Shepherds and Sheep–Leading and Following for Jewish Believers
Once upon a time, not so many years ago, a fellowship of Jewish believers in Jesus had a vibrant and vital story for Yeshua. That fellowship was characterized by the strong leadership of one man and the supportive elders with whom he had surrounded himself. In fact, this man’s influence extended beyond the small flock he pastored to several other Christian churches and institutions. In an area where there were few Jewish believers outside of this fellowship, many other believers admired the warmth of fellowship and sense of community that this messianic group enjoyed.
Then something went terribly wrong.
This strong leader began making prophetic statements” that were declared normative for each member of the fellowship. He proclaimed that certain women in the group were prophetesses. Gradually the voices of the “prophet” and “prophetesses” replaced the Word of God.
Eventually there was sexual misconduct between the leader and those whom he had appointed as his special helpers. You can imagine how this tore the fellowship apart. Once the immorality was exposed, people questioned the entire structure and teaching of that fellowship, and rightly so. Much of it had not been kosher.
The congregation disbanded, but that wasn’t the worst of it. When the “shepherd” fell (or when people realized he had fallen), the “flock” scattered. People were spiritually shell shocked. They did not know what to believe or whom to trust. Some former members renounced the Lord altogether and returned to the synagogue. Others clung to their faith in Christ but refused to have anything more to do with other Jewish believers.
Meanwhile many Christians who had extended their friendship and support to the fellowship were horrified by this—their only real contact with Jewish believers—and remain suspect of anything having to do with messianic Jews or Jewish evangelism to this day.
Obviously corruption and abuse of authority are not problems unique to Jewish believers. Sin is not the exclusive property of any people or sect, but when it rears its ugly head in a fellowship of believers—and particularly when it centers on the leadership—it brings disgrace to the whole community.
Those of us who are concerned with the well-being of the messianic flock need to take heed. Whether we are leaders or followers, the moment we imagine ourselves and our fellowship beyond danger is the moment we become vulnerable. Both shepherds and sheep need to recognize the kind of setup that can lead to a fall if we are to keep standing for Yeshua.
First remember that when we say “shepherd,” unless we are talking about the Lord, we are actually talking about “under-shepherds.” The psalmist wrote, “The Lord is my shepherd,” and Yeshua clearly identified Himself as the Shepherd. God has certainly appointed people to care for His flock, and we should be thankful for these under-shepherds. However not all who claim to be shepherds are good and God appointed caretakers. In fact, sometimes wolves, rather than coming in sheep’s clothing, prefer to dress up like shepherds.
Let’s see what we can do to identify various kinds of wolves who would like nothing better than to scatter our little messianic flock.
The Counterfeit Shepherd
He pretends to be your shepherd when he is not. When we came to faith in Yeshua, we were born again. It is only through Yeshua, the Good Shepherd, that Jews or Gentiles become part of God’s flock. Anyone who does not truly represent Him cannot truly be our shepherd.
There are many “shepherds” who are not appointed by Yeshua. They are called rabbis, and they shepherd a different flock. For the most part they have little to do with us, because they want to keep us away from “their” flock. Occasionally a rabbi takes an interest in members of the messianic flock, but not for the purpose of care and feeding. Their desire is to separate us from Yeshua. The fact that the rabbis don’t know that He is the Savior and the source of life is beside the point. Whether or not they mean to harm and destroy, they want to part us from our faith—a fact that has escaped many of the mishpochah.
We send out hundreds of surveys to Jewish believers every year. One question we ask is, “What do you feel is the greatest need for Jewish believers today?” Many respond, “Our greatest need is for the rabbis to accept us as Jews.” One individual (who considers himself a shepherd) wrote that the Jewish speaker he would most like to hear at a conference for Jewish believers is Menachem Schneerson (the Lubavitcher rebbe). He was not joking!
Do you remember Plato’s parable of the cave dwellers? A community of cave dwellers sat together with their backs to the opening of their cave. All they knew of the outside world was from the shadows that were cast upon the wall of that cave. One man found his way to the outside world of sunshine and was amazed to see that what he had formerly known as dark shadows on the cave wall had substance and color and form beyond anything he could have imagined.
He returned to the cave but was unable to convey what he had seen to those who knew only the darkness of the cave. When he persisted in trying to describe sunlight and trees and the wonders of the world outside, he was regarded as insane by his fellow cave dwellers. Eventually someone decided that his eyes were the source of his pathology. So to cure the man, they put out his eyes.
We don’t have to ascribe malice or motivation, but we must never forget that as far as the rabbis are concerned, you and I need to be cured. If they can’t “cure” us, they want us isolated from the flock because what they diagnose as illness happens to be contagious.
Yet many in our messianic mishpochah want to be accepted by rabbis, emulate rabbis or be flattered by the attention of rabbis.
Like sheep jumping over a fence to raise slumber, some of our flock are jumping through hoops held by rabbis. Striving to prove their sincerity, their Jewishness or their ability to persuade, they continue prancing through those hoops until they have put themselves fast asleep, far from Yeshua’s flock.
We need to realize that any rabbi who would be part of the flock of Yeshua must emerge from the new birth as a spiritual baby, just like the rest of us. To lead, they must have a mature walk with Yeshua. And unless they do experience the new birth in Christ, rabbis are the kind of shepherds we read about in Ezekiel 34. They are not shepherds we should be following.
The Hireling Shepherd
This false shepherd is after personal gain. Many such hirelings have been exposed by the media. Some had large television ministries and were not accountable to local congregations. Among our own mishpochah, hireling shepherds don’t have quite as high a profile. They don’t have large television ministries, but many do have several sources of income for which they are not accountable. They apparently are not paid enough by their congregation, so they set up organizations to receipt donations from outside the congregation. Often when this happens, neither the congregation nor the organization is aware of how much the other pays that leader. That same leader might also seek financial gain for publishing books or pamphlets.
We are not suggesting that every shepherd who has more than one source of income is fleecing the flock. But they certainly are in a situation where greed might creep in unrecognized by themselves or their flocks.
Some shepherds do not start out as hirelings but end up that way because proper precautions were not taken. Congregations can and should help prevent this from happening to their shepherds.
Any shepherd who has more than one source of income needs to be accountable to his own congregation for whatever moneys he receives. A shepherd is not a salesman on commission or an entrepreneur; his income should not be determined by his own creativity or enterprising spirit. Congregations have elders and boards so that their leaders can receive the proper care as well as be properly accountable. Some congregations are not meeting the needs of their leaders because they honestly can’t. That’s unfortunate. Some are not meeting the needs of their leaders because it’s not a priority. They might be living very comfortably, but it doesn’t occur to them to sacrifice any of their comforts so that their pastor and his family also can live comfortably. That’s even more unfortunate. The latter are sheep who are encouraging their shepherds to look elsewhere for support. They either don’t realize or don’t care that the shepherd has needs and that he has more important things to do than worry about how to meet those needs and the needs of his family. You don’t want your shepherd to have to think too much about money. It prevents him from having a spiritual mind set.
That isn’t to say that every hireling shepherd can blame his congregation. There are people who take advantage of the fact that some Christians can be overly trusting and “underly” discerning. There are people who won’t be satisfied with a comfortable living if they see opportunity to grab more.
The New Testament describes the hireling shepherd as one who does not protect the sheep against the wild animals that would prey on the flock. That is because he puts himself first. When his own life or living is threatened, he finds there is somewhere else he needs to be…in a hurry. Such shepherds face the judgment of God. “Thus says the Lord God to the shepherds: ‘Woe to the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks?'” (Ezekiel 34:2)
The Devouring Shepherd
The third kind of wolf in shepherd’s clothing has doctrinal dentures. Rather than serving and tending sheep, he fleeces and devours them with false teachings. There is a whole spate of shepherds who are leading the mishpochah into heresy regarding the person of Yeshua and the nature of God. Some deny the deity of Jesus, others the personhood of the Holy Spirit. Some say that Jews have a separate covenant with God and do not need the new covenant in Yeshua. Others dare to teach that everyone is saved through the new covenant whether or not they have faith in Yeshua. There is not room for creativity when it comes to Bible doctrine and biblical theology. Yet people still heed these false shepherds because it is tempting to adopt comforting false beliefs—and difficult to stay true to sobering realities that spur us to action and make us vulnerable to rejection.
We have been warned in advance about devilish doctrines that false shepherds will feed all-too-willing sheep: “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers.” (2 Timothy 4:3) These shepherds make it their business to go around scratching itchy ears, and in the process they stop up those ears so the truth won’t get in. They will answer for every person they lead astray.
The Status-Seeking Shepherd
In Bible times, it was the youngest member of the family who cared for the sheep. If an adult was given that task, it was not because he had a sterling résumé! When Jesus claimed to be the Good Shepherd, He gave dignity to what had always been a low status position. Dignity is a quality of quiet self-respect. It is not the same as pride. Yet today, some who claim to be shepherds are actually puffed up with pride over their position.
These shepherds may speak of glorifying Yeshua, but they are happy to receive the adulation of their flock for themselves. They are actually addicted to the attention and soothing strokes they receive from the sheep. They need the flock more than the flock needs them, and sometimes they go to extremes to get or hang on to that flock.
This kind of false shepherd is often content to build on someone else’s foundation. Sometimes he undermines another shepherd to make room for himself as a “better” shepherd. His addiction drives him to collect as many sheep as possible, without doing the work of evangelism to win them to the Lord. He isn’t a sheep herder, he is a sheep stealer. This type of status seeker might claim to have planted a congregation, but often he has not planted—he has “transplanted.” He doesn’t notice that such a transplant very often loosens people from their spiritual roots. They might be weakened by transplant shock or they might just decide that moving from one congregation to another is normal and continue to flit from one congregation to the next at the first indication that their pastor or congregation is less than ideal.
Not all status-seeking shepherds are sheep stealers. Some are sheep smotherers. They are so possessive of “their” sheep that they see any other shepherd as a threat. They boost their status by insisting that members of their congregation come to them for “permission” to be involved with believers or spiritual pursuits outside their particular congregation. People are often gratified and flattered by the close attention such leaders pay them. Yet for all the attention he gives, he does not help his flock to that place of spiritual maturity where they are able to see that there is no scriptural basis for the tight reign he holds on them. He may spend much time with them in the Word, yet they remain unable to understand what the Bible really says without him to interpret it for them.
The status-seeking sheep stealers and sheep smotherers create problems because of their own needs. Very often these are people with charisma and personal charm. Unfortunately, their need for status renders them ineffective as spiritual ministers. They have a fundamental misunderstanding of the work involved in being a shepherd.
Further, status-seeking shepherds often bolster their egos by claiming authority that God never gave. The Bible does say, “Obey your [spiritual] leaders, and submit to their authority.” (Hebrews 13:17). But look at the context of that verse. The kind of spiritual leaders described are those who are keeping to sound doctrine, not giving strange or esoteric teachings. They are busy leaders whose lives set an example. They don’t expect people to follow them because they possess some insight that is unavailable to others. They set a prime example in following that which was given to all of us. Their authority is the instruction they bring from the Word of God. It is not the authority of a parent over a child.
When a status-seeking shepherd demands submission, those demands usually serve to protect his own status rather than protect the sheep. If members of the congregation begin serving the Savior according to Scripture but apart from his minister’s leading, this “shepherd” might even use his staff to beat them or his crook to hold that member back. After all sheep that show too much dedication, too much spiritual concern for others, might reflect poorly on him.
Don’t let a good shepherd go bad, and don’t let a bad shepherd abuse the flock. Expect to hear a sound scriptural basis for any requirements or restrictions which your pastor expects you to observe. When it comes to prophecy, remember that God does not reveal anything which contradicts what He has already revealed in Scripture. Having said that, if you feel that something is wrong as regards your spiritual leader, prayerfully weigh your own motivation and be certain of your observations before making it an issue. Make sure that you do not become the kind of status seeker who enjoys being the center of attention at the expense of your pastor!
Some false shepherds start out that way. The very things that attract them to their positions make them likely to misuse authority. Other false shepherds start out as good leaders, but because they fail to put on the whole armor of God they take a spiritual beating which, unfortunately, can easily go unnoticed. With resistance down, sin finds a foothold in shepherds and sheep alike. We might become cynical about ministry, allowing standards to slip. Or we might believe ourselves somehow above those standards. We need to be the kind of flock which neither attracts false shepherds nor tolerates leadership which is not sound. And when we have good leadership, we should appreciate them, because being the right kind of shepherd can be a thankless job.
No one ever called a ram the king of beasts. Sheep are not the most powerful, the fastest nor the most intelligent of animals. The fact is, sheep are not the most anything except maybe numerous. Yet God loves his sheep and wants them to be protected and well cared for. He takes a special interest in raising up shepherds who will take their job seriously and do it as unto the Lord.
Why else did God have Moses herding Jethro’s sheep for so many years? It wasn’t a punishment or a 40-year sentence that God imposed on Moses. It was His way of teaching patience, of gentling an easily angered, impatient man who was to lead our people to redemption. Moses was a good shepherd for the flock of Israel. King David was a good shepherd as a boy, and he became the prototype of the Shepherd King who was to come.
When Yeshua described Himself as “the Good Shepherd,” the duty of shepherding took on new dignity. All who would shepherd the flock of God must recognize themselves as under-shepherds to the Great Shepherd, Yeshua. They must follow the pattern He set. To know that pattern is the best safeguard against deception, not only for the shepherd, but for the sheep. When you want to distinguish true from counterfeit, learn the true pattern and you will be able to spot a phony right away. There are four qualities that Yeshua patterns for us as the Good Shepherd in John 10.
The Good Shepherd Knows His Sheep
It is mystifying how some people claim to be shepherds when they don’t take an interest in the lives of the flock. There is a popular model of a shepherd today that allows one to stand in a pulpit and speak to huge audiences, behaving as though he is shepherding this massive flock when he is far removed from the everyday lives of those sheep. Such people are public speakers, not shepherds. They don’t know the sheep.
How many times have you heard people promote their own congregations by extolling the oratorical skills of their pastors? But remember how the Apostle Paul described his shepherding ministry among the Corinthians. “I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 2:3-5)
Over the past seven years I have been a member of two congregations, having lived in two cities. People don’t flock to either of them to hear a silver-tongued orator. Both my current pastor and my previous one demonstrated care and concern for me and for others in the congregation. They know the people in their congregations by name. They pray for them individually and take seriously the admonition to care for the flock. I would feel very comfortable recommending new believers to either congregation for that reason. Follow an under-shepherd who knows and cares for you.
The Good Shepherd Leads His Sheep
True under-shepherds demonstrate their credibility by their lives as well as their messages. Some under shepherds act more like cowboys. They are in the saddle, driving their flock across the plain like a herd of cattle. An under-shepherd doesn’t drive his sheep, he leads them—by example. His leadership is not based upon superiority; it is a function of trust and service for the purpose of enabling and equipping. Good leadership helps a person to grow to be and do more for the Lord. It helps to foster an independent spiritual relationship with God where the person learns to make good Bible-based decisions without having to depend on the under-shepherd for each matter. Leading the sheep does not mean that the under-shepherd must always be in front. Sometimes he is beside the flock, coaxing and encouraging. Sometimes he is behind, gathering stragglers and protecting the flank. But he does not expect the flock to go because he is pushing. He doesn’t lead them anywhere he has not been. And he doesn’t spend his time and energy fighting with other shepherds. Follow an under-shepherd who leads by example.
The Good Shepherd Feeds His Sheep
Remember Yeshua’s conversation with Peter after his resurrection? “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?…Feed my lambs.” (John 21:15) Those under-shepherds who truly love the Lord show their love by doing all they can to provide food for the sheep. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say to Peter, “Feed your lambs” but “Feed my lambs.” The sheep belong to the Lord and the food must come from Him. That food is the Word of God, the Bible. The under-shepherd faithfully teaches, preaches and lives out the Word of God before the people.
In messianic circles we talk a lot about messianic lifestyles and Jewish traditions. These things matter to us, but under-shepherds are not called to concentrate on these issues. When it comes to lifestyles of the messianic, we should network and help one another with our Jewish identity in Jesus. The under-shepherd can help too, but help with working out our Jewishness should not be confused with feeding the flock. The nourishment we all need is the Word of God. Our main focus is not how to be Jewish, but how to be like the Jew, Jesus! Other concerns are not wrong so long as we don’t fill ourselves with them to the point of not being hungry for our main course. Follow an under-shepherd who feeds you on the Word of God.
The Good Shepherd Gives His Life for the Sheep
Thankfully Yeshua gave His life on the cross for all of us. Under-shepherds aren’t usually called to that! But those who would pastor God’s flock should expect to make sacrifices for the well being of the sheep. Ministry must cost something to the minister, and the price must be paid gladly, not grudgingly. As Yeshua did not come to be served but to serve and give his life, so the under shepherd must have a servant’s heart. Follow an under-shepherd who gives His life for the flock.
In addition to the many examples that Yeshua set for under-shepherds, there is a verse that neatly sums up what a shepherd should and shouldn’t be: “Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:2-3)
If shepherds look to emulate these characteristics and if sheep expect their shepherds to hold to these standards, both shepherds and sheep will be led ever closer to the Good Shepherd, Yeshua.
We’ve outlined standards for shepherds, but what about the flock? How should the true flock of God relate to a true shepherd?
1. Regard him as an under-shepherd to the Good Shepherd who deserves your attention and respect. The shepherd is supposed to know you by name, so don’t regard his interest as an intrusion. That does not mean you are obligated to disclose every detail of your life, but realize that if he wants to know how you are and how to pray for you, he deserves a straightforward answer. On the other hand, do not monopolize your shepherd so that he is unable to tend to other sheep.
A word of encouragement is good, but much flattery is not. In fact, a genuine under-shepherd is made uncomfortable by too much personal recognition.
2. Support your minister.
- Show enthusiasm for his ministry. When he preaches, sit close to the front and show that you are alert and eager to hear what he has to say.
- Give as generously as possible to support your own congregation. Inasmuch as possible, don’t put him in a position of needing to look elsewhere to meet his needs and the needs of his family. A mature congregation wants not only to meet the needs of their own pastor, but to reach out to the unsaved as well. A young or struggling congregation does not need to be ashamed to receive help from outside, but should view this as a temporary stopgap measure. The flock should not be satisfied if their pastor has to bring in other funds, but should strive to meet his needs as well as the needs of the congregation. We don’t want our movement to gain the reputation of schnorrers!
- Pray for your minister. Pray for his spiritual and physical protection. If he is doing a good job, he is bound to be under attack. Don’t forget to intercede for him.
- Speak well of the shepherd to others. Avoid gossiping or speaking ill of him. First, we’re not supposed to gossip about anyone anyway. Yeshua doesn’t like it. Second, we undermine a pastor’s ability to serve by causing people to doubt him. Of course, if there is a serious problem of moral turpitude, deal with it in a scriptural way. But don’t pick at nits. Remember, your pastor is an under-shepherd with human weaknesses and faults just like the rest of us.
3. Stick with one shepherd rather than grazing with several different flocks. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t discuss spiritual issues with others. It means don’t hop from one congregation to the next. A sheep who roams from one congregation to the next can easily become a maverick due to the lack of accountability. Such sheep put the under-shepherd of each flock they visit in the puzzling position of “how do I minister to this person?” Furthermore, pastors do not feed sheep just for the sake of getting them fat. Sheep are supposed to receive ministry and grow in the Lord so that they can minister in return. Sheep that roam from one congregation to the next are not in a position to give but only to sample what they can get. They are not involving themselves in the life of any congregation. Not only is a congregation deprived of their gifts, but they are depriving themselves of the satisfaction of truly belonging. Which brings us to the last suggestion.
4. Take on some responsibility within your congregation. Don’t expect the pastor and one or two “pillars of the congregation” to do everything and arrange everything. Instead of regarding a congregation as “his” [your minister’s] congregation, think of it as “our” congregation. Instead of complaining that this or that isn’t good, invest yourself in making it better. The needs of a congregation are many, so there are any number of commitments one can make: helping with the children’s program, ushering, serving on a committee to help decide the direction of the congregation’s ministry, helping with refreshments, helping to keep the facility clean, bringing meals to members who are ill…and those are just for starters.
God has promised that one day we will all be directly under the care of our Messiah. “I will establish one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them—My servant David. He shall feed them and be their shepherd.” (Ezekiel 34:23) We can all look forward to that day. And for those who are faithful in fulfilling their duties as under-shepherd, “when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away.” (1 Peter 5:4)
In the meantime, we need to help one another be the kind of shepherds and sheep that bring glory to God. So,
“…may the God of peace, who brought up our Lord Jesus from the dead that great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you complete in every good work to do His will, working in you what is well pleasing in His sight, through Yeshua HaMashiach, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.”
Executive Director, Missionary
David Brickner is executive director of Jews for Jesus. David oversees the world-wide ministry from its headquarters in San Francisco. David received his Master’s degree in Missiology with a concentration in Jewish Evangelism and Judaic Studies from the Fuller School of World Mission. He has authored several books, and has been interviewed on national television shows such as Larry King Live. David’s daughter Ilana is a graduate of Biola. His son Isaac is on the missionary staff of Jews for Jesus. Isaac and his wife Shaina have one daughter, Nora, and a son, Levy, which makes David part of the grandparent club, a membership he is very proud of. See more here.