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 and keeping them out of our pulpits. 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 and abusive shepherds and other spiritual threats:
John 10:1–3, 8, 10–13 “Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out… All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them … The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life and have it to the full. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So, when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.”
Throughout the history of the Church, God has set aside people 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.
When you read the “About us” section on the website of one of the largest and most influential Churches in America today it clearly states that their Church is built on the vision God gave their Pastor and they are committed to that vision above everything else. Where do we find that kind of understanding of the Church in the New Testament? Nowhere!
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 actually 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 the Bible. 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). These apostates shepherded no one but themselves. Their only interest was self-interest and self-gratification – at the expense of anyone else. Does that sound familiar as you look across the landscape of the modern Church?
Finally, those called to shepherd can be lured by the desire to sinfully dominate others. “Lording it over” (katakurieuō) 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 people – is a perversion of the overseer’s office.
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 God’s people:
Ezekiel 34:2–10 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So, they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them. Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, because my flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock, therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them.”
Abusive shepherds are preoccupied with feeding their own bellies or egos 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.