04 November 2009

Best of centuri0n: the filthy sheep-herd

by Frank Turk

[OK: that'll be 4 weeks off where you got to read my "best of", and I hope it didn;t bore you to death. We'll resume with the regularly-scheduled merciless beatings next week-ish.]

I was having a discussion with my pastor, and I related it to my wife (who is the greatest blogger who never typed 1K of bandwidth). The discussion was about church leadership, and whether the metaphor of the shepherd was useful in a society like America where 95% of the people have never seen one sheep, let alone a flock, let alone a person who was herding sheep.

Now, before any of you start the “perspicuity of scripture” organ up and set your monkey to dancing, this was not a discussion questioning the sufficiency of Scripture. Tad’s an inerrancy & sufficiency guy, and in case you haven’t noticed, so am I. The question was whether you could just open up this metaphor and have it stand up on its own in today’s society without a pretty significant amount of back-fill.

So, for example, is there a 21st century American equivalent to the shepherd which we could say, “look: most of you have never seen a shepherd, so rather than try to unpack what a shepherd does, let’s think about [Profession X] which is just like being a Shepherd.” My opinion is that there is no equivalent, and we have to unpack the metaphor Scripture has for us. But we took away the challenge to think about the matter and report back.

So, I took the matter to the Holy Spirit, which in my house is manifest most often in my wife. She slept on it, and she came up with two great conclusions.


Men would probably like it if the Shepherd metaphor translated into “staff sergeant” or “General” or “CEO”. It would make Macho sense to them. But they would be wrong: a Shepherd is much more like a Kindergarten teacher than like a Sergeant or a CEO. Of course, you can’t sell a lot of books to men in business if your thesis is, “Jesus really is a lot more like a good Kindergarten teacher than a superhero or a king when it comes to dealing with us stupid sinners.”


The biggest separation, however, between the good shepherd metaphor and the CEO is that the Shepherd lives with his sheep in every way. That is, the shepherd has to get dirty and do distasteful and even degrading things to make sure he takes proper care of his sheep. I don’t know a lot of CEOs who are ready to degrade themselves, for example, by working in the same conditions as the hourly single parent who has to work on the line. “But cent,” you might say, “the CEO does a pretty radically different kind of work than the hourly employee,” and I’d agree with you. Christ does a pretty radically different work than I do, but you know something: though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

If you are looking for the model of leadership demonstrated in Christ, look there at the dirty sheep-herd who lives with his sheep, and sleeps with his sheep, and has to personally stand between his sheep and the wolves.

Good luck with that this weekend.


Pierre Saikaley said...

King David was a Shepherd who, as Mark Driscoll likes to point out, "slaughtered lots of people."

But I think your idea is a little overstated. I think people are prolly more familiar with the agrarian imagery than you might assume. America has quite a rural heritage, and I think people can still see the metaphor, though it might take some explaning. Maybe a cow herder might be more familiar to us: " I am the Good Rancher;The Good Rancher gives his life for the cattle...." hmmmm...whatdaythink?

Aric said...

I think the CEO image is one many wish could be substituted with shepherd. We like to think of the shepherd telling the sheep where to go and using the staff if needed to get the sheep to move in the right direction.

We often forget the messy issues and living with the sheep, feeding the sheep, etc. Even though America has a farming/ag history, I think we need some backfill to recall what shepherds did.

Nash Equilibrium said...

Ditto this article for the Pastor who accepts the responsibility to get his hands dirty with his sheep. And for the CEO "pastor" who doesn't want to.

Anonymous said...

I agree, the backfill is needed. Even among sheep-ranchers and farmers.

I mean, where in North America, has shepherding even been done like is was/is in the Mid-East? I think no where, at least not commonly.

I think this little note also applies to translating the bible into other cultures/languages. Don't try to be the preacher when you're the translator.

Craig and Heather said...


I wonder whether I might consider it "Providential" that my Bible happened to fall open at John 10 yesterday afternoon....and I actually took time to read that passage about Jesus being the door?


FX Turk said...

Zaphon --

I think you missed the point of the essay.

Heather --

I picked this "best of" 5 weeks ago, so obviously there was a lot of planning behind the scenes.

Craig and Heather said...

I picked this "best of" 5 weeks ago, so obviously there was a lot of planning behind the scenes.

God's precise management of life constantly keeps me in a state of amazement.


Paula said...

Last night DS and I heard Dr. Terrence Moore, history professor at Hillsdale College, speak (he teaches a class called 'The Nature and History of Manhood'!!) He wrote an article a few years back on the value of Cultural Literacy: Cultural Literacy Best for the Young Person’s Mind and the Nation. While it is directed at educators, I think it has some applications for the church.

"Abraham Lincoln is perhaps the best example of a leader who relied on cultural literacy to convey his ideas. Like other Americans on the frontier, he had little formal education. Yet he read intensively the works of Shakespeare, the King James’ Bible, the fables of Æsop, Euclid’s geometry, and the documents of the American Founding. Few men in our history have been able to express so forcefully and with such economy the principles of freedom and human dignity:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Lincoln’s audience at Gettysburg instantly knew that he referred to the "proposition" of the Declaration of Independence. For this reason, the Gettysburg Address is not only one of the greatest speeches in our history; it is the shortest. Lincoln did not have to retell the history of the Revolution. His fellow Americans already knew it.

The danger we presently face as a nation is that, in the words of [E.D.]Hirsch, "many young people today strikingly lack the information that writers of American books and newspapers have traditionally taken for granted among their readers from all generations." The same observation applies to the realm of politics, the financial and industrial world, and all other facets of American life. Employers are constantly amazed at what their employees do not know and therefore cannot do. In politics, the pregnant allusions of a Lincoln would fall upon deaf ears. Make no mistake. Cultural literacy is not merely ornamental trivia. The purpose is not to make Jeopardy champions. Rather, cultural literacy is essential to a nation and its citizens. A culturally illiterate America cannot live up to the demands placed upon us by history and the present condition of the world. A culturally illiterate individual cannot comprehend vast areas of human knowledge necessary for his political, economic, social, and moral well-being."

Obviously, it's better (easier?) to preach to an audience that's culturally literate. But if a pastor or missionary is in a place where that is not the case, then he has a responsibility to include that in his preaching, in order to give his flock an enhanced and richer understanding of the scriptures (while still giving the sufficiency of scripture the first place it deserve).

David Regier said...

One of the formative pastors in my life actually spent two years as a shepherd.

And it showed.

This is one of the best arguments against "virtual" church that I can imagine. You can't go after the one "virtual" lost sheep on the internet.

Anonymous said...

Having spent a number of years working in the government sector, I do not like the comparison of Jesus as my CEO; it smells of politics and associated lifestyle. When I was a teen I worked summers baling hay, and if there need be an alternative for shepherd, I prefer the term farmer, which is 24/7 and requires specific knowledge and care.

David Rudd said...


I'm not arguing for a CEO picture, in fact, i quite like the shepherd analogy.

You said, "We like to think of the shepherd telling the sheep where to go and using the staff if needed to get the sheep to move in the right direction."

are you suggesting that's a wrong idea about shepherding? because...

Pastor Andy said...

Shepherds smell like sheep, literally. They bump up against the animals and it shows (smells). No CEO "smells" like a common laborer because his corner office is no where near the factory floor. If the pastor does not bump up against his people he does not shepherd his flock, instead he merely manages them; and this is not the Biblical model.

Craig and Heather said...

When my husband was a kid, he spent a summer tending sheep for his dad. He'll readily admit that he didn't like it and even managed to lose one that he looked for but never found.

He has a very good idea of what sheep are like and what the Good Shepherd is NOT

Aric said...

@David Rudd
I was not suggesting it is a wrong idea of shepherding. Rather, it is incomplete (see my 2nd paragraph). I think many like only the 'commanding' aspects of being a shepherd and not the 'serving' aspects.

Nash Equilibrium said...

When I was a boy, we kept sheep in our basement if they had been injured, where we nursed each one back to health. I remember very well one particular lamb that had been attacked by dogs and its neck ripped open and infected. It almost didn't make it, but eventually recovered fully after a lot of nursing.
I think sheep are a better parallel for the church than some other animals, only because they are more vulnerable than most.

Pierre Saikaley said...

Zaphon --

I think you missed the point of the essay.

Cent. I think I need to make a vow not to write combox remarks during 4 am baby feedings. Sleep deprivation and theology don't mix. :-)

I reread it and you make a great point-the metaphor is unique.

Rachael Starke said...

With my husband and I having spent a collective total of over twenty years in the coporate world, I can testify that if a lot of CEOs acted more like shepherds, and less like marauding robber barrons, our country wouldn't be in the world of hurt it's in.

If the average American church still thinks that's the most effective model for the church.... God have mercy.

I'm actually wondering what the shepherd metaphor does with sheep that don't just stupidly try and walk off cliffs or follow eachothers' tails in circles, but actively go for the throat of the shepherd when he tries to help them. Do sheep in real life do that? Sheep in the church sure do.

philness said...

I guess I don't get what the challenge was or who the challenge was intended for. 95% of Americans or sheep in your church?

"Unpacking" or "back filling" the shepherd metaphor has always been the fun and easy part for [Shepherd X] and we sheep do love us some "unpacking" each and every time we hear it. But are we sheep dumb for anticipating and hoping each of our [Shepherd X] to look like the shepherd in the shepherd metaphor?

Shaun RW Little said...

Zaphon said - " I am the Good Rancher;The Good Rancher gives his life for the cattle...." hmmmm...whatdaythink?"

I like it, it's fitting. I think the parable of the cow should really hit home with the american people.

Shaun RW Little said...

I've heard a story (as I'm sure have many others), which I havnet been able to varify (and am to lazy to really look). It has to do with the Shepherd who will break the leg of a straying lamb in order to keep it from straying. He then carries the lamb on his shoulders until it is ready to walk again.


Some people seem to think this is a horrible illustration... after all, how can a loving God be so cruel as to chastise His child in such a harsh way?

Well, I for one am thankful that the Lord has busted my legs on a couple occasions or else I would probably be a pile of bones in some wolves den.

Surely as God wounds He also brings healing.

FX Turk said...

Zaphon --

That explains everything.

Feed his sheep. Even at 4 AM.