Sunday, March 6, 2016

Abusive Shepherds

By Cameron Buettel
The threat of infiltrators is something that secular society takes very seriously. Anyone who enters the United States from abroad knows that. Fingerprint scanners, sophisticated passport technology, and heavily armed border security all indicate that imposters and frauds will not be permitted entry.
It’s tragic that the church isn’t as strict when it comes to prohibiting spiritual imposters. The poor protection of the church is an outrage–especially in light of Christ’s repeated warnings to His disciples about false disciples (Matthew 7:21–23), false prophets (Matthew 7:15–20), false christs (Matthew 24:23–26), and false shepherds (John 10:1–13).
The Lord could not have been clearer about the vital need to guard His people from false shepherds and other spiritual threats:
Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter by the door into the fold of the sheep, but climbs up some other way, he is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is a shepherd of the sheep. To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. . . . All who came before Me are thieves and robbers. . . . The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand, and not a shepherd, who is not the owner of the sheep, sees the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and is not concerned about the sheep. (John 10:1–3, 8, 10–13)
Throughout the history of the church, God has set aside men to faithfully preach the Word, care for spiritual needs, build up the Body of Christ, and protect it from the influence of false teachers and their heresies—in essence, God has called them to shepherd His sheep. But recent decades have seen the rise of church leaders who see themselves, not as servants and protectors of the flock, but as visionaries whose flocks exist to support them and their visions.
Earlier in this series, I quoted a statement from one of America’s most influential churches—Elevation in North Carolina—regarding their purpose and pursuit: “Elevation is built on the vision God gave Pastor Steven. We will aggressively defend our unity and that vision.” [1] “Pastor Steven” is Steven Furtick, and his vision has nothing to do with feeding or protecting his sheep. Early on in his ministry he told his congregation:
If you know Jesus I am sorry to break it to you: This church is not for you. “Yeah but I just gave my life to Christ last week at Elevation”—last week was the last week that Elevation Church existed for you. . . . Over five hundred people have given their lives to Jesus for the first time in this church in the last five months . . . If that doesn’t get you excited and you need the Doctrines of Grace as defined by John Calvin to excite you, you are in the wrong church. Let me get a phone book. There are seven hundred and twenty churches in Charlotte, I’m sure we can find one where you can stuff your face until you’re so obese spiritually that you can’t even move. [2]
Furtick’s desire to create a church for unbelievers fails to recognize what a church is—a body of believers. The Greek word for church, ekklesia, refers to those whom Christ has called out from the world to be His people and gather together in His name. Pastors like Furtick aren’t interested in shepherding; they ignore Christ’s charge to tend His flock (John 21:17). They’re content to let the true sheep starve while they chase goats.
But that’s far from the only way modern shepherds are abusing their flocks. Some prey on the financial resources of their congregations, using their sheep to fund lavish lifestyles. Others manipulate their followers, using them to inflate the sales figures for their latest books, or saturate social media with their influence. Still others simply see their flocks as stepping stones into the high-profile and lucrative world of conference speaking. In every case, these false shepherds have no interest in the hard work of tending a flock—in most cases, they’re eager to cut and run as soon as the work becomes too trying or time consuming.
That’s a feeble, pathetic, and frankly dangerous substitute for the kind of shepherds we see in God’s Word. When David wrote about the Lord as his shepherd, he described the rich blessings of living under a gentle shepherd’s care. He didn’t lack anything he needed (Psalm 23:1). He was led to safe pasture and able to rest there in safety (Psalm 23:2–3). And David’s Shepherd was always armed and ready to protect him from evil threats (Psalm 23:4–5).
In stark contrast, the Bible also describes abusive shepherds who are derelict in their duty—leaders who are anything but selfless or sacrificial. Jude described that kind of church leader as those who have “crept in unnoticed” and are “ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness” (Jude 4). They are portrayed as “shepherds feeding themselves” (Jude 12, ESV). John MacArthur comments on that phrase, saying it was “indicating that the apostates shepherded no one but themselves. Their only interest was self-interest and self-gratification—at the expense of anyone else.” [3]
He expands on that evaluation when commenting on 1 Peter 5:3, and what it means for pastors to abuse their authority, “lording it over” their flocks:
Finally, those called to shepherd can be imperiled by the desire to sinfully dominate others. “Lording it over” (katakurieuĊ) connotes intensity in domineering over people and circumstances (see Diotrephes as an example in 3 John 9-10). Any kind of autocratic, oppressive, and intimidating leadership, with elements of demagoguery—traits that typically characterize the leadership style and methodology of unregenerate men—is a perversion of the overseer’s office. [4]
Abusive shepherds have been an ever-present threat to God’s people, going all the way back to the Old Testament. Ezekiel 34 is entirely devoted to rebuking Israel’s leaders for failing to faithfully shepherd His people:
Thus says the Lord God, “Woe, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flock? You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat sheep without feeding the flock. Those who are sickly you have not strengthened, the diseased you have not healed, the broken you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought back, nor have you sought for the lost; but with force and with severity you have dominated them. They were scattered for lack of a shepherd, and they became food for every beast of the field and were scattered. My flock wandered through all the mountains and on every high hill; My flock was scattered over all the surface of the earth, and there was no one to search or seek for them.”
Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: “As I live,” declares the Lord God, “surely because My flock has become a prey, My flock has even become food for all the beasts of the field for lack of a shepherd, and My shepherds did not search for My flock, but rather the shepherds fed themselves and did not feed My flock; therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: ‘Thus says the Lord God, “Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will demand My sheep from them and make them cease from feeding sheep. So the shepherds will not feed themselves anymore, but I will deliver My flock from their mouth, so that they will not be food for them.”’” (Ezekiel 34:2–10)
Abusive shepherds are preoccupied with feeding their own bellies and have no concern or compassion for feeding those under their care—especially the weak and vulnerable who need that care the most. They fail to retrieve the lost and inexcusably leave them vulnerable and easy prey to roaming predators. Modern pastors and leaders who exercise such dereliction of duty should soberly consider Ezekiel 34 and God’s blistering condemnation of their Old Testament predecessors.
More importantly, their abused sheep need to come under the watchful care of a true shepherd who will feed them properly, keep them safe, and drive out the wolves from among them. Next time we’ll consider what those sheep ought to look for in a godly shepherd.

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