Friday, August 26, 2022

Too Hot to Handle: Feeding the Sheep

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

When the Lord Jesus restored Peter, he gave him a job: “Feed my sheep.” He repeated his instructions twice, each time with a slightly different verb, and in one instance with a slightly different object.

Assuming we think there is an example in this anecdote for Christians to follow, the net effect is to make the men who shepherd the people of God in our present age responsible for the entire flock — young and old, of whatever type — and to charge them with the care of their spiritual diet, as well as their guidance and direction.

So then, the job of a pastor is shepherding, and shepherding means caring for and protecting the people of God. The primary way this takes place is by teaching them to understand and follow his word.

Purposeful or Random

Tom: Earlier this week, Immanuel Can, you and I were exchanging emails about what that means for elders today. I pointed out one group of elders who are feeding their sheep in a very organized, thoughtful and systematic way, doing the bulk of the teaching themselves. Bernie pointed out a second group who have allowed for a little more flexibility in their feeding schedule, but are equally purposeful about how they go about fulfilling their responsibilities to the Lord. But I think we all agreed not every local church operates this way.

Immanuel Can: Very few do, in my experience.

Tom: We all know of elders who discharge their mandate by appointing a man to fill a schedule with speakers, trusting that whatever the Holy Spirit lays on their hearts will be what their people need. Others hire a capable Bible teacher to do all or most of their job for them, and the choosing of subject matter becomes primarily or exclusively his responsibility.

IC: Yes. And let’s just say at the start that nobody here, not you and not me, would say that if a man has a definite belief that the Spirit of God is telling him to preach something, that he should forego it … for any reason, ever. Fair enough?

Tom: Absolutely.

Going in Blind

IC: That being said, what happens to most speakers who are invited into a congregation for a week or two, or a month, is that they come in having no idea who the people in the congregation really are, what they already know, what was spoken in the previous weeks or years, and what has not been covered in some time, what is relevant or necessary for the local situation, and what might be timely in view of the things this congregation is facing. In other words, they come in mostly blind, with a message they only hope might be relevant to the situation, with no assurance at all how relevant it will actually be.

Tom: And if the Head of the Church intends to meet the needs of his people by laying some subjective impression on the hearts of each visiting speaker about what his subject matter should be, that will all work out just fine. But I’m not sure we have any guarantee that was the Lord’s intention, especially since the whole concept of “visiting speakers” providing the bulk of a local church’s teaching is a comparatively recent invention.

Does the relative ignorance of visiting speakers about the spiritual needs of a congregation make any kind of argument for Christians who prefer single-man ministry?

IC: No, that’s a simplistic idea, and not scriptural either, of course. The idea that a single, in‑house man would be able to track and meet the needs of, say, a hundred other people is just unreasonable. And that he would try to do so without the checks and balances of other wise Christians is folly, as well as disobedience to the teaching of scripture. In the New Testament, elders, who are charged with this responsibility, are always plural. It’s never just one man who is charged with feeding the flock.

Intellects and Instincts

Tom: Let’s go back to this idea of the leading of the Holy Spirit as to the subject matter for feeding a congregation. Are we being unspiritual when we use our intellects rather than our instincts to assess a need in the church and try to meet it?

IC: We could maybe make that case if the Lord hadn’t specifically charged that responsibility to the elders. And let’s say again: if a speaker feels strongly that he should speak something, he should speak the word that the Spirit gives him. However, ordinarily, it is the responsibility of the elders to make sure the sheep are being led to pasture properly, and are getting the feeding and protection they need in their own situation. They can do that by speaking regularly themselves, and by instructing invited speakers as to what they believe is profitable for their situation.

Tom: I like to think that our intellects are tools given to us to use in the Lord’s service. Israel was told to love the Lord with heart and soul and strength, but with their minds as well. The intellect is out of line when it proposes alternatives to God’s direction, but it is very much in line with the Creator’s intent when it seeks out ways and means of fulfilling God’s purposes for his people in harmony with the Holy Spirit’s teaching throughout scripture.

IC: That’s well said.

Tom: So, if a group of elders use their God-given wisdom out of a desire to please God and work together with him, that’s how their minds were intended to be used. And I’m not sure even a strong individual instinct to preach on this or that subject is generally superior to an agreed-upon course set by godly men. It may be, or maybe not; after all, many things can produce strong instincts. If I am asked to speak somewhere, I’m quite happy to hear what the elders think their congregation needs most.

Meals and Menus

IC: I have made a point of specifically asking the elders of churches for such direction. Almost invariably the response I get is confusion and perplexity. They neither know, nor have been planning what the congregation is going to be receiving, and they’re baffled that I would even ask. It hasn’t occurred to them that they should know.

Tom: Now that’s interesting, and somewhat alarming given that feeding the sheep is an elder’s number one biblical priority. Have you developed any theories as to why that might be, and what else elders might be getting up to if they are not giving themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word?

IC: I don’t know. I can guess, for what that’s worth. I’d like to think they’re so busy visiting, evangelizing, praying or ministering to people in other ways that they just forgot their primary duty. But I suspect it’s more likely they’re preoccupied, in the limited time they have, with arranging the disposition of building and grounds, dealing with programming, and sorting financial affairs. That would be my best guess.

A Better Way?

Tom: Let’s say you could persuade a group of elders at one of those churches you’ve been to where there seems to be no structure to the ministry that there might be a better way to do things. We’ll stipulate that this hypothetical church has three pretty solid elders who can all teach, and two developing shepherd-types who can speak well and care about the people of God, but their families are not yet old enough to qualify them as biblical elders. Historically, the congregation turns over a third of its members every three to five years. They have been booking random speakers with no real direction about content to fill three quarters of their meeting schedule, with the other quarter covered by the five locals. Currently they have a small core of relatively mature believers, some of whom have come in from elsewhere, and an enthusiastic group of teens and twenties who have not been exposed to a whole lot of basic doctrine.

So where would you start with a mixed bag like that? I mean, these are the sorts of tough decisions elders have to make. Where would your priorities be?

IC: Well, imaginary scenarios are hard. Each church has its own specific history and needs … which is why only the mature Christians who have been watching all that are in a position to say.

Tom: True, but I’d feel bad singling out a real church, so take a shot.

IC: I’d start with grounding the entire congregation in a deep understanding of the mechanics of salvation. I’d want everyone to be able to explain things like why the world is the way it is, what’s wrong with our relationship with God, what sin is, what salvation is, why we can’t please God with works, what real repentance is, what forgiveness is, how atonement works, what “sonship” is, and so on. For that, I’d probably start with Romans … but not superficially. In depth, asking all the hard questions along the way. That’s what I’d use to give form to the rest of the teaching to come.

Roaming Through Romans

What would you do, Tom?

Tom: I like Romans as a starting point, after which I’d do Hebrews. The centrality of Christ is huge there, and it gives plenty of opportunity to distinguish between the calling of Israel and that of the Church, which is a major point of confusion in evangelical circles. Get the two muddled up, and you won’t have any clear way to understand most of the Major and Minor Prophets by the time you get to them.

After that, I’m a big believer in going through the NT as closely as possible to the order in which it was written, because I think there is something about that order that follows the priorities of the apostles with the early church. I might pass on James at first, but I’d want to hit Galatians and then the two Thessalonian epistles, where you have both the Rapture and the Second Coming, and you can probably cover both in six weeks. If you’ve been careful to distinguish between Israel and the Church in Hebrews, you won’t have much problem distinguishing between the blessed hope of the Church in contrast to the Time of Jacob’s Trouble in Thessalonians. After that you need some OT, and I’d be inclined to go all the way back to Genesis, subject of course to the feelings of my brothers in Christ about what they thought were priorities. There might be good reasons to rethink some of my own ideas.

IC: Yes. That’s what I mean when I suggest local needs have to be part of the figuring. If the church in question had just completed a series on Galatians, say, I wouldn’t necessarily repeat it for awhile. Or, if it was already strong on the issue of false teaching, no need to focus too intently on 2 Timothy. There are all kinds of priorities that need to be kept up, and lots of scriptures with which to do it.

The important thing, though, is to realize what these needs are, decide on a teaching plan to deal with them, and get on with making sure it’s happening.

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