The word [shepherd] needs to go away. Jesus talked about shepherds because there was one over there in a pasture he could point to. But to bring that imagery today and say, “Pastor, you’re the shepherd of the flock,” no. I’ve never seen a flock. I’ve never spent five minutes with a shepherd. It was culturally relevant in the time of Jesus, but it’s not culturally relevant anymore. Nothing works in our culture with that model except this sense of the gentle, pastoral care. Obviously that is a face of church ministry, but that’s not leadership.
So said megachurch pastor, Andy Stanley, some years ago in an interview with Leadership Journal (28 May 2007). Is he correct? Hardly.
This idea that many biblical images are now culturally irrelevant and therefore in need of replacement is increasingly popular in many churches. But it is completely wrongheaded, for several reasons.
First, since Scripture is inspired by God, what He has written is always relevant. Even the newest Christian should grasp this. God both breathed into this world His written Word and He has preserved His written Word. What was relevant in 2000 BC is, by God’s design, relevant today. Our task is to discern its relevance.
Second, to whose culture is such language irrelevant? Try running that argument by Ethiopian shepherds, or those who live in the Highlands of Scotland. They would quickly write you off as irrelevant while their sheep are bleating in the background!
Underlying this concern is, well, a shepherding one! Andy Stanley is a fine pastor and I have no doubt that he desires to minister to (oops, I almost said “shepherd”) his flock. (Perhaps I should say, community? people? gathering? spiritual entity? support group? I am just so confused!) So, having established that he really cares (and I have every reason to believe that he does), this kind of talk, in my view at least, is informed by an unhealthy preoccupation with “relevance.” This obsession with desiring to “connect with the culture” can become very unhealthy.
The argument of “irrelevance” opens a Pandora’s box of error. If, for instance, the terminology of shepherding is deemed culturally irrelevant and discarded, then we are a short distance from arguing the irrelevance of specific commandments. After all, maybe homosexual marriage was culturally taboo two thousand years ago, but such prohibitions can hardly be argued as culturally acceptable today. So church, “get with it.”
For example, consider the recent case in the USA in which two homosexual members of a United Methodist Church (UMC) are suing the UMC because their minister, Kelly Carpenter, does not have the right under the Denomination to perform the ceremony. As World News reports,
Carpenter himself supports same-sex marriage. He told United Methodist News Service the complaint was “right on the money” and that he would have co-signed it if he could. UMC rules prevent him from conducting a gay marriage without the risk of discipline. In protest of church policy, Carpenter promised in March 2013 to refrain from performing a heterosexual marriage at the church until the UMC changes its position.
Carpenter then adds, “The national opinion and political culture is rapidly changing on the issue of gay marriage. Our United Methodist denomination has failed to lead the way in this struggle for equality, and will once again have to catch up to the culture.”
Don’t miss that: The church that takes Scripture seriously is obviously “behind the times.” And therefore our only hope is to stick our finger in the air to see which way the post-postmodern breeze of public opinion is blowing and then “catch up.” But of course, it might be wise to first determine where those with whom you desire to “catch up” are heading. They me be heading for a cliff. And this is precisely where shepherds are of great value.
Now, I realise that there is a great gulf of difference between what Andrew Stanley and Kelly Carpenter are saying. Nevertheless, they both strike me as sharing the same fundamental flaw. Neither is allowing Scripture to have the final say to our culture. And even though many might argue that Stanley’s position is rather benign compared to Carpenter’s, nevertheless it does open a door for more serious errors in the life of the church.
So how should we respond to such statements and to such prevalent views in the church of our day? Simply, we need to argue that the task of the local church is to educate up rather than to dumb down. For instance, if the congregation is culturally clueless about the work of a shepherd, then instruct them. In other words, shepherd them!
No church or pastor, at least none that I am aware of, is staying up late at night figuring out a strategy to be irrelevant. Any church that understands its self-identity desires to relevantly connect the gospel to where we live. We therefore seek to speak in ways that people can understand. We seek to show the relevance of the gospel to those who are spiritually thirsty, just as Jesus did to the Samaritan woman at the well nearly two thousand years ago. But the key to relevant communication is not to change the biblically-informed metaphors and pictures but rather to help those in our culture to connect with these eternal and therefore culturally transcending principles and conditions. It is for this reason that we need, in fact, to keep the shepherding terminology, for regardless of where or when a person lives, it remains true that “all we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6). Mankind outside of Christ is a lost sheep. Like sheep, even though we have Google and Whatsapp and a manmade satellite landing on a comet, we are defenceless, spiritually deaf and dumb, and we remain dependent upon the Lord. Yes, whether or not you have ever seen a shepherd, you still need one!
The solution is not to dumb down the Bible (ala such noble attempts as The Living Bible and The Message, and the perhaps not so noble The Rapper’s Bible—yeah, really dude) but rather to educate people up to understand the language of the Bible.
If you are going to change the language of the Bible to “catch up” to culture, you will not only be constantly changing your vocabulary, but you will have to do so several times while speaking to the same congregation. After all, you just might have some antiquarian person who was raised on a farm who does understand the metaphor of sheep and shepherds sitting next to someone from the inner city who only understands rats. How then do you make sense of Psalm 23 to the urbanite while at the same time not confusing the ruralised? Simple: You explain the words and the overarching metaphor. Both will be blessed and neither treated like a dunce.
I don’t want to belabour this further but rather to make the point that, instead of discarding solid biblical words, we need to so expound the Bible that people grow up in their understanding. We need to hang on to what many consider to be archaic words such as “atonement,” and “justification,” and “sanctification,” and “repentance,” and “propitiation,” and “shepherd,”(!), etc. ad glorious! We need to explain these terms with the view to helping our hearers feel the enormity of the deep, soul-saving and soul-satisfying truths they convey.
Remember that we are commanded to love God with all of our being, including our mind (Matthew 22:37). We must therefore engage our intellect, and that requires building our understanding of existing vocabulary. And those who are especially called to such “educating up” rather than “dumbing down” have a descriptive name. We call them shepherds.