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The past ten months have been a challenge for local churches and for those called to lead them. With the implementation, subsequent adjustments, lifting, and reintroduction of lockdown restrictions, most elders feel like Ezra when he pulled his hair out (Ezra 9:3). Sometimes, we have felt like Nehemiah who pulled out others’ hair (Nehemiah 13:25)!

Elderships have had to make difficult decisions, made more difficult by criticism. “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t” is how many elderships have felt as they have wrestled with whether or not to comply with government-mandated regulations.

The elders of BBC believe that government is, at this point, acting within its biblical mandate to prescribe restrictions on corporate gatherings in view of the pandemic and their concerns for an overrun health system. The eldership has repeatedly communicated this to our congregation and are unanimously agreed on this point.

Though we detect inconsistencies with some of their decisions, nevertheless, as government seeks to balance protecting lives and livelihoods, we are committed to submitting to their imperfect leadership while trusting our sovereign Lord to bring the church through this. We therefore believe BBC should comply with the current restrictions on corporate gatherings.

Our position is a majority position among local churches. Yet, for some with a minority view, this is deemed to be evidence that we are not faithful shepherds. We are instead what Jesus referred to as “hirelings” (John 10:12). Careless and cowardly ones. Is that true? Is it a fair conclusion to draw? I think not.

The charge has been issued by some in the evangelical world that pastors who comply with government restrictions on corporate gatherings of the church are giving loyalty to infamous “Caesar” rather than being faithful to the Lord Jesus Christ. Such are viewed as unfaithful pastors, guilty of allowing secular government to usurp the authority of Christ Jesus as rightful Head of the church. These pastors, it is alleged, are guilty of abdicating their responsibility to shepherd the flock of God. The implication is that such pastors are “hirelings” rather than faithful shepherds. That is a serious charge, which needs to be answered.

The Lord Jesus warned his disciples about unfaithful and false shepherds whom he characterised as “hirelings” (KJV) or “hired hands” (ESV). Listen to his words in John 10:12, “He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.” In the verses that follow, Jesus identifies himself as the “good shepherd.” He faithfully and courageously cares for the flock, even to the point of laying his life down for them. We praise God that Jesus owns his sheep and will do whatever is required for their welfare. Mere “hired hands” would never do this, for they are not relationally invested. They shepherd simply for a paycheque. Hired hands only pretend to be shepherds. They “shepherd” for what they can get out of it. They are for sale and are not to be trusted. But to whom was Jesus referring? This is an important question, especially when labelling pastors in our days as “hirelings.”

Jesus was referring to a long line of unfaithful religious leaders, including those of his day. Centuries earlier, God, through Jeremiah, addressed these “hired hands” when he said, “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” (Jeremiah 23:1). “Shepherds” in Scripture included prophets, priests, elders, and even civil rulers, including the king. In the scathing passage which follows, the Lord, through Jeremiah, rebuked these careless leaders for their dereliction of duty. They had not fed God’s people with truth. In fact, they had lied to them and thus misrepresented the Lord and his word. They had not sought the wandering, nor had they cared for the flock during a time of societal, political, and ultimately spiritual distress. If I can put it this way, because these “shepherds” had failed to point the flock to the Good Shepherd of Psalm 23, they were now rebuked in Jeremiah 23. They were rebuked for their carelessness and compromise.

When Jesus walked the earth, the severe words of Jeremiah 23 equally applied to the contemporary Jewish religious leaders. In Matthew 23, he used the same tone as Jeremiah 23 to denounce the “shepherds” of the day. He said, on at least one occasion, that he was moved to compassion because as he surveyed the spiritual condition of the nation of Israel they were as “sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). Sadly, the nation was under the unfaithful leadership of “hired hands.” Some of these were false teachers but, fundamentally, they were faithless men not caring for the souls of the sheep entrusted to them.

I’ve laboured over this description in order to highlight the unjustness of the phrase “hired hands” directed towards elderships that choose to adhere to government-mandated restrictions and protocols, as well as the accusation that such elders have abandoned their calling. I reject this. Rather, in my conversations with numerous pastors, I am persuaded that the majority of these brothers are deeply committed to the welfare of their congregation. These brothers carry a heavy burden concerning how to care for their people—spiritually, emotionally, materially, and yes, physically—in these difficult days. Such pastors constantly wrestle with the dilemma of how to obey government and how to protect their congregations in the pandemic while not neglecting biblical exhortations to gather and to minister to one another in the local church. These men are not hirelings; they are faithful shepherds who seek to honour the Chief Shepherd by helping his sheep (1 Peter 5:1–4).

Transparently, I am not a disinterested bystander to such defamations. Yet I have no desire to debate with my accusers. Nevertheless, I and my fellow elders are compelled by accountability to the Lord and to the flock over which the Holy Spirit has made us overseers (Acts 20:28) to give a defence and to assure our fellow church members that our decisions are guided by a desire to be faithful. We desire the welfare of Brackenhurst Baptist Church and for this reason we have made the decisions we have. Sometimes we may, and will, miss the mark. We get that. But such failures indicate that, like everyone else, we are fallible. But being fallible is not the same as being unfaithful. It is a far cry from being a “hired hand.”

Name-calling is easy. But it’s not helpful. What is helpful is calling on the name of the Great Shepherd of the sheep, our Lord Jesus Christ. He is always faithful and will never fail us. I suppose that if our eldership keeps pointing our church to him, in every way possible in these days, then we can be considered faithful shepherds rather than hirelings. Therefore, we appeal to our church family: “Finally brethren, pray for us” (2 Thessalonians 3:1). Our commitment is to be faithful, both to the Chief Shepherd and to his sheep.