July 10, 2005 Volume 6, Issue 19
© 2005, J.W. Carter
What is the church, and how is it to be characterized in today's society? As we observe Christian congregations across our culture, we find a myriad of denominations, each identified by name and distinctive worship practices and/or doctrines. People tend to attend churches that best suit their personal opinions as to how "church" should be done. Some churches are spontaneous and non-traditional. Some churches are steeped in centuries of traditions that in themselves have their own authority. The scriptures say little about the specific worship practices of the early church, as they were as varied in their approach to church polity and practice as we are today. The early church leadership was not as concerned about the order of worship as they were with the condition of the hearts of the members. However, whether liturgical or spontaneous, somber or joyful, our worship of God should be just that: worship of God rather than an exercise of our own desires or our own entertainment. When we wander away from true worship, we wander away from the humble submission to God that He requires and deserves. If we wander far enough, we can find ourselves "playing" church as members of a social club with a Christian theme that offers very little in true Christian worship, and less edification of its members. Such churches tend to experience frequent conflict, as they have taken the fabric of what would be a fully Spirit-led experience and replaced it with a secular-led culture.
Wandering away from true worship is nothing new, and as we observe the history of Israel and the history of the New Testament church we find a common tendency for people to wander away from God's plan for the church and replace it with their own. The experience of Israel could probably be argued as one of the best examples of what happens to a body of believers when they replace true love and worship of God with a flesh-led, and self-designed polity.
Israel was formed as a nation under the oppression of the Egyptian pharaohs, and delivered to freedom by God following His miraculous intervention, a sequence of events that Israel never forgot. From this experience, Israel was led to make a commitment to God at Mt. Sinai, a commitment to put their faith and trust in God, worshipping Him and Him alone. We see in the Sinai covenant a type of the commitment that the modern church has to God: for each member to put their faith and trust in God, worshipping Him and Him alone. However, keeping such a commitment was quite difficult without the power of the Holy Spirit empowering the hearts of each believer. With the absence of this resource, God showed through the law how the faithful should live, and the remaining experience of the Jews illustrates the impossibility of faithfulness based upon the law. We need the Holy Spirit. We need Him to be the authority and power that guides and directs our church just as every Christian needs Him for personal comfort and guidance. However, when we take control for ourselves, we usurp the authority of the Spirit in the church and the church suffers.
No body of believers probably has suffered more from this form of apostasy as the ancient Jews. By the time that Ezekiel writes, the nation has wandered far away from God as they have fully replaced faithful obedience to God with immersion in the secular culture of their day. If you were to observe the Jews at this time, you would probably be astonished at their state. Because of their selective adherence to the laws and traditions of Judaism, they still looked like Jews. They still wore the religious garb, recited the religious liturgies, and claimed to be faithful to God. However, God's word reveals that there were only a remnant of those in the population of Jews who truly loved God. With their backs turned to God, the Jews experienced the removal of God's hand of protection as they experienced the consequence of their allegiances with secular governments. Nebuchadnezzar had overrun Jerusalem, and a large number of their people were now in exile in Babylon. In a couple short years, Nebuchadnezzar would finish the Job and Israel, now reduced to the southern nation of Judah, as a nation would be destroyed.
Ezekiel's prophesy reveals the reasons for their state. In the passage of this study he reviews the state of both the leadership and the responsible adults in the nation.
And the word of the LORD came unto me, saying, 2Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, prophesy, and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD unto the shepherds; Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! should not the shepherds feed the flocks?
Chapter 34 starts the narrative of a new prophesy, a new message from God that is separate from those previously shared. In this message God speaks to the "shepherds of Israel." The description may promote images of dusty shepherds and their sheep as they move around the arid region in search for good food and water. However, this narrative is not referring to literal shepherds, but is using their vocation as a metaphor to illustrate the condition of Israel's leadership. Today, most churches are ministered to by (administered by) one or more leaders who have accepted the call to serve the church as "shepherds of the flock." We may refer to them as "pastors" or "bishops", "priests" or any other appropriate titles. However varied their titles, their task is the same: to shepherd the flock.
Ezekiel's prophesy is against those who were leaders of Israel. Josiah was the last king of Israel who sought to turn the nation to faith in God, and his influence, as well as the influence of faith represented by the remnant is long gone. The current king, Zedekiah, and his predecessors did not truly love God, did not truly honor Him, and helped to turn Israel further away from true worship of God. In this verse, Ezekiel speaks to the heart of the pastor. Is the pastor not called to feed the flock? Ezekiel reveals God's imperative to those who do not: woe to you. The natural desire to elevate one's self can be a tremendous temptation for the pastor, particularly when aided in that error by a congregation who improperly elevates him or assigns him inappropriate spiritual, physical, and administrative authority.
The leadership of Israel had come to despise the flock in favor of their own power and authority. God never intended on Israel to be led by kings, and His permissive will provided the only lesson that a stubborn and prideful people can learn from. Israel's kings copied the model of pagan kings, taking for themselves a level of wealth and power far beyond that known by the people, the sheep of his flock. They used the resources of their kingdom for their own benefit as they became immersed in their own authority and power. This is not the model of leadership that God desires. When Jesus' disciples questioned Him on leadership. Jesus always described the spiritual leader as one who is a humble servant. Jesus demonstrated this form of leadership in His own life as He humbled Himself, washing the feet of the disciples. (John 13).
The leadership of Israel was not held only by the king, but also shared with the princes and the king's advisors as well as the priests and levites. Just as the king lived, so did those close to him. They did not serve the flock any more than did the king. In today's church these would be those who are not pastors who also share in the responsibility of leadership. We may refer to them as deacons or elders. The ministry of the deacon is to assist in the feeding of the flock, not in the acquisition of power. Often churches are administered by a board of deacons or elders who demand total and unquestioned control. Such a polity is more similar to ancient Israel than one might at first note. When an individual or group of individuals seize control for themselves, they are usurping the control of the Holy Spirit who speaks to every believer and keeping it for themselves. They may view themselves as the most important and most influential people in the body, enjoying that position, feeding their own needs for significance and power. As Ezekiel has shared, "should not the shepherds feed the flocks?"
God's indictment for those who seize His authority for themselves is clear: woe to them. We might be surprised to note that such an indictment against the Israelite leadership would fall on unhearing ears. They had wandered so far from allegiance to God that they had no idea that what they were doing was inappropriate. Looking and sounding religious, reciting the liturgy and the "party line" they fed each other's rationalizations. Exposing their error was Ezekiel's task. Their appearance may have been sometimes holy, but their true actions and attitudes exposed the true nature of their hearts.
Ye eat the fat, and ye clothe you with the wool, ye kill them that are fed: but ye feed not the flock.
One obvious indicator of the failure of the shepherds was the nature of their lifestyle. Each of these examples point to on-going actions that serve to feed the shepherd's needs without appropriate regard for the sheep. Today we may see "fat" as a disdained portion of the meat as in our opulence we have become a culture of overeaters. However, in ancient times, fat was far rarer and a necessity for survival. To "eat the fat" refers to consuming that which is most expensive and most desired. By being a consumer of the fat, less was available to those who needed it the most: those who did not share in the king's bounty: the sheep.
Likewise, clothing with wool was also taking the most valuable and desired commodity for themselves. Furthermore, not as evident in the English as it is in the original language: "ye eat" and "ye clothe" are presented in a manner that implies that they are taking this for themselves though the work and expense to attain them is borne by those who serve them. They have not worked to obtain these for themselves. Not only are they keeping back that which they want for themselves, they are doing so on the backs of those whom they are called to serve. This reveals a far more sinister or evil intent, since it also shows their disdain for the sheep. Unlike a shepherd who has the responsibility to shear the sheep and butcher that which is needed for food, these simply consume the best (them that are fed), leaving the work to those "beneath" them. They have taken the best of the nation's resources for themselves, filling their bellies, filling their palaces, and filling their treasuries while failing to feed the flocks.
As we observe these verses we may tend to see only food and commodities, but the responsibility of the shepherd of God's sheep goes beyond physical sustenance: his responsibility is to nurture the spiritual needs of the flock. Feeding the flock, particularly when applied to the church leader, is a spiritual task. The kings and leaders of Israel fully failed in their responsibility to lead the people to God. Instead, they led the people to remain in their secular, apostate state. Instead of embracing God and immersing the people in His word, they embraced the accepted secular culture and immersed the people in what they wanted to hear. God's Word was not taught by the priests.
Today's church, like the people of Israel, is immersed in a pagan, secular culture, and the pressure to conform to it is immense. The flock is fed by pastors and priests who teach and preach God's word without compromise. When the leadership begins to compromise and conform to the secular culture, the people follow. This is the very example given by Israel's experience. When God speaks to those who are not feeding the flock, His statement is clear: woe to you. Can serve as a reminder for all who are called to Christian leadership to never fail to teach and preach God's Word.
The diseased have ye not strengthened, neither have ye healed that which was sick, neither have ye bound up that which was broken, neither have ye brought again that which was driven away, neither have ye sought that which was lost; but with force and with cruelty have ye ruled them.
The one who God has called to serve the flock has several inviolable responsibilities that each are simply the fruit of the love that the shepherd has for the sheep. We see a list of some of the ministries of the shepherd. Failure to "do these things" is not as much a failure to execute responsibility as it is a failure to love. Caring for the weak was one of the primary tasks of an ancient Israelite leader. Without the support of the leadership, those who were weak and infirmed had no advocate and were left to be abused and neglected by society. We may recall that the ancients equated sickness with sin, and disdained those who are sick as suffering because of their own sin.
The shepherd also returns those who have been driven away. The sin that all of us battle includes our propensity to shun and drive away those who a little different from ourselves. All church congregations are probably guilty of this. Certainly, the King of Israel had no concern for those who were shunned and driven away from the mainstream culture. When those have been driven away from our church culture they are quickly forgotten. The shepherd who loves his flock would have no other response but to encourage the outcast and teach those who would reject them.
The shepherd searches out those who are lost. Why? Because he cares for the sheep. Jesus said, "I came to seek and to save those who are lost" (Luke 19:10). This was Jesus' most fundamental ministry, and is by type, the most fundamental ministry of the shepherd. If one cares enough for another to come to them in sickness, to comfort those who have been driven away, etc, how much more would one care for another who is about to die without intervention? The ministry of seeking the lost and bringing them to salvation is the fundamental fruit of one who loves.
Ezekiel's message describes the nature of Israel's leadership, a leadership who fails to love those whom God has called them to serve. Another attribute of inappropriate spiritual leadership that illustrates a lack of love is an attitude of autocracy. The king, princes and priests ruled the people rather than served them. This is also a fundamental illustration of a lack of love. The whole concept of a king to the ancients is one who rules with impunity, one who is free to make any decision, ruling the people based upon his own desires. The shepherd, does not rule, but serves. The pastor or priest is not the Lord of the church: Jesus is the Lord of the church. When a leader usurps that authority for himself, he changes from serving to ruling.
And they were scattered, because there is no shepherd: and they became meat to all the beasts of the field, when they were scattered. 6My sheep wandered through all the mountains, and upon every high hill: yea, my flock was scattered upon all the face of the earth, and none did search or seek after them.
What happens to a flock of sheep when the shepherd fails to serve them? Sheep will scatter. Defenseless against predators, they are in danger of being killed and injured. Without a shepherd there is no one to search for them. Sheep cannot survive in the wild. They are doomed. If those called to church leadership fail to shepherd the flock, the congregation is open to every manner of false teaching, and will only wander away from the truth. Israel is a great example, as its leaders failed to lead the people to God, they followed the gods of their neighbors. They fell into idolatry and took part in the abominable practices of pagan worship. Ancient paganism was the nature of secular culture. Likewise, secular culture today is just as pagan and abominable to God as it always has been. A church community, immersed in secular culture, will be absorbed by it if the shepherd does not feed the flock. Abominable practices of our secular culture become accepted by the people of the church, and following acceptance, become part of the church culture. To the ancients this may be idolatry and the sensual worship of Baal and Asherah. Today a modern parallel may be the acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle, the promotion of abortion, or any other practices that define secular culture.
The failure of the leadership of Israel to lead the nation in a godly manner resulted in the loss of the nation. God preserved His remnant in Babylon during Jerusalem's final fall. Israel would return to Jerusalem with Ezra and Nehemiah after about 70 years of exile, a period long enough to cause almost all of those who were living in pre-exile Jerusalem to return. The nation would never return to self-rule until the 20th century. If one can learn from a bad example, all who have been called by God to serve in leadership are given much instruction. Christian leadership is characterized by servanthood and empowered by God's love. James notes the greater judgment that is held against those who teach and preach (James 3:1). This can serve as a call to all who serve in leadership in the church, from deacons and elders to priests and pastors to evaluate their ministry. Is ministry based upon rule? Who is in charge? Do I want my way? Do I truly love those whom I serve? Am I neglecting the ministry to which I have been called?
The passage in Ezekiel goes on to charge the sheep with godly teaching, and to support those those shepherds who minister to them. Often pastors and leaders are disabled in their ministry by overwork and insufficient support.
As we observe the circumstance of exiled Israel let us not copy their errors. Let us shed the ungodly practices of this secular world and cling to God, and to God alone. Let us serve each other in Christ's name. Let us support those who are called as shepherds of God's flock, and let those who are called as shepherds minister in spirit and in truth.