(Taken from a sermon I preached at House of Mercy in Asheville, NC on January 2, 2022)
In the spring of 2015 we crawled, well, I crawled and my husband walked out of a church we had attended for 11 years. I was beyond disillusioned. While there had been some wonderful things about this church, I could no longer survive in an atmosphere of rigid expectations and heady ideas and intellectual assent and in an atmosphere that emphasized discipline and tradition and the culture wars. I longed for safe shepherds who spoke openly about hardship and brokenness and acknowledged the many challenges of living life in a fallen and broken world. I longed for shepherds who listened with compassion and had space for just how complex life is. I longed for shepherds whose focus was on the care of those in front of them and not only on their own spiritual authority. I longed for safe shepherds and not those who discharged their duty only by teaching and judging, by admonition and discipline
I felt like I was going to die. So I…so we…left that church and spent months in a wilderness of sorts, begging God to give us a pillar of smoke by day and fire by night to show us where to go.
Fast forward a few months and we ended up in a new church plant. When we joined this new work, I was so excited. The leadership was young and wanted to engage the culture of Asheville, not flee from it or rail against it. I remember hearing these beautiful words from the pulpit, “Those people out there in Asheville. They aren’t your enemies. Go out and love them.” And I was so thrilled that loving people without an agenda seemed to be the goal of this church.
And then things…well…they changed. I don’t know exactly what happened but I got the impression that maybe there was pressure to produce. I guess when people financially support a new work, they want to see results. And when your church is part of a network of church plants, you tend to compare yourselves with one another. But over time what I thought was a church with a focus of welcoming and loving people became a factory. A saved person factory. Like a puppy mill, but with people and decisions for Jesus. The push was to share the gospel with people so they would come to church and get baptized so that they would go back out and share the gospel with more people. Not wrong in and of itself, but apparently the point of being a church was to bring as many people as possible to Jesus (and thus pluck as many people as possible from the gates of hell) and we should all be happy about that. Right? But that’s evangelism. That isn’t a church. And while some of us grew very close, the reality was that we had no church. And we had no care.
When I asked how we planned on caring for all these new believers who we were supposed to be bringing in our doors, there was no answer. When dear friends within the church went through intense crises, the leaders were nowhere to be found. When I went through perhaps one of the darkest times of my adult life and stood up in front of the church and begged them to believe for me and remind me that God was making something beautiful out of my life because I had lost all hope, my words were met with disinterest and silence.
For the record, negligence can be just as painful, and deadly, as abuse.
Soon it became apparent. The shepherds weren’t caring for the sheep because it was not even on their radar to do so. That wasn’t their job. Their job was to run the church. Their job was to lead a team of evangelists. Their job was to plant more churches and send out more missionaries and have a successful ministry. As leadership changed hands things took harsh turn. And as a new pastor took over, my hope was dashed. The ideology was that anybody already within the church who had any needs was just being selfish and dangerous and weak and pulling resources away from the mission of the church, which was to save the lost. There should be no weak, sick, injured sheep within the church because Jesus, like a magical rainbow unicorn, fixes all that stuff. So those who expressed suffering or weakness were considered either spiritually immature or worse, wolves in sheep’s clothing.
As I raised concerns, I was demonized. Those who questioned authority were the enemy. I couldn’t function in a church that expected what my husband and I came to call CrossFit Christianity. I couldn’t pledge undying loyalty to a pastor I didn’t yet know or trust. I couldn’t support an institution that cared more for numbers and goals than for people. I couldn’t trust a pastor who said to my face, “If you don’t trust me, then you aren’t trusting God.”
In October 2019 I quit going to church.
What was wrong with me? Was it wrong of me to want more of a church than rigid expectations, heady theological debate, an evangelism assembly line, spiritual hype, or oppressive authority?
Was I the problem? Was it wrong to need the care of a shepherd? Was it wrong to want a place where others would be safe and cared for as well? I hated myself for wanting…for needing…these things…And I wondered if God hated me, too.
Do you know what it does to your soul to realize that you have failed at church yet again?
I found Ezekiel 34. I was positively floored that my experience was written down right there in scripture. In Ezekiel, no less. And amazed at the sheer wrath of God, not against me, but against those who had been called to care for his people but had followed their own egos, agendas, appetites, and ideologies instead.
And for the past two years there have been times when Ezekiel 34 has been the only thing that has kept me tethered to God.
So…listen to these words:
34 The word of the Lord came to me: 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? 3 You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. 4 You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. 5 So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. 6 My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them. 7 “‘Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 8 As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, because my flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock, 9 therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10 This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them. 11 “‘For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. 12 As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. 13 I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land. 14 I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign Lord. (Elements of Psalm 23, it seems.) 16 I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.
31 You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, declares the Sovereign Lord.’”
Three things stuck out to me:
There are bad shepherds out there.
God is pissed
God tells us what a good shepherd is and that HE will be our shepherd.
Point 1: There are bad shepherds out there.
You do not take care of the flock.
God is like, “Now, shepherds, you had ONE job. ONE job.” Care for the flock.
I think shepherds forget this. After all, they have so much on them. Teaching, preaching, running a church, balancing a budget, building buildings, among other things. Caring for the flock isn’t always fun. It doesn’t boost the ego. It doesn’t put one out in front. It doesn’t show in the numbers. It doesn’t get accolades. It doesn’t build the kind of kingdom that unfortunately many are looking for.
Here God says they have not:
-strengthened the weak
-healed the sick
-bound up the injured
-brought back the strays
Note that these are not sheep that have never been in the fold. These are sheep within the fold. These are sheep that have not been cared for within the fold.
First of all, what makes people weak or sick or injured?
Sometimes it’s an accident.
Sometimes it’s trauma from assault or abuse.
Sometimes it’s genetics.
Sometimes it’s from exhaustion from carrying a burden for far too long.
These things are not a result of our own willful sin. They are a result of being limited, finite, human beings in a fallen world. They are often a result of suffering.
And sometimes someone has fallen into sin, but even then we are told in Galatians 6 that when someone has fallen into sin, we are restore him gently.
God says, “You ruled them harshly and brutally.”
Please, never, NEVER underestimate the damage done when harsh words or actions or the flinging of what Eugene Peterson calls “dogma rocks” are used to discipline or correct a weak or wounded sheep, whether they need it or not.
More often than not, the sheep are driven out.
I see it daily. People who have been driven out of the church. They have found that the church, the place that should be the safest place on earth, is instead a place of harshness. Rejection. A place that loads up burdens on their backs instead of taking them off. It is a place of more wounds, not less. It is a place of injury instead of healing. And it is all done in the name of God. With the authority of God. Representing God as a bad, self-centered, angry, exacting, shepherd who has no care for his sheep.
I know so many people who cannot bring them to enter a church period because of the panic that ensues. In fact, I was thinking that probably the people who would most be encouraged by these words aren’t here. Going to church, any church, is just too hard. They have PTSD from their experiences in the church. The church has been to them the very opposite of what we are called to be.
How have they driven out the sheep?
By emphasizing the letter of the law over the spirit.
By treating incredibly complex problems with simplistic solutions.
By elevating of doctrinal issues and extrabiblical commands and expectations over the more important aspects of loving one another. In our circles we often see this as polity over people. .
By arguing doctrine rather than binding up wounds.
By giving them theology without love or agendas without care.
By using disapproval and shame to enforce behavior and conformity to their own cultural preferences.
By adding burdens and extrabiblical mandates onto already weakened and weary backs.
By requiring the passing of litmus tests that are nowhere in the Bible.
By measuring the worth of the sheep by their performance to certain standards. The pastor in our last church seemed to go by the motto that “the floggings will continue until morale improves.”
How have they driven out the sheep?
By handling mental illness as if it is something to be repented of or prayed away.
A friend whose wife has schizophrenia is asked “what unconfessed sin is there in your life that is blocking you from solving this.”
A pastor quips, “Well, after all, the Bible clearly says that anxiety is a sin.”
A Christian school teacher says that ADHD is just a result of poor parenting.
A church leader says that the only counseling anybody should need is a good sermon.
As an aside, let me say that church leaders do not have to be therapists but they do need to be informed enough to know that not everything is a spiritual issue. I do believe that all church leaders need to be trauma informed. Trauma is not just a buzz word or a pop psychology concept. It is a real thing that impacts the psychological, the emotional, and the physical.
How have they driven out the sheep?
By turning a blind eye to the sexual abuse within their churches.
By responding to victims with the law and to abusers with grace.
By blaming victims for the abuse.
By asking a victim of sexual assault “What were you wearing?” or telling her not to report abuse because it will give the ministry a bad name or ruin a young pastor’s career.
By telling a victim, “Well, it’s your word against his.” (When it is a “he says” vs “she says,” “he says” almost invariably wins the day.)
By forcing forgiveness and treating the trauma of assault as a “root of bitterness.”
Rachael Denhollander says this:
“Church is one of the least safe places to acknowledge abuse because the way it is counseled is, more often than not, damaging to the victim,There is an abhorrent lack of knowledge for the damage and devastation that sexual assault brings. It is with deep regret that I say the church is one of the worst places to go for help.[Christians] can tend to gloss over the devastation of any kind of suffering but especially sexual assault, with Christian platitudes like God works all things together for good or God is sovereign…”
How have they driven out the sheep?
By failing to believe and protect and support victims of domestic abuse and coercive control.
One statistic I have seen is tragic: 70% of women experiencing domestic abuse said they would go to their church first for help but of those who did, only 4% said they would ever do so again.
Here’s what happens:
-The wife encounters coercion, control, manipulation from her husband. Emotional abuse, verbal abuse, financial abuse, psychological abuse, sexual abuse (NO, you are not welcome to her body any time you jolly well please without her consent), spiritual abuse…and on and on. And maybe even physical abuse.
-The wife goes to pastor for help.
-The pastor either does nothing or pastor blames wife saying she isn’t submitting enough or she just needs to provide better for his needs (wink, wink) in effect, blaming her for her own abuse, and sends her back to her abusive husband.
-Eventually the wife hits a point where she needs to, has to, get out.
-Church leaders admonish wife, saying it is a sin to leave her husband because “God hates divorce,” and command her to return to her husband.
-And if they are aware, the members of church family admonish her likewise.
Here two different things might happen:
-The wife stays in abusive relationship and church leaders gloat that they restored a marriage.
For the record, that isn’t a marriage. That is hell.
-The wife leaves abusive husband.
-The wife is excommunicated from church, the reason given is refusing to obey the spiritual authority over her, loses her entire church community, and bears the stigma of “unrepentant sinner” to add to the already overwhelming burden of her abuse.
-The church leaders gloat that they stood up for the sanctity of marriage and pat themselves on the back.
But the abused wife, the injured sheep, has been driven out.
I could go on for hours giving you examples. There are just so many.
How have they driven out the sheep?
Well, let’s talk about spiritual abuse as January is Spiritual Abuse Awareness Month.
What I have described above is all spiritual abuse.
Spiritual abuse happens when a person or even a system uses the spiritual to control the thoughts or feelings or actions of another. There are spiritually abusive people and there are spiritually abusive systems.
Jeff VanVonderen and David Johnson explain spiritual abuse:
"It's possible to become so determined to defend a spiritual place of authority, a doctrine or a way of doing things that you wound and abuse anyone who questions, or disagrees, or doesn't 'behave' spiritually the way you want them to. When your words and actions tear down another, or attack or weaken a person's standing as a Christian- to gratify you, your position or your beliefs while at the same time weakening or harming another- that is spiritual abuse."
The reality is that any form of abuse results in a certain level of spiritual abuse because abuse damages us to our very core and is an affront on the image of God. And if abuse comes from those who explicitly claim to be speaking for God, in the name of God, in positions of authority,, ….think parents, husbands (in circles where male headship is the command), teachers in churches or Christian schools, elders, pastors…this fusing of abuse and God is traumatic and devastating.
THIS IS WHAT GOD HATES.
There seems to be a growing emphasis, at least within Reformed circles, on spiritual authority.
And shepherds want to build their own kingdoms rather than be Jesus to those within their care. You combine the intoxicating possibility that you can be “right” in your theology with the thrill of your own power over the lives of others and you get a dictator, not a shepherd. You get oppression, not freedom. You get a prison camp, not a church.
Institutions are protected and people are run over and driven out. But institutions aren’t created in the image of God. People are.
Lording it over the people of God with your agenda, protecting your own polity and procedures, treating them with disdain or disinterest, devouring them to feed your own ego and power, all in the name of Jesus, is the ultimate in spiritual abuse.
But what about the sheep? In this case, the sick, the weak, the wounded, those who need a shepherd for care and protection?
Jeremiah 6:14 says:
“They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.”
It is absolutely heartbreaking to have your wounds minimized. To not be taken seriously. When churches refuse to take seriously the very things that crush people’s lives and yet go to town on the small, insignificant incidentals, sheep flee the church.
Sometimes this level of blindness, arrogance, and power hunger infects the culture of the church. Other church members will then elevate themselves to sheepdog status and become the gatekeepers of the Kingdom of God, chasing away any and all who fail to pass their tests.
You don’t just have abusive shepherds, you can have an entire abusive system. One that rules them brutally and harshly.
And in a strange twist, sometimes a system can become so toxic and so abusive that it will drive out even a good shepherd.
But God sees.
Point 2: God is pissed.
Have you ever been wronged by someone, truly wronged by them, and the people around you question that wrong, minimize that wrong and refuse to acknowledge the damage done?
“Are you sure you aren’t imagining things?”
“It wasn’t THAT bad.”
“Oh, he didn’t really mean it.”
“You are expecting too much. Take the log out of your own eye first.”
“You’re being too sensitive.”
“We are all just sinners.”
“You just need to forgive.”
“You just need to be thankful in everything.”
“Rejoice in the LORD always.”
But God doesn’t do that here. HE IS PISSED.
I grew up terrified of my father. He was a former Navy pilot. He was exacting. He was stern. He spanked for age appropriate misdemeanors. He shamed for unintentional mistakes. He was distant. And then…he left. I thought God was the same, too. It is so hard to view God as a good Father for those of us who have had really bad experiences (or no experience at all) with our earthly fathers.
But this time I read this and, quite honestly, I had never been so thankful for the wrath of God. I actually found myself praising God for his wrath. Because his wrath wasn’t against me. It wasn’t against my failure to live up to unrealistic standards. It wasn’t his anger at my humanness. Or brokenness. Or the fact that I existed at all.
His anger, his wrath, his vengeance was toward those whose job it was to care for the sheep and who did just the opposite. His wrath was against those who drove the sheep away. Who drove me away.
I want you to notice what God is NOT doing.
He is NOT blaming the sheep.
He is not saying,
“But you’re a sinner, too.”
“But no church is perfect.”
“Are you sure you haven’t done something to deserve this?”
“Your faith must have been in the shepherds and not in God.”
“You are in rebellion by leaving.”
NO! He acknowledges that the sheep have been driven out. He acknowledges that they have not been cared for. He acknowledges that they have been failed by the very people who represent God to them.
There is something incredibly powerful when someone is angry on your behalf. This is why when a victim discloses abuse, the reaction of the person they disclose the abuse to can either make or break the healing process. There is nothing quite like someone in power believing you. Going to bat for you. Seeking justice on your behalf. God is doing that here.
God says that he is…
-against the shepherds.
- will hold them accountable.
-will remove them (and we have certainly seen the mighty fall, haven’t we?).
-will rescue the sheep from the shepherds.
In Matthew 18:6, Jesus says:
“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”
Those are some serious consequences.
Why is God so angry?
The sheep that he loves have been scattered, wounded and endangered by those they should have been able to trust
I think he is also angry for another reason. God calls himself a shepherd. So shepherds are an earthly representation of who God is. These shepherds who are ruling over the sheep in the name of God are, due to their very negligence and abuse, turning the people away from God.
It is a tragedy and GOD IS PISSED.
Point 3: God is the Good Shepherd
Reading this passage was so transformational for me because up until this time I felt like it was wrong for me to long for a God like this. Years ago I wrote to a couple of leaders in a church we were in, saying that I thought the leadership needed to be safe shepherds. I included a description of what a safe shepherd might look like. Gentleness, patience, protection, an interest in the sheep, among other things. I was told that I was putting unbiblical expectations on the leadership. And yet here, reading how God says he will shepherd us, I see these things. And reading about Jesus, I see these things. I see a safe Shepherd.
Eugene Peterson said this with regard this passage, Ezekiel 34:
Ezekiel 34 was important to Jesus. He said things that showed he had meditated on Ezekiel long enough that its imagery and message had gotten into his bones (see Matthew 9:35-38; John 10:14-18). A piece of writing that was so important to Jesus has to have something important for us.
The individual was of the highest value to Ezekiel, even if that person was sick, crippled, wandering, or lost. When people aren’t treated compassionately, anger is the appropriate response. Such a disastrous failure in leadership is intolerable to God. His original plan was that people should exercise leadership that would express love and justice, which would lead them to enjoy harmony and fulfillment in their own lives. But since that wasn’t happening, God took the initiative. He would shepherd the people himself.
Jesus appropriated this title of “Shepherd” (John 10) and modeled compassionate leadership. And his disciple Peter exhorted leaders to follow that example (1 Peter 5:1-7). We’re given the strength and the ability to respond to others not for what we can get out of them but for what we can give them. As we do that, we learn what it is to live in a community where we have spiritual mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters—where others are treated as individuals, immensely interesting, endlessly exciting, and eternally valuable.
Jesus says that his yoke is easy and his burden is light.
What does a shepherd do?
He makes a culture of safety in the flock.
His eyes are always toward the weak. Watching, caring, protecting.
He won’t take your trauma lightly.
He won’t tell you your struggle is just an idol of the heart and you need to repent.
He won’t tell you your shame is really just guilt from your own sin.
He won’t tell you that sucking it up, doing more, and trying harder is the answer.
He won’t tell you that you just aren’t making use of the “means of grace” (whatever that means).
He won’t tell you that your trauma can be resolved by a mental assent to certain theological presuppositions and scripture memory.
He won’t tell you that your suffering is your own damn fault.
He won’t tell you to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.
He won’t tell you that your emotions don’t matter.
He won’t tell you that your thoughts, experiences, insights, and ideas don’t matter.
He won’t tell you that you don’t matter.
He knows, he knows we are but dust and yet he sees us dustballs as beautiful and of infinite worth.
So, what does this mean for us?
I think that it means we take the role of spiritual leadership very seriously. It means that just because a leader is a skilled communicator or great evangelist or incredible theologian, that doesn’t mean that he or she has the appropriate skills or the necessary character to shepherd God’s people. It means we need to be careful who we put in positions of shepherding God’s sheep. It means that humility, discernment, compassion, and a willingness to listen and understand may need to trump theological certainty, dogmatic rigidity, and evangelistic zeal.
It means that when we see shepherds ravaging the sheep, we need to say something. If you haven’t already, I would highly recommend listening to the podcast The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. The podcast chronicles the trajectory of Mark Driscoll and his ministry at Mars Hill Church in Seattle, detailing his gifts, his appeal, his rise in power and control, his resignation, and the wreckage he left in his wake. It also describes how the people who likely could have stepped in and done something, didn’t. This is just one example. But we need to be alert. When we see the weak or the hurting or the confused or the abused being run out of the church while the religious elite strut around totally enamored with their spiritual authority, we need to speak up and call it out. God does.
It means that we treat those who have left the church with the utmost of care, compassion, respect, and understanding. They are not our enemies. This is not an us vs them scenario. Listen to them. Listen to their stories. Listen to the impact their experiences had on their view of God and the people of God. Listen to understand. .
Listening to their story and holding it with tenderness is what heals. Not “....but God…” Not “...well, no church is perfect…” Not admonition or correction or dismissal or avoidance. Listen and mourn with them.
David Augsburger says, “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.”
And finally, it means that if you have been neglected by, abused by, or decimated by those in a position of spiritual authority over you, God sees, he’s furious over what has happened to you, and he will be your shepherd. Your very safe, very good shepherd.
The Lord is indeed your shepherd.