What to do when you think a shepherd is messing up?

sheepGod tells His sheep to submit to the undershepherds of His flock. He wants His people to submit to “creatures,” or “human institutions” as the NASB render is in 1 Peter 2:13. He wants us to obey and submit to our leaders (Hebrews 13:17).

What do you do when your shepherd is “messing up” in some way? What is God’s will in that situation? What does “submission” look like in that situation?

Let’s say a person believes one of the elders is not fulfilling one of his responsibilities as a shepherd.

  • Maybe he thinks one of the pastors doesn’t pray enough.
  • Maybe he thinks one of the pastors tries to control too much.
  • Maybe he thinks one of the pastors doesn’t visit people in their homes enough.
  • Maybe he thinks one of the pastors visits people in their homes too much.
  • Maybe he thinks one of the pastors doesn’t study enough or put enough time into sermon preparation.
  • Maybe he thinks one of the pastors studies too much and puts too much time into sermon preparation.
  • Maybe he thinks one of the pastors doesn’t make himself available enough.

How should he submit to the elders (place himself under) in such a situation?

The church member should not express his concerns to other people in the church. That would not be “living in peace” with his leaders (1 Thess. 2:13). Expressing his concerns to others in the church will cause strife and division. In fact, you should “turn away” from those that cause dissensions (Romans 16:17). God wants unity in His church (1 Cor. 1:10; 12:25)! Sometimes concerns are expressed subtly.

  • “I like our former leaders because they really believed in the power of prayer.” The implication is the current leaders don’t really believe in the power of prayer.
  • “You know, studying the Bible is important. We need knowledge. However, loving people is good too. People don’t just want to be taught; they want to be loved.” Obviously, the implication is that the current leader(s) don’t love people as they ought.

Comments such as these, cause people to be critical of the leadership. People start evaluating how much the leaders emphasize prayer. They hear a pastor say he spent 20 hours preparing for a sermon, and they are saddened because…it’s true – “he doesn’t love the people.” Such comments can be very destructive. However, even if the destruction can’t be seen or identified, God is not pleased. He died so His people would experience unity.

This means, as well, that he should not call a meeting with the elders to voice his concern about the perceived fault of one of the elders. Gossip isn’t okay just because more people are involved or because another elder, or elders, are present.

The church member should determine to the best of his ability whether he thinks the fault of the elder is a sin. All of the scenarios above pertain to “spiritual things.” It can be difficult to sort these things out until we are able to identify “sins.”

First, in many cases church members simply do not know enough to determine if the elder is sinning. How can one know how much an elder prays? How can one know how much an elder studies? On occasion the elder may tell people, but most times he doesn’t. How can one know how much an elder visits people in the church? No doubt there are many occasions when a church member is disappointed with one of his pastors for years only to find out later that he has been visiting and praying more than he would have imagined!

1 Corinthians 4:5
Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God.

Many facts are “hidden in the darkness.” As well, church members should be careful to not judge the motives of their leaders. The Apostle Paul encourages us to reserve judgment of such matters for the Lord.

Second, in many cases church members want their shepherd to do something that is not specifically stated in Scripture. Church shepherds should be devoted to prayer (Acts 6:4), but the Bible does not specific exactly how much time should be spent in prayer. He is to study diligently, but the Bible doesn’t specify how much time he should devote to sermon preparation. The same could be said for the other scenarios.

If the church member thinks it is a sin, he needs to talk to the elder privately. The church member should not look for a supernatural sign from God to know God’s will in this situation. He does not need to wait for mystical promptings (nor does he ever need to) from God to talk to the elder about his sin. The church member only needs to read and listen to God’s will revealed in Scripture. Matthew 18:15 says, “If your brother [this includes elders] sins, go and show him his fault in private” (emphasis mine).

What if the elder doesn’t listen? Matthew 18:16 says, “if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed.” (I won’t say much more here about what that should look like; I’ll simply refer you to Pastor Brian’s booklet in Church Discipline which can be found on the back table in the church lobby.)

If the church member doesn’t think the elder is “sinning,” he needs to apply other biblical principles. Many people at this point – frustrated with the shepherd about something that isn’t sin – let the matter stew in their heart. They become embittered. They erect an immaterial wall between them and their shepherd. Sometimes they can even begin to despise their shepherd all together. This is not God’s will!

Hebrews 12:15root
See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled

Colossians 3:8
But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth.

Ephesians 4:31
Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.

First, the church member needs to refrain from judging his brother (the elder) in the matter. If he hold his shepherd to a non-biblical standard, pride is at the root of it. Look at the insightful words of James.

James 4:10-12
(10) Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.
(11) Do not speak against one another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge of it.
(12) There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor?

Who are we to judge? We should not try to play God. It’s prideful.

Second, the church member should examine the motives of his heart. If a church member wants his shepherd to visit more people in the church, it’s not necessarily sinful. It is, in most cases, good for a pastor to visit in the homes of church family members. However, it’s possible that the church member’s desire could become sinful – when it is an idolatrous desire. As you know, most of our idols are immaterial (Colossians 3:5). They are inordinate desires. How can we identify sinfully idolatrous desires? Here are 3 questions to help us.

  • Are we desiring something forbidden in Scripture? A church member may want his pastor to stop preaching on “sin,” which the pastor is required to preach on. He may not want his pastors to carry out “church discipline” as described in Matthew 18:15ff even when God requires it.
  • Are we willing to sin in order to get what we want? A church member may use gossip as a tool to manipulate his pastor to visit more. Or, he may avoid attendance at important meetings in order to manipulate his pastor to do things his way. This type of action indicates an idolatrous desire.
  • Do we sin if we don’t get what we want? Do we complain, gossip, slander, curse instead of bless, etc.?

Third, the church member could talk to the elder after he is sure his desires are not idolatrous. If he goes to the elder with idolatrous desires, he will no doubt see “disorder and every evil thing.”

James 3:15-17
(15) This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic.
(16) For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing.
(17) But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy.

If his desires are not idolatrious and motivated by selfish ambition, he could express them to his shepherd. His helpful and encouraging communication could help the shepherd be more faithful or more careful in carrying out the work of the ministry. Perhaps the elder has been discouraged about things; the church member could be used by God to help him lift his gaze to the Lord. Perhaps the church member can help the shepherd be more effective in some way.

Fourth, the church member should be persuadable. Perhaps the elder has well-thought out reasons for the way he has been doing things. The church member should be open to persuasion. Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them.” “Obey” in this verse means, “Be persuadable.” The church member is to place himself under his shepherd, but he is also to try to understand his shepherd. Of course, the shepherd, should be eager to listen to the concerns of the member of his flock. He should genuinely listen. His desire to be effective for Christ should motivate him to genuinely consider the suggestions of others.

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