Question & Answer Forum: Shepherds and Sheep

What are sheep to do when the shepherds fail or refuse to obey Scripture and are being lords over God’s heritage? (1Peter 5:3)

Your question poses some serious charges with some unspecified conditions attached. In what ways are the shepherds failing or refusing to obey Scripture? And how exactly are they “lording it” over the flock?

Thankfully, there are many true shepherds among the Lord’s people who seek to edify and preserve local assembly believers. For the most part, it is a difficult, burdensome and thankless task, and a responsibility for which brethren are often misunderstood and criticized. Yet they have accepted the work of oversight, not out of mere duty or force (“not by constraint,”), but from an honest and heartfelt love for the flock and for their Lord. Their desire is to see the believers and the testimony strengthened and advanced in every way, and the Lord honored.

However, Peter’s exhortations clearly imply the very real possibility that not every so-called shepherd will exemplify the spirit of Christ in his dealings. There will be those who have little heart for the believers in their needs, and who only function as elders because they “have to.” Others are in it for what they can get out of it, as they crave power and prominence. Sadly, there are shepherds who “rule” with absolute authority and whose word is “law” without challenge. Those who “lord it over the flock” either have failed to understand what true shepherding involves or have substituted carnal rules, instead of spiritual character, to try to maintain order. The greatest danger comes when carnal men are brought into a sphere of authority and leadership. The results of these types of situations are often disastrous, as sheep groan under the heavy-handed rule of such men and lose heart for assembly testimony.

Thankfully, such situations are not the norm, but when they do occur, how can (or should) a believer respond? One of the clearest examples in the Scripture of a man “lording it over the flock” involved Diotrephes in 3 John. He loved to “have the preeminence,” and it is clear that he submitted to no one. His word appeared to be “law,” and anyone who disagreed with him was shunned, or even excommunicated. Yet in the midst of that desperate situation, there was a believer by the name of Gaius who was “prospering spiritually” (v2). He hadn’t left the assembly or mutinied, but was countering the difficulties by “walking in the truth” (v3). Gaius’ difficult environment suggests three practical responses to an “overbearing elder.”

First, it’s obvious that he had maintained his own SPIRITUAL PRESERVATION and joy. “Keeping your own soul happy” is a vital necessity in such circumstances. Gaius wasn’t leading a “grudge group” or an “insider rebellion,” but was prospering spiritually, showing hospitality to fellow believers, liberally assisting those engaged in gospel work and walking in the truth of loving his God. Gaius wasn’t oblivious of Diotrephes’ detrimental actions. Rather, he chose to counter the negative by the positive of his conduct, his courage, and his love for the truth. Maintaining a proper attitude and allowing God to work isn’t always easy, but Gaius, Samuel, David, and others found it possible to enjoy the Lord’s presence and blessing even in adverse circumstances. They recognized the Lord’s dealings in their lives as an opportunity for spiritual growth and the appreciation of the lessons of grace.

A second response involves CAREFUL CONFRONTATION, as John wrote that he would address the actions of Diotrephes when he came to visit the assembly (v10). It’s not wrong to ask an elder why certain things are done or the basis for decisions. We may not always know all the factors involved in every oversight decision, but if something is clearly unscriptural, then we need to approach the elder or elders in a careful and kind way for clarification. Too often, our approach can be caustic and challenging, and immediately “lines are drawn” and the problem expands. Rather than immediate criticism, failure in leadership should result in earnest prayer for recovery and blessing. Matthew 18:15-17 teaches that, in view of a trespass, the offended brother should go to the offender, privately first, quietly dealing with the fault and minimizing fallout. If that is unsuccessful, then one or two other concerned brethren could go with him, adding spiritual weight to the approach and hopefully making the overseer aware that this is not a frivolous matter. Proper attitude is paramount. It’s not a matter of a frontal attack on leadership, but of a deep concern for the truth of God and the welfare of the testimony. If the overbearing elder fails to alter course or give a Scriptural response to what is plainly unscriptural, the concerned brethren are left in a difficult situation. Other overseers could be approached for clarification and guidance. In Gaius’ case, it’s clear that obedience to God and His Word and fellowship with fellow believers took precedence over obedience to man-made dictates.

A third response centers on SUBMISSION TO and RECOGNITION OF the Lord’s sovereign control and government in the assembly. “Judgment must begin at the house of God,” as the Lord Himself is the One walking in the midst (1Peter 4:17, Rev 2:1). Shepherds walking unrighteously can be (and have been) removed by the Lord’s chastening hand, but we must allow God to act in His own time and way. When the Lord was reviled and opposed by so-called shepherds of Israel, He didn’t retaliate or threaten, but “committed Himself to Him that judgeth righteously” (1Peter 2:23). Matthew 23:1-3 shows the Lord instructing the multitude and His disciples regarding the unrighteous actions and attitudes of the scribes and Pharisees who had assumed a place that God never intended them to have. “All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.” Their oppressive ways affected everyone but themselves. Despite the difficulties, the disciples were taught to submit.

Arnold Adams said many times, “You can never go wrong in submitting. God holds them responsible, not you, for their decisions (or indecisions). Ours is to submit.” Waiting God’s time is critical, for if we push our own agenda, even with sincerity and concern, we can become guilty of “lording it over the overseers.”

Actions and reactions in assembly life have far-reaching effects. Shepherds and the sheep should move in careful consideration of one another and with a deep desire for the honor of the Lord’s glory.

M. Derksen