Deconstructing Destruction in the Church: Informal Shepherding

In a 1986 speech President Ronald Reagan said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government, and I'm here to help.’”

A lot of Americans appreciated Reagan’s humorous point because sometimes government does more to harm than to help. Many Americans, however, appreciated Reagan’s point for another reason. Many just do not believe they need government. They think government only makes citizens weaker.

I am not writing to argue the merits or limits of civil government. The scriptures do speak to these things. But today the Lord would have us think about another kind of government – church government, the government of the highest and best of monarchs, King Jesus. His kingdom. 

Truth be told, many Christians are just as indifferent toward church government as Americans are toward civil government. One reason for this coldness is because man is sinful. The nature of sin is to resist authority and go our own way. Sin pushes us along from the inside to be our own authority, our own government. “Prone to wander / Lord I feel it / Prone to leave the God I love.”

But ingrained sin is not the only reason Christians resist church government. We also resist because of the sin we have seen in those who govern. It is a sad truth, but the church of Jesus Christ over the years has had too many crooks, charlatans, clowns, bullies and unregenerate men in positions of governance. This is exactly what Jesus confronted in the leaders of Israel (Matthew 23). But praise be God, the Head of the kingdom is without fault and his Word is without corruption.

Because King Jesus lives and reigns with all power and authority, he is able to bless his people by extending his always good, true and gracious government into their lives. To urge us all to receive such blessings, the Lord urges a closeness of proximity between the Lord’s shepherds and the Lord’s flock.

Notice the phrase “among you” in the following texts. Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 1:5 – “You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake.” Peter says in 1 Peter 5 – “So I exhort the elders among you,…shepherd the flock of God that is among you,…not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” 

Noticeably, neither of the apostles emphasizes the public ministry of the Word in these passages. They are certainly not discounting nor dismissing it. But here they emphasize that essential ministry outside the pulpit. They illuminate to all believers – the shepherds and the flock – what  life in the church is like at its best. It is near, warm, even intimate in the best possible ways. The government of King Jesus is not standoffish nor distant. It is like the Savior himself. Thus Paul can say with joy and a pure conscience: “For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory” (1 Thess. 2:11-12).

What then is the remedy of bad church government? Is it no government? No. The remedy of bad church government is close-up holy shepherding. Not shepherding that seeks to replace Jesus as Lord of the conscience - not an over shepherding, making light use of the Word – but a shepherding that is close enough, life on life, where the flock can clearly see leaders’ lives are exemplary (Heb. 13:7) and close enough where leaders can set caring eyes on the flock, even seeing the soul with its varied needs and joys (Heb. 13:17).

Which brings us to another key passage that impresses on us all the feature of close proximity in Christ’s government. Hebrews 13:17. It says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls….”

The phrase “keeping watch over” is a word that literally means “going without sleep.” It is the life of a watchman. It is the life of a shepherd out in the field keeping watch over his flock. But this watching makes no use of far-off telescopes or remote closed-circuit cameras. This is life-on-life. It is an old phrase, but church shepherds must smell like sheep. And the sheep, for their part, must learn to feed and rest among close-proximity shepherds.

We live our lives locally. We struggle with sin locally. Our life in Christ is threatened and tempted by local threats and local temptations. Our walk with God passes through hundreds of local providences. The neighbors we love are local neighbors. And locally we grow in grace and knowledge of our Savior. Because of all this localness, Christ appoints local shepherds to come close enough to see that we are well or not well. Instead of being spooked by such care, let us instead see in it the unresting interest of our ever blessed high King.

John Hartley has been pastor of Apple Valley Presbyterian Church since 2010, having previously been a pastor for 10 years in Vermont. He is a Wisconsin native and a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as well as Dallas Theological Seminary. John lives with his wife Jen and their five children.