians are baptized and taken into church membership by people, so pastors are commissioned and ordained by human beings. Hopefully, pastors are also called of God and the people who make such decisions are led by the Holy Spirit, but the human element is there and it is not infallible.

To insist that a pastor's decisions and acts are equal to God’s resembles the claim of the Roman Church that the Pope is God’s earthly representative, whose words and acts dare not be questioned. In fact, the claim of infallibility is the primary error of nearly every false religion. Unfortunately, many churches which claim to be evangelical and Bible-believing are also guilty of this sin.

Canon Michael Barlowe was a candidate for the office of Episcopal Bishop in the Diocese of Newark, NJ. He is an openly gay priest. He was quoted in the Gloucester County Times of September 24, 2006: “God is calling lesbian and gay persons to be bishops, priests, deacons and lay ministers in the church, and we must never deny God’s call.”

Demanding human acceptance by claiming God’s calling is just as wrong as claiming God’s acceptance because of a human calling.

Concluding Thoughts
It is a great honor to serve the KING of KINGS and LORD of LORDS! His presence and fellowship should be sufficient reward for our labors. When others abuse, despise or curse us, God may or may not avenge us. He only expects us to be faithful to him and to carry out his work here on earth. We may be kicked out of a church or “defrocked” by unspiritual people who fail to recognize God’s calling, anointing and blessing, but that dare not deter us from following and serving our Lord. If we are living in fellowship with the Lord, He will let us know when we do wrong and if it pleases God, He will come to our defense.

Old Testament believers were commanded to test the prophets and New Testament believers are instructed to test the spirits of those who claim to be God’s messengers. As leaders of the church of Jesus Christ, we must accept this as part of our calling. When God’s people criticize or attack his anointed, it is God who is the avenger. We don’t need to avenge ourselves. God may choose to do this through other people or he may act directly in a manner that can not be misunderstood.

God chastised Miriam and Aaron for daring to unjustly criticize Moses and in doing so, to undermine his God-given authority. The insertion of the verse which characterizes Moses as a man of great humility has a special significance here. I personally believe that Moses humbly considered whether there was any truth to the accusation and was inwardly asking God if he had done wrong in marrying the Ethiopian woman. He did not come to his own defense but left this up to God. God intervened. Moses was human and because of his wrong action in striking the rock to get water, he was not permitted to cross over into the promised land, but God never removed his blessing or position of authority.

David was not willing to hurt King Saul because he was God’s anointed even though Saul unjustly sought his life. David was a man after God’s own heart, but he too committed some terrible sins. When David sinned, Nathan risked his life in showing him that God was angry with him, but he was careful not to unjustly attack or publicly expose the sin of his king. Like Moses, David left the punishment up to God and humbly accepted the consequences (read II Sam. 16:13). God did not remove his blessing or authority and he came to David’s defense when Absalom and other adversaries turned against him.

What we learn and experience in the secular world affects relationships in our family and circle of friends. Worldly influences also creep unnoticed into churches, affecting areas that should be subject to the Holy Spirit and God’s Word. Christians are even at war with their own flesh, which was created to thrive in a perfect world, but now threatens to draw us into evil thoughts, actions and relationships. Peter writes, Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. (I Peter 2:11 ESV.

It has been stated that it was easier to get the Children of Israel out of Egypt and Babylon than it was to get Egypt and Babylon out of the Children of Israel. Like it or not, we are strongly influenced by our environment, beginning with family, continuing through the educational and growing processes and culminating in a select cultural environment where we feel more or less at home. For those of us who live and work in this evil world, but belong to God’s eternal kingdom, this poses a big problem. We must constantly make difficult choices and consult God and his Word for guidance or we will be drawn away from the flock and become easy prey for the devil. The Apostle Peter, who was first called to be a fisher of men (Matthew 4:19), and later charged with caring for the Lord's lambs and sheep (John 21), wrote in I Peter 5:8:

Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. (ESV)

In Jesus' prayer for his flock (disciples) in John 17, the Good Shepherd, referred to the world some 20 times. He found it extremely important that his sheep know what kind of a relationship we are to maintain in, with and to the world in which we presently live. We reside here but we do not belong. Our life here, like that of our Lord (v.4-5), is a sojourn or pilgrimage. We are citizens of an eternal kingdom in heaven where we will live eternally with our Father and all others who believe in him. Most importantly, we have a monumental task to complete. We are to call others to repent, follow the Great Shepherd and belong to his flock.

For many years, our church transported children of members and children from other churches to an area Christian school. A state law was changed, making it unlawful to use the church vans for this purpose but we were not notified. Without warning, a policeman was waiting for the vans to arrive in front of the school and fined the drivers. They were also told that they could no longer transport students. The Pastor notified parents that they would have to find other ways to get their children home from school and that the church could no longer continue this service. One irritated parent asked to speak with the pastor and deacons board about the matter and accused them of being unspiritual leaders. Another angry church member even demanded the resignation of the church's shepherd for failing to do his job!

The above example is extreme, but it illustrates the false understanding of many Christians of the role of a shepherd and sheep in churches.

Ralph V. Harvey
2006; revised 2014