Bad Shepherds and Good Shepherds
Sheep need shepherd-leaders provided by and patterned on the Good Shepherd, Jesus. Without them, sheep will be harmed, malnourished, and vulnerable.
Sheep wandering astray, scattered, and vulnerable.
Sheep listening to harmful voices and left malnourished, immature, and mistreating one another.
These are the sad consequences of bad shepherding in Old Testament Israel outlined in Ezekiel 34 and Jeremiah 23. We recognise the tragedy of God’s people suffering, rather than flourishing, under the watch of those shepherds.
They are the bad shepherds who deserve the condemning “woe” of Jeremiah 23:1. The Sovereign LORD rightly says, “I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock.” (Ezekiel 34:10).
But hang on! When did we last experience the Holy Spirit inspired “ouch” of these passages, giving time to examine our own pastoring in the light of the critique of those shepherds; asking the Good Shepherd to expose where we are in danger of following in their harmful footsteps?
After all, we are those who “must give an account” for those we are called to shepherd (Hebrews 13:17).
Jesus, the true shepherd
Scripture uses the shepherd imagery to describe both good and bad leadership.
The image flows from God’s self-disclosure of himself as the true shepherd of his people, a self-disclosure seen most clearly in our Lord Jesus, who laid down his life for his sheep.
For those called to pastoral ministry, this means that:
- The shepherd-leadership of Jesus is the pattern we are to follow – with no exceptions.
- The shepherd-leadership of Jesus is the criteria upon which the behaviour of pastors must be assessed – again with no exceptions.
- Our behaviour as pastors will in some way point to Jesus in our shepherding, whether for good or for bad - with no exceptions.
- Bad pastoring not only harms the sheep but damages their view of Jesus – with no exceptions.
Sheep need shepherds
Sheep need shepherds. Without them, or with bad shepherds, sheep will be harmed in the sad way described in Ezekiel 34.
So, the sheep of the Lord Jesus need the shepherds he provides, those who are called to watch over and serve the sheep willingly, eagerly, and humbly.
The work of a shepherd-leader is:
- Knowing the sheep: their names, their circumstances, their personalities, their needs.
- Feeding the sheep: with the nourishing milk and meat of the Word, that they might grow and mature in likeness to the Lord Jesus.
- Caring for the sheep: especially the weak and injured.
- Protecting the sheep: from the false teaching wolves who would draw them away from following the Lord Jesus.
- Leading the sheep: in paths of righteousness for the Lord’s name’s sake as they travel to the security of their heavenly home.
Many in our age are suspicious of leadership – and with good reason. Self-serving, unprincipled leaders have caused great harm; hardly a week goes by without the exposure of another abuse of power. The danger is that all leadership – inside and outside the church – is tarred with the same brush.
While there is much we can learn from secular leadership, we need to remember that biblical leadership is primarily pastoral shepherd-leadership.
That means it is mainly relational: focussed on caring for the souls of men and women; assisting them through life as they make their way to heaven; following the pattern set by our Lord Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit.
This doesn’t mean we stop talking about conversions, church planting, and raising up new leaders – we can’t, for that is part of pastoral leadership.
But is there a danger that the pendulum has swung too far? Is there a danger we are over-focused on our “vision” for our local church at the expense of the flock we are called to serve?
Integrity of heart and skilful hands
Sheep need shepherds. They need shepherds who don’t simply see them as workers who serve the shepherd’s particular local vision, but who are loved, known, valued, and cared for as those who belong to the Lord Jesus.
In Psalm 78 Asaph records the repeated failure of Old Testament Israel to remain faithful to the LORD. It all reveals that the people needed God to provide a shepherd.
The psalm ends:
He chose David his servant
and took him from the sheep pens;
from tending the sheep He brought him
to be the shepherd of His people Jacob,
of Israel His inheritance.
And David shepherded them with integrity of heart;
with skilful hands he led them.
The integrity of heart and skilful hands of David point forward to the integrity of heart and skilful hands of Jesus, the Good Shepherd.
The Lord Jesus is the Chief Shepherd who equips those given to his flock to shepherd them with integrity of heart and skilful hands.
May those of us called to be pastors examine our own ministries and pray for each other in this vital task.
Image: The Faithless Shepherd by Pieter Brueghel the Younger.