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Image‘Pastor’ – it is an odd word that needs first translating as ‘shepherd’, and then explaining and clarifying every time we use it. But it has stood the test of time as one of the fundamental metaphors of Christian ministry.  No other word seems to capture the idea of gentle leadership, modelled on Jesus.

But it is not universally liked.  It is an old, rural picture, and those of us who live in contemporary cities, or in an industrialised countryside with no sheep, or with different patterns of shepherding from the Middle-eastern first century, inevitably find it alien.  Why, we wonder, do we have to use a picture which we have to translate and explain when other ones come more readily to mind?  Andy Stanley, who has observed, written and taught on church leadership as well as practicing it with a high degree of evident skill, has commented that the image ‘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 that flock,” no.  I’ve never seen a flock.  I’ve never spent five minutes with a shepherd.  It was culturally specific at the time of Jesus but it’s not culturally relevant any more…  If Jesus were here today, would he talk about shepherds?  No.  He would point to something we all know, and we’d say, “Oh yeah, I know what that is”…. By the time of the Book of Acts, the shepherd model is gone.  It’s about establishing elders and deacons and their qualifications.  Shepherding doesn’t seem to be the emphasis.’[1]

That is a serious charge.  It is overstated, admittedly, for Paul does use the flock and shepherd imagery in Acts 20:28-29, but the thrust is clear and genuine.  Stanley is quite right, for example, that for many people the only residual element of the image is ‘gentle, pastoral care.  Obviously that is a facet of church ministry, but that’s not leadership’[2].  His critique of the cultural nature of the image has three aspects.  First, the image is opaque: people today do not understand what shepherds did.  Secondly, it is misleading: because of their ignorance people read in the notion that it means helping someone in a counselling setting, which is what is meant by the comment that someone is a poor teacher but a great pastor, and they block out the idea of imaginative and courageous leadership.  ‘Pastoral Care’ is reduced to mean helping hurting Christians[3].  Thirdly, it is irrelevant: there are demands on the contemporary church leader which the first church leaders did not face, and which demand its replacement with a more relevant model. This is what Stanley means when he says that ‘the church wasn’t an organization in the first century.  They weren’t writing checks or buying property.  The church has matured and developed over the years.  But for some reason the last thing to change is the structure of leadership’.[4]

The problem with Stanley’s observation, though, is that the term ‘Shepherd’ is such a rich and deep biblical metaphor that it is hard to find a suitable alternative.  A better approach is to counteract the ignorance, and come to an understanding of the term which does not come from standing in a field and watching a shepherd, but from engaging in biblical study.  ‘Shepherd’ is, for instance, a leadership term rather than a counselling term, and the manner of that leadership is so carefully defined that we should be able to transfer it to today’s churches without risk of miscommunication.  It is precisely because the early church was growing yet threatened, led but betrayed, structured but tyrannized, financially aware but embezzled, and strategically minded but forgetting its shepherd, that ‘shepherding the flock’ in the context of ‘wolves’ was such a right and natural metaphor for Paul to use[5].  We shall start with a brief survey of the term, and then explore three New Testament texts in more detail[6].

1. God the Shepherd

The root ideas of the imagery come from God’s relationship with his people, and it emerges as a powerful motif as a reflection of their experiences in the desert after the Exodus, where You led your people like a flock[7].  His care has three aspects:

a. God fed his people in an empty desert

The threats caused by lack of food and water were a constant challenge to the trusting faith of the Israelites.  Twice the lack of water brought them to mutiny[8], as did the lack of both bread and meat[9].  As the psalmist phrased their question, Can God spread a table in the wilderness?[10]

God’s gracious answer was that he could, indeed, provide:

They asked, and he brought quail

                        and gave them bread from heaven in abundance.

            He opened the rock, and water gushed out;

                        It flowed through the desert like a river.[11]

b. God guarded his people in hostile territory

Having rescued his people from one danger, God seemed to have lead his people into even more danger, and Egypt was remembered as a place of relative calm.  But yet, he promised, The LORD your God walks in the midst of your camp, to deliver you and to give up your enemies before you[12]


c. God lead his people to their promised destination

The desert was not their ultimate destination, of course, but somewhere to pass through until they were allowed to enter their new home.  God’s daily guidance was evident in the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night,[13] and it was promised until they reached their final home:

            You have led in your steadfast love the people whom you have redeemed;

You have guided them by your strength to your holy abode…

You will bring them in and plant them on your own mountain,

The place, O LORD, which you have made for your abode.[14]

Looking back, they could say,

Your way was through the sea,

                        your path through the great waters;

yet your footprints were unseen.

            You led your people like a flock

                        by the hand of Moses and Aaron.[15]

Looking forward to the new land, the two faithful spies who returned from Canaan reported that all three aspects of God’s care would continue.  The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceedingly good land.  If the Lord delights in us, he will bring us into this land (leading) and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey (feeding). Only do not rebel against the LORD.  And do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread to us.  Their protection is removed from them, and the LORD is with us (guarding); do not fear them.[16]

d. How God feeds, guards, and leads

That note of warning, do not rebel, is a reminder that all did not go well in the desert, and those spies were not believed.  The reason becomes clear when we dig deeper, because the central point of the entire story of God’s rescue of his people lies in the giving of the Law in Exodus 19-20.  That was where the assembling of God’s people to receive his covenant word was a mark of his promise-keeping to Moses[17], and it was the standard by which they would be judged.

At their heart, those three aspects of God’s shepherding care, the feeding, guarding and leading, are all metaphors for the way that God’s word is to function among his people. At the core of the promises of God’s protection and guidance, Moses said, lies this condition: You shall be careful therefore to do as the Lord your God has commanded you.  You shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left.  You shall walk in all the way that the LORD your God has commanded you, that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land you shall possess.[18] And recalling the gift of bread, Moses reminded them that God humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know nor did your fathers know, that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.[19]  As they entered that land, Deuteronomy 27-28 records, they had God’s law, his blessings and his curses read out as a reminded of the conditions under which they stayed there.  God’s provision, protection and guidance are the shepherding function of God’s word.[20]  As the Psalmist noted later,

Oh come let us worship and bow down;

let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker!

For he is our God

and we are the people of his pasture,

and the sheep of his hand. (Now note what follows the shepherd language)

Today, if you hear his voice,

do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,

as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,

when your fathers put me to the test (the time and place of doubting that God would provide water)

…Therefore I swore in my wrath

“They shall not enter my rest”[21]and enter the promised land of plenty.


2. Moses the Shepherd

Moses was an actual shepherd for most of his adult life, on the run from Egypt, and keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro.[22]His time of leading God’s people was also looked back on in the same terms, because as we have seen, the Psalmist praised God because

You led your people like a flock

                        by the hand of Moses and Aaron.[23]

Timothy S. Laniak observes that Moses was both a prophet and a priest in this role,[24] to which we might raise ‘lawgiver’ to equal prominence.  Moses foresaw that his death would therefore cause a crisis in Israel, and so he prayed, 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.[25] And Joshua was duly appointed.

At this transition moment we can see how important the ‘shepherd’ idea is, because Israel now has the idea of being ruled without the idea of a monarch.  Why?  Because God is the monarch, the LORD, and he has not abdicated in appointing Moses or Joshua.  Moses’ and Joshua’s shepherding is therefore not an inherent authority, which is what monarchs have, but a delegated one.  God is the living and active king, and he rules through Moses and Joshua.  As Laniak puts it, ‘Moses was, as a shepherd, a prophetic miracle worker, covenant mediator, military leader, priestly intercessor and source of divine direction and provision.  He was the human instrument by which God comprehensively shepherded his flock.’[26]

3. David the Shepherd

During the intervening centuries between Moses and the monarchy, Israel was ruled by judges whom God commanded to shepherd my people Israel.[27] But King David was, like Moses, literally a shepherd, when God

took him from the sheepfolds;

            from following the nursing ewes he brought him

                        to shepherd Jacob his people,

                        Israel his inheritance.

            With upright heart he shepherded them

            And guided them with his skilful hand.[28]

Not only was David pulled from obscurity in the sheep fields when he was anointed[29], but when the tribes come to him and ask him to be their monarch, they confirm that the LORD said to you, ‘You shall be shepherd of my people Israel, and you shall be prince over Israel.[30] The language of shepherd and king obviously merges, and even at the point of coronation, it is clear that this new shepherd-king himself has a king, the LORD.  These will not by his sheep, but the LORD’s, and he will himself be a member of that flock.  As God himself said to David, I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, that you should be prince over my people Israel[31]. My people.

It was as David reflected on his experience of being a shepherd, a shepherd-king and a ‘sheep’ that he wrote Psalm 23, and we should note there the familiar three notes of provision (I shall not want… green pastures… still waters), direction (he leads me beside still waters… he leads me in paths of righteousness), and protection (even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me)  until he reaches a place of eternal provision (a table), protection (in the presence of my enemies) and, not direction, for he has arrived, but dwelling forever in the temple-palace of God[32].

4 Good and Bad Shepherds

As the line of kings descended from David and divided into two rival monarchies, all three parties in shepherding God’s people, the prophets, the priests and the kings, decayed into corruption and tyranny.  Ezekiel’s denunciation is typical.  To feel the force of his rhetoric, we need to hear him at length:

The word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.[33]

Notice how the tyranny of the shepherds is exercised:  rather than provide for the flock they feed on the flock, rather than protect even the weakest sheep they have allowed the flock to get out and wild beasts to get in, and rather than guide the flock they have been harsh in their judgements. Tyranny, then, can be both aggressive and permissive, both what shepherd so, and what they fail to do.  Pastors today can be tyrants too, as we shall see below.

God’s answer is strong and swift.  First, those tyrants will be removed:

Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: As I live, declares the Lord GOD, surely because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd, and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep, therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: Thus says the Lord GOD, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them.[34]

Secondly, God will resume his shepherding role.  Laniak draws our attention to the frequency of God’s action in this passage[35]:

 For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroyI will feed them in justice.[36]

Then, in the following verses, God shows first how that role will involve him in active judging of his people[37], and then makes a promise of a coming, future king who will actively shepherd his people in a  new covenant:

And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the LORD; I have spoken…. And you are my sheep, human sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, declares the Lord GOD.[38]

Before moving to the obvious fulfilment of this promise in the person and work of Jesus, it is worth pausing to allow what we have seen sink deep into the foundations of what it means to be a pastor.  It is a strong, ruling concept, under God’s shepherd-monarchy, of an accountable, responsible position of governing God’s people under the rule of his word.  The contemporary diluting of it into someone who is a person who is nice and encouraging is as unhelpful as the reaction to that caricature which sees the pastor as the CEO of the church, confusing leadership with making good executive decisions.  Both risk losing all concept of God’s active ruling of the church through the handling of his word by his shepherds. Not only are they both unhelpful, but by being on the one hand permissively weak, and on the other aggressively strong, they both will tend towards tyranny.   Marshall Shelly, the editor of Leadership, quoted a pastor friend in an editorial in the issue we began with, ‘The next time a sentence begins, ‘In the business world we…’ please note that I’m not interested in the rest of that sentence,” he said. “The church is not the business world.  As I’ve observed the effects of that business world on people’s lives, it doesn’t seem to me to produce the traits the church is about: joy, contentment, grace, and love.  I don’t see the business world as a model for encouraging the kinds of lives we’re called to live.”’[39]

5 Jesus the Shepherd

In summary, then, we have seen that in the Old Testament God, as the chief shepherd of his people, leads, feeds and guards them by giving them his word and providing under-shepherds who will apply it.  Those who care for his sheep under him only lead, feed and guard as far as they do this work.  Those who abuse his word in any or all of those areas are tyrants, false shepherds, whom he will replace.

It almost goes without saying that Jesus stands as the great centre and fulfilment of this tradition: he is the Good Shepherd, the Chief Shepherd, the Great Shepherd,[40]who leads, feeds and guards his flock, and who exercises his rule by dying for his sheep.  He is the one who calls his followers his flock, and who says he will lay down my life for the sheep[41].  Quoting the prophet Zechariah, on the eve of his death, Jesus declares, You will all fall away because of me this night. For it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up I will go before you to Galilee.[42]  The risen shepherd will gather his scattered flock and lead them on to pasture.

To explore just one of the many possible examples, early in Mark’s gospel Jesus’ kingdom is set up as the rival to the existing monarchy of Herod. In chapter 6 Mark lays out the two kings, with two banquets:  Herod’s is in a palace, Jesus’ is in a desert.  Herod entertains his nobles and military commanders, and all the leading men of Galilee[43]; in other words, he entertains the shepherds of Israel. But Jesus’ view is that these men are not fulfilling their role, because he can see that Israel is like a flock of sheep without a shepherd, just as we saw Moses had feared they would be in his absence.  So Jesus takes on that shepherding role, and Mark notes carefully he began to teach them many things.[44] The deepest part of the shepherd’s role is the teaching.  Nevertheless, the people’s need is not just spiritual, and so – just as in the Exodus story – he addresses the physical need for bread, which symbolised their spiritual hunger.  He commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass.  So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties.[45] Here is a shepherd feeding his people in green fields, grouped in a way that strongly recalls the way Israel was camped around Sinai, in thousands, hundreds, fifties and…tens[46]. And they are fed on miraculous supplies of bread.

The reason Herod’s banquet occurs at this point in the narrative is because Jesus’ ministry was recalling that of John the Baptist; some were saying that in Jesus, John the Baptist has been raised from the dead[47], which troubled Herod.  What Mark has done, though, is not only to make it clear that the two rival kings deal respectively in tyranny or service, in murder or life, but hint that the existing rulers of Israel will do to Jesus as they have done to John, and that Jesus really will be raised from the dead.  Furthermore, either side of Herod’s banquet is the account of the twelve being sent out by Jesus to extend his kingdom, and returning to him with the news of all they had done and taught[48], with the strong indication that not only will what happened to John happen to Jesus, it will happen to them too.

[1] In an interview entitled ‘State of the Art: Andy Stanley on God’s ways, cultural assumptions, and leading’, Leadership, Spring 2006, pp26 – 32, p28, error in text corrected in line with the page headline.

[2]Stanley, p.28

[3] Which is not to say we should not help hurting Christians, but that this is a reductionist and imbalanced understanding of pastoring.

[4]Stanley pp27-28.  Note that he shifts from talking about the language of leadership to the structures of leadership, by which I think he means that there are not just more relevant metaphors for us to use, but more relevant ways of being a church leader. ‘One of the criticisms I get is “your church is so corporate”…”The pastor’s like a CEO.” And I say, “OK, you’re right.  Now, why is that a bad model?”  A principle is a principle, and God created all the principles” (p27).  But the two models differ quite strikingly, and for all the overlap, ‘CEO’ brings in and omits ideas that are not in ‘shepherd’.  Some aspects of ‘good practice’ in being a CEO might be thought helpful in managing a larger, possibly Western congregation – but all of the ‘shepherd’ ones are essential, and are only lost at the cost of unfaithfulness.  I am not claiming Stanley does this, but someone who claimed the title and salary of ‘shepherd’ but who exercised the office of a CEO would have missed out the most critical part of the job, its defining element, and would be not a shepherd but a hireling.  See below.

[5] Acts 20:28-29

[6] The most thorough survey is Timothy S. Laniak, Shepherds after my own heart: Pastoral traditions and leadership in the Bible (Leicester/Downers Grove: Apollos, 2006).  What follows is heavily indebted to him.

[7] Ps 77:20.

[8] Exod. 15, 17.

[9] In the intervening chapter 16.

[10] Ps 78:19.

[11] Ps 105:40-41.

[12] Deut 23:14.

[13]  Exod 13:21.

[14] Exod. 15:13, 17.  Laniak notes that the word ‘dwelling’ can be translated ‘pasture’ (Laniak p.84).

[15] Ps. 77:19-20.

[16] Num 14:7-9.

[17] Refs.

[18] Deut 5:32-33.

[19] Deut. 8:3.

[20] It is almost irresistible to note another John Frame triad:  Guidance (control); Provision (authority) and Protection (presence).  Frame, ad loc.


[21] Ps 95:6-11

[22] Exod. 3:1.

[23] Ps. 77:19-20.

[24] Loniak pp97-90.

[25] Num. 27:16-17.

[26] Laniak, p91, his italics.

[27] 2 Sam 7:7.

[28] Ps. 78:70-72.

[29] I Sam. 16.

[30] 2 Sam. 5:2.

[31] 2 Sam 7:8.

[32] The Biblical-theological question should then be, who is it who has experienced the blessings of perfect obedience, who passed through death without fear, who is victoriously crowned and celebrated in the presence of his defeated enemies, and who dwells in God’s house for eternity, by right.

[33] Ezek 34:1-6

[34] Ezek 34:7-10.

[35] Laniak. p154.

[36] Ezek. 34:11-16.

[37] Ezek. 34:17-23.

[38] Ezek 34:24, 31.

[39] P1.  Strikingly, though, that same edition carried an interview with the excellent, but non-Christian, business guru Jim Collins, entitled ‘The Good to Great Pastor’, pp48-50.  I think the confusion arises from a correct and deeply angry intolerance of insipid and ineffective leadership that has claimed the title ‘pastor’ and sucked the blood and heart out of it; but their overcorrection is to fail to reclaim the terms ‘pastor’ and ‘leader’ as vibrant and strong biblical terms that, understood with their biblical content, can explicitly direct and guide how we learn from worldly-wise people like Collins.

[40] Jn. 10:11,14; 1 Pet. 5:4; Heb 13:20.

[41] Jn. 10:15,16.

[42] Matt. 26:31.

[43] Mk. 6:21

[44] Mk. 6:34.

[45] Mk. 6:39-40.

[46]  Exod 18:25. Ben Witherington also notes that the word translated groups ‘when combined with the command to recline for a meal, would have suggested to a largely Gentile audience a dinner party involving a special bond among the guests’, making the contrast with Herod’s banquet even clearer.  Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Mark; A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids/Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans, 2001) p.219.

[47] Mk. 6:14.

[48] Mk. 6:30.

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