Repenting Shepherds

Jesus models faithful leadership when, as the Good Shepherd, He calls believers by name and safely leads us to pasture (John 10:3–11). Applying this to the local church, it is right to conclude that a good pastor leads his flock to God. He is not there simply to marry and bury, but he works in cooperation with the Holy Spirit to lead God’s sheep onto the path of truth, taking them to depths of maturity and heights of ministry as he himself also walks the walk of faith.

This kind of leadership requires that we continually protect God’s flock. One reason why Paul instructed the Ephesian elders to guard the flock is because believers are constantly being preyed upon by savage wolves. They need protection against false teachers who emerge from within the church and tear her apart, “not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:28–29). Peter also warns,

… there will … be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves. Many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned; and in their greed they will exploit you with false words; their judgment from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep. [2 Peter 2:1–3]

Tragically, many believers throughout biblical history were led astray by unfaithful shepherds. “My people have become lost sheep; their shepherds have led them astray” (Jer. 50:6). J. C. Ryle argues that the most effective protection against this grave danger is for believers to know the Word of God:

What is the best safe-guard against false teaching? Beyond all doubt the regular study of the word of God, with prayer for the teaching of the Holy Spirit. The Bible was given to be a lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Psalm 119:105). The man who reads it aright will never be allowed greatly to err. It is neglect of the Bible which makes so many a prey to the first false teacher whom they hear. They would have us believe that “they are not learned, and do not pretend to have decided opinions.” The plain truth is that they are lazy and idle about reading the Bible, and do not like the trouble of thinking for themselves. Nothing supplies false prophets with followers so much as spiritual sloth under a cloak of humility. May we all bear in mind our Lord’s warning! The world, the devil, and the flesh, are not the only dangers in the way of the Christian. There remains another yet, and that is the “false prophet,” the wolf “in sheep’s clothing.” Happy is he who prays over his Bible and knows the difference between truth and error in religion! There is a difference, and we are meant to know it, and use our knowledge.

Therefore, church shepherds must protect the people of God through the persistent teaching of biblical truth so that believers discipline their lives and their thinking processes to be in subjection to the Word, which will produce the fruit of spiritual discernment. This is why God requires that pastor-elders be “able to teach,” and be men who hold to the truth so that they are “able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” (1 Tim. 3:2; 2 Tim. 2:2, 24; Titus 1:9). God not only equips us for this calling by the Spirit, but He also exhorts us to be diligent in study so that we may be approved to God as workmen who do not need to be ashamed (2 Tim. 2:15). For that reason, we as faithful shepherds must view ourselves as lifelong students, understanding, as Charles Spurgeon did, that “He who has ceased to learn has ceased to teach. He who no longer sows in the study will no more reap in the pulpit.” We must “kindle afresh the gift of God” within us (2 Tim. 1:6). This is what it means to be a shepherd after God’s own heart.

If and when the church repents of her love affair with man-centered theology, psychological theory, and worldly methodology, God will once again give His people teaching shepherds who will feed them on biblical knowledge, help them understand it, and patiently lead them to apply it to lives characterized by progressive godliness. The evidence of this will be a growing love for Jesus, the living Word, and a growing obedience to the Bible, the written Word of God. If repentance must begin with the household of God, then, even more so, repentance must take place in the pastor’s study, his counseling room, and his pulpit.

[Excerpted from Discipling the Flock: A Call to Faithful Shepherding]

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