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Shepherds, Thieves and Robbers

Updated: Jul 4, 2018

“Judgment” said the apostle Peter, “begins at the house of God” (1 Pet. 4:17), and at the house of God, judgment begins with the leaders. When God executed judgment on his house in Jerusalem, he instructed the angels to “begin at my sanctuary.” And they “began with the elders who were before the temple” (Ezek. 9:6). James, the leader of the church in Jerusalem, declared “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment” (James 3:1). The leadership stakes are high when it comes to shepherding God’s flock!

Jesus warned his disciples, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you…” (Matt. 20:25-26). Religion might be the opiate of the masses, but power is the opiate of leaders! From King Saul to Queen Athaliah to Herod the not-so-great, history bears witness to man’s insatiable lust for power, and the extremes to which he will go to obtain and keep it. Indeed, the closing scenes of human history feature a man, purporting to be God, exercising total control over people’s thoughts and actions (2 Thess. 2:4; Rev. 13:14-17). This is the essence of the spirit of antichrist – man attempting to usurp the authority that belongs to God and God alone.

Jesus stands as the Great Contrast to the human lust for power and control. He came not to be served, but to serve (Matt. 20:28). Knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, he laid aside his garments, took a towel and washed the disciples’ feet! (John 13:3-5). He did not consider it something to be held onto to be equal with God, but emptied himself of his privileges, took the form of a servant and humbled himself to the point of death on the cross (Phil. 2:5-9).

Moreover, Jesus said, “I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15). Paul admonished the Philippian church in general, and two of the ambitious female leaders in particular, “Let the same attitude be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5; 4:2).

Those who are enrolled in the leadership school of the Lord Jesus Christ are not to act as lords over those who are entrusted to their care; rather, they are to be examples to the flock - leading by inspiration and demonstration (1 Tim. 4:12; 1 Pet. 5:2-3). A genuine leader creates a vacuum that draws people in his or her wake. Thus, leadership is about influence, not position.

Who exists for Whom?

Does the shepherd exist for the sheep, or do the sheep exist for the shepherd? In a day when some pastors act more like the CEO of a corporation than the father of a family, when some strategists advocate a pyramid structure or autocratic model rather than pluralism and equality, it’s refreshing to read the words of the Lord Jesus in John chapter ten:

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives his life for the sheep. But a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them. The hireling flees because he is a hireling and does not care about the sheep. I am the good shepherd; and I know my sheep, and am known by my own. As the Father knows me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear my voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd. Therefore my Father loves me because I lay down my life that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from my Father.” (John 10:11-18)

Jesus, the Good and Great Shepherd, lived and died for the sheep. As Paul says, “Christ loved the church and gave himself for her” (Eph. 5:25). In his mind there was no question but that he existed for the sheep - not the other way around. Yet I never cease to be amazed when I see lesser shepherds with questionable legitimacy demanding submission and obedience from the sheep – not to mention an offering or two to boot! Of course, it’s always couched in carefully worded exhortations: “honour the man of God,” “obey your spiritual leaders,” “sow seed in good ground” etc.

Now I’m not suggesting for a moment that pastors shouldn’t be paid, or that evangelists shouldn’t receive offerings. The word of God clearly makes a case for the generous support of those who faithfully preach the gospel. For example, the apostle Paul instructed his protégé Timothy, “Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially those who labour in the word and doctrine. For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The labourer is worthy of his wages.’” (1 Tim. 5:17-18).

The phrase ‘double honour’ literally means double pay and denotes a stipend or salary. However, generous compensation is contingent on the elders ‘ruling well’ or ‘efficiently’ as J.B.Phillips puts it. In other words, Paul is proposing a performance-based contract, or an enterprise bargaining agreement. Notice that Paul does not say, “the elders who dress well,” or even “the elders who preach well,” but “the elders who rule well.” It all boils down to leadership.

How can one possibly measure the efficiency of an elder or the productivity of a shepherd? In his letters to Timothy and Titus, the apostle Paul lists the qualifications of a spiritual leader (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). However, these have more to do with character-based behaviour than optimised performance. And it’s important to differentiate between the qualifications for becoming an elder and one’s performance as an elder.

The productivity index of leadership varies from church to church, depending on the recent history, current opportunities, and future expectations of the congregation. For example, a pastor who assumes the leadership of a struggling, divided church and manages to restore unity and stability in his first year may be viewed as a success; on the other hand, a pastor who assumes the leadership of a vibrant, growing church only to see it plateau in his first year, may be viewed as a failure. In the first instance, it is called ‘stability’; in the second instance, the same result (at least numerically) is called ‘stagnancy’.

The efficiency of a shepherd can only truly be measured in the context of the key performance indicators (KPI’s) of the church that he or she leads. For example, a target age group of the community may be 20-35 year olds, and so the question is posed: “Are we, as a church, engaging and attracting 20-35 year olds, and if so, how many? Furthermore, by what percentage has the number of 20-35 year olds in the congregation increased in the past twelve months?”

Or to put it another way, if family relationships are considered a priority in the church (which hopefully they are), yet the divorce rate within the congregation is on a par with the general community, one would have to question the effectiveness of the pastoral care and counselling programs!

Shepherds that lead well should be generously supported materially and spiritually, but at the end of the day, it’s the shepherd that exists for the sheep, not the sheep for the shepherd. Paul makes it clear that shepherds should not be motivated by greed (Acts 20:33; 1 Pet. 5:2). Moreover, under no circumstances should they ever become a financial burden to the church (1 Thess. 2:9; 2 Cor. 12:13).

Shepherds or Hirelings?

In John chapter 10 Jesus highlighted two types of leaders: shepherds, who are so totally identified with the flock that caring for the sheep is not a job but a life-purpose, and hirelings, who, as the name would suggest are ‘hired hands’ and are merely doing it for the money. The contrast between these two types of leaders could not be greater. The shepherd lives for the sheep, and if necessary, dies for the sheep. The hireling, on the other hand, “sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees because he does not care about the sheep.”

Jesus also described hirelings as thieves and robbers. And in one of the most widely quoted verses of the New Testament, he declared: “The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.”

I have often heard preachers quote this verse in reference to the devil, which of course is true in an ultimate sense. There is no greater thief than the devil, and his only aim is to steal, kill and destroy! However, in the context of the gospel of John, Jesus was not referring to the devil per se, but to the Jewish religious leaders who were systematically abusing and exploiting the people.

The scribes and Pharisees were motivated by vain-glory or personal ambition, and viewed the people they were supposed to be serving as a means to achieving their own self-aggrandizing ends. In similar fashion, I have heard pastors refer to small churches in rural areas as ‘stepping stones’ on the way to greater and more glamorous appointments in the big city. In such situations, people usually end up feeling like jilted lovers, betrayed and abandoned by the very leaders in whom they have put their trust.

The prophet Ezekiel warned, “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks? You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool; you slaughter the fatlings, but you do not feed the flock” (Ezek. 34:2-3). The prophet then listed five things that the shepherds were not doing:

  • · The weak you have not strengthened

  • · Nor have you healed those who were sick

  • · Nor bound up the broken

  • · Nor brought back what was driven away

  • · Nor sought what was lost

Instead, the shepherds were “ruling them with force and harshness”, and as a result, “the sheep were scattered because there was no shepherd, and became food for all the beasts of the field, and wandered through the mountains, and no one was seeking or searching for them.” Finally, in exasperation, God says,

“Indeed I myself will search for my sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock on the day he is among his scattered sheep, so will I seek out my sheep and deliver them from all the places where they were scattered on a cloudy and dark day… I will feed them in good pasture, and their fold shall be on the high mountains of Israel. There they shall lie down in a good fold and feed in rich pasture… I will feed my flock and I will make them lie down… I will seek what was lost and bring back what was driven away, bind up the broken and strengthen what was sick; but I will destroy the fat and the strong, and feed them in judgment” (Ezek. 34:11-16)

The shepherd exists to feed and nurture the flock. A pastor should be able to look his or her congregation in the eye and declare, “I have come that you may have life and have it more abundantly. My purpose is to help you realize your potential and fulfil your calling – to help you become all that you are destined to be in Christ Jesus. And to this end I will exert all my strength, in reliance upon the power of Him who is mightily at work within me.”

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