The Fighting Shepherd

In the past I have commented on the manner in which our changing social concept of sonship has encouraged a dramatic shift in our understanding of key biblical concepts. Within this post I want to observe another example of a deracinated biblical image which, in losing its biblical connections, has led to a larger shift in some rather important concepts, most particularly the role of Church leadership: the image of the shepherd.

Our image of the shepherd is powerfully shaped by arcadian visions of peaceful harmony with nature, by the eclogues and pastoral poetry of such as Wordsworth or the paintings of Constable or some other English Romantic painter, poetry and art that stands within a tradition of celebrations of rustic idylls that stretches back to Virgil and beyond. The vision of the shepherd that we encounter in the scriptures is, however, one far removed from such bucolic ideals. The biblical shepherd is a brave and strong fighting man, a fact that readily confronts anyone with their eyes open to it.

The biblical image of the shepherd is of a man surrounded by many threats from which he must protect the flock within his charge. He works within a harsh and unforgiving terrain, a place with much barren wilderness, rocky areas, and dangerous mountain valleys and passes, within which he must find water and secure and good pasturage. He faces the threat of bandits, robbers, and thieves, who might kill or steal his flock (John 10:1-4, 8, 10), and of ravenous wild beasts who will prey on the sheep (Ezekiel 34:5, 8; John 10:11-15). Protecting the flock may cost him his life: the good shepherd lays down his life for the sake of the sheep.

Our images of the shepherd focus upon themes of tenderness, compassion, provision, and deep personal care for the sheep. These are undoubtedly prominent biblical images in such places as Psalm 23, Isaiah 40:11, Ezekiel 34, and John 10. However, what is generally forgotten or neglected is that each of these images of tenderness is counterbalanced by images of violent struggle, might, or judgment. The God who carries the lambs in his bosom in Isaiah 40:11 is the same God who has just come with a strong hand and a ruling arm in the previous verse. The God who leads his flock by still waters in Psalm 23:2 is the same God who powerfully protects his sheep in the midst of their enemies, and who has a rod to serve as a weapon by which to protect them.

The theme of the shepherding of Israel is associated with the Exodus, where God shepherds his people by the hand of his servant Moses (Isaiah 63:11). As the shepherd of his people, God strikes those who would steal or destroy them with his might and drives out all of their enemies before them (Psalm 78:52-55, 70-72), finally planting his people in the safe mountain pasturage of Zion (Exodus 15:13, 17).

The theme of the shepherd’s rod as a weapon is important in the book of Exodus. It is with the shepherd’s rod of Moses that God strikes the Egyptians (Exodus 4:20, 7–10) with many blows, until they finally let his flock go. It is with the shepherd’s rod that the sea is parted and later drowns Pharaoh and his warriors.

Far from fitting our common image of the gentle country shepherd boy, the young David was a man who had killed lions and bears as part of his day job (1 Samuel 17:34-36). David is marked out as the new shepherd of Israel by using his shepherd’s sling and bag to crush the head of the great enemy of Israel, much as Moses defeated Pharaoh with his shepherd’s staff. The legend of the former shepherd St Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland with his rod is a further example of the shepherd fulfilling his basic calling in expelling evil by force!

Our forgetfulness of this most prominent dimension of the biblical picture of the shepherd has had a significant effect on our conception of ‘pastoral’ ministry. For us, the pastorate, the role of the Christian leader or shepherd, has been largely reduced to one of gentle care and provision for the flock, a primarily therapeutic and supportive role in relation to the congregation.

However, if the biblical image is correct, not only is a crucial part of the picture missing, but it is on this missing piece that the primary accent of the biblical teaching frequently falls. The biblical shepherd is a mighty and courageous figure, who puts his life on the line for the sheep that he loves and has the strength and pitiless determination to drive off their enemies. The shepherd is a fighter and is marked out for his role by powerfully striking those who would seek to harm the flock. The Christian shepherd’s charge is to be attentive and heedful, guarding against, destroying, or fighting off wolves and other wild beasts, while giving authoritative guidance to and providing sustenance for the Chief Shepherd’s sheep (cf. 1 Peter 5:2-4).

In stark contrast to this biblical vision of pastoral ministry, the prevailing conception within much of the contemporary church is of a rather effete, weak, and non-confrontational pastorate, tolerant, inclusive, and inoffensive, whose role involves little more than playing an almost exclusively nurturing, affirming, and supportive role in relation to a spiritually democratic congregation. The image of the shepherd is purged of any notion of authority, might, leadership, conflict, or violent opposition.

Unsurprisingly, many of the church leaders that we have exhibit precisely the profound weakness, inability to engage in forceful and uncompromising confrontation, and failure to give authoritative direction and leadership that represents the antithesis of the biblical image of the shepherd. The biblical vision of the shepherd loses force, not merely on account of the cultural migration of the image, but also on account of a resistance to the notion of conflict between the Church and the world, of strong leadership, of authoritative dogma, and of the need for especially adversarial skills in our pastors. The image of the Christian shepherd wielding the rod of God as a weapon of judgment against the enemies of Christ’s flock offends many, who are appalled at the presence of imprecatory psalms and prayers in both the Old and New Testaments.

I believe that a recovery of this biblical imagery would lead to very different approaches to ministerial training and selection. It would encourage us to search for candidates who love and care for the people of God, but are not at all afraid of conflict, unprepared to engage in it, or unlikely to emerge victorious from it. It would lead us to favour candidates who follow the biblical pattern of being capable of exercising faithful church discipline for the protection of the flock, without having their hands stayed by pity. It would lead us to favour candidates who recognize the existence of deep opposition with the world, and a constant threat to the Church.

Many of our debates about suitable candidates for shepherding roles within the Church completely neglect the biblical form that such roles take, presuming that the modern therapeutic model of ministry is completely biblical. They fail to attend to the people that God chose for the leadership of his people, mighty and uncompromising men, especially marked by their willingness to exercise lethal force in the spiritual protection of the flock (Moses, the Levites, Phinehas, Samuel, Peter, Paul, etc.). An understanding of the biblical role of the shepherd helps to explain why such persons were especially suited for the role, and why so many of our pastors are not.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Bible, The Church, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to The Fighting Shepherd

  1. Tapani says:

    Thank you. This is timely and important. Much appreciated!

  2. Particular difficulties for some introverts. I’m not good at talking on the spot, for instance, except those few times that I feel supernaturally empowered. O Lord, open thou our lips, and our mouth shall shew forth thy praise.

    Biting bullets isn’t too hard, though.

    • I think that we can draw comfort from the fact that neither Moses nor Paul were known for their readiness and ease in public speech (Exodus 4:10; 2 Corinthians 10:10), yet were still incredibly effective leaders of the people of God. Different leaders have different chosen mediums. And then there is the fact that we are not all called to such leadership offices. Those who lack the particular traits characteristic of the leader described above can serve the people of God in other capacities.

      • Still, I wish I’d done debate in secondary school. I guess I can make my students start debating when they learn rhetoric, and they can then be better at this than I am.

        I think St Paul’s lack of impressiveness was a lack of what people thought of as charisma (and here it’s etymologically pertinent to draw connexions with Charismatics who talk constantly about anointed speakers and song leaders; the super-apostles must’ve been frickin’ anointed), rather than a real lack of public speaking skill. His speech to Agrippa, after all, takes the form of a classical oration, &c., &c.

        Moses, of course, does seem to have had a real public speaking problem of some kind, though this seems not to have stopped his fluent eloquence in Deuteronomy.

        Often I do feel compelled to do what a leader should do, even though I don’t feel very influential at all, and progress even in one-on-one contexts is very inconsistent. Perhaps I have many years ahead of me to learn the art, since I’ll be a teacher next month, and my influence will be obvious too.

        St Andrews seems to have plenty of able public speakers, Mr Bentley being an obvious one. He says politely that my blog writing’s more perspicuous than my off-the-cuff speech. This at least is some comfort, though it’d be good at least to be better understood in person, if not more impressive.

      • I only did a very little debate in secondary school. I wish that I had had the opportunity to do more, but my school didn’t really provide it much.

        As I comment in this post, the theme of the prophet’s speech impediment also might occur in the story of Ezekiel.

        In many respects, my impression of my own progress matches yours. I think that patience is incredibly important. Change takes time, and when working on yourself and others, there is little to be gained from trying to rush things. In many cases, not pressing your argument home, displaying your confidence and security in your position by showing no ‘need’ to win the case, but letting the other party struggle with the questions that you have raised themselves can be far more effective in the long term, for instance.

        I have always been a better writer than a speaker, and my writing is far from polished. I generally feel dissatisfied with my sermons and speaking. However, I can do public speaking when I really need to, even extemporaneously in some contexts (I have delivered a couple of extemporaneous sermons and a few prepared in a very short period of time – Spencer heard me deliver at least one message that I only had about half an hour to prepare as someone had to drop out). As you remark, St Andrews has some very gifted public speakers: it can be easy to feel inadequate by comparison.

        You are obviously a gifted writer, and I suspect that with deliberate practice, experience, and time you could become a very clear and cogent public speaker.

  3. The problem in the Reformed community is that many assume that the need to be a warrior shepherd means that one should be looking around for fights.

  4. Matt J. says:

    Good stuff.

    When pastoral ministry is only about being soft and nurturing, then it’s easy for people to say, “Well, who is naturally really good at those things? Women. Duh. So the more of them in the clergy, the better, right?” It throws more wood on the fire in that debate. That debate may have other merits, but our truncated view of the shepherd has certainly muddled it.

    On a separate note, it seems to me that our modern terms of employment also hamper us from understanding the shepherd analogy properly. The hireling shepherd of John 10 is given as a bad example in contrast to the fighting one who will risk his life when a wolf attacks. But nearly all of us now are hirelings of some sort, with a lot of state-funded cushion behind us should we decide to run away from a bear. I just find myself having trouble fully imagining all the implications of the biblical shepherd analogy and suspect that economics has something to do with it.

  5. Good stuff.

    I posted recently (rather more rudely and crudely) on a somewhat related topic in relation to Church leaders and their faces:

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