‘Woe To You Shepherds’

It is a very fearful thing indeed to seek to be a Christian leader. It is probably better not to seek such leadership at all, but instead make sure it is a clear calling of God. The responsibilities of Christian leaders, pastors, teachers, and so on are many and great, and leaders will face much more exacting judgment.

For example, we are clearly warned in James 3:1: “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” That would be true of all sorts of Christian leadership positions.

One major image of leadership in the Bible is that of shepherd. This can refer to civil leaders as well as religious leaders. The Bible speaks about both the good shepherd who cares for the flock, and the bad shepherd, who fleeces and exploits the flock for personal gain.

All Christian leaders should of course have the highest regard and concern for their charges, and do all they can to guide them, protect them, nourish them, and feed them. And in Jesus we have the perfect example of the good shepherd (John 10:1-18).

In that famous passage Jesus says that a real shepherd will lay his life down for his sheep. He also warns about those who would seek to come into the flock and destroy it. Christian leaders today would do well to reread this important passage. We must make sure we are not being false shepherds.

One of the most devastating chapters in the prophetic writings concerning false shepherds is Ezekiel 34. There we read a stunning rebuke about these wayward shepherds, and learn of the dire condition the sheep under their care are in. Ezekiel is told to “prophesy against the shepherds of Israel”. Listen to these stinging words of Yahweh in verses 2-6:

“Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.”

God through Ezekiel goes on to say that such activity cannot be tolerated: “I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock” (v. 10). As Christopher Wright notes, what we have here is clearly “a picture of ruthless exploitation and self-interest”.

This was not only true back then for Israel, but it has so often been the case throughout church history. Says Wright, “the temptation to regard those entrusted to one’s care or leadership as one’s personal property, a mini-empire, is powerful.” Quite so.

How many Christian leaders today could rightly be described by the words of Ezekiel? How many, instead of feeding and tending their flocks, have instead become like ravenous wolves that are in fact destroying their flocks? How many sheep today need rescuing from their own shepherds?

I raise all this in part because of a recent television expose of some American tele-evangelists. It looked at the incredibly, almost obscenely, lavish lifestyles of these TV preachers, and how they seem to be as concerned about lining their own pockets and surrounding themselves with wealth and opulence as they are about tending their flocks.

The short video story can be seen via the link below. Now this is admittedly a secular expose, which likely has an axe to grind. Indeed, the secular media regularly do hatchet jobs on Christian ministries, so I am not claiming a story like this should be completely trusted, or relied upon for giving us the whole story.

However, I still believe that often non-Christians have to do the job when Christians will not. Many of these tele-evangelists are not only put up on a pedestal, but they are treated almost like divinities. Many even warn against daring to criticise them, claiming to speak ill of these pastors is to speak against God himself.

I have written before about the dangerous – even heretical – doctrines of the health and wealth gospel, the prosperity gospel, and so on. See for example:
billmuehlenberg.com/1998/09/08/silver-and-gold-have-i-none/
billmuehlenberg.com/2010/09/29/problems-with-the-positive-confession-movement/
billmuehlenberg.com/2007/10/26/contentment-in-an-age-of-excess/
billmuehlenberg.com/1999/11/28/a-review-of-you-need-more-money-by-brian-houston/

But when a church leader makes the acquisition of wealth a key component of his message, even when so many hundreds of Scriptures so clearly warn against this, then it is not hard to see why they will go off the rails like this. Christians should be exposing these misuses and abuses of shepherding, and not wait for secular investigative journalists to do the job.

And all this wrong emphasis on riches, luxury and opulence is only part of the problem. The bigger problem is that we have simply lost the understanding of servant leadership, which is what the shepherding imagery is all about. Instead we have abandoned the shepherd model and replaced it with the corporate model.

As Iain Duguid, commenting on Ez. 34, says, “In the contemporary church, the image of minister as shepherd is rapidly becoming an endangered species. Our models of leadership are increasingly borrowed from business. In place of the traditional view of the minister as a ‘pastor,’ the minister is now viewed as the equivalent of the CEO of a major corporation or, to continue the agricultural metaphor, as a ‘rancher’ overseeing a large sheep-producing enterprise.”

And of course all the evangelists and pastors featured in this television critique are leaders of megachurches. Says Duguid, “If we are to return to truly being shepherds, perhaps we need to reconsider our love affair with big churches. It is possible to lord it over a flock of thousands; it is possible to herd a flock of hundreds; but is it really possible to pastor a congregation of more than about two hundred?”

He notes that “church growth books generally identify the number at which a dramatic shift in church dynamics becomes necessary as somewhere between 120 and 200”. He continues, “At the very least, within larger churches we need consciously to create subcongregations of this size or smaller, in which real shepherding takes place, where loving concern and care is expressed and strong, scriptural accountability is exercised.”

Indeed, “the leader of the larger congregation must resist the pressures to retreat into the role of superstar preacher or of a vision-casting executive. Though such people may not be able to shepherd all of the people all of the time, they should certainly be shepherding some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time.”

Hopefully most pastors – whether of smaller or bigger churches – are not living the decadent, lavish lifestyles of the rich and famous as seen on this video clip. But even if they are rightly resisting the temptations of falling prey to the false gods of money, materialism and consumerism, many may be still far from the sort of shepherd Scripture holds up as an example for us.

I encourage every single Christian leader to go back to Ezekiel 34 and read it, reread it, and reread it again until God breaks our hearts and speaks to us forcefully and clearly about where we have gone wrong, and how we can get back to where we are meant to be.

[1286 words]

15 Replies to “‘Woe To You Shepherds’”

  1. I felt physically sick watching that video. How can these preachers, if we can call them that, have such large followings? Why isn’t the rest of the Church speaking up and rebuking the blind who are leading the blind?

    If you don’t mind, I shall publish that video too on my blog soon. Awareness has to be raised about this. If we remain silent, we are as good as supporting and approving of what they are doing. We have a responsibility to speak the truth.

    God help us all!

    Mercedes Underwood

  2. Bill, good article, and one which is helpful for all to ponder – whether they have been entrusted with leadership or not.
    A question, which is on something you only mention in passing. In the first paragraph you mention the importance of making sure that going into leadership is based upon the clear calling of God. How then do we discern this calling?
    A while ago, you posted articles about seeking the will of God. As I understand it, we are not to seek to delve into the ‘secret’ will of God, but in prayer and commitment under God, to fearfully make decisions in obedience to His word and in accordance with the circumstances that His providence deals to us. Such an approach sets me at rest in terms of seeking ‘the will of God’ when it comes to other decisions in life (e.g. choosing a marriage partner, taking a new job, etc.); but is it any different when going into the ministry?? After all, we are told that he who desires it desires a good thing (suggesting that it is a decision to be approached in much the same way as other decisions) – but is there more to it? how do we discern the ‘calling of God’ in this matter?
    I have heard some say that they will not enter ministry unless they are literally forced into it by God, which may be a wise approach, but what is the Biblical approach?

    Many thanks,
    Isaac Overton, ACT

  3. Thanks Isaac

    The principles I outlined in that earlier article basically apply here. A few passages come to mind however in relationship to leadership, and they provide a helpful balance:

    Jer 45:5 Should you then seek great things for yourself? Do not seek them.
    1 Tim. 3:1 Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  4. It does beggar belief that these excesses are somehow reconciled with scripture but somehow they find a way. Most people that peddle this stuff genuinely believe it and often connect OT “do this and you will get that” verses to support their view. The outcome is self perpetuating the more they have the greater they must be in Gods will. It was not always this way I grew up in pentecostalism which 40 years ago as a kid had a much greater emphasis on holiness and separation only recently has it been highjacked by the Word of faith crowd which I think reflects more the materialistic western audience they speak to. The question I would ask them is how does this theology relate to a Christian in a persecuted country awaiting beheading? You would need a fair dose of positive confession! One of the difficulties in dislodging this craziness is they always have a story of breakthrough how faith won the victory, got the car, got the house and got the cosmetic surgery. I am not sure how you glue the head back on though!
    The biggest problem is not these jetsetters but the people who flock to see them paying money for “resources”.
    Pete Hall

  5. I second that Peter, well said.

    The Church is supposed to be the hope of the world, but instead ravenous wolves are devouring the flock. Unfortunately, a new breed of Christians and Christian leaders are rising in the church – who are self seeking Christians. And in all seriousness, they need to get back to being God – centered instead of self-centered.

    Panage Kontos

  6. Fools and their money…..

    I digress, really, people should be responsible unto the Lord with what he gives them. How many of these people that give these ministers money, actually ask God if its the right thing to do.
    I find it interesting, as a missionary kid, that I remember many times when my parents had no money for months on end because our support dried up. It was tough as a child to swallow that. And yet I read that Joyce Meyers gold toilet could have supported us for 4 years on the mission field. Link

    JC Ryle had a lot to say about the sort of people that will be in heaven. In all honesty if that lot in the video are going to heaven, I am not sure I want to go there.

    Jeffrey Carl

  7. The Kenneth Copeland Airport !! that was horrendous! He was exposed at the end at least… but many will continue to follow him rather than the humble, suffering servant Jesus.

    The CEO metaphor is a very apt one. About 10 years ago i read a great book by Frank Viola – Rethinking the Wineskin where he shows the parallels between modern megachurcnianity and ideas like CEOs, corporation, businessnes etc and how these have replaced the biblical functions of really serving etc…. The book was released as ‘Rethinking the Church’ a while ago, and he has another great book called ‘Pagan Christianity’ which shows how much of the modern church’s practices are rooted in pagan tradition and not the bible.

    Jeremy Woods

  8. I remember preparing a message some years ago for our church, which I entitled, “We are the Sheep of His Pasture” and looked at what that meant for us as sheep in the care of Jesus and our earthly pastoral shepherds. In that research I found that 100 sheep was the most a shepherd could manage with 50 or less being more common. (Remember the shepherd in the gospels who had 100 sheep, then left them to look for the one who had strayed??)

    I remember one Sunday night in one of our little church plants where we usually had an average of 15 – 18 people – one night had 26. I remember my senior pastor saying to me, that if we picked up enough to make 30, it might be time to consider breaking up into two congregations.

    It was said lightheartedly but also it was an acknowledgment of our church’s belief that small is often better than big, for many reasons.

    In a small church, no one is overlooked. Anyone missing on Sunday is really missed. Those Sunday nights when someone was missing, saw a small group of us do home visits on the way home, taking any left overs from the evening supper or meal that had often been shared after the service. We then spent time with each one who had been missing, bringing the Lord’s table personally to them, and spending time in prayer with them.

    Remaining small also avoids the needs for committees, and other big church trappings, even buildings. We hire a small building or church or we meet in each others homes.

    Sometimes small has also been interpreted to mean that we must be doing something wrong, or our preaching and teaching isn’t relevant. I occasionally felt discouraged when I heard this, but then reminded myself, that we are a very “Word – rich” church, teaching and preaching the whole truth and counsel of God – love and justice, heaven and hell, wrath and forgiveness – faithfully preaching the Old Testament along with the New . It occurred to me that maybe this is why we have stayed small. We don’t fall into the trap of preaching what itching ears want to hear.

    Some other interesting things I learned about Biblical shepherds and sheep that might be good to think about and ponder on their implications-

    1. A shepherd’s lot wasn’t easy – the surrounding pastures were often barren uncultivated lonely areas of land where no rain fell for nine months of the year and were often far from civilization;

    2. The following were some quotes I found about the characteristics of sheep – I have lost the source of the quotes so am unable to supply appropriate credit for them – hope you can use them, Bill –

    “Sheep are notorious creatures of habit. Left to themselves, they will follow the same trails til they become deep ruts; graze the same hills til they turn to desert wastes; and pollute their own ground until it is rife with disease and parasites.”

    “Sheep are, beyond question, the most stupid animals on the face of the earth. They are dumb and they are dirty, they are timid and defenceless and helpless. I look back on my shepherding days with a great deal of disgust. Sheep are miserable creatures.”

    3. The shepherd knew his sheep by name – relate that back to the size of the flock. He and his sheep shared their life for many years and grew close – this also hints strongly of the need for shepherds (pastors) to grow up from the flock, as opposed to being appointed from outside.

    4. Sometimes when sheep wandered, the shepherd would break the sheep’s legs to keep them from leading the rest of the flock astray, and to keep them close to the flock.

    5. The shepherd carefully searches out the most nourishing pasture (he leads us in paths of righteousness).

    6. At night, the sheep passed individually under the shepherd’s rod back into the fold – there was only room for one to go through at a time – so that they could be inspected by the shepherd – they were checked for thorns, weeping eyes, and any wounds were carefully anointed with olive oil. They were then one by one given a large overflowing mug of water, before being let into the fold.

    7. The shepherd sat in the doorway of the fold all night protecting the flock from harm. Any predator could only get to the flock over the shepherd’s dead body.

    8. In Old Testament times if you had said, “The Lord is my shepherd,” it was akin to saying “The Lord is my garbo.” It was a demeaning occupation, and shepherds were the lowest of the low on the social scale.

    9. Psalm 23 tells us that “he makes us to lie down in green pastures.” Sheep have 4 essential needs before they will lie down peacefully and it is the shepherd’s role to work to meet them – sheep must be free of all fear, they must be free of all friction among themselves, they must be free of the torment of pests and they must be free of hunger.

    The Bible gives us an accurate Job Description for Pastors (Shepherds) and churches would do well to use this as their guide rather than worldly models all so prevalent today.

    And it would also be helpful, if we could all recognize ourselves as the sheep we are, and how desperately we are in need of true Biblical shepherds, and in particular, the Good Shepherd.

    Kerry Letheby

  9. Funny Bill, you have just condemned the majority of mainstream churches. Good luck convincing the sheep.

    When I started work in the direct sales industry I was shocked to the core at how identical to church the whole setup was. That was a clincher for me.

    For a long time I have been too embarrassed to take unbelievers to church.

    So fed up with people peddling the gospel.

    Russell Boden

  10. The corporate mentality creeping into the church is a worry. There was a book detailing the trend in the USA called McChurch which gave a balanced critique of the trend. You do wonder how they organise pastoral care, or should it be called service delivery to members. One trend in the AOG OS the franchising of a particular brand such as Hillsong, Edge, Enjoy or the Shaking Planet. Very soon there will only be five AOG churches in Australia each with 100 satellite campuses with a service beamed in by the new NBN network. I am buying shares!

    Pete Hall

  11. A very timely article that shows the church is not the church. It is a business organisation run by man. That is why people are leaving it in droves so that they can commit to the Kingdom of God, not the religious kingdom of man.

    One good thing about the western church is that it is dying and church in the home is growing at a rate of knots. I read this week that churches in the USA are going down like flies as their mortgage payments are greater than their income.

    People are leaving because they have seen through the charade that the church has become. When you are in bondage to buildings all you can focus on is numbers and income.

    There is a church near me which is in dire straits as their numbers have been dwindling and income falling. One man’s salary takes 84% of the income and he is only part time.

    I counselled them to do things the scriptural way. No paid leadership just a board of unpaid Elders. Their response? That is not the way we do things.

    Ahem. The way you do things is not working is it!!!!!

    The denominational church will fail because their rules and regulations have more authority than the bible. The quicker the better as the true church can get on living the Kingdom of God and preparing for the coming of Christ.

    Roger Marks

  12. This would be an awesome article bill, if it wasn’t so depressing and infuriating.
    Yes at this very moment my wife and I are drafting an ad in our local paper (Bunbury)
    It goes something like this.
    Are you bible believing – God loving – servant of Jesus, who can’t stand going to church?
    Any tips would be great.
    Daniel Kempton

  13. Wonderful article, since accepting CHRIST, 10 years ago, I have been to several churches and found most to be great, however, I cant accept some teaching, particularly the practice of speaking in tongues. I have read and re-read acts and corinthions and still find no sense in the blabble used in most. I was advised by one minister to “think of it like eating kfc , eat the meat and spit out the bones. Fine thought but another guy said to me “If someone gave you a glass of water and assured me , that it was 99 percent water and 1 percent poison, would you drink it”. Food for thought eh.
    Love the comments on televangelists, I personally find Hinn, Dollar, Meyer etc. abominations to God and pray for the poor gullible persons who believe them.
    God Bless and keep up the good work.
    Brian Carrick, South Australia

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