By Mike Hess
Several months ago, my wife, Christina, and I were scrambling to find a place to lodge our eight-year-old chocolate lab, Lucy. As I looked online for available lodging for our canine, I wanted to be certain that she would be cared for properly. So I considered factors such as customer reviews and the facility itself. The way we care for our dog will largely determine whom we’re going to allow to care for her in our absence.
This search on Lucy’s behalf got me thinking about being a spiritual shepherd. As much as I want to find a place that will care for Lucy like Christina and I would, God wants His undershepherds to have an even more intense and intentional care for His sheep. Let’s consider shepherding and how pastors are supposed to think about it Biblically.
The Imagery of Sheep in the Bible
The Bible refers to over 70 types of animals—both clean animals and unclean animals. There are cattle, camels, and caterpillars; leopards, lions, and locusts; bats, bees, and bears; and foxes, fish, and frogs. There are sparrows, eagles, and vultures; worms, snakes, and lizards; horses, donkeys, and mules; and jackals, wolves, and dogs. There are even leviathans and behemoths.
But the animal that is most frequently mentioned in the Bible, with more than 400 references, is sheep. This is for good reason: sheep were an essential part of Israel’s economy, as they provided milk, meat, and wool. They were also a part of the sacrificial system. Some of the most powerful Scripture passages displaying God’s compassion and care for people use the imagery of a loving shepherd caring for sheep. Think, for example, of the caring Shepherd of Psalm 23 and the compassionate Shepherd of Luke 15.
Jesus would often refer to His own followers as sheep. In fact, He does this 15 times alone in John 10, the passage where He proclaims Himself the good shepherd (v. 11). This leads me to ask, How precious and loved are Jesus’ sheep to Him? The answer is, they are so profoundly loved that He would lay down His life to make us His own sheep; “the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (v. 11, CSB).
The Words Used for Jesus’ Undershepherds
The apostle Peter admonished first-century pastors to “shepherd God’s flock among you, not overseeing out of compulsion but willingly, as God would have you; not out of greed for money but eagerly; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1 Pet. 5:2–3, CSB).
Peter uses three connected words to articulate the three titles and functions of a pastor. Elder (presbuteros) literally means “someone who is older,” but in Jewish society an elder could be someone older in age or senior in experience and maturity. Shepherd, the same Greek word we translate “pastor,” refers to the function of a pastor. Oversight (episkopos) means “to exercise oversight”; it’s where we get our word bishop from.
Shepherds as the Chief Disciplers
Men who are blessed to be pastors more than likely cannot individually disciple every believer in the church. Their preaching ministry, however, plays a key role, because the preaching of the Word is the most important event in the life of any church. But as far as being involved in the day-to-day discipleship of every member, a pastor cannot realistically fulfill that task.
Nevertheless, a pastor can put mechanisms into place to ensure that every believer in the church—from the youngest child who can grasp the truth of the gospel, to the eldest senior saint—will be discipled in a way that lines up with the pastor’s philosophy of what discipleship should look like. Whether in small groups, large gatherings, or Biblical counseling, discipleship is about shepherding people to encourage them to become like Christ.
The Connection between Curriculum and Shepherding
The discipleship curriculum pastors choose is a shepherding issue. It would be pastoral malpractice to flippantly choose curriculum that blatantly contradicts what a pastor is trying to teach his church doctrinally and philosophically.
That’s why Regular Baptist Press does not primarily exist as a publishing company. Its business model is to operate on very small profit margins in order to provide churches with affordable and—more than anything—Biblical and trustworthy discipleship materials that point God’s people to Christlikeness for His glory.
Assuming your church fellowships with the GARBC, it’s safe to assume your church takes faithful and robust Biblical doctrine seriously. Then wouldn’t it be wise to inundate the sheep in your church—from the youngest to the oldest—with discipleship materials that perfectly correlate with your church’s doctrinal position?
This is something you can count on: Regular Baptist Press publishes discipleship material that is always doctrinally aligned with the GARBC articles of faith.
To faithfully shepherd the flock, a pastor should choose curriculum with the following factors in mind.
At what age should a young person learn how to read the Bible? Granted, we would never expect a six-year-old to comprehend some nuances of Scripture the same way a third-year MDiv student would. But do we really want the young people in our churches taking a haphazard approach to reading a book that is to be their foundation for life and doctrine?
It is our conviction at Regular Baptist Press that every truly regenerate believer has every resource necessary to know what the original writer’s intent was to his original audience—to know that a Bible text has one meaning and that the text cannot mean today what it did not mean when it was inspired.
Thriving churches are those with growing believers who know how to interpret passages of Scripture by considering the historical context, the literal or plain meaning, and the grammar or words that the writer used.
The curriculum a pastor chooses profoundly impacts the way his church’s people read their Bibles. It’s not enough to just encourage people to read the Bible—as important as that is. True Biblical shepherding teaches people how to read the Bible (interpretation).
Adopting a doctrinal position as a church means that across the board, that is the position the church teaches and embraces. Let me share how doctrinal inconsistency is harmful, with an illustration that I’ve often used:
Think for a moment of a faithful children’s Sunday School teacher who humbly and enthusiastically teaches the life-changing truths of Scripture. She has a busy schedule that limits her preparation time, and she didn’t attend Bible college or seminary, but she uses curriculum that is true to her church’s articles of faith and to Biblical discipleship.
When her students are promoted to the youth group, they meet their youth pastor, who has become enamored with renowned authors and speakers whose approach to Scripture is driven by experience and emotion. Convinced that God speaks outside the pages of Scripture, he says phrases such as “God told me to” that have nothing to do with passages of Scripture. He also uses curriculum that encourages students to pursue experience, such as so-called visions from the Lord and direct communication from God.
This youth pastor is creating confusion, since these young people were previously taught that in this age God speaks exclusively from the Bible.
Using curriculum that aligns with your church’s doctrine ensures that your church’s doctrine is taught consistently throughout your church.
A pastor is to pay close attention to his own life and doctrine (“teaching,” 1 Tim. 4:16), but he’s also to point the congregation in the right direction. Doctrine fuels a church’s mission. Doctrine also fuels a church’s worship, preaching, missions program, and even the choice of curriculum.
When a man accepts the call from a congregation to be its pastor, he is willfully submitting himself to the church’s doctrinal positions. Integrity demands that a pastor pour into the sheep the same Biblical doctrine that the congregation has chosen to embrace.
Doctrinally driven discipleship
Pastors often become smothered with advertisements promoting discipleship materials. Whatever one’s fancy might be, there’s certainly something out there to meet it. Some discipleship materials are driven by emotion and experience. Others focus on personal interpretation of Scripture, constantly asking, What do you think this passage means?
In the end, a pastor has to ask, What is the goal of discipleship, and what is the driving truth behind our discipleship?
Consider the end game for everything your church does. What is the goal for each discipleship program—whether it’s ministry to children, teens, young adults, new believers, those wanting to be baptized and join the church, married couples, empty nesters, widows, or senior saints?
The bottom line is this: if faithful Biblical doctrine is not fueling each of these ministries, then your church will not be producing faithful followers of Christ who reflect His image. That is why choosing curriculum is indeed a shepherding issue.
Encouragement to Shepherd-Disciple Well
Pastors have a huge responsibility that can be accomplished only by the power and grace of God. I don’t know what I would have done as a pastor without great resources. It didn’t take long in ministry for me to realize I didn’t have to go it alone; God provided a number of ministry peers to give me wise counsel. But I also learned the hard way how dangerous it can be to allow teachers and others to use materials that teach things contradictory to a church’s doctrine.
You don’t have to go it alone! Regular Baptist Press provides Biblically sound materials that will never waver from your church’s doctrinal commitments. You can trust what we publish.
Rest assured that from Vacation Bible School and Kids4Truth Clubs; to children’s, youth, and adult Sunday School curriculum; to men’s and women’s Bible studies, small group Bible studies, and Regular Baptist Books; to the Baptist Bulletin and web posts—it all faithfully aligns with the GARBC’s robust doctrinal positions.
Mike Hess serves as national representative of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches.