Monday, December 12, 2022

Shepherd tending to flocks in the wilderness of Turkey

In the Fall 2020 edition of Faith and the Academy, Liberty is exploring the implications of its mission to Train Champions for Christ. This is a contextualized discussion; “champions” is a distinct word that links to the conversation about biblical leadership development within the university. Jack Carson’s editorial contrasts two types of champions, much as Jesus did in Luke 22:25. While some may be tempted to see Carson’s “Champion of the Other” as simply a reflection of “servant leadership”—the most common way of describing the biblical view of leadership—I’d like to suggest that “shepherd leadership” is far more central to the vision of forming “Champions of the Other.”

The image of a shepherd leader in the Bible is more comprehensive in scope and used more often than the idea of servant leadership throughout Scripture. In reflecting on this image, we will find healthy place for both service and authority. Much of what I have to say here is the result of a triangle of research that includes biblical theology, field interviews among Bedouin shepherds, and intense dialogue with Christian leaders. I trust these brief reflections will prove relevant for continued thinking about student formation at Liberty University.

A Certain Kind of Heart

It was 2003 when I began my first field interviews in the Middle East. One of the most memorable was with Jordanian Bedouin Abu-Jamal. When I asked him how long it usually takes to become a good shepherd, he responded, “What really matters is that you have the heart for it. If you do, you can begin tomorrow.” After a pause, he continued, “My sons don’t have the heart for this work so they don’t deserve the business. I’ll sell the flocks to someone else before I let them go to those who don’t care.”

Having watched my 13-year old son among his sheep, he said something more surprising: “Your son has the heart for the animals. I can see it. You tell him that, if he wants, he can come stay with me. I’ll give him two hundred sheep, a wife, and a good Jordanian education in any school he wants.”

As you might imagine, my son didn’t take him up on the offer for the sheep—or anything else!—but I took away a huge lesson: Shepherding is about the heart. I had been working with a major project on biblical leadership before moving to Jerusalem. The theme verse was Jeremiah 3:15: “I will give you shepherds after my own heart who will lead you with knowledge and understanding.” I heard in the Bedouin’s words an echo of the Divine Shepherd and His priorities. Shepherds are leaders who must have a certain kind of heart to be trusted with the authority of herding the owner’s flock.

Shepherds in Scripture

So let’s take a quick journey into Scripture to see how central the shepherd image is and what that image conveyed to those who knew it well.

Abraham, Moses, and David were all shepherds—literally. Moses and David were both, metaphorically, shepherds of God’s flock. In the historical psalms, God is the one who led His people “like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron” (Psalm 77:20). In Psalm 78, the Divine Shepherd provided, protected, and guided His people in the desert. “He brought his people out like a flock; he led them like sheep through the desert. He guided them safely, so they were unafraid. … He drove out nations before them and allotted lands to them as an inheritance” (Psalm 78:52-55).

Fast forwarding to a later period, the psalmist concludes: “He chose David His servant and took him from the sheep pens; from tending the sheep He brought him to be the shepherd of His people Jacob, of Israel his inheritance. And David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skillful hands he led them” (Psalm 78:70-72).

God chose Moses and David at pivotal moments in redemptive history to serve as His shepherds. Both figures loom large in the biblical story line and become paradigmatic for biblical leadership. Notice that their roles are not limited to “service” as we might expect from Jesus’ words in Luke 22. They had authority—delegated authority—and they used it to lead God’s people in His paths.

Shepherding language comes into play later for the prophets especially in their critique of self-serving leadership. In fact, faithless kings, prophets, and priests were held responsible for the Exile. Good shepherds should feed the flock, but bad shepherds were fleecing the flock and butchering them for their own food (Ezekiel 34:2-3). Like Abu-Jamal, God was angry about those who saw the flock solely as a business venture to exploit. “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’ (Ezekiel 34:4).

Authority turned into abuse.

In response, God promised to rescue his flock personally, to care for them, and to judge between them. Yes, God the shepherd is both rescuer and judge. Other prophets affirm God’s promises of new leadership in the coming restoration, referring to himself as Israel’s Divine Shepherd (Isaiah 40:11) and to future leaders as “shepherds after my own heart” (Jeremiah 3:15). The context for this “service” in all cases is authority, the responsibility and the ability to do good and to promote good.

When Jesus comes in the Gospels, He is the Divine Shepherd incarnate (Mark 6:34), the quintessential Good Shepherd (John 10) who sends out His disciples to the lost sheep of Israel (Matthew 10:6). Jesus is not like Israel’s shepherds who are more like thieves and wolves (John 10). He is the shepherd who fulfills all that was promised about the coming Son of David (Ezekiel 34:23-24).

The leaders of the apostolic Church continued to see themselves as shepherds among God’s people (Acts 20:28-31; 1 Peter 5:1-4) rather than self-serving shepherds (Jude 1:12). Unfortunately, the English term “pastor” hides the metaphoric reference to shepherd in key passages like Ephesians 4:11. Throughout the Epistles, the metaphor of shepherd implies both service and authority, always in the context of accountability to the “shepherd and overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:25), the “Chief Shepherd” (1 Peter 5:4), “that Great Shepherd of the sheep” (Hebrews 13:20).

Stewards of Divine Leadership

A deep dive into the shepherding theme reveals a foundational recognition of God as the ultimate and true shepherd of His people. Human leaders are delegated proxies. Lest that seem in any way marginal, the Bible reveals what I call a “divine preference for human agency” (Shepherds After My Own Heart, p. 248).

We are consistently deputized to manage God’s mission in the world.

We are accountable as sons, stewards, slaves, and shepherds.

We mediate His leadership among His people.

We are commissioned to use our delegated authority to promote the wellbeing of others through shepherd-like provision, protection, and guidance.

As I interviewed Bedouin shepherds, I found them remarkably balanced in their leadership. They tenderly nurture their newborns and sick, diligently seek the lost and carry them home, and use their acute sensibilities to find pasture and water. These are the same shepherds who also crawl into caves to make sure they are safe, stay awake at night to protect the flocks from predators, and often engage in physical combat with thieves or wolves.

One shepherd described the courage of the Bedouin as “stout of heart.” I immediately thought about the normal use of heart in English which tends toward compassion. But courage is also in the heart.

Shepherd Leadership

I came to realize that the challenges of leadership mirrored the work of shepherds by day and by night. The daylight is when leading and caring go together. The night is when commitment is tested.

If you only took care of a flock in the day, you would literally be fattening them up for the kill at night. Many predators will rip through a flock, leaving a massacre of dead animals behind if a shepherd is not alert and well-prepared for the challenge. And there are fights among the flock to settle as well (cf. Ezekiel 34:20-22). As I have spoken with leaders of churches, denominations, ministry organizations, and Christian businesses, I have noticed these two sides of leadership play out repeatedly, though often without balance.

The good field shepherd has & compassionate, nurturing side, perhaps best symbolized by the staff. Good shepherds also have a courageous, protective side, symbolized by the rod. These are the two aspects of “heart” I learned from the Bedouin.

Finding these two fully operational in a creative tension is unusual in human leadership because our temperaments tend to drive us to one extreme or the other. The empathy and compassion of the nurturer is an endearing trait, and many find this to be the sole emphasis of “servant leadership.” But the shadow side of a “mercy” leader can be a boundary-less, people-pleasing co-dependence that prefers flight when there’s conflict. People become vulnerable before predators and wander for lack of order.

In contrast, what a protective shepherd lacks in compassion, they make up for in a concern for truth, justice, equity, rules, and order. Hence the rod of discipline, a necessary symbol of authority. The shadow side of the protector is a judgmental authoritarianism and a willingness to lose relationships to enforce rules. Truth trumps mercy. This kind of shepherd prefers to fight when there’s a conflict. These leaders are more like the police and military, guard dogs who can think like wolves, and sometimes become wolves.

Is this distinction only about our leadership preferences? By no means. It is actually a profoundly theological tension that relates back to the character of God, our Divine Shepherd. He is both healer and judge, restorer and discipliner, merciful and holy, love and truth.

When we drift toward the shadow side of our own leadership style, we cannot assume that we at least have one half of the leadership challenge mastered. No. The further we drift from the creative tension of merciful service and just authority, the more skewed and ungodly each becomes. At either extreme we become increasingly unlike the God of the Bible.

Training Shepherds for Christ

The challenge for biblical student formation is to raise up God-like shepherds. That begins where Psalm 23:1 starts: God is my Shepherd. We follow first.

Professors and administrators, students and staff—we are all followers who make sure we submit to God’s ultimate leadership and to his delegated leadership.

We emulate the Divine Shepherd we follow by being ambidextrous in our leadership—sometimes offering a staff of comfort and reassurance and sometimes taking out the rod of authority to enforce discipline. Both service and authority are necessary to create flourishing in the flock; both compassion and courage are essential to be a “Champion of the Other.” Paul did not sit at one extreme in his ministry. He was ready for whatever the context required. “What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a rod of discipline, or shall I come in love and with a gentle spirit?” (1 Corinthians 4:21). Paul was a balanced leader who carried both a staff and a rod.

I pray that Liberty would be the kind of environment where God-like shepherds grow to understand their delegated authority to serve others. May they have inculcated within them the heart of Divine Shepherd.

Tim Laniak is the Senior Professor of Biblical Studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, creator of the Bible Journey curriculum, and author of a number of books on biblical leadership, including Why Shepherds Watch Their Flocks and Shepherds After My Own Heart.