Pastor, You Are A Shepherd Not A Rancher

Writing at Mere Orthodoxy, Jake Meador quoted these words from a friend, “I’m a shepherd…When my flock gets so big that I don’t know all their names, I’ve become a rancher. Once I’m a rancher, it’s time to plant a church.” Though Jake’s post was about the pastoral limitations of megachurches, recently made apparent in the Village Church’s delayed follow-up to a serious pastoral issue, that quotation struck a chord. I have heard presentations on church growth encouraging pastors to act like ranchers. Instead of desiring the office of elder, some church growth specialists urge pastors to aim higher, to become ranchers.

ShepherdWhen I set out to write this short post it was my intention to write a satirical piece about a textual variant in 1 Peter 5, or perhaps one of the pastoral epistles. Because while the word for shepherd and its cognates are fairly common in the New Testament, closely associated with eldership (Acts 20:17, 28), the idea of a rancher who works at a higher level is completely absent. Strikingly, even when the New Testament uses the word ‘overseer’, from which we get our word bishop, it appears to be nothing more than an office in the local church (1 Timothy 3:1-2), barely distinguishable from that of an elder (1 Peter 5:1-4). This is not the place to discuss questions over hierarchical leadership structures, though New Testament support for them is admittedly scant.

Returning to the question of shepherds and ranchers, you might be interested to know that other Greek words for shepherd existed in the 1st century. The Septuagint, or Greek Old Testament, uses two related words to translate a rare Hebrew word (Amos 1:1; 2 Kings 3:4). Both Hebrew and Greek have a common word for shepherd, as well as rarer words suggesting something more than a shepherd. Therefore in English the prophet Amos is described as a “herdsman” (Amos 1:1) and Mesha king of Moab is called a “sheep breeder” (2 Kings 3:4). If I am honest, I have not done nearly enough work in thinking about these words. But from my quick survey it seems that despite words connoting ‘rancher’ or ‘manager’ being available to the writers of the New Testament they stuck with simple shepherding.

The church growth literature tends to overcomplicate ministry. For starters, the word pastor in most English translations is actually the Greek word shepherd (Ephesians 4:11). As I have already alluded, this office is closely related to two other words: elder (1 Timothy 5) and overseer (Titus 1:7). Not only does rancher not feature in this nexus but it is a nebulous as well as unbiblical word. Obviously, we can use language or analogies that are not explicitly biblical, as long as the concepts are. But rancher is neither. I have previously written about the pitfalls of analogies, specifically the analogy of a lifeboat for the local church. You might accuse me of subscribing to a legalistic and inflexible regulative principle. But words and ideas have consequences.

ShepherdLabelling pastors ranchers results in a few things, of which I I will mention three. These may be implicit or unwitting, and I am not saying they are inevitable, but in my opinion they are hard to avoid. Firstly, it creates tiers among church leaders, beyond those God has given. Similar to the view that says youth ministry is a stepping stone to real ministry, I imagine that elder or pastor could be viewed as an inferior role, before one can be promoted to rancher. Secondly, and related to the first, churches that need ranchers – rather than mere elders – convey success and growth. Small churches have elders. But big churches need ranchers. Which ministry would you rather be a part of? Which title would you rather have? Thirdly, with my limited knowledge of what ranchers actually do, I know that it is less hands on. If working at a higher level in the local church, or becoming a rancher, means doing less pastoral ministry then we have not merely mangled the biblical description of elder but abandoned it entirely. Anyone who desires the office of rancher, should move to Texas.

An entire post could be written on 1 Peter 5:1-4. But I will make only passing comments in conclusion. The apostle Peter calls himself a “fellow elder” (5:1), which seriously challenges any notion of working at a higher level, ascending a hierarchy. The office of elder is inseparable from witnessing to Christ’s work (5:1). But it is not limited to organisation, leadership or theological direction. Elders are to shepherd the flock (5:2) and set an example of mature Christian faith (5:3). I am not sure that either of those things can be done from a pulpit, or as a rancher. Peter mentions the appearing of our “chief Shepherd” (5:4). Listen to what Jesus said about this description, “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (John 10:3). Pastor, you are a shepherd not a rancher. Do not aspire to be a rancher, especially if it means becoming less of a shepherd than the model provided by Jesus.

If you enjoyed this post there are a few more in this series:

What is 1 Peter all about?

1 PeterIn 5:12 we read, “I have written to you briefly, encouraging you and testifying that this is the true grace of God. Stand fast in it.” Peter gives us a threefold purpose for writing, to: encourage Christians; testify to the grace of God; and help us stand fast or persevere. Throughout the letter, Peter does just this. So under a few – far from comprehensive – headings we are going to explore how Peter achieves his purpose: encouraging, testifying, and strengthening.

We have a living hope

In 1:3 the letter opens by praising God who in his great mercy (see 2:9-10) has given us a living hope. What God has promised us is certain and can never be taken from us (1:5). The word ‘salvation’ is often used to refer to becoming a Christian, or being born again, but notice that in 1:5-6 we rejoice in our hoped for salvation that is still to be revealed. This is what Peter comes back to in 1:8-9, “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” Christians should rejoice as we await our glorious future, despite the shifting sands and struggles of this life. We must live in light of our sure salvation that is to come. And as we persevere in this life our faith is proven genuine (1:6-7; 4:12).

That hope is found in Jesus Christ

Peter suggests this a few times in his opening: “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1:3); “you believe in him” (1:8); and “the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow” (1:11). But 2:24 is perhaps clearest, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross.” Christ’s death is our hope, for on the cross he bears our sins in order for us to be forgiven. Christians throughout the ages have called this the ‘wonderful exchange’. Something Peter lays out in 1:18-19, “It was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed…but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.” Therefore we must confidently trust in that costly work of Christ on our behalf, for both forgiveness and our future.

But in 2:21-25 Peter says that Christ’s suffering does not only save us and give us real hope, for he also calls it an “example” (2:21; also see 4:19), an example of how we should suffer as Christians.

Suffering as Christians

Suffering is not inconsistent with our faith but part of the Christian life, while we await our glorious salvation (5:9-10). Because 1 Peter was written to churches that were suffering the letter has much to teach us about it: God commends those who suffer for doing good (2:18-25), going as far as calling it a blessing (3:8-17), since it is blessed to do good not evil; on at least three occasions we read that suffering fits within the will of God (3:17; 4:2, 19) explaining why it might be necessary for us to suffer for a time (1:6, see ESV); and similarly to Christ, all affliction, hardship, suffering, and grief will give way to glory (4:13; 5:1, 10). One of the dangers we face as those who are not persecuted for our faith, suffer little, and enjoy many first world comforts is that we forget that glory is yet to be revealed and fall into the trap of living for this world

Though it might be part of God’s will that we suffer, and suffering certainly has a place within the economy of God to test, strengthen, and ultimately prove our faith, we know that we have a living hope and the promise of glory if we persevere. That hope is found through faith in the death and resurrection of Christ alone. But, knowing all of this, how should we live as Christians while we wait?

Holiness

Coming back to the wondrous exchange that took place as Christ died on the cross (2:24), where he sets us an example for suffering, Peter writes, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness.” God has saved us with purpose, which we will read more about below, and that purpose requires holiness, being noticeably set apart or distinct. We can no longer lived like we used to, when we were ignorant (1:13-14). We must pursue holiness (1:15-17), for we have been redeemed or bought by Christ’s precious blood (1:18-19), and should therefore “live as God’s slaves” (2:16). We are not our own; we belong to God. As Peter writes in 2:10, “Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

Our salvation, past and present results from the work of Christ and a persevering faith. But Peter is warning us against accepting the mercies of God and not responding to them by becoming increasingly holy. Practically, this touches on all sorts of things: abstaining from passions of the flesh (2:11); obedience to God’s truth, his word (1:22-25); speech (2:1-3); serving each other as the people of God (2:4-10; 4:7-11); submission to authorities (2:13-15); and our relationships with each other (2:17; 3:1-7).

Why should we pursue holiness, purity, and transformed lives? Is it just because Christians are better people than everyone else? No, Peter gives two reasons, under the next two headings.

Purpose of holiness: witness

In 2:11-12 we are told to, “Abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (also see 4:4). There is an evangelistic edge to godliness. More than merely silencing the ignorant (2:15), our holiness, eager hope, and how we suffer can point others to Christ and the glory that awaits those with faith in him.

Our ultimate purpose: God’s glory

The word “glory” is frequent in 1 Peter. While we are promised to share in God’s glory, for that is an aspect of our future hope (5:1, 10), the purpose of final salvation, holiness in the present, and Christ’s work on the cross is foremost for the glory of God. On the day that he is revealed, our witness may be the cause of some glorifying God rather than being judged (2:11-12). In using whatever gifts God has given us we must readily acknowledge him so that he is glorified, not us (4:7-11). Even our suffering, so long as it is for good and involves persevering faith can be to the glory of God (1:6-7; 4:16). Christ’s death and resurrection, which we must place our faith in, meant glory for the Jesus (1:11, 21). Is this your perspective, your purpose? All that we do and don’t do can be for the glory of God.

Peter’s challenge to you

“To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away” (5:1-4).

Though this is often treated as a passage on those in leadership in the local church. It is almost an assumption in the New Testament that older or maturer Christians will be leaders in the local church. The responsibility is given to watch over and care for others in the church, like shepherds. There is no gain in this but the promise of glory for those who eagerly serve in humility and set an example of holiness for others.

If you enjoyed this overview I have written a few others like it: wisdom and works in the epistle of James; Exodus as the journey of God; and a series of posts in Galatians.