Not too long ago I finished reading Timothy Laniak’s book Shepherds After My Own Heart: Pastoral Traditions and Leadership in the Bible, which is part of the New Studies in Biblical Theology series edited by D.A. Carson. Here are some reading reflections based on this excellent volume.

The Power of Shepherding Imagery

The meaning of the metaphor of shepherd, from which we get our word pastor, is important for understanding the reality of pastoral ministry. Laniak argues that shepherd is the primary metaphor by which the biblical authors conceptualized leadership. The ancient cultural realities of animal husbandry make it clear that the primary roles of a shepherd were to provide, protect, and guide. The distinct imagery of ancient shepherding practices should elicit experiential reflection and emblazon imagery that shapes pastoral ministry. What Laniak does is provide us with a biblical theology of shepherding that is metaphor-dependent and metaphor-rich.  This is important, namely because “metaphors make use of concrete or physical realities to describe less tangible realities…human thought tends towards an economy of explanatory images.” He continues by arguing that “we cultivate mental categories that preserve as much information as possible with as little effort as possible.”[1] In other words, metaphors invite both comprehension and apprehension. Laniak notes that:

  1. Comprehension: Emphasizes the cognitive aspects of interpretation
  2. Apprehension: Emphasizes the existential aspects of interpretation

“Shepherd is a felicitous metaphor for human leadership because both occupations have a comparable variety of diverse tasks that are constantly negotiated…Shepherds had to combine broad competencies in animal husbandry with capacities for scouting, defense and negotiation.”[2] The beautiful thing about metaphor is that it carries us beyond the literal meaning of shepherd and instructs us on the nature of pastoral leadership. In this sense, the vehicle of metaphor affects the way shepherd leadership is understood. There is a connection made at a deeper level, and though the details and particulars are left behind the essence of shepherd leadership remains and resonates within our imagination. Therefore, the metaphor of shepherd instructs and shapes us as pastors by way of deep emotive insight.

The Importance of Nourishing the Flock

The nourishment and protection of the flock is one of the most powerful applications we can gleam from the shepherding metaphor. Laniak argues that ‘the good shepherd knows where to find pastures that are not only lush but safe enough for his flocks to rest in peace…it is the skilled shepherd who knows the environment well enough to provide for his animals needs with compromising their security…The wilderness is a confusing environment[15]. Left to themselves, the sheep inevitably go astray.”[16]

One of the most pressing challenges for any shepherd is to provide nourishment (water, food, rest) for their flocks in harsh environments, environments that withheld essential elements for life and flourishing. A good shepherd watches their flock. Eating and drinking bring nourishment. Rest is a function of being well provided for. Rest also points to a state of security that comes from the shepherd’s protective presence. The idea of provision by way of nourishment and protection is carried forward in the context of theology in pastoral ministry. Consider Jesus words to Peter in chapter 21 of the gospel of John, “feed my sheep”. And in Acts 20 Paul charges the Ephesian elders to protect the flock from those who would twist doctrine. It seems that the picture that Laniak provides is apt: “the image of a gathered flock lying down in green pastures”[17], imagery of satisfaction and safety.[18] Satisfaction comes from the nourishment provided by the whole counsel of God, and safety comes from shepherds who pay careful attention to the lives and doctrine of the flock. The church is to be a community of rest, a place for the weary to refresh from the wilderness of everyday life.  The call is clear for pastors to nourish the people God has placed in your care.

The Necessity of Leading and Protecting the Flock

Psalm 23 is one of the most recognizable Psalms that utilizes the shepherding metaphor. In this Psalm David reflects on the confidence one can find in the good shepherds care, even in times of deep darkness. Reflecting on this psalm Laniak notes that “even in the deadly shadows that fall at dusk in the desert’s canyons there is safety in his presence. Though easily frightened by nature, this trusting sheep will move through the shadows without fear.”[19] The language of the psalm provides us imagery of the two simple but versatile tools that ancient shepherds carried to face unexpected challenges within and outside of his flock.

  1. The Rod: This defense instrument allowed the shepherd to be ready for any predator. This short club was a crude weapon used to beat cumin[20], as a weapon in battle[21], it was also the shepherd’s implement used for counting a flock at night as the flock passes under it.[22]
  2. The Staff: This was the instrument that the shepherd used to nudge wandering sheep back in line, is was a source of comfort because it was used for picking off branches, snagging a trapped animal with the crook, or redirecting misbehaving members of the herd. The staff became a symbol for the protective presence of the shepherd.[23]

Laniak notes that “these two rods may represent the two functions of a shepherd: protector from external threats and peacekeeper among the flocks”.[24] Pastoral ministry calls for gentile assistance, direction, rescue, and encouragement among the flock of God. Pastors are also called to defend the flock from outside threats and even discipline the flock to avoid dangers from within. Both instruments represent the weight of authority that a shepherd carries among the flock. The fruits of this authority are security and comfort among the flock because of a good shepherds care and discipline.

Shepherds Know their Flock

In his devotional book While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks, Tim Laniak comments on the importance of knowing and naming the flock. “Naming is a powerful, tangible expression of the shepherds intimate bond that begins at birth and grows through an animal’s tenure with a flock. Once you begin to fathom how many times an animal may have been counted, checked, carried, nursed back to health, rescued, protected, milked, and shorn, it dawns on you why Bedouin always say, ‘They are family’.”[25]

According to Laniak “responsible shepherds know every member of their flocks in terms of their birth circumstances, history of health, eating habits and other idiosyncrasies. It is not uncommon to name each goat and sheep and to call them by name[26]. One of the most striking characteristics of the shepherd-flock relationship is that control over the flock is exercised simply by the sound of the shepherd’s voice or whistle[27]. This provides a rich depiction of Jesus’ words in John 10:27, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” As for pastoral ministry, this imagery does give some credence to the old adage “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” To know someone requires time and care. Isaiah provides a good picture of a caring shepherd in 40:11. Explaining how God shepherds his people the prophet writes “He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young”. The imagery is powerful and emotive. This type of care would be expressed in the life of the church through pastoral visitation, counseling, and ministry in times of sickness and grief. “Shepherds who love their sheep notice when their sheep are hurting and seek to be with them to care for them.”[28]

  1. [1] Timothy S. Laniak, Shepherds After My Own Heart: Pastoral Traditions and Leadership in the Bible, 35-36.
  2. [2] Ibid, 40
  3. [3] Deut. 7:13; 28:4.
  4. [4] Laniak, Shepherds After My Own Heart, 50.
  5. [5] Ibid, 53.
  6. [6] Benjamin L. Merkle, 40 Questions about Elders and Deacons, (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2008),  90.
  7. [7] Ibid, 51.
  8. [8] Speaking specifically on pastoral ministry, there are three main approaches to determining the number of elders a church should have: fixed number system, ratio system, open system. See Merkle’s 40 Questions about Elders and Deacons, 166-168.
  9. [9] Acts 14:23; 20:17, 28; 1 Tim. 5:17; Phil. 1:1; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1.
  10. [10] Hold 1 Tim. 5:19, 2 John 1, and 3 John 1.
  11. [11] See Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology (Leicester: Intervarsity Press., 1994), 913.
  12. [12] D.A. Carson, Authority in the Church, EDT, ed. Walter E. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 229.
  13. [13] John 10:3ff
  14. [14] Laniak, 57.
  15. [15] Psalm 119:176.
  16. [16] Ibid, 111.
  17. [17] Ibid, 55.
  18. [18] Isa. 32:18.
  19. [19] 112.
  20. [20] Isa. 28:27
  21. [21] 2 Sam. 23:21
  22. [22] Lev. 27:32; Ezek. 20:37
  23. [23] Ps. 23:4.
  24. [24] Ibid, 56.
  25. [25] Timothy Laniak, While Shepherds Watch Their Flock, (China: ShepherdLeader Press , 2009), 102.
  26. [26] John 10:3ff.
  27. [27] John 10:3; cf. Judg. 5:16; Zech. 10:8.
  28. [28] John Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches, (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005) 163-164.

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