While many are familiar with William Wilberforce, leader of the anti-slavery group in England known as the Clapham Sect, fewer know his pastor, John Venn of Clapham Parish. Venn is one of the better-kept secrets behind Wilberforce's success.
Here's the back story.
On most weekends for many years, Wilberforce and his fellow abolitionists met in Clapham, a village outside of London. There they developed their strategies for, as they put it, "reforming the manners and morals of all England."
But on Sunday mornings, Wilberforce and the others always paused to worship at John Venn's church. As the years passed, John Venn's preaching and pastoral wisdom influenced them in no small way.
"The whole Clapham sect looked up to (John Venn) as their pastor and guide," writes Marcus Loane, "and he was thus intimately linked with their thoughts and plans … both as a friend in their homes and as a pastor in his pulpit."
Venn, Loane continues, "was a master in the art of advice when called upon to speak his mind. Men of all kinds came to him for counsel for he had a well-stored mind and a well-furnished memory, and he was an independent if not original thinker. He was both a preacher at whose voice men wept or trembled, and a friend to whom they turned for help and comfort; he was a guide to the lost and a host for the weary … for he had a rare and noble talent for laying down duty or clearing up doctrine in the light of common sense and gospel glory."
John Venn has always been one of my heroes. He was the consummate pastor, a shepherd, a spiritual guardian of his people. Let's explore what that role means for us: shepherd and guardian.
Shepherding is one of the world's oldest professions. References to a shepherd's work dot the Scriptures. Israel's God is likened to a shepherd. Several of the Bible's greatest men (Moses, David, and Amos, for example) were shepherds in their younger years. And the word shepherd is the root, of course, of the word pastor in the New Testament. We think of it as a religious word. Ancients thought of pastor as a business word.
A shepherd's job description was rather simple: to guide sheep to places where they will be healthy, safe, fed, watered, and profitable (their wool, their milk, and—sometimes—their meat). All of us who went to Sunday school learned that shepherds do not drive sheep (only butchers do that), they lead them. And they do it patiently.
Psalm 23 is the ultimate description of the competent shepherd. Here the shepherd is God himself.
"Because the Lord is my shepherd, I have everything I need," the writer begins. Because of him I rest and graze in green pastures. I am refreshed by quiet waters. I am guided into safe pathways. And I am not afraid in the face of danger.
When predators appear, I am defended by my shepherd's rod. If I fall into a crevice, I am rescued by his staff. Should I be injured, I am doused with his healing oil. And, best of all, I am sure that I shall be so-shepherded for ever and ever and ever. In other words, my shepherd is absolutely, unswervingly faithful. The work of a shepherd was known to almost all ancient people. It was the biblical model for would-be Christian leaders. When Paul met with the leaders of the Ephesian congregation, probably for the last time, what most concerned him about the church's future? Their spiritual safety, their cohesion as followers of Jesus.
"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.
One is reminded of Ezekiel's words: "You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost … so they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals" (Ezek. 34).
While writing this article, I re-read the 13 letters attributed to Paul (plus Acts) and looked for any fresh insight into his view of pastoral guardianship. I was impressed with his consistent sensitivity toward three kinds of danger that faced ancient congregations—and ours.
• He was ever-aware that new followers of Jesus might slip back under the influence of the larger world culture that they had renounced at the time of their conversions. "Put to death whatever belongs to your earthly nature" he said to the Colossians. That's pastoral guardianship.
• He was constantly mindful that new believers—especially Jewish Christians—might be distracted by aberrant philosophical and theological systems. To the Galatians: "I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all." Tough words, but pastoral guardianship.
• And he was always concerned that congregations could implode over issues such as money, immorality, and messy conflicts. "I plead with Euodia (and) Syntyche to agree with each other," he writes to two warring Philippian women. Again, guardianship of the flock.
It makes me wonder how Paul would react to most of the topics discussed by today's elders, deacons, and sessions. What would he say if he monitored the hours spent on budgets, buildings, and staffing issues. Am I over the top if I imagine him occasionally standing up and shouting, "For crying out loud, you've got a flock of vulnerable sheep out there surrounded by wolves, and you're debating whether to buy the shepherd a different tent?"
If I were to condense Bible's instructions to five initiatives essential to guarding the flock in any place, any generation, here they are:
1. Training "under-shepherds." I would not dare to enlarge a flock until I was developing the shepherds needed to extend the ministry. This development of new shepherds cannot be delegated. It must be driven by the lead pastor lest it be perceived as of only secondary importance.
I love the words of Elton Trueblood many years ago: "The pastor is important, not because he is wiser or better than other men, but because he is so placed that he may be able to draw out and direct the powers of others. All of his effectiveness is in the changed lives of others."
2. Teaching the content and application (the take-aways) of the Bible. We who locate ourselves in the orthodox stream of Christianity are said to be people of The Book. That book reveals God to us in the life and death of Jesus Christ. By this book, we live and have our hope. So it follows that a pastor safeguards this nourishment.
Yet it must be asked: Why does it feel as if huge numbers of church-going people of every age no longer have intimate knowledge of the Bible? Why are too many ignorant of the core Bible stories? The defining passages of Scripture? The unique values and convictions that define a Christian as he/she moves through the larger world? Why does it seem as if many Christians are more passionate about their politics than their knowledge of scriptural foundations? Just wondering.
I well remember a conversation I had with an elder in our church when I was a young pastor. "It's rather frightening," I said, "to preach to a congregation of people who are much better educated and far smarter than I am. Sometimes I feel intimidated." His response has remained with me throughout the years.
"You'll soon discover, Gordon, that many of these people can help put a man on the moon and build the most sophisticated computers, but they struggle to love their spouses, relate to their kids, and build solid friendships. Smart? Yes. But wise? Not really. Spiritually discerning? Don't bet on it! That's where you can make a contribution. Teach us to be wise and godly. Smartness isn't getting us that far."
3. Intercessory prayer … and teaching the "flock" to pray. By this we turn away the spiritual enemy. We invite the work of the Holy Spirit into our own life and the life of this flock.
Paul to the Colossians: "Since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will." To the Ephesians: "Ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers."
In my files is a Leadership Journal cartoon that pictures a pastor on his knees praying. His assistant barges into the room, sees him in his praying posture, and says, "Oh, good! You're not busy."
But a pastor who guards the congregation on his knees is busy. He is interceding for the flock and is listening for spiritual input that comes from Heaven itself. The shepherd is a pray-er.
Thomas a Kempis hears God say into his heart: "Do not be concerned about the shadow of a great name, nor about the friendship of many, nor about the personal regard of men. For these things beget distractions and great forms of darkness in the heart. Gladly would I speak my own word to you and reveal the hidden things, if you would diligently watch for my coming and open the door of your heart to me. Be careful and watchful in prayer, and in all things humble yourself."
4. Deepening experience in worshiping the everlasting God. In most places where I travel, I do not see a kind of worship that guards the flock.
It may be time to have a conversation about what is being lost if our public prayers dwindle into transitions in a worship program, if we lose the profundity of moments when the congregation hears the Holy Scripture well-read, if we hurry through sacraments because some cannot sit still for very long, and if we become so embarrassed about taking an offering that we forget that it was originally meant to be a celebration of our work and the giving of our "first-fruits" to God. Dumb-down these things, and the flock takes a hit.
But offer such events in combination with today's musical expressions, and the flock is nourished, prepared for life on Monday in the valley of the shadow of death.
A.W. Tozer wrote: "The Church has surrendered her once lofty concept of God …. The low view of God entertained almost universally among Christians is the cause of a hundred lesser evils everywhere among us."
5. A shepherd stays up close and personal with his people. People must see their shepherds within the flow of real life, not just on the stage or behind a microphone. They need to see their pastor with spouse, children, and friends. They must see how he or she conducts himself financially, socially, vocationally.
If shepherds do not stay in the pasture with the people, how can they know when the flock is in danger? How can the flock be sure that the pastor will know how to act when danger is present?
Helmut Thielicke, a German pastor during World War II (and after) describes what up close and personal looks like in extreme circumstances: "One of my friends was a military chaplain with the beleaguered troops at Stalingrad. Since he had a large family, was frostbitten, and was also in great pain, he was among those who were to have been flown out of the doomed area along with the wounded. But he refused to be rescued because he wanted to remain with his comrades, with that congregation of the condemned.
"We heard nothing more of him, and we don't know if he died in that battle of Stalingrad or somewhere in Siberia. But we do know one thing. Even if he could only whisper, and even if his weak words had lost all their rhetorical skill and flair, they nevertheless penetrated hearts as messengers of life and were able to comfort the despairing and gently accompany the dying on their last journey. Here was a man who was in earnest, a man in whom one could believe. For he had let himself be closed in with the besieged troops in Stalingrad. In doing that, he had lived up to the word of the Lord: no man has greater love than to lay down his life for his friends."
William Wilberforce and the men and women who made up the Clapham Sect headed into London every Monday morning to bring Christ to the world of government, business, and the arts. And where did they find the courage, the certitude, the stamina to do what they did?
Well, take a hard look at their pastor/shepherd, John Venn. He was their guardian, and he did his job well. The result? His sheep were productive because the flock was well guarded.
The Gordon MacDonald is editor at large of Leadership Journal and chancellor of Denver Seminary.
Copyright © 2012 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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