[This blogpost is an expansion of recent comments made in a discussion on the Total Leadership blog
In a recent article entitled “The God Who Names Himself”, Dr. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary begins with these thoughts:
Calls for theological innovation and the employment of "theological imagination" are now routine among mainline Protestants and others prone to theological revisionism. Dismissive of doctrinal orthodoxy and biblical language as out of date, oppressive, patriarchal, and worse, the proponents of theological reformulation intend to restructure Christianity around an entirely new system of beliefs, playing with language even as they reinvent the faith.
The “theological innovation” Dr. Mohler decries is painfully obvious in situations such as the recent declaration by the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. that different names– such as “Compassionate Mother, Beloved Child and Life-Giving Womb”– must be given to the members of the Trinity (this is the situation that sets the context for Mohler’s article), but extreme examples such as the actions of the PCUSA only come about after a long series of small moves away from a full confidence that God has clearly and sufficiently communicated the truth that He means for us to have.
One such “small move” is illustrated by the Spring 2006 Leadership Journal interview of Andy Stanley, the leader of North Point Ministries in the Atlanta area. [This excerpt from the interview is taken from the Ah! Bright Wings blog.]
page 28 -
L: Should we stop talking about pastors as ‘shepherds’?
AS: Absolutely. That word 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 the flock,” no. I never seen a flock. I’ve never spent five minutes with a shepherd. It was culturally relevant in the time of Jesus, but it’s not culturally relevant any more. Nothing works in our culture with that model except this sense of the gentle, pastoral care. Obviously that is a facet of church ministry, but that’s not leadership.
L: Isn’t shepherd the biblical word for pastor?
AS: It’s the first century word. If Jesus were here today, would he talk about shepherds? No. He would point to something that we all know, and we’d say, “Oh yeah, I know what that is.” Jesus told Peter, the fisherman, to “feed my sheep,” but he didn’t say to the rest of them, “Go ye therefore into all the world and be shepherds and feed my sheep.” 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. Even when it was, it was cultural, an illustration of something. What we have to do is identify the principle, which is that the leader is responsible for the care of the people he’s been given. That I am to care for and equip the people in the organization to follow Jesus. But when we take the literal illustration and bring it into our culture, then people can make it anything they want because nobody knows much about it.
There are many points that could be made about Andy Stanley’s words in this interview, but I will focus upon two:
1. Jesus was NOT striving for “cultural relevance” in His words about shepherding. When Jesus spoke of being a shepherd to His sheep, He did not choose the illustration of a shepherd based primarily on the experiences of His hearers. In John 21:16, Jesus told Simon Peter, “Shepherd my sheep”. Now we know that Peter was not a shepherd before following Christ, but rather a fisherman. And yet Jesus does not say, “Be like a really good fishing-boat captain to the other fishers.” There is richness in the metaphor that we must understand, where the Bible has consistently named the LORD as our shepherd, Scripture has named us as His sheep, and God’s Word has given church leaders the task of following Christ’s example by living as a shepherd. Likewise, when the Apostle was addressing the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:28, he said,
“Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (NASB)
While studying for my under-graduate degree in history at Georgia State University, I was constantly confronted with how erroneous a view of history we often develop. The difference in how people live today, with all of our technologies and innovations, is not as dissimilar from past urban societies as we sometimes think (though things do happen much faster in the 21st century). Somehow, it seems that we get the idea that half the population in the Roman Empire at the time of Christ and His apostles were shepherds and that a person could not walk through the streets of a major city without bumping into a shepherds' convention. But Ephesus at the time of Paul was, “an important political, educational, and commercial center, ranking with Alexandria in Egypt, and Antioch of Pisidia, in southern Asia Minor” [from the 2006 MacArthur Study Bible, NASB, page 1770]. So the urban elders addressed by Paul would necessarily have had any more first-hand experience of shepherds as an individual in New York City would have today. And the thought that Jesus chose the illustration of the shepherd and the sheep due to the experiences of His hearers is betrayed in the fact that neither Jesus nor any of His 12 apostles are said to have held the occupation literally tending sheep. At the time of Jesus people would have held a great variety of jobs– much as people do today– and they would not necessarily have had any more experience with shepherding than the majority of people reading this blog, yet they could understand the simplicity of Jesus’ illustration. I’ve never been a shepherd, but I can understand what a shepherd is and what he does. And any small child or CEO can understand the illustration of a shepherd as well with the slightest bit of explanation. If the Holy Spirit chose to reveal Christ as a shepherd– and names church leaders as shepherds following Christ’s example– then it is our duty, not to change the word “shepherd” to our modern context, but to help our hearers adapt their thinking to the biblical context. It’s less ‘cool’, but it’s not that difficult, and it honors the life-giving Word of God.
2. Jesus IS “here today” and He’s still talking about “shepherds”. Jesus promised to be with His followers always as we go and “make disciples of all the nations” (see Matthew 28:19-20). Jesus said that He would personally build His church upon the confession that He is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (see Matthew 16:16-18). This confession is not a mere utterance of words on the part of the confessor, but is a statement of true faith, which comes from hearing the word of Christ (see Romans 10:17). Now, the word– or message– of Christ is found only in the Bible– there is no other way that we would have sure information about who Jesus is and what He has done. The Bible is no dead book, but is rather “living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12 NASB). The Bible is God-breathed and is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” (cf. II Timothy 3:16-17 NASB). Therefore, the Bible is sufficient to bring people to faith in Jesus, to instruct them in growing as disciples for Jesus, and in ordering and illustrating the leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ, which is charged with making disciples for His glory. Jesus said, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away” (Matthew 24:35 NASB). So if we look at Jesus using the word “shepherd” in Scripture, an then make the statement, “That word needs to go away,” then we are contradicting the “living and active” word of our Lord. The Bible is the only blueprint for how God is working His redemptive plan in history. If we step away from the words of Scripture for any reason, whether it be “academic credibility” (as liberal scholars have) or “cultural relevance” (as many modern "evangelicals" have), we are stepping away from the redemptive power of God.
[For some good practical thoughts on the difference between applying Jesus' illustration of church leaders as shepherds and the idea of a church leader as a CEO, please see Frank ("Centuri0n") Turk's current post on the Pyromaniacs blog.]