‘Guarding the flock’ from false doctrine, and teaching true doctrine, is a shepherd/pastor’s most important role. Because Satan is always re-introducing destructive heresies to the church, pastors must be godly men of the Word – men who are prepared to vigilantly guard those the Lord has entrusted to their care. In this episode of ‘Fighting For The Faith’, Ps. Chris Rosebrough introduces his good friend Phil Johnson as he shares one of the most serious problems facing the church today.
“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” Acts 20:28-30
“This being the Shepherds’ Conference I thought it would be fitting to look at what the Bible says about Shepherding the church. What are the core priorities of pastoral ministry? It’s my conviction that the biblicalanswer to that question is seriously at odds with the answers we are hearing from some of the leading gurus of church growth and Christian leadership theory today.
What I want to do in this hour is briefly survey the current evangelical landscape, and then let’s turn to the apostle Paul for an answer to the question of what our work as pastors ought to look like and what our actual priorities should be.
Too many church leaders in our generation have forgotten what the word pastor means. It is an exact synonym for shepherd, of course. That’s the true meaning of the word, and the symbolism of sheep and shepherds is prominent in Scripture from start to finish. You begin to see this theme very early in the Old Testament. Numbers 27:16-17: “Let the LORD, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, that the congregation of the LORD may not be as sheep that have no shepherd.” And that same theme runs through to the very end. In Revelation 7:17, Jesus is described as both Lamb and Shepherd: “For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd.”
But there are actually men in positions of great influence and leadership in the evangelical movement at the moment who think we need to do away with the imagery of lambs and shepherds—and exchange our role as tenders of the Lord’s flock for some nobler kind of leadership. They think we need to be entrepreneurs, rock stars, top-level business managers, CEOs, or whatever. (One well-known church leader who lives not very far from here put the title “Futurist” rather than pastor on his business card.) Contemporary church leaders justify that agenda (of course) by an appeal to contextualization and cultural relevance.
There was a famous interview with Andy Stanley in the Spring 2006 issue of Leadership Magazine that reflects this way of thinking as clearly as anything I know. (Christianity Today also reprinted a major segment of that interview not long ago. You see references to it all the time.) In that interview with a couple of writers from Leadership magazine, Andy Stanley said he thinks it’s time to retire the idea of shepherding and replace it with the figure of a corporate CEO.
Let me read you some quotations from that article: The interviewers asked, “What is distinctly spiritualabout the kind of leadership you do?” Andy Stanley replies: “There’s nothing distinctly spiritual. . . . One of the criticisms I get is ‘Your church is so corporate.’ I read blogs all the time. Bloggers complain, ‘The pastor’s like a CEO.’ And I say, ‘OK, you’re right. Now, why is that a bad model?'”
So the interviewer asked him, “Should we stop talking about pastors as ‘shepherds’?” Andy Stanley says: “Absolutely. That word needs to go away. Jesus talked about shepherds because there was one over there in a pasture he could point to. But to bring in that imagery today and say, ‘Pastor, you’re the shepherd of the flock,’ NO. I’ve never seen a flock. I’ve never spent five minutes with a shepherd. It was culturally relevant in the time of Jesus, but it’s not culturally relevant any more.”
So the interviewers pressed him: “Isn’t shepherd the biblical word for pastor?” [Doesn’t the word pastoractually mean “shepherd”?] But Andy Stanley was insistent: “It’s [a] first-century word. If Jesus were here today, would he talk about shepherds? No. He would point to something that we all know, and we’d say, ‘Yeah, I know what that is.’ Jesus told Peter, the fisherman, to ‘feed my sheep,’ but he didn’t say to the rest of them, ‘Go ye therefore into all the world and be shepherds and feed my sheep.’ By the time of the Book of Acts, the shepherd model is gone. . . . Shepherding doesn’t seem to be the emphasis.”
Now, that’s about as wrongheaded as anything you will ever hear from an actual ordained minister, but it speaks volumes about Andy Stanley’s philosophy of ministry. And this is by no means unique with him. Perhaps he is more candid than most contemporary pastors might be, but the attitude Andy Stanley expresses in that interview is quite common these days among western evangelical church leaders. In practice, this idea that the pastor is essentially the CEO of the church may actually be the dominant view. It’s an especially popular idea among celebrity pastors with fast-growing churches—and it’s spreading.
Now, I realize most of you probably don’t think shepherding is an obsolete idea, or else you wouldn’t have signed up to come to a Shepherds’ Conference. But let’s face it: if shepherding is the first image that comes to your mind when you think of your role as a pastor, you are frankly out of step with current trends.
Listen to the church growth experts, or any number of young seminary graduates who aspire to be commanders-in-chief in the next generation of megachurches. For three decades or longer virtually everyone on the cutting edge of postmodern ministry has been relentlessly replacing biblical language with the jargon of the business world. And they have abandoned biblical leadership models in favor of contemporary corporate strategies. They see themselves as entrepreneurs and managers—and futurists. Mix that with a craving for celebrity (I’m thinking of one guy planning to go into ministry who told me he wants to become the Steve Jobs of the Christian community), and there you have the profile of a dozen or more rising stars in the world of hipster religion.
Shepherding is the furthest thing from their minds.
One of the most influential organizations in the church-growth movement today is Leadership Network. Their influence is everywhere, and they have an especially large presence on the web. Leadnet.org is their website, and they are devoted to a philosophy of leadership rooted in the writings of Peter Drucker, the famous author and management consultant. According to them, he is the Jedi master of corporate leadership. Their website refers to Drucker as “Leadership Network’s grand mentor.”
Peter Drucker wrote several bestselling books on leadership and business management. He was best known for his theory about “management by objective”—or as it might be nicknamed, “The Purpose-Driven Corporation.” Drucker died in 2005, but his influence has profoundly shaped American corporate culture, and evangelicals have been enthusiastically jumping on his bandwagon for 30 years or longer.
Drucker called himself a “social ecologist” (and he also liked to refer to himself as a “futurist”). And somewhere along the line he took a keen interest in church growth. (He once said that megachurches like Saddleback and Willow Creek constitute “the most important social phenomenon” in American culture.) Rick Warren and Bill Hybels both met with Drucker and based their leadership style on his business model. Rick Warren refers to Peter Drucker as his chief “mentor.”
Drucker was a European-born liberal Lutheran. (His parents were Austrian and by ethnicity they were Jewish, but they converted to liberal Lutheranism while European Fascism was gaining power.) And Drucker remained a Liberal Lutheran all his life. He was intrigued in those later years by the phenomenon of church growth, but he was no evangelical. He didn’t believe in the authority of Scripture, or the exclusivity of Christ, or any other distinctly evangelical doctrine. There’s a video online, where Drucker is specifically asked about his faith, and he himself says, “I am not a born-again Christian, no. . . . and I don’t claim to be.” He was a thoroughgoing pragmatist, not someone concerned with truth or sound doctrine.
But he began to encourage young, innovative evangelical (and quasi-evangelical) pastors to adopt the management and marketing philosophies he had observed in successful corporations. He believed the pastor’s role was basically the same as a corporate CEO.
One of Peter Drucker’s close friends (and perhaps his most ardent admirer) is a man in Dallas named Bob Buford. Buford was the founding chairman of The Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management. Buford is also co-founder of Leadership Network. He and Fred Smith, Sr. founded this organization to influence evangelical pastors to adopt Peter Drucker’s business model. Drucker’s ideas about management are deeply imbedded in Leadership Network’s DNA. They have established the corporate model of pastoral leadership in the evangelical community. In fact, this seems to have become the dominant philosophy among today’s evangelicals.
By the way, Leadership Network is the same organization that first drew together a group of young, radical and postmodern church leaders in the 1990s—Doug Pagitt, Tony Jones, Spencer Burke, Mark Driscoll, and several others—who subsequently became the leading figures in the Emerging Church Movement. That coalition totally fragmented within a decade or so because so many young guys with big egos and strong personalities were never able to see eye to eye or work together harmoniously.
But what they all had in common (and still do) is the notion that if the church is going to flourish in these postmodern times, what’s essential is innovation—starting at the top levels of church leadership. All of them suggest in one way or another that the church needs to observe and adopt the same marketing and management strategies that have made the largest corporations so big and successful. And despite the demise of the Emerging coalition, Leadership Network is still going strong and gaining influence. After all, their agenda is not driven by any particular theological conviction or doctrinal credo, but by a pragmatic and philosophical devotion to Peter Drucker’s business model. They believe that is the recipe for church growth, regardless of the church’s doctrinal position or denominational affiliation.
So that view has gradually become the conventional wisdom. That’s why young pastors today are obsessed with style and methodology and far less concerned with matters of sound doctrine and the defense of the faith. Some—like Andy Stanley—are convinced that the biblical model of shepherding the flock of God is simply outdated and obsolete.
These are hard times for men with true shepherds’ hearts.
I want to respond to Andy Stanley’s claim that shepherding was merely a convenient, incidental metaphor for Jesus one day in Galilee. Is it true (as Andy Stanley claims) that the language of shepherding (and shepherding as a model of leadership) were already obsolete by the time of the book of Acts? Of course not. As I pointed out at the start, the language of shepherding permeates all of Scripture. The Israelites were shepherds all the way back before Abraham’s time; according to Genesis 46:34, that’s why the Egyptians confined the Israelites to “the land of Goshen, for every shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians.” David was working as a shepherd when he was chosen as the first to sit on the throne that will one day belong to Jesus. In fact, David’s occupation as a shepherd is surely a major factor in the way God described him (1 Samuel 13:14) as “a man after his own heart.”
Pastoral imagery—sheep and shepherding— constitute the whole theme of the most famous psalm of all (the 23rd). God’s heart is the heart of a Shepherd. Psalm 80:1 calls Him the “Shepherd of Israel.” Psalm 100:3: “We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.” There is so much repetition of this theme throughout the Old Testament that I simply don’t have time to read all the cross-references. But let me encourage you to trace this thread through the Bible. You might be amazed at how pervasive the theme of shepherding is in Scripture.
One of Jesus’ great claims of deity came in John 10:11, when He said, “I am the good shepherd.” Peter echoes that in 1 Peter 2:25, when He speaks of Jesus as “the Shepherd and Overseer of [our] souls.” Then in Chapter 5, verse 4, he calls Jesus “the chief Shepherd.” In Hebrews 13:9, Jesus is called “the great shepherd of the sheep.” So our Lord is the Good Shepherd, the Great Shepherd, and the Chief Shepherd. And notice: all those verses were penned long after the events recorded in the book of Acts.
That’s not all. Peter gave the following command to every elder—every church leader—and it applies to all of us in every generation. There’s no legitimate way to contextualize this thought into oblivion. First Peter 5:1-4 (and by the way—notice as I read this text how many ways Peter’s description of shepherding is antithetical to the idea of a celebrity CEO):
Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. And [he adds:] when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.
I could go on, but I won’t. It ought to be clear that shepherding as a model of spiritual leadership is a ubiquitous theme in Scripture—and the shepherd’s role tells us a lot about how leadership in the church is supposed to function. And that’s what I want to explore with you in the remainder of this hour. I want to home in on just a few verses in Acts 20, starting with verse 29. I chose this text because it’s simple and poignant. It’s full of both practical and doctrinal wisdom. And it belies Andy Stanley’s claim that the imagery of shepherding is already obsolete by the book of Acts. Here is Acts 20:28: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God.”
That, of course, is one of the key verses in Paul’s farewell message to the elders of the church at Ephesus. This came near the end of Paul’s third (and final) missionary journey. This is a major turning point in Paul’s ministry. His missionary work as a free man is just about over. He is on his way back to Jerusalem, and the journey takes him close to Ephesus, a city he knew well. In fact, at the start of this third missionary journey, he anchored his ministry in Ephesus for three years. Verse 31: “for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears.”)
Ephesus was by far the largest city in the region. It was bigger than Athens. But Paul is in a hurry on his way to Jerusalem, so (verse 16) he “decided to sail past Ephesus, so that he might not have to spend time in Asia, for he was hastening to be at Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost.” He knew some of the biggest crowds of the year would be in Jerusalem on Pentecost, and he wanted to get there in time to preach to them. That meant he couldn’t make a stop in Ephesus. So while his ship is stopped at Miletus (verse 17), he summons the elders of the Ephesian church to make the 30-mile overland journey and meet with him at Miletus. He wants to give the elders of that church one last apostolic charge.
So this is a vital passage. We have lots of pastoral advice from Paul in his epistles to Timothy and Titus. But this is the most compact, condensed set of pastoral marching orders from Paul. This charge to the Ephesian elders is only about 18 verses long. Still, this is so rich that there’s no way in a single hour to do a full exposition of the whole message. But I am going to read Paul’s farewell message without much comment, and then we’ll zoom in and look closely at the central command, in verse 28.
Here’s Paul’s message to the elders of Ephesus, starting in verse 18:
“He said to them: “You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.”
That’s all prelude and personal testimony. Here comes the charge to these men:
“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.'” And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all.”
Now, let’s focus on a few verses, starting with verse 28. Remember: these guys are from Ephesus, a city of commerce and business. Ephesus was a major hub for several of the various trade routes that crisscrossed the Roman world. This was the most cosmopolitan city in the Mediterranean region. It was a sophisticated, urbane, cultured society. Shepherds didn’t mingle freely in Ephesian society. A shepherd would live on the far-out fringe of a culture like that. If Paul had wanted to contextualize the leadership model, he might have compared church leaders to sea captains or trade merchants or Roman centurions—or something else that might be more personally familiar to them than a shepherd. But he speaks to them as shepherds, and he solemnly commands them to fulfill the role of faithful herdsmen—undershepherds who are accountable to the Great Shepherd for the care and feeding of His flock, which he purchased with his own blood.
Paul believes this will be his last ever face-to-face encounter with these particular elders. Verse 25: “None of you . . . will see my face again.” He doesn’t expect to come back to Ephesus (although it seems he did make it back there at least once, because some twelve or so years after Acts 20, he writes in 2 Timothy 4:12 that he had “left Trophimus, who was ill, at Miletus.”) So he did make it back at least to Miletus, which is the very place where he had this farewell meeting with the Ephesian elders. But this may well have been the last time he saw this generation of elders face to face. So he seized the opportunity to give them one final exhortation about their duty as shepherds. He has a very short time to give them one last set of instructions, and this is what he says. So note the substance of his message well.
Compare this farewell message with the average church leadership conference today and notice, first of all, what’s missing. The apostle Paul doesn’t talk to them about management or marketing strategy. He doesn’t encourage them to see themselves as change agents tasked with reshaping Ephesian culture. He doesn’t encourage them to be innovators and vision-casters, or devisers of novel programs for every new generation of the church. He doesn’t raise the issue of social justice or try to rally them against human trafficking, or any of the other fad issues of our day. He’s not concerned with whether they are hip enough and savvy enough to impress the secular intelligentsia. He’s not concerned with any of the themes that dominate most of today’s manuals on pastoral leadership. He certainly doesn’t encourage them to see themselves as managers rather than ministers, or as CEOs rather than servants. In fact, he reminds them that they are shepherds caring for a flock that doesn’t even belong to them. The church is God’s flock, purchased by Him with His own blood. (This, by the way, is a powerful affirmation of the deity of Christ.)
But what I want to focus on here is not the doctrine implicit in Paul’s words, but the explicit imperative that constitutes the heart of Paul’s charge to these elders. He urges them to “pay careful attention”—or in the King James language, to “take heed” to the duties of their pastoral calling. Specifically, there are three things he wants them to pay close attention to: themselves, the sheep, and the wolves. So let’s consider each of these, one at a time. First (v. 20):
1. Pay careful attention to yourselves
Paul puts this first in order, and it’s a bit of a jolt, because if you’re thinking about the role of a shepherd, this is not something that would normally spring quickly to mind. The shepherd’s job is to watch out for the sheep, not to be absorbed in himself. John 10:11 again. Jesus said, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Properly understood, Shepherding is a role of self-sacrifice, not self-aggrandizement. Ditto with pastoral ministry. It’s supposed to be about the sheep, not an ego trip for the shepherd.
But Paul is not telling these men to look out for their own self-interest or become self-focused. What he has in mind here is something far different, and he makes clear what he means in verse 30, where he uses the expression “yourselves” once more (v. 30): “From among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” Paul understood that some of the worst attacks on the truth come from within the community of professing believers. Even men who rise to positions of trust and prominence are capable of defection, apostasy, heresy, or betrayal. That’s the lesson of Judas’s life, isn’t it? Sometimes those who profess to believe, harbor secret sins and unbelief that belies their profession of faith. Seemingly good and gifted men sometimes fall away and lead others astray, and that is a thousand times more destructive than any assault on our faith from a rank unbeliever.
“Such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness.”
That’s 1 Corinthians 11:13-15, and don’t kid yourself. If that was a problem in Paul’s time, it is likewise a huge problem today. It has happened again and again throughout church history, and it’s still happening. Just because a guy gets a book published by a supposedly reputable evangelical publisher or manages to win the imprimatur of some leading evangelical figure, it doesn’t mean you can suspend the faculty of discernment. Just looking back over the past half-decade, I could name half a dozen or more bestselling authors, with books published by well-known Christian publishers, who are nevertheless totally apostate. Paul is explicitly warning here that such things do happen, and we need to be on guard.
But Paul’s words have a double thrust. This command is also an exact parallel to his admonition in 1 Timothy 4:16: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” This is an exhortation to engage in frequent and careful self-examination. If you think you are immune from falling, not susceptible to the lure of sin and temptation, you are in grave danger. First Corinthians 10:12: “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.”
And I love that he tells Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching.” There’s a difficult balance to maintain there. It’s easy to become so preoccupied with sound doctrine that we develop a purely academic approach to theology. We begin to let practical matters slide, and then we salve our consciences by congratulating ourselves on how doctrinally sound and discerning we are. That’s a deadly self-deception. The opposite is true, too. A concern for practical holiness can become a kind of legalistic piety—a mechanical religion that’s whitewashed and clean-looking on the outside, but devoid of truth and genuine faith where it matters most. We must cultivate a balance; “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching.” Pursue both holiness and sound doctrine.
Again: this is a call to constant self-examination. But it’s also a plea for accountability to one another. Notice that Paul is speaking to a plurality of elders. This is a young church in a pagan culture. I’m sure it was no simple matter to find qualified elders. I think that’s why Paul did so much teaching in Ephesus. Acts 19:9 says when opposition arose in the synagogue at Ephesus, Paul “withdrew from them and took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus.” He moved his ministry to a lecture hall, and I have no doubt that one of the key reasons for the daily classes is that Paul was training men to fill the office of elders in the church. Not just one guy calling the shots like tin-horn potentate—but a plurality of men who were well-versed in the Word of God and sound doctrine.
And now he counsels them to hold one another accountable: “Pay careful attention to yourselves”—plural. “Stir up one another to love and good works”; keep one another faithful to the Word of God; encourage one another in holiness. Watch out for yourselves. People talk a lot about accountability these days, but let’s be honest: real accountability in the church is a pretty rare commodity. I’m not talking about denominational structure. I grew up in the Methodist denomination, and it was rife with denominational politics and sectarian shenanigans. Loading the hierarchy with bishops didn’t guarantee any kind of genuine biblical accountability. This isn’t a prescription for episcopacy. But it is a call for personal accountability. This is difficult in our culture, because it’s deemed uncharitable and impolite to show any concern for the soundness of someone else’s doctrine. The person who raises the concern is far more likely to get scolded by the mavens of political correctness than the guy who is teaching heresy.
It’s also considered rude or meddlesome to inquire how a fellow Christian is doing spiritually. You can argue passionately with your friends about sports, music, politics, or almost anything else you want, but don’t get serious about spiritual things, even with a fellow Christian—because that is none of your business. In a culture like ours, accountability becomes nearly impossible. But this is actually the first duty Paul names for elders of the church as the duly appointed overseers of the flock of God: “Pay careful attention to yourselves.” In other words, watch out for one another, and carefully maintain sanctification in your own private thoughts and behavior. You’re not the CEO and head of the church; Christ is. If you’re functioning properly in the role you have been called to you’re part of a team of undershepherds, and it is your duty to keep one another accountable. “Pay careful attention to yourselves.” And secondly:
2. Pay careful attention . . . to all the flock
“The Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God.” You are custodians, caretakers, and guardians—stewards of a flock that belongs to God. That is your primary duty, not vision-casting and personality-cult building. Again, this is “the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” It’s not your church, and the people aren’t there to serve you, but vice versa.
“Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.”
That’s 1 Peter 5:2-3 again. Notice:
A CEO directs, manages, and presides over his business. A shepherd leads, feeds, mends, and guards the flock.
For a CEO to be effective, he must capture and keep the attention of his subordinates and persuade them to fulfill his vision. For a shepherd to be effective, he must pay attention to the flock and serve and care for them. John 10:11 again: “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” This is a call to a totally self-sacrificial ministry of service and tender care.
A CEO leads by issuing mandates and giving orders. A shepherd leads by example—through humble service and ministry to his sheep.
The CEO is the boss. He is by definition the master of his company. A shepherd is a caretaker and minister to the sheep. Pastors are expressly forbidden to lord it over the people in their care. Matthew 20:25-28: “But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
I wish we had time to look at the various tasks that constitute the actual daily routine of a literal shepherd. I named them a minute ago. The shepherd leads, feeds, mends, and guards his flock. He chases them down and brings them back when they wander. He frequently has to clean the muck off them. Sheep are messy animals, and the muck gets deeply imbedded in all that wool.
One of the chief duties in shepherding is to make sure the sheep are properly and sufficiently fed and watered. The pulpits of American churches are overrun with hireling shepherds who are starving their flocks by withholding the nutrition they need; they load them up instead with the spiritual equivalent of cotton candy, Pop-rocks, and kool-aid. You don’t have to feed your sheep spiritual strychnine in order to poison them; you will accomplish the same result, perhaps a little more slowly, by feeding them nothing but marshmallows. Today’s average evangelical is overdosed on entertainment, cultural fads, secular politics, and other cheap nonsense. People are starved for good biblical teaching. Don’t be complicit in withholding their actual needs and catering to their “felt needs.” And don’t water down the milk of God’s word while you deliberately avoid the meaty portions—no matter how stylish it is to do that. So “pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock.” Here’s duty number three (vv. 29-31):
3. Wolves will come . . . therefore be alert
Keep a close watch out for wolves. I am absolutely amazed and appalled at the number of church leaders today who seem to think this principle was fine for the apostolic era, the Protestant Reformation, and perhaps a few periods in between and after, but they bristle when anyone suggests this is a vital duty today. That’s not charitable. You’re being a fundamentalist. Let’s face it: contending for the faith—being on guard for wolves in sheep’s clothing—is not the most popular aspect of the pastor’s duty, but it is a duty nonetheless. It’s not optional. Jesus said any shepherd who “sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees” or otherwise lets wolves have their way with the flock—that man is a hireling, who doesn’t care for the sheep. It’s not “loving” or “charitable” to avoid any confrontation with the wolves. Just the opposite. That is the most unloving thing a shepherd could ever do.
“But I don’t feel called to that. It’s not my spiritual gift.”
Then you’re not called to be a shepherd. Get out of the ministry. It is positively sinful to ignore spiritual wolves and pretend that they pose no danger. In the realm of spiritual warfare in which you and I are called to minister today, wolves are not scarce. They certainly aren’t obsolete. Paul was absolutely positive that this would become a major issue in Ephesus. Verse 29: “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock.” It was a certainty that the wolves would come, and they would not spare the flock; so (the clear implication is) they themselves should not be spared. Don’t go easy on the wolves. You can’t persuade a wolf to become a vegetarian by collegial dialogue. A shepherd must keep the wolves out of the fold and away from the sheep, and sometimes that means going on the attack.
It seems to me that in this message to the Ephesian elders, the threat of wolves was the one aspect of the Shepherd’s duty most on Paul’s mind and heart. You feel a sense of urgency, especially when he tells them in verse 30: “from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” They must have felt like the eleven faithful disciples in the Upper Room, wondering “Is it I?”
I wonder what Paul knew—whether it was knowledge given to Him prophetically, or perhaps he perceived some sinister potential in one or more of the Ephesian elders. His prophecy most definitely came true, and you see evidence of that in his epistles to Timothy. The whole first chapter of 1 Timothy is devoted to the topic of wolves in Ephesus (1 Timothy 1:3-4): “I urged you [to] remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith.”
So you had someone there who believed he could improve on apostolic teaching by supplementing Paul’s doctrine with some kind of speculation based on genealogies. I’ve actually known people who think they have found hidden truth in the genealogies of Scripture. I’ve had a few of them from time to time in my Sunday school classes. They sit on the periphery, and they don’t talk about doctrine with me, but they’ll pick out vulnerable and fragile people in the class (they have a nose for that) and fill others’ minds with lots of confusing speculation and arcane doctrines. And that turns people’s attention away from the gospel. It’s dangerous.
In Ephesus, one of these guys was Hymenaeus. I have a strong suspicion he might have once been an elder or person of influence in the Ephesian assembly (perhaps the very person Paul’s prophecy referred to in Acts 20)—because his teaching seemed to have a very long reach, and it confused a lot of people. Like a lot of these types, Hymenaeus is usually seen with a sidekick. In 1 Timothy 1:20, it’s “Hymenaeus and Alexander.” In 2 Timothy 2:17, it’s “Hymenaeus and Philetus.” And Paul is not the least bit delicate, diplomatic, or soft-spoken about these guys. He says of Hymenaeus and Alexander that they have “have made shipwreck of their faith,” and then says, “I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.” That’s not very tolerant, but when a shepherd responsible for oversight of the Lord’s flock encounters a wolf, benign “tolerance” is a sin.
We don’t know much about Hymenaeus’s false doctrine, but in 2 Timothy 2:17, Paul said it “spread like gangrene.” Hymenaeus was teaching “that the resurrection has already happened.” So apparently Hymenaeus was a full preterist. Paul did not shrink from naming him and in effect excommunicating him. One thing he would not have done is invite a man like that to a conference so that he could dialogue about his views in front of an audience of undiscerning sheep. There’s an important lesson here. The gospel’s most dangerous earthly adversaries are not raving atheists who stand outside the door shouting threats and insults. They are church leaders who cultivate a gentle, friendly, pious demeanor but hack away at the foundations of faith under the guise of keeping in step with a changing world.
No Christian should naively imagine that heresy is always conspicuous or that every purveyor of theological mischief will lay out his agenda in plain and honest terms. Wolves almost always come in sheep’s clothing, and that’s what the faithful shepherd is supposed to be on guard for. (I’ll have more to say about that reality in my seminar Friday morning. So I’ll leave that third point there for now.)
What’s the large lesson in all of this? Shepherding is hard and sometimes dirty work, and it calls for humble, faithful, devoted servants—not hirelings. It is practically the polar opposite kind of vocation from that of a CEO in the realm of business and commerce.
Those who crave the secular world’s admiration; men who love power, popularity and attention; or anyone looking for an easy, problem-free career ought to seek a job elsewhere. Hipsters (those who are desperate to be cool and stylish) aren’t fit for the task. Hypesters (the carnival barkers, political agitators, and men seeking celebrity status)—they aren’t suited to shepherding, either. And hucksters (greedy, self-aggrandizing peddlers of snake oil) certainly aren’t called to this role. But it seems like the visible church today is full of hipsters, hypesters, and hucksters, doesn’t it. They are attracted to positions of church leadership for all the wrong reasons. They run with the wolves, because wolfishness is in their DNA. You need to chase them away from your people. It’s time for real shepherds to step up and fulfill their calling.
Listen: this is simple, basic stuff. I know that. If you were expecting me to wow you with some innovative, highly advanced new program for reimagining church ministry in a post-postmodern culture, I’m sorry to disappoint. But one of the great fallacies in the church today is the notion that church leadership and ministry philosophies are advanced science, and that unless you are some kind of spiritual polymath with ivy-league level expertise in everything from art to psychiatry you’re not really equipped to be a pastor. The self-styled experts want to keep you buying their books and coming to their seminars until you get the absolute newest ideas down pat. The biblical imagery of church leadership as shepherding decisively debunks all that. I’d frankly like to see most of the evangelical church growth gurus, opinion-poll takers, and masters of innovation get real jobs and stop troubling the people of God.
Your task as shepherds is not complex, but it’s not going to be effortless, either. You are called to lead the flock by example; feed and nourish the flock with a steady, rich diet of God’s Word; recover the lambs who wander; bind up those who are hurt; be on guard and ready to resist the ravenous wolves (and they willattack). And above all, lovingly tend the sheep—because they aren’t your flock, and it’s not your church. We are merely stewards of Christ, and “it is required of stewards that they be found (faithful).”
Source: Phil Johnson, The Gracelife Pulpit, http://www.piratechristian.com/fightingforthefaith/2019/1/guarding-the-flock. Published Jan 9, 2019. (Accessed May 14, 2019.)