Scripture teaches that the flocks of God are precious, and they are precious because of what it took to purchase them.
“Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock.” (Acts 20:28-29).
The duties of a pastor, and the board of elders with him, is to do two things for the flock of God. The first is to provide for them, and the second is to protect them. The charge is straightforward—take heed to yourselves, and to all the flock, to feed the church of God. And the context of this charge to feed is the knowledge that Paul has that enormous wolves will shortly be coming after them.
More Than Provision
Too many evangelical pastors today believe that their responsibility ends with the simple provision of spiritual food. People come to church if they want, hear what they want, and take away what they want. But to neglect the duty of protection means that at some point you will be unable to protect the food supply. And once the duty of protection is neglected, it is not long before the provision of food gets thinner and thinner. Shepherds who refuse to protect are also shepherds who do not have much to say.
Shepherds need, in Paul’s terms, to “take heed.” They need to take head to themselves, and they need to take heed to the flock. A man who is not taking heed to himself cannot watch out for the flock. And if a man is not watching out for the flock, then he is clearly not taking heed to himself—he is guilty of a gross dereliction of duty. Once they have accepted the responsibility to guard the flock, they need to put their minds to it. This is part of what taking heed means.
First Level of Protection
And there are three major areas where shepherds need to think through what protection means. The first is mentioned in v. 29. Paul says that grievous wolves will come. The word for grievous is barus, meaning weighty or heavy. Large wolves will come, not sparing the flock. If you would protect the flock, you must take care to not spare yourself.
Second Level of Protection
A second part of pastoral ministry is going after the solitary stray. This is what the Lord Jesus was using to illustrate God’s care for us.
“What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?” (Luke 15:4).
The flock at large can be healthy, well-protected, and well-fed. Nevertheless, individual sheep from a well-cared for flock can wander off. The good shepherd goes after them. He doesn’t risk the 99 in a careless way because they are left in a good place, but he makes a point to pursue the wandering sheep.
Third Level of Protection
The third way a shepherd protects a flock is by keeping the entire flock from getting spooked and scattered. Either the shepherd is gone or killed, or some thunderclap of an overwhelming force scatters the flock despite the shepherd.
“Then he said, I did see all Israel scattered upon the mountains, as sheep that have no shepherd: and the Lord said, These have no master; let them return therefore every man to his house in peace” (2 Chron. 18:16).
So then, a shepherd guards the flock from wolves, he guards individual sheep from wandering, and he guards the flock from groupthink. When the flock is left to decide on a plan for itself, the entire flock wanders, and not just one or two of the sheep.
Men of Courage
One other point needs to be made. In order to perform any of these functions, the shepherd has to be a man of courage. He needs to make sure that he is willing to fight the wolves. If a man loves the wolves, then he hates the sheep. If he loves the sheep, then he hates the wolves. And, more to the point, if he loves the sheep, then by comparison he hates his own life.
“I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep. But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep” (John 10:11–12).
In our present day, the flock of God is beset by all kinds of dangers. Since the time of the New Testament, the wolves have not gotten any smaller. And in fact, the federal government may have reintroduced them into your neighborhood, as they have here in Idaho, just down the road from us. We still have numerous shepherds who feed only themselves.
“Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, prophesy, and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God unto the shepherds; Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! should not the shepherds feed the flocks?” (Eze. 34:2).
Pastoral counseling, one on one, is how we go after wandering sheep. That is an important part of the life of the church. “And how I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have shewed you, and have taught you publickly, and from house to house” (Acts 20:20).
But how do we guard the flock from flock-think? This is actually an environmental question—the Lord models this for us via green pastures and still waters. Shepherds have a responsibility to guard the flock by means of climate control. In the modern world, this means pastors need to know what is happening in the world, what is going on online, what members are saying in various comment threads, etc. In short, what are the distractions? what are the loud noises? what are rival shepherds saying? and what is the true shepherd is saying (John 10:27)?
“For he is our God; And we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. To day if ye will hear his voice, Harden not your heart, as in the provocation, And as in the day of temptation in the wilderness” (Psalm 95:7–8).
This last Monday I outlined my reasons for stating that the goddess of feminism cannot save anyone. This was a follow-up to my post of the previous Thursday, where I treated the subject of Potiphar’s Wife, Survivor. A number of people wanted to know what that was about, and the post about the goddess who does not save sought to answer that question at the larger theo-cultural level. But others have wanted to know if it was a parable about any particular cases I have dealt with—was it a thinly-veiled jab at anybody in particular? And the answer is that no, it was not aimed at anyone who was supposed to be represented by Potiphar’s wife. But it is not illegitimate to zoom and ask for particulars. It was about something I have had to deal with a lot.
The crosshairs in that piece were on unwitting Christian enablers of those who are trying to lead the church into serious error. We live in a generation that wants to establish, as a matter of public dogma, among many other related things, that we live in a rape culture, that women don’t ever lie about such things, that the patriarchal masculinity of our age is suffocating, and that is the duty of all right-thinking individuals to simply turn over the handling of complicated sexual abuse cases to the trained professionals. But trained by whom? By what standard? Christians are being pressured to think that it is our responsibility simply to be nice and non-stop supportive of a particular kind of victim, what I identified on Monday as a priestess-victim. Many Christians have internalized this standard and it shows. Victims who are not priestesses might as well be beat up and lying alongside the Jericho road. The Levite passes on, busy with his work, and so does the priest.
So the red laser dot was quivering on the pressure many Christians feel as they listen to a story they know to be false, and to say “you go, girl” in the comments anyway.
Bring this back to the larger topic of protecting the flock. Whenever any error starts gaining currency in the flock, it is the responsibility of shepherds to address it, somehow, some way. If I have three counseling situations with angry husbands, you can bet that “angry husbands” are going to start showing up in sermons. If I see Christians making adjustments to feminism—as I see all the time now—I am going to treat it the way Samuel treated Agag. This is because it is impossible to embrace feminism and still love Jesus. Yes, I know there will be comments about that sentiment, but it is a blog post for another time. Suffice it to say that you cannot love Jesus and hate what He teaches.
John Owen once said something like “you must be destroying sin, or sin will be destroying you.” This sentiment has to be taken up by shepherds and applied to the whole flock. If you are not at war with that which would destroy your flock, then you are that which is destroying your flock.