This essay is a special collaboration with Ekstasis, CT’s imaginative NextGen project, and originally appeared in the Ecstatic Newsletter, an extension of Ekstasis on Substack. Together, we’re building a digital cathedral that offers space to ponder and lift our eyes to Christ in wonder.
In his final conversation with the apostle Peter, Jesus asks whether Peter loves him. “Yes, Lord,” says Peter, “you know that I love you.” Jesus replies, “Feed my lambs” (John 21:15–19). Peter obeys by giving a faithful account of Jesus’ life and ministry to Jewish hearers and crosses cultural boundaries to deliver it to Gentile audiences as well. The church forms as an ethnically, linguistically, and geographically heterogeneous community, nourished by a testimony that has been translated across cultures to feed every tribe and tongue.
Modern Christians have continued the early believers’ project of making the testimony of Jesus assimilable to every culture, and the Western church is no exception. But we may be pushing this endeavor past its rightful limits. As Jesus and his teachings resurface in the form of spiritually-inflected home goods available from our favorite social media stars, professionally engineered worship megahits that primarily enrich their makers, and components of profitable personal brands, we would do well to ask ourselves what exactly we are accomplishing.
Our methods of bearing witness may be redirecting the devotion that should accrue to Jesus and drawing it to ourselves. We risk no longer feeding Christ’s sheep but feeding on them instead.
Jesus understood that our apparent acts of devotion can become covers for predation. “Watch out for false prophets,” he warned. “They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” (Matt. 7:15). It’s an evocative image, bringing to mind the many ways religious power has been creatively misused: Hophni and Phinehas collecting food and sexual favors at the temple (1 Sam. 2:12–25); Pope Urban II granting indulgences in exchange for enlistment in the Crusades; Southern Baptist Convention leaders choosing self-protection at the cost of abused church members.
For wolves in sheep’s clothing, ministry is attractive because of how easily the flock can be devoured.
Is there any way for us to know if we have transformed into the kind of people Jesus cautioned his hearers to avoid? The artist J. Cole wrestles with this question in his 2016 single “False Prophets.” He begins with an outpouring of grievances aimed at musicians he loved before their giftedness brought them the acclaim that would enable their most destructive impulses. “Ego in charge of every move, he’s a star,” Cole laments, “And we can’t look away due to the days that he caught our hearts.”
For Christians with even a glancing acquaintance with the last decade of public church meltdowns, we could cast this verse with any number of people. This could be about Mark Driscoll. Or Ravi Zacharias. Or Carl Lentz or Jerry Falwell Jr. or too many other figureheads of Christian denominations or institutions, national or local, who earned, then demolished, the trust of everyone who looked to him for nourishment. In Psalm 145:15, David praises the Lord as the provider for every living thing, saying “the eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food at the proper time.” The false prophet in Cole’s depiction is like a perverse riff on David’s theme. He draws a following, then uses it to gorge himself.
Interestingly, Cole’s lyrics quickly move away from accusation and enter a mode of introspective self-indictment. Does he also want to feed on the people who adore him? He considers how difficult it is for him to escape the moral ambiguities of his position as a hip-hop icon. “Do I do it for the love of the music or is there more to me?” he asks. “Do I want these [audiences] to worship me?”
By the end of “False Prophets,” Cole has placed himself on a continuum with the people whose appetites have ravaged themselves and their followers, concluding that no one is exempt from the possibility of moral collapse.
This brings us back to Jesus’ exchange with Peter. What initially appears as a straightforward exhortation to care for those in Peter’s ministry begins to seem troubling. Why does Jesus tell Peter to feed his sheep not just once, but three times? Why is their exchange recorded for the church? Do we need this reminder too?
Perhaps the call to feed Jesus’ sheep is reiterated for us in part because it is so hard to follow faithfully. Australian academic Marion Maddox argues that few of us are immune to the pull of spiritual celebrity and the structures that support it. Even if we technically oppose the prosperity gospel or think social platforms are terrible places for discipleship, we have probably looked at images of powerful male pastors and their conventionally attractive wives, scrolled through videos of their expensively appointed homes, and wanted these things for ourselves. She posits that images of celebrity Christian couples have “replaced the more conventional iconography of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph” in Western culture.
Even if we hate how much religion has become an industry, with its own brands and moguls, this industry succeeds because we want what it sells—or want to succeed on its terms. Like Cole, Maddox sees all of us as vulnerable to becoming the thing we oppose. God calls people to be his sheep, but given the right opportunity, we can act as wolves.
We can accept our shared moral weakness, knowing that we are all tempted toward wolf-like behavior, but this does not make those of us who succumb less culpable. Jesus was especially harsh with abusers of religious power. “Woe to you Pharisees,” he says, “because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces. … And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.” (Luke 11:43, 46). He warned that the blood of the martyred prophets, sent to correct generations of unrepentant religious leadership, would be required of them.
Yet Jesus’ primary message is not about the dangers we pose to one another. By reminding us to feed his sheep and to beware of wolves, he is ultimately preparing us to understand his role in our narrative.
The through line in Jesus’ stories of sheep, and of wolves in sheep’s clothing, is the problem of their hunger. The sheep need to be fed, and therein lies their vulnerability. The wolves are ravenous, and therein lies their capacity for evil. Jesus, the Living Word, the embodiment of all that God has ever wanted to speak to humanity, interrupts the story of our insatiability and introduces himself as the Bread of Life (John 6:22–40).
Jesus describes himself by saying “my flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink” (John 6:55). He repeats these words again before offering his body to be crucified (Matt. 26:26–29). Even in his infant form, Jesus, freshly born and still wordless, tells us who he is by resting in a trough designed for the feeding of animals.
During the early days of the Asbury outpouring—the spontaneous, student-driven revival at Kentucky’s Asbury University in the spring of 2023—seminary student Madison Pierce made a widely circulated Facebook post about what he witnessed in the university chapel. “I find it interesting,” he wrote, “that God would mark this outpouring with … a leadership emphasizing protective humility in relationship with power for a generation deeply hurt by the abuse of religious power.”
Pierce was one of several commentators who would remark on the atmosphere of humility cultivated on the Asbury campus with a mixture of fascination and relief. Billy Coppedge, writing about Asbury for the Lausanne Movement, confessed that one of his “earliest thoughts was this could be very advantageous for [the university]. They could profit off of all these visitors and the media attention.” He said it was “remarkable,” then, that “the attitude throughout has not been, ‘How can we bend this for Asbury’s purposes?’ but rather, ‘How do we not touch the glory?’”
Pierce and Coppedge’s statements are both hopeful and sobering. Coppedge was delighted by the guilelessness he saw at the university because of how strongly it contrasted with his expectations for a religious institution poised to expand its power. Pierce was so struck by “leadership emphasizing protective humility” that he cited it as evidence of divine visitation—not because religious leadership was lacking, but because of how frequently he’d seen religious leaders be exposed as abusive.
What does this tell us about the church in the West? We have made religious celebrities and institutions ubiquitous in our culture, but we have not always fed the people entrusted to our care. The backdrop in every article about the outpouring’s humility is the mass of people who have been scarred by the kind of leadership Jesus denounced. The subtext to these stories is sheep without a shepherd.
Jesus’ instructions to Peter can register as both an invitation and a challenge. “Feed my sheep,” says Jesus, but it is a task of cosmic difficulty. Can anyone do this without devolving into a wolf? If we are confident in our ability to do as he asks, we should think again—maybe think three times.
Yi Ning Chiu is a contributing writer to Christianity Today and a columnist for Ekstasis.