February 11, 2013

Church Butchers


Sheep are there to be shorn and slaughtered

About a decade ago the denomination I was involved with brought in a US church consultant who was seemingly having some success with revitalising a struggling US denomination similar, on the surface at least, in culture to ours. In reflection, the reasons the powers that be decided to use his services were pretty clear.  We too were struggling a little, the culture was drifting further away from us, and growth in most churches had plateaued, and declined in many others. Church planting was a distant pipe dream.  So the thought was, why not bring in an outside expert with no experience of Australian secular culture and little understanding of the struggle Australian pastors have in small churches, and get him to show us the way forward? (tut, tut, such cynicism – Sanctimonious Ed).

I won’t go into all the details, but the long and short of it was that the answer (panacea)  was a radical rethink about the role of the pastor, his relationship to the elders/board, and in turn their relationship to the congregation.  I get the feeling that many slightly burnt out, jaded pastors who’d had too many tough run-ins with recalcitrant congregations were sitting there all ears, notepad and pen poised.  The model suggested was very strongly board-driven, and the role of the board members was to protect the pastor from the whims of the congregation.  The ideal position was to get a pastor and a board who were completely aligned in thinking, and once this ideal place was reached, from there on in, any pastoral role would have to be approved by the board, and any board member vacancy would have to be strongly endorsed by the pastor and the rest of the board (I think I am seeing where this is going – Ed). The congregation would be, it appeared, allowed to rubber stamp the vision/finances/appointments, but not to veto them, and anyway, if the board had done its homework the major deals would be signed, sealed and slick-PowerPoint-delivered long before the life-distracted/tired from kids being sick/overworked mums and dads who made up the bulk of the congregation had time to pore over the fine print.

Leaving all of that aside – and given my general disinterest/inability in the finer points of church governance issues anyway – the warning light to me was a statement about the congregation by this consultant.  In fact, I wrote it down, so dismaying did I find it. Here is what he said:

What are sheep for?  They are there to be shorn and slaughtered.

Now by “sheep” I think he meant “congregation/church members/Christians”. And by “shorn and slaughtered” I think he meant “shorn and slaughtered”. I can’t remember anyone challenging that notion publicly (though the sound of pens on paper was evident), and I didn’t challenge him either (callow youth that I was), but someone should have!

 I hope that comment sends a chill down your spine.  If you know your Bible and your Biblical Theology it should.  Be a Berean.  Search the Scriptures to see if, whenever sheep are mentioned the role of the shepherd is simply to shear and slaughter them.  Imagine Psalm 23 reading “The Lord is my Shepherd..he leads me to the abattoir gate”, or, when Jesus commissions Peter to a shepherding role after his resurrection he says “shear and slaughter ’em for me will you mate?”  It’s instructive that the precondition for Peter to “feed my sheep”, is Jesus’ satisfaction that Peter loves Jesus.  Those who love Jesus look after the sheep the way Jesus the chief shepherd wants them to.

Let’s face it, you just can’t go to the Bible to see God’s sheep primarily being shorn and slaughtered.  They are there to be led, protected, fed, taught, gathered into the fold etc.  In other words they are to be cherished for who they are, not for what they can do for you.  Listen to these damning words from God in Ezekiel to Israel’s leaders:

  The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord God: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.

What is the problem of the shepherds?  They have become self-seeking, self-serving and , I reckon, oblivious to their behaviour without God’s revealing word to them.  Perhaps the most important observation in this passage, apart from all the things that should be done for the sheep rather than the things being done to the sheep, is the fact that the sheep are God’s! “My sheep” it says in verse six.  Would any pastor feel all that comfortable on the last day when Jesus asks “What have you done with MY sheep?” to respond simply with “Slaughtered and shorn them, my Master.”

The great irony of course is that Jesus, the chief shepherd, is also the sheep that IS slaughtered and IS the sheep silent before its shearers. Jesus is the Lamb, shorn of dignity, shorn of reputation, shorn of clothing even, who in silent submission is then slaughtered to demonstrate that he is indeed the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11).  And what is the role of the pastor in a church?  To lay down his life for the sheep who are entrusted to him, through prayer, wrestling with the Word, dealing with his own sin, discipling, exhorting, and yes, leading the sheep to where they can be fed. Beware shepherds, any attitude creeping in that despises the sheep, uses them for your own agenda, or allows the wolf of false teaching/physical predator to creep in and scatter and destroy the sheep.

One day, as Peter says many years after his commissioning (1Peter 5:4), the chief Shepherd will appear, and under-shepherds will be called to give account. It would a terrifying thing indeed if the first thing Jesus says to his under-shepherds is “Hi, I’m back. Hey, how come I can smell barbecue?” Woe-betide any shepherd on that day who has sheep blood on his hands.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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