Concluding Thoughts on the ‘Shepherd’ as Church Leader

28 May

The cultural irrelevance argument against the shepherd motif is a weak one. In fact, it may even be said to be a benefit to the metaphor. If it is true that little is known about the shepherd then it provides an opportunity to present an ‘untarnished’ metaphor, which conveys nothing more than that which is intended by the person using it. That is, if the metaphor is as poorly understood as it’s opponents suggest, then it presents churches and church leaders with a blank canvas on which to paint an accurate picture of what it means to shepherd the flock of God. In this sense it’s success as a metaphor does not rest on the pre-existing knowledge of those in a church but the clarity with which it is presented to those who previously knew nothing of it.

Furthermore, it seems that much of the rejection of the shepherd metaphor is not on the grounds of cultural relevance, but rather a desire for church leaders to write their own job descriptions as opposed to fulfilling the roles that God has called them to.  “Shepherds are there for the sheep! Shepherds by definition are servants entrusted with the care of the flock…The shepherd was hired because of the sheep.” The shepherd metaphor is not as much about communicating to the congregation the authority that a church leader has, but communicating to the church leader the responsibility they have for the congregation.

The shepherd motif is also highly relevant in the 21st century for the very reason that Stanley dismisses it and Begg and Prime wrote a book seeking to clarify how to do it; pastoral work is at a very low ebb. Because of this it is incredibly timely to address exactly what it means. Rather than dismissing pastoral work in favour of simply ‘leading’ or ‘planning’ or ‘managing’, a fuller understanding of the work should be undertaken, at the heart of which must lie ‘shepherding.’

Moreover, the ‘shepherd as leader’ motif will always be relevant as long as the church is referred to as ‘the flock’ and individual Christians referred to a sheep. Sheep need a shepherd. Without shepherds (and good shepherds at that), sheep tend to stray into dangers land  and are vulnerable to attacks by vicious wolves, wolves that are promised to constantly attack the Church until Christ’s return. If the church needs shepherds there is no sense in giving her motivational speakers. Witmer anticipates the danger of the church today losing her shepherds in much the same way as Jesus observed in Matthew 9:36, becoming as they were, ‘distressed and dispirited.’

Put simply, as long as the church is in need of shepherds then the shepherd motif will be of the utmost relevance and as long as the church is made up of sheep, they will need shepherds. This is one of the most pressing arguments for the continuation of the shepherd motif, as Gladwell states, “It is clear, because of our helplessness and our tendency to wander and get lost we are in need of a Good Shepherd.”

The shepherd metaphor is intimately connected with the flock metaphor for the church and the wolf metaphor for false teachers. If one is replaced then a suitable replacement must also be found for the others. If the shepherd is to become a CEO then the flock must become employees and wolves become a rival firm. None of these though rings true.

However, the imagery of Christians as sheep and false teachers as wolves endures and so to then must that of the shepherd to care for the flock and protect from the wolves. It is this enduring quality that Carnes picks up on, “Many models or structures of leadership change from one era of God’s working through and in his people to the next. Kings may come and go. Judges and Prophets rise and then pass from the scene…One thing remains constant. God names his people as his flock, and commands those who lead his people to do so as shepherds.”

Finally, and most importantly, if the continuation of the metaphor has in mind not the shepherds of the ancient near east but the Good Shepherd Jesus Christ, then it is extremely relevant. No matter how ‘urban’ the 21st century western Church may become she will continue to have taught in her the Good Shepherd who laid down His life for His sheep.

Knowledge of literal shepherding practice is what is irrelevant then, perhaps even dangerous, as it shifts the focus of those seeking to understand the task of New Testament church leadership from Christ, into the hills. Rodgers assessment of simply importing ideas about near eastern shepherds seems to be a healthy caution, “the image of Shepherd can be pushed so far as to be downright misleading.”

Therefore Mark Eckel’s insistence on navigating ancient terrain need not be heeded. He is wrong to insist that, “Cultural, historical, and political bridges must be crossed by the twenty-first century interpreter in order to fathom the depths of importance “shepherd” brings to a Christian concept of leadership.” Instead Monti’s encouragement becomes all the more significant as he suggests, “Modern ‘shepherds’ will better take their cue from Jesus than shepherds in the field.”

Indeed as Mark Driscoll observes, Jesus is the first and foremost in all our church offices, “Jesus Christ is the head of the church, the apostle who plants a church, the leader who builds the church, and the senior pastor and Chief Shepherd who rules the church.” He concludes that,“…church leaders must first be good sheep who follow their Chief Shepherd Jesus well before they are fit to be shepherds leading any of His sheep.” Being a good shepherd is imitating Christ’s example as the Good Shepherd well.

Pastoral care then is not based on the functions of the literal shepherds found in the Old Testament, but rather on the understanding that God is ultimately the pastoral carer, who has promised to care for His people, is continuing to care for His people, and invites ministers, as under-shepherds, to join with Him in this ministry. Minister in an urban 21st century church can join with God in His care for His people by following the example of Jesus, the Good Shepherd.

In short, the ‘Shepherd’ motif will remain relevant as long as Christ remains relevant.

***This post is taken from a fuller paper written on the topic of the Shepherd Motif and Church Leadership. To view the whole paper, in which references appear and a complete bibliography, is given please click here.***
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