The author and atheist Christopher Hitchens wrote in his autobiography: ‘Everything about Christianity is contained in the pathetic image of the flock.’
I think he’s spot on.
Frankly, he’s thought much harder about that metaphor than many Christians have. This sheep metaphor is no incidental part of the Bible, it’s central to it. Think Psalm 23, Ezekiel 34, and John 10, to name the obvious examples.
This image is all about power. And, as a metaphor, it places us in a very specific relation to power, relative to God and others.
Hitchens is disgusted by the image because it clashes with something at the heart of what Western society has come to believe. Today, a non-negotiable, fundamental plank in the eye of our society is that ‘I belong to me’.
‘I am my own… You can’t tell me what to do!’
If you dig down deep enough, this is the bottom belief of the West: ‘I belong to me.’ ‘I’m not governed; I’m the governor.’
We believe that our consent is king. The modern fight against oppression is driven by that conviction. Hence, ‘Smash the patriarchy!’ etc.
Any system that questions that premise is automatically oppressive and the enemy. The idea that someone else might define me or rule me or tell me what to do is hated.
But the Bible’s sheep metaphor sits very uncomfortably with that belief.
After all, what do sheep need more than anything else? A shepherd.
Sheep need to be governed. Sheep need to be ruled. Shepherds don’t need their sheep’s signatures before they shepherd them. The sheep don’t vote on what field to go to! Or on what food they want to eat. Why not? Because sheep don’t know! Sheep are silly animals. Sheep are vulnerable on their own. They’re defenceless. They’d be useless at survival.
This is why a flock of sheep is a very different thing to a democracy. Democracy is what we live and breathe today politically. I’m thankful for it as a political system, but in a democracy, power lies with the people and we delegate it to our MPs.
But that’s not what happens with a flock. Democracy doesn’t work when it’s transferred to spiritual things. Democracy in the church would be a disaster. That’s what you’d call sheep without their shepherd, scattered and defenceless. In fact, spiritually speaking, democracy is what we need saving from! Christ came to save us from democracy.
The Christian good news is that Jesus Christ has come to govern us. 1 Peter 2:25 describes Christianity in precisely those terms: ‘You were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.’
What were we like before meeting Jesus? We were like straying sheep. Christians have learned that independence is over-rated. ‘Independence’ was the name for me when I was a wandering and lost sheep. I thought I didn’t need a shepherd and that I knew best. But it was that thinking that led me into the bramble bushes. It led me right to the cliff edge. It was that thinking that led me to eat those poisonous plants that made me sick.
That thinking didn’t work out so well for me. As a Christian, I’ve discovered the good news of being governed by a shepherd. I returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of my soul, Jesus Christ.
At the heart of the gospel is Jesus Christ governing and ruling me. To become a Christian is to confess Jesus is Lord. Isaiah 9:7 flags up Jesus’s rule as one of the key things about him: ‘The government shall be upon his shoulder. Of the increase of his government … there will be no end.’
This is why the Westminster Shorter Catechism unpacks Christ’s kingship as part of his saving ministry in question 26: How does Christ execute the office a king? Answer: Christ executes the office a king in subduing us to himself, in ruling and defending us, and in restraining and conquering all his and our enemies.
But the ‘pathetic image of the flock’ not only reconfigures my own power relative to Jesus, it also situates me in a group. Jesus’s rule gathers me into a group. There’s no such thing as a ‘flock of one’. Christ’s gospel government doesn’t just consist in a direct one-to-one relationship between me and him. He shepherds me into his flock.
Over that flock he has appointed church officers. Christ’s gospel rule is experienced through the elders of his church, who are to ‘shepherd the flock of God’ (1 Peter 5:2; Acts 20:28). In other words, there is a link between Christ’s gospel rule and church government. The ‘Shepherd and Overseer’ (1 Peter 2:25) has appointed ‘shepherds’ (Ephesians 4:11) and ‘overseers’ (Acts 20:28) over his flock.
For a long time, we’ve told ourselves that church government is a secondary matter (i.e. it doesn’t matter!). Evangelicals can agree on ‘the gospel’ while they park their secondary differences about how churches are organised. But this sheep metaphor encourages us to connect the two back up again.
Acts 15 shows how strong an institution the early church was: new Gentile churches submitted to the decisions of the council of Jerusalem. For the average Christian, their bank is a stronger institution than their church. We’d take a letter from our bank or mobile phone provider more seriously than we’d take a letter from our church (Acts 15:30).
But if the gospel is about being governed by Jesus, maybe church government matters more than we like to tell ourselves. Far from being a luxury, or a fundamental threat, the rule of the local church in my life is the very place where I get to experience the good news of Jesus’s rule over me.
Church government is no boring technicality – it’s the administration of Christ’s kingdom which, according to Isaiah 9, is pretty exciting!
Every time we confess in church that we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture (Psalm 100:3), we are confessing the good news of church government.
The very thing Christopher Hitchens found so de-humanising and disempowering, Jesus Christ our Good Shepherd leads us to celebrate.