Removing The Mask From The Thief: Leading with a Slaughterhouse Vision

Uncategorized Feb 29, 2024

So far in this series, we have considered that Jesus’ memorable statement, “The thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy” (John 10:10), was not a reference to the devil but was, in fact, a reference to the religious leaders of his day, the scribes and Pharisees (see part one). We began exploring the meaning of “stealing, killing, and destroying” as it applies to poor leadership, particularly in the church environment. Last week, I shared some observations about leaders who only use the sheep for personal profit (see part two).

Now, I want to help us to think about what Jesus meant by the religious leaders of his day who “killed” the sheep. Let me first state what I hope is obvious about how I apply this metaphor. I do not intend to say that there are church leaders who want to kill their followers literally. In the context of shepherding, several dangers can claim the life of a sheep.

Sheep need daily provision, just like any other animal. During the time of Christ, providing food and water for the sheep meant that the shepherds had to lead their flock out of the sheep pen and walk them to various grazing pastures around the area. And this included leading the sheep to where they could drink clean water. This responsibility meant shepherds had to plan their routes carefully, watch the sheep as they led them to ensure they stayed together and protect them from predators that might want to attack the flock during the journey. Often, these grazing tours lasted for several days, requiring the shepherds to sleep out in the pastures with the flock and watch over them through the night.

During the winter months, shepherds had to feed them because grazing tours were not practical or safe. This meant a financial responsibility for shepherds. There was also the need to build shelters for the sheep to protect them during storms and inclement weather. It was quite the commitment.

Then, there were the constant threats in the daily lives of the flock: sheep stealers, predators, and even diseases and parasites required the shepherds to be constantly alert, watchful, and attentive to the flock. Even one sheep's slightest discomfort or restlessness could mean that the entire flock was threatened. I emphasize here the intentional connection between shepherds and their flock that was required to ensure the sheep thrived.

So, when I began to meditate on Jesus’ reference to the religious leaders who “kill” the sheep, I thought at first about these dangers, how an inattentive shepherd could cause death in the flock simply through a lack of care and concern. Such a lack of attention could allow disease to run rampant or parasites to kill off the flock one animal at a time. At the same time, I think Jesus’ reference is more pointed than that. 

If the thief Jesus referred to is a leader who “kills,” the tone strikes me as something more profound, more menacing than neglect. At the same time, neglect is undoubtedly implied in this metaphor. 

There is another way that shepherds kill sheep: the slaughterhouse. An obvious part of the profit of sheep herding is that sheep can be eaten as food. So, each year, some sheep are slaughtered and sold or used by the shepherd to feed his family. There is no abuse in this action. I respectfully submit that animals are part of the provision that God has given to mankind for sustenance. Slaughtering selected sheep is not menacing, and it is not my point.

Here’s my point: What happens when a shepherd only has a view of the slaughterhouse for the entire flock? How would that perspective affect his leadership decisions for the sheep? I submit that it would be disastrous for the flock as a whole. A slaughterhouse vision would certainly produce the symptom of deadly neglect in a leader.

W. Phillip Keller wrote a classic Christian book called A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23. In that book, Keller tells about a fellow sheep rancher who raised sheep primarily for slaughter. Because the rancher’s vision for the flock did not see beyond the meat house, he did not concern himself with his sheep's general daily comfort and care. They fed on bare ground, drank from muddy water in puddles, and were left to themselves when predators attacked. Keller observed that those sheep were thin, miserable, and constantly in discomfort. Always unsettled and fearful. On more than one occasion, he watched the flock next door looking longingly at his green pastures on the other side of their fence. He watched as they stared at his own flock grazing in peace, well-fed and healthy. Keller likened the rancher to the taskmasters of sin and Satan.

Sadly, there are those church leaders who lead with a slaughterhouse vision. They have a limited, short-sighted vision for the group. They only serve the flock because it is a stepping stone to advance their career. They find providing a healthy diet of good Gospel preaching and teaching arduous and burdensome. They do not lovingly warn the flock against the moral dangers and sinful compromise that allow the predators of sin and shame into the flock. They make decisions only with a view of the organization's financial bottom line or, even worse, with a view of their own costs and concerns. A limited vision for the flock means that there are certain discomforts to which the leader is callous. He is not bothered by the immediate condition of the families under his watch care. He leads from a detached place, far removed from the daily lives of the sheep. You will not see this shepherd sleeping in the field with the flock.

An elderly pastor once said, “A good shepherd smells like sheep.” In other words, church leaders must be connected to the daily lives of the sheep. Leaders are not to be in their position only to be revered or elevated, even though honoring great pastors is certainly a sign of respect from the people. Instead, the point of good shepherding is a long-term view for the prosperity of the flock.

In contrast to shepherds who kill, Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd, who came to give “life more abundantly.”  Within the context of earthly shepherding, abundant life would surely imply having a vision for the flock beyond the slaughterhouse. This kind of shepherding wants to produce a future generation of the flock. It is an invested approach to leading. Leading to produce a future generation requires a daily commitment from the shepherd. It is a commitment to constantly stay with the flock, casting a watchful eye over the group, minding the perimeters so that predators do not snatch away those on the edge. Future generation leadership plans for rich pasture, deep still water, and long-term provision during bleak winter seasons. Good shepherds ease the diseased sheep. They treat the infected. They clean the parasites away. They genuinely want the sheep to live a good life and prosper long beyond the next winter. I hope you are applying all of my analogies here.

As a leader, I recognize I have an incredible responsibility to love the sheep, live together with them, and keep in view the multiple generations of Christ-followers that the Good Shepherd wants to bring out of each flock family. I must laugh when they laugh, cry when they cry, identify with their feelings, help them fight their fears, teach them to resist sin, pick off the parasites that attach to them as they live life between Sundays, and, in general, keep a vision of the flock for the next season and not just for the season we are in right now.

A slaughterhouse vision is short-sighted and dangerous. Good leadership requires a lifetime investment on the part of the shepherd because the sheep are worth much more than the current meat price at the market. The flock is not expendable. I want to lead so that there will always be another generation of sheep.


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