Good Shepherd, Bad Shepherd

My previous posts refer to spiritual leaders in the church as shepherds. This is because the shepherd-flock metaphor is clearly the dominant biblical metaphor for the leadership of God’s people all the way through both Old and New Testaments. (It actually appears some 500 times in Scripture.) Of course, in the New Testament these references carry positive implications, since our Chief Shepherd (1 Pet 5:3) is the Good Shepherd (John 10).

However, in Old Testament Scripture, God warns against bad shepherding! For example, Jeremiah spells out the consequences for false shepherds: Weep and wail, you shepherds, roll in the dust, you leaders of the flock, for your time to be slaughtered has come” (25:34). And he explains why such extreme consequences are called for: because “my people have been lost sheep; their shepherds have led them astray and caused them to roam on the mountains” (50:6).

Ezekiel is no less scathing:

Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock?… You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured … [or] brought back the strays or searched for the lost … I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock. (Ezek 34:1-20)

Whew! This is serious stuff. But as my friend Ted Waller reminds us, in antiquity:

The family often depended upon sheep for survival. A large part of their diet was milk and cheese. Occasionally they ate the meat. Their clothing and tents were made of wool and skins. Their social position often depended upon the well-being of the flock, just as we depend upon jobs and businesses, cars and houses. Family honor might depend upon defending the flock. [1]

Those ancient folks knew that food on the table, clothing on their backs—not to mention family honor—were inexorably linked to the way the family leaders cared for their literal flocks.

So the Jeremiah and Ezekiel’s points were not lost on the ancients. The message was loud and clear: spiritual leaders of the people of Israel were held responsible for the spiritual well-being of the people under their care. God would hold them accountable—and there would be woeful consequences for bad shepherds!

These prophetic warnings hold clear implications for modern shepherds (church leaders) as well. What was true then is still true today: elders and church leaders carry spiritual life-and-death responsibility for their people just as ancient shepherds did for their sheep, and just as prophets, priests, and kings did for God’s people.

To spell it out, bad shepherding still leads to woeful consequences.

But enough of the negative! Let’s return to God’s big positive: “I myself will tend my flock” (Ezek 34:20). Ezekiel prophesied that God himself would come and shepherd his people—his flock. That prophecy is fulfilled in Jesus—Emmanuel, God with us.

The Chief Shepherd, thanks to God’s amazing grace, is also the Good Shepherd. Jesus laid the foundation with his twelve. Emmanuel trained his Apostles through three years of authentic and intentional companionship. He taught them to multiply themselves, to train others who in turn would be able to train still others (see 2 Tim 2:2; Eph 4). The Chief Shepherd handed the process ahead to them, and they to us. That is God’s design for spiritual leadership. And that model remains the Good Shepherd’s template for spiritual shepherds of all time.

[1] Ted H. Waller, With the Sheep in the Wilderness: Shepherding God’s Flock in the World (Nashville, Tenn.: 20th Century Christian Publishers, 1991), pp. 9-10.

Lynn Anderson is the founder of Hope Network Ministries, which has been coaching, mentoring, and equipping Christian leaders since 1996. His 58 years in ministry include 11 years of church planting in his native Canada. He also served for 19 years as Senior Minister at Highland Church of Christ in Abilene, and 5 years as Senior Minister at Preston Road in Dallas. In addition to personally coaching hundreds of church leaders, Lynn has taught graduate ministry courses as an adjunct professor at Abilene Christian University and Pepperdine University. He has also authored numerous books, including “They Smell Like Sheep” and “Talking Back to God.” Lynn and his wife Carolyn live in San Antonio, Texas. They have four children, 10 grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren.

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Author:  Publish Date: December 18, 2015

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The CHARIS website hosts conversations of and about Churches of Christ. In partnership with the ACU Library and the Siburt Institute for Church Ministry at Abilene Christian University (Abilene, TX), the website is supported and led by the Center for Heritage and Renewal in Spirituality (CHARIS) at ACU. The Center’s mission is to renew Christian spirituality through engagement of Christian heritage, at Abilene Christian University and beyond. The views expressed on the CHARIS website are those of the various authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of Abilene Christian University or CHARIS at ACU. Questions or comments about the CHARIS website can be directed to charis @ acu.edu.

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