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"Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock" (Acts 20:28-31).

This brief quote is likely a summation of several hours of conversation, a condensation of one of Paul's most important statements on pastoral theology: the practice of caring for and discipling people.

Note the key words: watch, flock, shepherds, blood, wolves. All sheep-business lingo. Reflect on them for a moment. They shouldn't be blown off or dismissed as archaic.

Watch. The word described the vigilance of a shepherd toward any potential threat to his sheep: dangerous terrain, poisonous plants, hungry predators, adverse weather, diseases and injuries. For Paul that alertness paralleled the idea of guarding people against threats to their faith.

Flock. The "community of sheep." But here, of course, Paul speaks of people: people who may be or may not be intelligent, successful, socially connected, but who are, spiritually speaking, highly vulnerable. Interesting! Paul did not liken the Ephesian congregation to a pride of lions. Rather, he compared them to animals who are virtually defenseless.

Shepherds. Not very classy people as a rule. Usually a shepherd was the youngest son in the family line, or he was a man perceived as a social outcast. Religious art notwithstanding, there was absolutely no glamour in being a shepherd. Why couldn't Paul have likened pastors to Olympic athletes or physicians?

Blood. In ancient times, the supreme currency. To say that something was bought with one's blood conveyed the notion of ultimate value. Thus, in Paul's view, the Ephesian "flock" was priceless. Bottom line: these pastoral leaders could ill afford to be cavalier about their responsibility for this group that God paid so much for.

Wolves. One of several kinds of predators that preyed upon sheep. In this context wolves are the bad guys—false teachers, persecutors, creators of congregational confusion. And the shepherds were charged with preventing them getting close to the flock.

Let me stick my neck out. These final words spoken to the Ephesians were not about evangelism, not about organizational vision, not even about a style of worship. These words were about pastoral responsibility: assuring the soundness and safety of the people already in the flock. "Guard the flock." That is the core of a pastor's job.

In the mid-1500s, the Flemmish artist Peter Brueghel produced a painting called "Unfaithful Shepherd." It is sometimes exhibited at the Philadelphia Art Museum. In the foreground, a well dressed, rather portly shepherd flees the pasture. Behind him a flock of sheep scatters in panic. Here and there on the canvas are wolves plundering the flock.

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Gordon MacDonald is chancellor of Denver Seminary and editor-at-large for Leadership Journal. He is author of numerous books, including Going Deep: Becoming A Person of Influence.

From Issue:Ministry's Core, Fall 2012 | Posted: November 19, 2012

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Displaying 2–5 of 5 comments

Jean Paul

November 20, 2012  5:34pm

This article spells out the mandate, and offers guidance to pastors serving in highly troubled context like Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya where shepherds sometime loses focus on what should be their primary responsibility and fails the flock. It is my prayer that as we look forward to elections in Kenya next march, pastors will have such an influence on political leaders and aspirants the way Venn Had on Wilberforce. Well done Golden, I will refer to this article a lot in my meetings with pastors.

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November 20, 2012  4:26pm

I wonder about the role of shepherding when we equate this to protecting the flock. What does that even mean in light of Jesus saying things like " I am sending you out like sheep among wolves"? Following Christ is a dangerous place to be as testified in the Scripture and in real life history. If shepherding looks like keeping the sheep safe in our cozy little churches while we educate them about the dangers rather than getting them into dangerous places where they can give their lives for Jesus and his kingdom, then who are we serving?

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November 20, 2012  2:41pm

This was extremely well written and informative. True for sure, and I like MacDonald look at the religious core in North America and wonder where we are going wrong. We are rather more influenced by the need to entertain those in church, than bring them the gospel... Praying I can spread your message to others.

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November 20, 2012  10:57am

Thank you so much for this article. I'm in the process of deciding if I will accept a shepherding role at my church that has been offered to me, and you spelled out to the letter the burden that's been on my heart for the people I may shepherd. Thank you!

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