No Such Thing As Cannibal Sheep

My twin brother and I used to work every Saturday on a relative’s farm in Northern Ireland when we were in our early teens.  The best bit of the job was opening up the stone walled pig houses, descending into the abyss and “mucking out” the stalls; sweeping the, er, stuff, down into a corner drain.

The smell of pigs is not the smell of bacon.  It is a peculiar odour that permeates your clothes, your hair, your welly boots, your everything.  My dad used to hate picking us up each Saturday evening.  Our farm clothes stayed in the shed outside.  After they were washed.

A farm’s an interesting place for a young lad.  For example, did you know that pigs eat other pigs?  It’s true.  If it’s a hot day and they get agitated they can go on the rampage – or the pigpage if you like.  Pigs can eat other pigs.  I’ve seen the remnants.

Sheep on the other hand?  Never seen a sheep eat another sheep. Sheep just don’t. If a sheep eats another sheep then the devourer, as opposed to the devouree, is certainly not a sheep.  It may be a whole range of other animals, but it’s certainly not a sheep.


It could be a wolf.

Scripture tells us that’s the case.  Paul warns the Ephesian church as he farewells them at Miletus:

Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God,[a] which he bought with his own blood.[b] 29 I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. (Acts 20:28-30).

Conservative evangelicals tend to be good at picking this.  We’ve got our heresy-phasers switched to “stun”, ready to head off the wolves at the theological pass. In fact we’re really good at it.  So good at times that we are a bit indiscriminate, occasionally catching an errant sheep with a mind of its own in the crossfire.

So the wolves are a problem.

But not, I think, our only problem.  Perhaps not even our biggest problem. You see sheep can do damage to other sheep.  I’ve seen that happen too.  The rough rams making sure everyone knows they are in charge.  So when you see a damaged sheep it could be that a larger sheep is throwing its weight around.

It could be a rough sheep.

There’s precedent for that in Scripture too.  Have a read of these words in Ezekiel 34:

17 “‘As for you, my flock, this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will judge between one sheep and another, and between rams and goats. 18 Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet? 19 Must my flock feed on what you have trampled and drink what you have muddied with your feet?

20 “‘Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says to them: See, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21 Because you shove with flank and shoulder, butting all the weak sheep with your horns until you have driven them away, 22 I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another.

Check out the context of that passage.  The chapter moves seamlessly between God speaking about shepherds who are abusive of the sheep, and who indeed eat them, to talking about those same shepherds as abusive, rough sheep themselves, treating the other sheep with disdain.  God is clear: you may think of yourself as a shepherd, but in the bigger scheme of things, you’re a sheep too – and how you treat the other sheep is being noticed.

Conservative evangelicalism’s zeal at hunting down wolves is not matched by its zeal in hunting down rough sheep.  And it should be. After writing about my missional experiences over the past ten years recently I was inundated with responses from people who identified with what we euphemistically call “heavy-shepherding”; the tendency among some church leaders to be brutal to the sheep. How frequent is that tendency? All too frequent if the number of responses I received are any indication.

Maybe it’s because, as we often hear about a rough sheep., “At least they get things done”, or there’s a euphemistic “He’s hard to work with”, merely our polite iceberg tip to say “Watch out.”

Well, to be honest, that’s probably not enough. Given what Paul says to the Ephesians ,we’ve got our radar ready for wolves.  We kinda like that role.  But rough sheep? Given what God says to Israel in Ezekiel?  You would assume that our church leadership and church planting conferences would have at least one workshop on spiritual abuse in the church; how to spot it; how to avoid doing it; how to spot the people who “have form” so to speak.  But they rarely if ever do.

Spiritual abuse is rife.  Anecdotally, and from conversations with Christian psychologists and counsellors, it’s a settled feature of many churches.  And as church planting takes root, and as denominations are increasingly shunned by those in the ministry profession, it’s only going to increase.

Sexual abuse gets all the headlines.  Rightly so.  But spiritual abuse creates as much emotional, spiritual and psychological havoc.  It’s perniciousness is in how hard it is to determine.  You can’t commit just a little bit of sexual abuse.  You’ve either abused someone or you haven’t. But spiritual abuse?  Tell me when the line has been crossed.  It’s not easy.

Here’s something else about spiritual abuse that is like sexual abuse.  The truth eventually comes out.  It eventually comes out.  But, unfortunately, all too often like sexual abuse, it comes out from below, not from above.  It takes the bleating of the sheep gathering enough crescendo from below to make those further up the food chain, the shepherds, to do something.  And often that something is too late, and all too often in response to a need to be seen to be doing something lest there is blowback on themselves.

There’s no such thing as cannibal sheep, but too many sheep are getting eaten for breakfast, and the incidence is rising.

And that’s just not good enough. Especially when one day the Chief Shepherd will appear and ask why he can smell lamb barbecue.


  1. The dynamics really get nasty when the organizing feature of a “church” is purely social rather than spiritual. The group organized around “certain people” is rife for abuse, whereas a group organized around Jesus is safer. I’m thinking of a recent fellowship in which Jesus functioned as the “dead hero of the church” rather than its living Lord. In that setting social ties set the real dynamics, who dishes and who gets dished. I hope those abused are able to develop spiritual discernment to tell the difference before they shun flocking altogether.

    1. Hi John, that last sentence has me puzzled/wondering. I think most of those I know that have been abused and there is a lot, seem to spend sometime away from traditional gatherings (maybe heal? searching?) but I wouldn’t say they ‘shun flocking’. I think it is actually spiritual discernment that is most damaged and when this happens you question everything that happened as you unpack.
      One thing I have noticed, as I only recently considered myself to be in the spiritually abused category, that when I have spoken about it I have realized a subtle pat on the head is usually part of any response. I have actually been at a loss on how to react.
      My thoughts have been firstly have I ever treated people this way in the past or have I been the cause of spiritual abuse to others? Secondly how have I or am I responding to those who have dropped of the radar because of spiritual abuse? Most who have are some of the most spiritually discerning follows of Jesus I know. My question is do they get to the point where they just don’t know what to do but sit and wait on the Lord?

  2. Amanda, I defer to Stephen since this is his blog and his perspective and insight bring us all here. Let me say briefly that my expressions above were driven by memories that I will now share. My first task in a new ministry has been to round up strays who no longer fellowship. My best efforts usually bring stories of past hurts–not from the persecution of unbelievers–but (with Stephen), from hurtful Christians. The common response to an urging to return is, “thanks, but no thanks.” Everyone weathers these storms differently. Some (as you suggest) leave briefly to regroup and heal. Others never leave. It was memories of those adamant about never returning that were on my heart as I wrote.

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