This article was written by Will Jackson and published by FTC
Often when we think of pastors, we might associate the agrarian function of a shepherd who provides nourishment and physical guidance to his flock with the spiritual leadership of the local church office. When recently asked, “how does a pastor protect the flock?” I found myself initially thinking in terms of the appeal given by Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:13, “Purge the evil person from among you,”—which presumably finds its foundation in the similar refrain found in Deuteronomy, “So you shall purge the evil from your midst.” The danger I began to experience in my mind as I mistook the intention of these passages was a tendency to over-anticipate evil within the camp. Whereas elders are called to deal swiftly with wolves who may be masquerading as sheep, I found myself focusing primarily on the threat of wolfl-y sheep. In other words, I had begun to view God’s people, his children, as the enemy.
The shepherd must keep a close watch on the flock so that sin is not permitted to fester and multiply. I grew up raising livestock and know firsthand the importance of identifying and treating sickness early. When I was little, I remember one of our animals contracting pink eye, and as quickly as possible, we had to quarantine the infected to protect the healthy. Understandably in the days that followed the initial discovery of sickness in one animal, all others were watched closely. Medication was prepared. A plan for additional quarantining was established. But in all this anticipation, we would never entertain the worst-case scenario—a premature “downsizing” of the herd. There was, in other words, long suffering in devotion and care for the animals’ well-being and the obvious reality that they weren’t the problem at hand.
In contrast to the illustration of sickness in the herd, we also encountered actual threats from outside predators. When wild animals were known to be in the area, our concern was simple—intrusion and subsequent death. And on the few unfortunate occasions such a breach occurred, we had to act swiftly “to purge the evil from [our] midst.” In all of this, the biblical principle is demonstrated analogously: the threat to the flock originates on the outside. Ephesians 6:12 says, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” The real enemy from whom the church needs protection is the ancient serpent with his legion of followers.
Protection as Biblical Calling
How, then, do the Scriptures practically frame the ministry of protection assigned to elders? It would seem the calling of an elder to protect involves two specific exhortations: 1) protect the sheep from the false teachings of the enemy—myths and heresies—and 2) protect the sheep from the false comforts of the enemy—sin and ungodliness.
Protect the Truth of the Gospel
First, the pastor is called to protect the flock from false teaching. Paul, in his first recorded letter to Timothy, urges his pastoral protégé to prevent “certain persons” from teaching any “different doctrine” and to keep them from devoting themselves to “myths” and “endless genealogies.” As Paul says, the result of such deviations will result in “promoting speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith.” In other words, the integrity of the gospel, as the center point of one’s trust in God, becomes crippled when impure theology spreads within the church. Later in the letter, Paul likewise warns Timothy of “some [who] will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared.” The danger is readily stated—even the enemy seeks to make and multiply disciples.
Protect the Purity of the Saints
Just as the pastor is called to protect the sheep from false teaching, so is he called to protect the sheep from false comforts or sin. The point is made apparent, once again, in 1 Timothy. In Chapter 6, Paul begins by demonstrating how failure to protect one’s doctrine will result in the consequent fall into ungodliness. Then he continues by identifying not only the sinful heart of the false teacher—“he has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels”—but also the product of such teaching: “envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.” The principle is clear: false teachers, who have stumbled into impurity, will multiply their moral depravity among those who fall victim to their fabrications.
Ironically, Paul’s exhortation in 2 Timothy 4 shows the nature by which sinful living feeds and invites further false teaching. He says, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” As people become accustomed to sinful lifestyles, Paul says, they will turn away from the truth to affirm and resource their self-seeking pleasures. Just as a true flock of sheep is vulnerable to sickness spreading wildly, so too is a congregation when false teaching and sin are allowed to permeate and grow within.
How Might We Protect the Sheep?
Timothy Witmer references a helpful lesson in which an actual shepherd explains the most useful tool for protecting the sheep is not the rod or staff—no, it is the fence. The fence, by design, creates a protective barrier between the outside world and the safe environment within. At first glance, the fence is helpful to keep harmful things out, but also, the fence is a means by which vulnerable things are kept from wandering into danger. My experience with livestock proved this dual reality—all animals quickly learn the unforgiving nature of an electric fence. How do we, as pastors, construct a fence to guard those entrusted to our care?
As mentioned earlier, the actual danger to God’s flock is otherworldly. The enemy wants to break into the fenced pasture of the local church undetected so he can spread falsehoods. But also, we know he is actively working to entice the sheep away from the herd so that they’ll breach the fence only to find his victim. The work of a pastor, as God’s under-shepherd, is to protect the sheep against the accuser, the liar, the tempter. Therefore, this ministry cannot be performed in human terms. Instead, a pastor must embrace the task of spiritual battle. This means, first and foremost, a pastor must continuously and actively depend on God. Not only must the pastor be alert to the devil’s advances into his own heart and mind, but he must also remember that only God has the power over the enemy. The pastoral ministry of protection, in large part then, must take place on one’s knees. Prayer is the most overtly supernatural means of protection at our disposal. It invites God to glorify His own name as He might exercise His strength within this world.
Let the Word do the Work
Over and over again, the Pastoral Epistles frame the calling of a pastor as the ministry of handling the Word. In 1 Timothy 4:16, Paul writes, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by doing so you will save both yourself and your hearers.” And likewise, in 2 Timothy 4:1–2, he says, “I charge you . . . preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” If a pastor is going to be used by God to prompt life change in his sheep, it will be because he has relied on the power of the Word.
Armor for Advancement
Finally, a pastor will have protected his sheep when he has successfully equipped them with the armor of God. Imagine a captain who bravely marches into battle alone so that he might single-handedly protect his unarmed followers from harm. He will be swiftly defeated, and his people will be left with no option but to surrender. Recently, someone suggested that the armor depicted in Ephesians 6:10–20 may be better understood as offensive rather than defensive equipment. No doubt, Paul’s charges to “withstand” and “stand firm” lend themselves to defensive fortitudes. However, I was struck by the undercurrent in the thought. Christians are not passive participants in this world. Instead, God has called us to push His message of reconciliation forward and against the opposing spiritual forces so that the world may know the love of Christ and that the symphony of nations would glorify God. In other words, the flock is perhaps most protected when doing what they were created to do. In this, living in obedient and humble devotion to God’s Great Commission, strengthening and fortifying the heart takes place—both in individuals and the covenant community of believers.