Monday, August 1, 2022

Shepherds Must Be On Guard

 This article originally appeared in the July-August 2022 edition of Voice Magazine.

The Pastor’s Position

Pastors carry an impossible responsibility. Having been in ministry for about a decade, I’ve come to learn this reality firsthand. Feeding God’s sheep, protecting the flock from wolves, and not letting yourself fail in the process is an utterly unattainable assignment for feeble men. Praise God there’s more to the story.

Jesus Christ builds and protects His church. He faithfully nourishes and keeps her until the time He receives her to Himself, taking her to His Father’s house, the place He has prepared for her. Thus, as individual members of His church, we all rely on Jesus, the Author and Finisher of faith, the great Preserver of our souls. What a blessing it is to be children in God’s house, with such a sure foundation. As that great hymn reminds us,

The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord

She is His new creation by water and the Word

From heav’n He came and sought her to be His holy Bride

With His own blood He bought her and for her life He died

Further, our Savior promised that He would personally build the church and she would live on indestructibly, despite the efforts of Satan and the reality of death (Matt 16:18, Rom 16:20). God’s power preserves the church, and His purposes to build the church will stand. In this sense, the church isn’t dependent on any human effort. Her origin and destination are heavenly, and so is her sustained existence. God does all the work in building the church, all the way through. We are His workmanship, not our own (Ps 100:3, Eph 2:10). He gets full and total credit for the Bride’s arrival at that future marriage supper.

Amazingly, the channel of God’s power in preserving His church is godly leadership, duly appointed for the task. Thus, there exists a commission to local church elders not only to guard themselves, but to guard the flock (Acts 20:28). Though this use of human channels is astounding, it isn’t unusual for God, as He ordinarily uses means to accomplish His varied purposes in the world. To save people, He uses preachers (Rom 10:14, Rev 11:3). To provide for people, He uses givers (2 Cor 8:1ff). To protect His church, He uses undershepherds (John 21:15).

Caring for the flock of God is a high and worthy calling – a “fine work,” Paul calls it (1 Tim 3:1), full of joy, blessing, and future reward. At the same time, the task is tremendously complex, unceasingly present, and deeply serious—and the Lord has positioned select men between the sheep and threats to their livelihood, using them to preserve His work.

Devotion to the Ministry

No pastor will be effective in his calling if he has misplaced or marginal devotion for the work to which God has called him. Of course, in making such a statement, both devotion and work must be rightly understood.

Devotion has in view an unwavering, zealous commitment. The early church was devoted to prayer and biblical teaching (Acts 1:14, 2:42), and the apostles led by example in that (6:4). Similarly, pastors are called to have an unwavering and zealous commitment to their work of ministry (2 Tim 4:5). Pastors must be thoroughly devoted to their calling.

Ministry is all about serving people. There are a variety of expressions in ministry, but at the core lies sacrificial service to others. Stephanas was praised for his devotion in ministry, made evident by the sacrifices he made to visit Paul in Ephesus (1 Cor 16:15-17). Priscilla and Aquila were Paul’s “fellow workers” (Rom 16:3) who were instrumental to the planting of churches in Corinth, Ephesus, and Rome, even sacrificing their own living space for the sake of church meetings (Rom 16:5, 1 Cor 16:19). However it is defined, ministry is always rooted in serving other people.

For pastors, God’s local flock is the ministry priority. As much as some local church leaders may enjoy administrative work, public speaking, online influence, community involvement, or Bible study, their ministry is merely a fa├žade if their ultimate priority isn’t to serve the sheep. The pastor’s job isn’t properly defined as merely studying and talking; instead, his job is to care for the people of God sacrificially. Many have jokingly remarked, “Ministry wouldn’t be so difficult if it weren’t for the people.” Yet, ministry would cease to be ministry if people weren’t involved. Devotion to ministry means selfless commitment to people—God’s people.

Jesus taught His followers about devoted ministry when He assured them that He is the good shepherd. There are many shepherds in the world, but there is only one good shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ. He defined His goodness in this way:

The good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand, and not a shepherd, who is not the owner of the sheep, sees the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and is not concerned about the sheep. I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. (John 10:11-15)

This is total devotion to ministry. The incarnate Christ had such an unwavering, zealous commitment to His people that He was willing to lay down His life for them. Far from being a mere martyr or example, Jesus’ death for His people was an effectual act of service that established the Church and continues to impart life to each one who believes. He truly is the good shepherd.

Pastors are called to reflect Christ’s devotion to ministry as they shepherd His sheep. This means that devotion to pastoral ministry is about protecting God’s flock at the utmost cost, even dying daily (1 Cor 15:31). When the wolves come (not “if”; see 2 Tim 3:1ff), God’s undershepherd is to stand firm to protect the fold. Although there may be great temptation to “see the wolf coming, leave the sheep and flee,” undershepherds must hold fast. A pastor should consider God’s people as more important than himself (Phil 2:3).

Confrontation of Wolves

Devotion to ministry is tested when wolves threaten the flock and, as experienced pastors know, wolves are not a uniform group. Some wolves teach false doctrine (2 Tim 2:16-18); others play politics and create fleshly division (Rom 16:17); there are also those who practice sin, refuse to repent, and encourage others to do the same (Rom 1:32). In most cases, wolves employ a little bit of everything. Regardless of the details, when surrounded by foaming-mouthed beasts, pastors must speak the truth in love with their feet fixed to the ground. While standing in front of the sheep amid great danger, a pastor should look a wolf in the face and utter, “Over my dead body.”

Thus, pastors must be alert. Scripture indicates that this begins with themselves. Paul called Timothy to disciplined and exemplary living (1 Tim 4:7, 12) because a man cannot be alert for others if he is not alert for himself, as illustrated in the list of pastoral characteristics (3:5). Furthermore, pastors are to be wise men who can see threats on the horizon and respond accordingly, rather than foolish men who continually suffer the penalty of their own folly (Prov 27:12).

It is only when a man maintains such prudence over his own walk that he is then able to help others (1 Tim 4:16). As John Kitchen has insightfully noted, “Ministry is not the means to fill your well, but it arises out of a well already filled by and with Jesus.” (John Kitchen, The Pastoral Epistles for Pastors (The Woodlands, Kress Christian Publications, 2009), 192.) Only pastors who are growing in righteousness by God’s grace are effective in assisting others with the guidance they desperately need.

In the world, God’s people are constantly bombarded with distractions from truth and those distractions often sneak into the church. Dangerous people creep in, able and willing to trip up and drag down God’s people. As guardians of Christ’s flock, pastors are responsible for perceiving threats in the pasture. The servant of the sheep must employ proactive care so that potential dangers can be mitigated and, by God’s grace, eliminated. The shepherd is to be out in the field, mingling with the flock while feeding them Scripture, ready to address whatever comes.

The word of God serves as the tool of protection against the attacks of wolves; it is the undershepherd’s rod to ward off threats. Psalm 23 reminds God’s people that the Shepherd’s rod is a source of comfort. Phillip Keller insightfully notes, “The shepherd’s rod is an instrument of protection both for himself and his sheep when they are in danger. It is used both as a defense and a deterrent against anything that would attack. The skilled shepherd uses his rod to drive off predators…the psalmist no doubt used his rod to attack the lion and the bear that came to raid his flocks.” (Phillip Keller, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1979), 91.) Scripture is the powerful tool of protection.

When the wolves threaten, shepherds must confront them head-on. Paul told the Galatians that he didn’t yield to the legalistic false teachers for even an hour, and the result of the apostle’s firm stand was that the truth of the gospel remained with the church (Gal 2:5). Not counting his reputation as having any value, Paul protected the sheep. Similarly, pastors cannot give way to those who threaten the church, whether that’s by turning a blind eye to known conflicts, rationalizing sinful behavior, or keeping oneself ignorant of dangers for the sake of fleeting bliss.

Methods of Confrontation

As pastors take hold of their duty, one of the most difficult decisions they have to make is how to confront. Continuing on in Galatians 2, Paul recounts an event with Peter where he told him his fault to his face. Peter wasn’t a wolf, of course, but he was playing the hypocrite, and, in front of everyone, the apostle opposed the other apostle (Gal 2:11-14). Certainly this is a unique account, not meant to be the “norm” in Christian fellowship; however, Paul’s methodology is still offers principles to those in leadership who desire to restrain the influence of wickedness.

The more normative approach to confrontation is found in Matthew 18:15, where Jesus teaches that the church discipline process begins when a Christian confronts another Christian in his sin. This private discussion is meant to be restorative in and of itself (cf. Gal 6:1), but if it is not, there are levels of recourse that follow. Nevertheless, private confrontation as Christ presented it is both a protective and healing action. Pastors will participate in this activity more than anyone else in the congregation, as they have been particularly assigned responsibility to watch over the people (Heb 13:17). It is good for a loving shepherd to care for God’s sheep by addressing specific harmful actions that must come to an end.

When pursuing this kind of confrontation, pastors should never use the pulpit to take the first step found in Matthew 18. Many preachers do this in a coded way, not calling out the culprit by name, but dropping hints about the problem, hoping the person in mind will hear and respond. This is an ungodly practice that is not fit for the household of God. Loving shepherds confront problem people face-to-face, in private, giving them the opportunity to repent and prove themselves to be sheep, not wolves.

Yet, there are times when specific threats to the flock are distant, not found in the fellowship, and a pastor’s best option is to use the pulpit to guard the church. Today, perverse trends such as critical race theory, communism, and the LGBTQ movement, along with their adherents, are like far-away snipers, seeking to pick off the sheep one-by-one. It is imperative that pastors speak out with a loud voice against such deadly forces, pointing out the danger and offering the flock a way to safety. A pastor’s duty is to be aware of the threats and do whatever it takes to protect God’s people from them.

These battles incur wounds. Undershepherds will be bitten, scratched, and exasperated by wolves, but the noble work must go on. Scripture reminds us that these struggles are not in vain—God sees, comforts, vindicates, and rewards His servants.

Reliance on God’s Promises

Many times, when pastors do the best they can in confronting threats to the church, wolves still prevail. Certain people come in, wreak havoc, and move on to the next pasture, interrupting another unsuspecting flock, seemingly without any real consequence. It’s even more tragic when church families are led astray by such people, leaving the flock to their own detriment. God’s undershepherds can feel defeated in such cases, thinking they failed in their duty. However, pastors should not think this way.

God has made it clear that He will deal with those who tamper with His flock, whether they’re wolves or unruly sheep. In the Corinthian church, certain believers were disciplined by sickness and death (1 Cor 11:30). Ananias and Sapphira passed away because of their attempted manipulation of the church. Still others are destined for doom (1 Pet 2:8) and when Jesus returns, He will expose the motives of their hearts (1 Cor 4:5). The Lord does not tolerate people meddling with His church—vengeance is His and He will repay (Rom 12:19).

Ultimately, the preservation of the sheep, dismissal of wolves, and establishment of justice is God’s business. He’s the only one able to do it. When a pastor devotes himself to the ministry and the results are less than desirable, those results must still be totally committed to the Lord’s care. He’s the only truly powerful Agent involved.

In 1 Peter 5, the apostle encourages pastors to lead well in the church by pointing to an awesome eschatological event. In “the glory that is to be revealed” (v. 1), the Chief Shepherd will appear and give to His undershepherds “the unfading crown of glory” (v. 4). As pastors continually watch over the sheep, awaiting the return of Christ, there’s a great expectation of the reward He brings with Him (Rev 22:12) and there will be great blessing for true ministers in that day (Luke 12:37).

As pastors, we must not rest upon our own efforts or the perceived results of our ministry. We must not think that it is our own power that preserves the church. Instead, we appeal to Christ to work in us and through us to accomplish His purposes in His Church. It is our duty to guard the church, but it is the power and will of God to see it through.

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