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:
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.