By Peter Thompson B.Theo Grad Dip Theology
Parts 1-3 presented us with some sobering perspectives on what it means for the church to be the flock of God’s pasture. Now we will consider what impact these perspectives should have on contemporary church structures.
Responsibilities of God’s Sheep
Covenant responsibilities of the sheep (in Parts 1 and 3) remained somewhat consistent across both the Old and New Testaments, requiring them to:
- listen attentively to the voice of their divine Shepherds (namely Yahweh and Jesus) as expressed either directly by God (as Father, Son and Spirit), or through the mouthpiece of the prophets/prophetic giftings;
- respond in obedience together as one flock to both the voice of their divine Shepherd, and to the admonitions/guidelines of Scripture (note Proverbs 28:9);
- trust in their divine Shepherd’s continual presence to lead and protect;
- know God’s ways by treating all the weak, oppressed and needy among or around them with God’s love and compassion, meeting their practical needs; and
- remain faithful to God alone, seeking only His kingdom rather than pursuing one’s own self-seeking agendas.
Forms of New Testament Obedience
Pointedly, nowhere in the Bible are the sheep specifically directed to generally heed/obey the voice of human under-shepherds other than in their role as God’s mouthpiece or skilled handler of Scripture! It is essentially the divine voice only that must be listened to and obeyed!
This does not contradict certain passages exhorting believers to obey their leaders, because there are different Greek words for obedience which have important distinctions:
- Persuaded obedience (peitho) arising from being convinced to the point of relying upon and being confident about someone/thing is used only once in respect to submitting to those church leaders who lead by good example and responsibly watch out for the sheep as those who have to give account, i.e. to the divine Shepherd (Hebrews 13:7-9, 17), just as all believers should be persuaded to obey the truth (Galatians 5:7-8);
- Yielded obedience (hupeiko) arising from giving way to, ceasing to resist, authority is used only once in the whole New Testament, and that concerning leaders who led by example and responsibly watched out for the sheep in the context of believers tempted to fall away from the faith due to persecution (Hebrews 13:17);
- Submitted obedience (hupotasso) arising from a voluntary submission to, bringing under the control of, another person is used only once in respect to obeying leaders like Stephanas who wholly devoted himself to the service of the saints (1 Corinthians 16:15-16), in the same way that all believers are to submissively obey Christ Himself (e.g., Ephesians 1:22; 5:24; 1 Corinthians 15:27), and citizens are to submissively obey government authorities, wives their husbands, children their parents, younger people their elders, and all believers one another (e.g., Romans 13:1, 5; Ephesians 5:21-23; Colossians 3:18-21; 1 Peter 2:13; 3:1-5; 5:5; 1 Timothy 3:4; Titus 2:5; 3:1; note 1 Corinthians 16:16); and
- Listening obedience (hupakoe) resulting from a stillness and attentiveness to hear another is used very sparingly only in respect to apostolic authority required in particular contexts (2 Thessalonians 3:14; Philemon 21; note Acts 7:38-39 concerning the Israelites heeding the voice of Moses who received the living oracles of God; compare 2 Corinthians 2:5-9; 7:15; Exodus 16:19-20; Deuteronomy 1:42-45), for the sheep are to listen to and heed/obey the faith/truth (Romans 1:5; 15:18; 16:17, 26; Acts 6:7; 1 Peter 1:22; compare Romans 6:11-17; Philippians 2:12) through the Gospel (2 Thessalonians 1:7-8) which is in effect heeding the voice of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5-6; 1 Peter 1:2) and the Father (1 Peter 1:14), just as Christ Himself learned listening obedience to fulfil His call to suffer death out of His prayerful relationship with the Father (Hebrews 5:7-8; compare Romans 5:19; Isaiah 50:4-9), and children are to listen to and heed their parents (Ephesians 6:1-2; Colossians 3:20).
Effectively, the church is urged to heed under-shepherds only when they speak, write down, or otherwise communicate either the actual words and directives of the divine Shepherd, or command in accordance with the dictates of the Gospel/faith which is all about following Jesus anyway (compare the use of tereo, observed obedience arising from keeping an eye upon and hence observing something, in respect to the words of Jesus in Matthew 28:19-20; John 8:51; 14:15, 21; 15:10; 1 John 2:3-4; 3:22-24; 5:2-3; and the faith in 1 Timothy 4:7; compare 1 Timothy 6:11-14).
Jesus the Living Word as the Over-Shepherd
It is not surprising then that God’s sheep are to heed only the voice of Jesus because:
- Jesus is the Word Himself (John 1:1, 14; Revelation 19:13);
- Jesus is the Word of life (1 John 1:1-3);
- words spoken by Jesus, like Yahweh, stand forever (Mark 13:31; Luke 21:33; 1 Peter 1:24-25; Isaiah 40:3-9; Psalm 119:89; 102:26; compare Isaiah 55:8-11);
- the word of God is living and active (Hebrews 4:12; 1 Peter 1:23; compare 2 Peter 3:3-7); and
- because it is alive, the word of God increased, spread, and grew in power (Acts 12:24; 13:49; 19:20).
In Colossians 3:16, Paul exhorts the churches to allow the word of Christ to dwell within them richly.
The reliability and life-giving properties of divine words contrasts sharply with the poisonous and untameable human tongues which inevitably speak words that cause conflict, stumbling and destruction (e.g., James 3:1-12; compare Psalm 12:1-4; 120:1-7; 140:1-3; Proverbs 10:19-20; 13:2-3; 15:4; 16:27; 26:21, 28). Relying on human leaders to speak into our lives is fraught with danger when it is not communicating the voice of the divine Shepherd. Only at the absolute pinnacle of Christian maturity can leaders truly tame their tongue and therefore completely bridle the desires inherited from Adam, hence the warning not to seek becoming teachers as they will be subject to a greater strictness of judgment (James 3:1-2; compare James 1:26; Matthew 12:36-37; Romans 14:10-12; Mark 7:14-23). This is why church is structured organically and not hierarchically.
Traits of Bad Under-Shepherds
Some rather interesting parameters also come to light concerning what it means to have the privilege of being God’s “human” under-shepherd.
For instance, notice that the bad under-shepherds of the Old Testament in Part 1:
- failed to inquire of Yahweh, turning to their own ways, and consequently leading the flock astray;
- failed to properly care for and strengthen the flock as needed;
- failed to seek out and recover the lost/straying sheep;
- mistreated and dominated/controlled the flock to serve their own ends;
- protected their own position and affluence; and
- preyed on God’s flock to satisfy their own needs and desires.
It is interesting to observe how the vast majority of bad OT under-shepherds failed to even acknowledge their abuse of God’s flock until judgment came, by which time it was too late. Contemporary pastors beware!
Traits of Good Under-Shepherds
Now, notice that the good under-shepherds of the Old Testament in Part 1:
- were all equipped by the Holy Spirit to shepherd God’s people;
- did not have the Spirit necessarily remain permanently on them unless they were outstanding prophets/kings like Moses, Samuel and David, signifying how Jesus as the Christ, the Spirit anointed One (e.g., Isaiah 61:1), is the one permanently Good Shepherd, suggesting therefore that shepherding God’s flock as Christian leaders is not necessarily an irrevocable office/calling in itself; and
- all had Yahweh speak directly to them fairly frequently, so that the under-shepherds only conveyed God’s words and instructions, not their own concepts of what is right (note Numbers 20:6-13; 27:12-14).
New Testament Under-Shepherds
- Peter as an apostle was required by Jesus to shepherd His sheep, and feed His lambs (John 21:16-17);
- the overseeing elders of churches were exhorted by both Peter and Paul to shepherd the flock of God under Jesus the Shepherd and Overseer of God’s flock (Acts 20:17, 28-31; 1 Peter 2:24-25; 5:1-4); and
- shepherding-teaching is a ministry gift in the church to equip the saints for ministry (Ephesians 4:11-12).
This means that shepherding in the New Testament church is a responsibility affecting various levels of ministry gifting, all of which are subject to Jesus as the chief Shepherd.
Those in positions to under-shepherd God’s flock today need to ensure that they not only rely entirely upon the Spirit’s gifting and facilitate the prophetic voice, but also don’t use that privilege to:
- protect their own position, reputation, and/or privilege;
- coerce submission to themselves and to their own vision for the congregation, especially if it serves to promote their own importance and prestige in the eyes of their peers;
- draw people to themselves as followers of their self-aggrandising or altruistic schemes; and
- prey on God’s people either financially or to meet their own inherent and insecure need for attention/respect/affection, power/control/influence, or prominence/fame/success.
Church Excellence Framework
Getting Jesus back in control of His church so that He can shepherd His own sheep again using His voice, whether directly by the Spirit or through genuine prophetic speech, cannot simply happen overnight. Various measures have to be carefully introduced which facilitate the underlying changes necessary for reformation.
Hence, the Church Excellence Framework seeks to reinstate the priesthood of all believers so that the risen Lord and Head over the Church can properly speak again to guide and instruct His flock. To change decades or centuries of church tradition without careful preparation will result in disaster. Change has to be managed responsibly, which is why education of church members and their participation in the strategies for change have to be wisely planned using a proven system. The Framework therefore facilitates prudent under-shepherding.
To review the studies included in the Framework and find out why we have concluded these things you will need to see the notes which are available for download here.
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Peter “Thommo” Thompson was born in 1958 in the bulldust of south-western Queensland in the region around the township of Mitchell. He was converted outside of the church through a supernatural encounter with the living God in Mackay, North Queensland, in February 1979, and embarked upon a long and arduous journey of God dealing with the figurative bulldust in his life. In 2012, he completed a Bachelor of Ministry & Theology double degree, and in 2013, a Post-Graduate Diploma in Theology, all at Tabor Adelaide. He currently lives with his two adult daughters in Ipswich, Queensland, and is writing a series of academic novels with the intent of hopefully helping to facilitate a church unifying movement through an unbranded form of Christianity in Australia.
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