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The Way of the Shepherd: The Biblical Foundation of Church and Church Discipline

Church discipline is an essential, often overlooked, and frequently misunderstood part of healthy congregational life.
The Way of the Shepherd: The Biblical Foundation of Church and Church Discipline
Image: Unsplash/Pawan Sharma

Church discipline.

Those two words can bring a multitude of feelings and images to the reader who has had any experience with it. Frequently, people associate church discipline with "church hurt," evoking negative emotions of harsh, judgmental treatment which can cause division and church splits. On the other side, believers see discipline as something that Scripture speaks about, yet it is mainly absent from their local congregation in actual practice.

To the everyday Christian, "discipline" seems harmful and unnecessary when we worship a God who is full of grace and love (Eph 2:8-9; 1 Pet 5:10; 1 Jn 4:8). To push someone out of the church could seem the opposite of what God wants to do, bringing all people to himself (Col 1:20).

However, Jesus in the Gospel of Luke paints a different picture for us to consider, the image of a shepherd.

Responding to the accusation that He enjoys the company of sinful people; Jesus tells a parable about a shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep to bring one sheep back to its fold (Luke 15:1–7). When the shepherd finds his stray sheep, he calls all his friends together and says, "Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost!" Jesus then explains that this parable portrays God's joy in repentance and restoration.

This parable isn't the first time the Bible depicts God as a shepherd, however. Jesus is elaborating on a foundational depiction of the character of God. Throughout the Psalms (23; 80) and the prophets (Isaiah 40:11; Ezekiel 34:11–24), we see God as a shepherd. This image so vividly captures who God is and what God does that Jesus also asserts that he is the Good Shepherd who lays his life down for His sheep (John 10:11–16).

The shepherd imagery doesn't stop there, though—we also see the leaders of God's people compared to shepherds. [1] At times, the prophets condemn these leaders for their failure to be godly shepherds to the people (Ezekiel 34:1–10; Jeremiah 25:34–35). Peter picks up this depiction of leaders as shepherds and encourages the elders of the diaspora churches to be godly shepherds so that they will receive crowns of glory when God, the chief Shepherd, returns (1 Peter 5:2–4). These elders must assume the pastoral posture of a shepherd, imitating the work and character of the Good Shepherd. As under-shepherds of Good Shepherd, these leaders should seek to bind the wounds of the injured and retrieve the lost, just as the Good Shepherd does (Luke 19:10).

This article is the first of a five-part series on church discipline. In this first article, we would like to suggest that the image of a shepherd is foundational to grasping the heart of discipline and the role church discipline plays in the life of a local flock. Just as the Good Shepherd pursues the strayed sheep, cares for their wounds, and judges between the sheep (Ezekiel 34:16), the pastor shepherding a flock must also attempt to seek the wandering, heal the hurt, and discern between sheep as he seeks restorative discipline in the church.

Our goal in this article is to lay a biblical foundation of church discipline from Ezekiel 34:1–24, which then lays the groundwork for understanding the reason for discipline, practical application of church discipline, translation to non-church contexts, and individual's responsibility in church discipline.

Rogue Shepherds: Ezekiel 34:1–10

God is not pleased.

He entrusted his people to certain leaders in Israel, and these leaders have failed him.[2] Ezekiel addresses these leaders as shepherds, although little of their work ever measure up to the job description.

These leaders even surrendered their role as shepherds to became predators against their own flock (34:3).[3]

They domineered the sheep and failed to attend to even their most needs (34:4).

The sheep that did not starve or succumb to injury fled, only to face the predators of the wilderness (34:5).

With no shepherd to guard or to guide them, the sheep wandered endlessly (34:6).

Outraged by this blatant spurning of the authority he granted them, God promises to rescue the sheep and hold the shepherds accountable (34:7–10).

Where did these shepherds go wrong? They shirked accountability of the authority granted by God to lead his people. [4] Rather than submitting to God's authority as the Good Shepherd, they acted on their own authority. The results of a shepherd deciding to no longer imitate the work and character of God are devastating and can be detrimental to the vitality of a church. These leaders abandon the weak in faith, forget the lost or straying believers, and tear down the strong among them—it is the exact opposite of the work of a pastor.

The Mission of the Shepherd: Ezekiel 34:11–16

Next, God sets the expectations for what a shepherd should do as he enters the scene to take over the job. God will search out each sheep and bring them back to peaceful land and safety under his protection (34:11–15). Rogue shepherds might have driven unaware sheep out of the flock, and others may have left willingly to explore other options. Regardless, the Good Shepherd follows them through deserts, valleys, thickets, and fields to bring them back under his care.

Regrettably, after wandering through the rough terrain of the wilderness and encountering various predators along the way, many sheep will return to the flock with injuries. Additionally, their journey without a shepherd probably led them away from fertile pastures. Injured and emaciated, these sheep are weak. Placing each stray sheep on his shoulders, the Good Shepherd promises to bind their wounds and renew their strength (34:16).

This picture is a crucial aspect of assuming the pastoral posture of an under-shepherd—so much so that it should inform the shepherd's practice of discipline (34:17–22). A pastor who will not seek those who depart from the congregation or help heal the wounds of their people cannot practice church discipline because they will not achieve its goal: restoration. Whenever a sheep leaves its flock, the shepherd's goal is to return the sheep in good health back to their fold.

Practically, this means that a pastor cannot abandon those who leave the church (especially those under discipline) or fail to build up those in the congregation whose faith falters in such a way that may endanger them of leaving the faith. Failing to do so thwarts God's example as a shepherd, and as a result, the pastor begins to resemble a predator (34:1–10) more than a shepherd (34:11–16).

The Discernment of a Shepherd: Ezekiel 34:17–24

Lastly, we see that the Good Shepherd will judge between sheep.

Some sheep in the fold prevent others from being adequately nourished (34:18–19) and push weaker sheep outside of the flock (34:21). But it’s not their role to determine who remains under the shepherd's care, and their actions distort the peace provided by the shepherd's watch.

God makes it clear that He alone will judge which sheep will remain in his flock (34:17, 20).[5]

As their Shepherd, he alone is responsible for the care of each sheep and will determine which sheep pose a threat to his work and his flock. Pastors, likewise, as shepherds of their flock under God's authority, should lead the process of any church discipline and intervene at times when congregants seem to have taken disciplinary matters into their own hands.

The purpose of this discernment between sheep is to determine which sheep may be hurting or hindering the flock. By allowing these sheep to leave the herd and the shepherd's guidance and protection, the shepherd hopes that the sheep will realize its reliance upon his care and nourishment and then accept the shepherd's invitation back into the flock. As pastors, it is essential to remember that we are under-shepherds. The congregants who may part ways with the church do not need us first and foremost, but they need the grace and forgiveness found in the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd.

God finishes his promise by announcing the arrival of one to come through the line of David, who will be Shepherd over all his people (34:22–24).[6] We know this one to be Jesus, the Good Shepherd who laid his life down to save his sheep (John 10:11–16).

So, church disciple starts by understanding the person and role of the shepherd.

More on church discipline tomorrow.

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