“These guys,” I said, exasperated, to Bill. Bill was an older pastor who often met me for breakfast. I was recalling a recent difficult counseling experience. I was young and this was my first real experience of leadership.
After I said my piece, I stopped to drink my coffee. Bill seized on the moment of silence and said, “Dan, you know that your people will not get where you want them to go unless you lead them there, right?”
Bill was right. It’s a principle of discipleship that I am often tempted to forget. It is why the Scriptures often describe spiritual leadership as shepherding. A good shepherd leads the sheep to good food. He doesn’t drive them there. He doesn’t browbeat them there. He coaxes them forward.
Those of us who are privileged to have vocations that involve reading and studying the Scriptures can form a dangerous bubble of elitism. We get paid to read, study, and be “experts” at theology and mission. We’re perusing books, attending conferences, and engaged in conversations with other ministry professionals.
This is good and important and necessary. But we are tempted, often, to forget that most of the people in our churches are not privy to our conversations, are not reading the same books, and are not exposed to the voices that shape our worldview. When we forget this, we grow impatient with where we think people should be.
We become elitists, judging those who are not as far along as we think they should be, as far along as we think we are. Jesus, however, didn’t call us to eye-rolling, but to servanthood. Browbeating is not a ministry. Virtue-signaling is not a calling. Tut-tutting is not discipleship.
Consider the example of Jesus. At times he rebuked his closest disciples, with strong language. At times Jesus marveled at their lack of understanding. But Jesus also saw in his disciples what they could not see in themselves. He looked beyond their stumbling inability to achieve their future sanctification. Instead of writing off Peter as a hopeless reactionary and craven failure, he urged him to “feed the sheep” (John 21). Later, it was a spirit-filled Peter who urged the next generation of leaders to “feed the flock of God among you” (1 Peter 5:2). Not the flock you wish you had. Not the flock you hope you one day get. The flock, the people God loves, among you.
If we are going to obey Jesus’ command to “teach them all I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:20), we have to do it with humility and patience. When rebuking someone’s sin, we must “take heed lest we fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). Our theological teaching must be infused with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15). Those called to teach, preach, and lead in the church shouldn’t stop studying and growing (2 Timothy 2:15), but should resist the urge to take credit for sanctification, as if we manufactured what only the Spirit of God can produce. We have to give people time to grow, to wrestle, to doubt.
I’m reminded of a conversation I had in college with an older, mature brother in Christ. I had said, unintentionally, something that was both theologically inaccurate and insensitive. This brother could have embarrassed me in front of my peers. He could have publically dressed me down. Instead, he took me aside and gently corrected me. I’ll never forget that.
I’ve learned from people rebuking me. I’ve learned from people gently teaching me. I’ve learned by reading, by watching, by listening. But I’ve never learned or grown from the kind of shaming elitism I’m often tempted to employ.
We disciple, not by looking down on people, but by looking at them. We do this by holding our own knowledge loosely, recognizing that next to the Good Shepherd we are, even those of us who teach and preach and have titles, mere sheep.