As I come to talk about fathers, I'm mindful that it's a very difficult day for some people. For some people, whose every thought about their earthly father is one of pain, know there is the grace of God for you in our Abba Father. I'm also well aware it's a difficult day for many single moms who—to be bluntly honest with you—the church in general does a pathetic job of serving and reaching out to. I want the Christian men in this congregation to know that you have a responsibility, not only to your own immediate family, but to reflect the gospel by ministering to all kinds of boys whose dads are no longer in the picture. We can't walk by them and ignore that reality any more than we can walk by the orphans in the world.
So, happy Father's Day. That's one of those things I'm glad we still say in our culture. I'm waiting for the time when there is a movement afoot to change Mother's Day and Father's Day into sort of a generic parent day. The gender specificity of Father's Day and Mother's Day is something that is under assault in all kinds of different ways, but I'm still thankful that our culture recognizes a day set aside for mothers and one set aside for fathers as well.
Instead of being rooted in a particular text of Scripture, I want to pull out a theme which I think is vitally important: one that is under-taught, undervalued, and under-focused upon in the church today, but one that is of paramount importance to fathers. To come face-to-face with what we're talking about today is an absolute necessity for faithfulness in our roles.
The pastor search team meets with a sense of anticipation, a sense of excitement, to interview the potential pastoral candidate. What will this prospective shepherd have to say? That's what's on everybody's mind on the search team. How does this shepherd view the task of ministry? In the little scenario we're drawing out here, I want you to picture that team with that sense of excitement. They're on the edge of their seats.
The potential shepherd walks in the room and sits down. The shepherd begins talking and says, "I want to be clear about a few things. I am going to give you a well-prepared, excellently delivered sermon on a consistent basis. That's my responsibility, and I'm going to do it. But I also want to be clear: I don't want too much to be expected of me. I have a hard time when I have too much to do. And I don't really like getting my hands too dirty in messy issues; I want to leave those to other people. And I am a person who does not like conflict. So what I want to do is come in and preach the sermon that I have the responsibility to give you, and then I want to just see how things shake out. I'll be a nice guy: I will slap backs, I will shake hands, I will eat apple pies with the ladies who fix them at the church. I will do all of those things. But I really don't want to be involved in confronting anyone, I don't want to be involved in any conflict, and the other thing you need to know about me is my personality type. I've taken my personality inventory, and I don't like making decisions. So I'm going to leave all that stuff to other people to do. And if it ever gets really hard around here, what I'm going to do is bail out and find somewhere else: because after all, I've got to look after me."
You can picture the pastor search team. They were on the edge of their seats, excited to hear the heart of a potential shepherd, and now they're slumped down over the table. They're asking the question, What kind of shepherd is that? And there's a biblical answer: it's an unfaithful one.
The Bible keeps talking about shepherds, and it keeps talking about sheep: two really prevalent themes throughout the Bible. It begins with God's revelation of himself as the shepherd of his people. Then God calls other people—prophets and kings—to shepherd his people. Ultimately, Jesus comes as the Good Shepherd, the ultimate Shepherd. Then God provides churches under shepherds, or pastors. The word "pastor" means "shepherd": it's an anglicized Latin word that literally means "shepherd."
All the way throughout the Bible, there is this imagery of shepherds. I'll give you an example in the Old Testament, an example with Jesus, and an example with pastors as shepherds. The Bible consistently says the same thing about what makes a shepherd unfaithful. In Ezekiel 34:1-10, God says that he is against the shepherds of Israel. The reason is that they served themselves rather than the flock. They neglected the flock, they ignored the flock, and at the end of the day, they protected themselves instead of protecting the flock. They are unfaithful because their lives are not marked by being self-sacrificial; their lives are marked by being self-protecting.
Then we come to the New Testament. Jesus comes, and he is the fulfillment of all the shepherding imagery. He says in John 10, "I am the good shepherd … I lay down my life for the sheep" (10:14, 15). The ultimate fulfillment of the shepherding imagery is total self-sacrificial commitment. In John 10, Jesus does exactly what Ezekiel does: he contrasts that commitment with unfaithful shepherds. He calls them hirelings. You know what the hireling does? He is in the work for himself. The issue is what can he get out of it, and if he can't get out of it more positives than negatives, he bails on it. He is not a real shepherd at all; he is a false shepherd. That's what Ezekiel said, and that's what Jesus says.
Then we turn to 1 Peter 5:1-4. Peter says he speaks as a fellow elder—that word that's used synonymously with "pastor" or "shepherd." He speaks as a fellow shepherd to other shepherds. He calls them to shepherd or pastor the flock of God, talking about the church. He calls them to a self-sacrificial commitment as they pastor the church: not to be self-serving and not to be self-protecting.
The message is the same no matter where it's found, and it's seen most clearly in the Lord Jesus Christ—like all things are seen most clearly in the Lord Jesus Christ. A self-serving hireling, in the name of being a pastor or shepherd, is a tragedy, and it's hypocrisy. If you had been in on that pastor search team meeting, who would have said, "Man, that shepherd sounds good?"
But what does this have to do with fathers? What does it have to do with dads? Well, the answer to that question is "everything." See, the first thing we need is we need fathers who stink. Let me show you what I mean.
Pastoring the family
Puritan William Perkins said the family and the Christian household is a little church. Lewis Bayly wrote in the 1600s, "What the preacher is in the pulpit, the same the Christian householder"—which is a phrase used at that time for the head of the house, the father—"is in his home."
Where do ideas like that come from: that the father in the home is a reflection of the shepherd who shepherds the church? Well, think with me for a moment and turn to 1 Timothy 3:15. The apostle Paul is writing about hoping to come and see this church, but he's written to them and he says, "[I]f I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God's household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth." The church is called the household of God. Local churches are referred to in this household language.
If we look at 1 Timothy 5:1-2, we see family imagery is used to explain relationships and service in the context of the church: "Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity." We see an interplay of this language between the household and the household of God. There is this parallel imagery going on, and pastors and shepherds are called to lead the household of God.
It's very interesting that in the qualifications for pastors—the qualifications for shepherds— that we read about in 1 Timothy 3:4-5, there is a command given related to the household. The pronoun "he" is talking about the pastor, the elder, overseer; the word "manage" here means "lead," and it is sometimes translated "rule." You see the parallel given there? If he cannot manage his own household, how can he manage the household of God? If he cannot manage his little flock, how can he manage the flock of God? If he cannot do it here, then to function here would be a sham: it would be hypocrisy, and it would be false. It is impossible. The qualification is this: if he cannot manage his little flock, he must be dismissed from the flock of God as a shepherd. You see, the imagery here means not that a family and the church are the same thing, but that the principles of management or the principles of shepherding are the same. If he cannot succeed with the little flock, he will not succeed with the larger flock, nor should he.
A family and a church are not the same thing. Every individual member of the family who is a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ is accountable to the church as an individual. They stand before God and are accountable in the context of the local church as an individual. But the principles of shepherding are the same, and the pastor must be able to shepherd his own little flock if he is to shepherd God's church: the household of God, the flock of God.
Certainly this passage serves as a warning to pastors. That's the way it's always used, and that's what we always think about, and that is a sense of primacy here. Pastors, be warned. Many a man has given up the opportunity and calling to serve the flock of God because of his neglect at home with his little flock. But this passage is also an expert … to fathers. There is a flip side to it. The reason this is true about pastors, in relation to the church, is that every man is called to pastor his family, to shepherd the little flock that God has given him.
Men, God has called you to shepherd or to pastor your family. It's not a choice. The only issue is whether you are a faithful shepherd or an unfaithful shepherd. It's not a choice. It's not some men who decide, You know, I'll just do these things and go on cruise control and just be a good guy, and then there are those guys serious about shepherding, and you choose which one you want. That's not the way it works. God says that you—as the man in your home—are called to shepherd your family, and you will be held accountable for it. That is the call.
You see, we tend to reverse things. We tend to think that the church exists for the family, and we actually have it backwards. Families and households exist to picture the church to the world. The household that you have is meant by God to picture the household of God. The greater reality is the household of God. It's just like the marriage relationship is meant to picture the relationship between Christ and the church, the gospel of Jesus Christ: your family is meant to picture the reality of the household of God, and it's meant to picture the church to the world. It's meant to be a display of the flock of God to a watching world.
Shepherds who stink
So here's the question: how are you doing, pastor? How are you doing, shepherd? Do you stink? You ought to: you're a shepherd.
We have a hard time coming to grips with the call to be a shepherd because shepherding, for us, conjures up a certain picture. You've seen that picture: it's Jesus with long, flowing hair and perfect skin. It looks like he got a manicure last week. He's clutching a sheep, and he's stroking the sheep. In that picture of Jesus, he looks like he's never gone through anything rough in his life. He's smiling at the sheep, and the sheep seems to be smiling back. It's warm, it's cuddly, and it makes us feel good. It's a precious moment, and it's biblically stupid.
In Ancient Near Eastern culture, they knew what a shepherd was, and it couldn't be turned into a Precious Moments figurine. Shepherds were rugged; shepherds bore, as their mark, the scars of defending the flock. Shepherds were warriors for the flock. They spent time with the flock, and they smelled like the flock. Their staffs were stained with blood, and their skin was rugged like leather. They didn't get invited to a lot of dinner parties because they stunk. That was a shepherd. A shepherd led, fed, and fought for his flock. It was hard work; it was dirty work. It was a messy job. It was smelly.
Well, not all shepherds stunk. There were some who just took the job for what they could get out of it. They were hirelings. They were self-serving, and they didn't want to give too much to it. After all, this was about what it did for them, and if they gave too much, they might not be as happy—they might not have as much fun—so they amused themselves. They weren't always diligent; they weren't always focused. They needed their down time, some "me" time. There were shepherds like that who said, "This is too hard. I don't want to give too much." They were self-protecting. They were in it for what they could get, and when they couldn't get enough, they walked off. Their staffs were not bloody, and their skin was not like leather.
There are far too many fathers like that. They like the idea of having a family, and then the family comes. They dump off the responsibility of raising the children on the wife, and they convince themselves it's okay: "Oh, it's enough that I earn a paycheck, and after all, I deserve my recreation time, and I'm too tired to deal with things at home."
We need fathers who stink because they are in the trenches with the flock God gave them, and nobody's flock smells all that great. In the trenches, getting hands dirty, no self-pity: it's a tough job, and that's why they're there. That's why God put them in the home as the shepherd, and that's why God put you in the home as the shepherd. When things are difficult with your children, when things are difficult with your relationship, don't say, "I feel sorry for myself. I shouldn't go with it." The thing is to look in the mirror and say, "That's why I'm here. I'm here to face down the enemies, I'm here to deal with the difficulties, and I'm here to snatch my flock away from danger. I'm here. I'll gladly bear the marks of the protection of those God has given me. That's my flock, and I will never abandon them." Those who bear the stench of a shepherd are shepherds who are all in.
Leading with the gospel
But we also need fathers who lead. A shepherd leads. One of the great comforts in the Bible is the fact that God reveals himself as shepherd. In Genesis 48:15, there's the declaration that the Lord is "the God who has been my shepherd / all my life." That's a great comfort. He leads, he provides, and he protects. God is my shepherd. He will guide me, he will not abandon me, and he will not forsake me. That is the comfort of the people of God.
Psalm 23:1 says, "The Lord is my shepherd." We could say, "The Lord is my pastor, I shall not want." As we study the rest of the psalm, it says that we lack nothing because our shepherd leads us, provides for us, feeds us, guides us, and protects us. A shepherd leads and has authority, and will be held accountable for what they do with the authority. Jeremiah 23:2 and Ezekiel 34:2 both point to David as the shepherd of Israel. King David was a shepherd of the people. We see in 1 Peter 5:2, which I mentioned a little earlier, that pastors, shepherds, and those who are to shepherd the flock of God are called to the responsibility of exercising oversight. The word is what it means to shepherd. It means leading. It bears the sense of authority. They are not to do it in a way that shows disregard for the flock, but they are to do it in a way that shows care for the flock.
Men, you are to lead as a shepherd. There is no shepherding job description that does not call you to lead. It is not enough to earn a paycheck, send your kids to college, watch TV, and be a nice guy. A nice guy without the courage to lead his family is not pleasing in the sight of God, and it ought not to be pleasing in our sight. In the church today, we've turned Christianity into having manners and being a nice guy. A nice guy who will not step in front of his family and lead has abandoned his post. Sometimes, to be a shepherd in your family means there have to be times when you aren't seen as a nice guy, because you're a warrior. A warrior has committed to doing what's best, not what's easiest.
Husbands and fathers are the heads of their homes. Ephesians 5 explains that in terms of the gospel. You are not the head of the home so you can order your wife to get you a bag of chips and you get to watch what you want to on TV. I was talking to somebody about headship one time, and they said, "Oh yeah, I know, I'm right with you there. I tell you what: I'm about to get married, and if I want to go golfing, I'm going to go golfing. She ain't going to tell me what to do."
That's not correct. Ephesians explains headship in terms of the gospel: "love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her" (5:25). The focus is self-sacrificial responsibility, not personal privilege. That means the leadership we are to exercise as the heads of homes is to be gospel leadership. We are to be gospel shepherds of our families. The thing we care about most, the thing we treasure the most, is to be the gospel, and there are a billion implications to that. It bears upon every issue in life. We are the people in our families who teach our families that everything is about the gospel.
In Acts 20, when the apostle Paul speaks to the Ephesian elders, he talks to them about his shepherding ministry among them. In verse 28, he says, "Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood." Pastor, overseer, elder: understand this. Give attention to the flock of God. Give your attention to the household of God. After all, Jesus purchased it with his own blood. As Paul is imploring them, he tells them in Acts 20—beginning in verse 19—that he "served the Lord with great humility and with tears and in the midst of severe testing by the plots of my Jewish opponents. You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house." In verse 24, he says this: "However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God's grace." Verses 26-27 say, "Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of any of you. For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God."
His plea, his urging—as the shepherd in the church at Ephesus to the other shepherds—is very instructive for us who are called to lead our homes. It means it's going to involve tears; it's going to involve burden, difficulty, challenge. It means we're going to lose sleep at night. It means we're going to gladly bear the marks of suffering to be faithful shepherds. It means that we hold the gospel as the most precious thing, and we do not even count our lives of any value to communicate that gospel to our flock. We do everything we can to testify to the whole counsel of God, to proclaim Jesus Christ: we do not shrink back. We are not more interested in being our children's buddy than we are in being their shepherd. We are not more interested in trying to be cool than we are being their shepherd. We don't shrink back. That's the flock God has given. That is the responsibility before us.
We are called to self-sacrificial gospel leadership, and shepherd leader: understand it is your job, and it's no one else's. You do not dump your kids off at church to be shepherded; the church is a partner with a shepherd in the home. The shepherds of the church lead the church to partner with your family, and you have the responsibility to lead them on a day-to-day basis. You cannot just say, "I earn a paycheck and then I have to focus on me." It ought be obvious to your family that the thing you're most excited about is the gospel, and that permeates trips to the ballpark, the way you spend your money, the way you spend your time, the way you order your life, the way you order your house, and everything. The most important thing is the gospel.
I had the privilege to be at the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, recently. There is so much I am thankful for, and I praise God that I get to be a part of this incredible missionary force that it is reaching the world to the gospel—it is unparalleled in the history of the church—and to see the commitment of this voluntary cooperation of churches to that great gospel end. But there was one thing that really struck me with a sense of sadness. When someone talked about the gospel—explained it, held it up—there was sort of a mild buzz in the room. But when somebody got up who was dealing with some of the cultural issues of the day (which must be dealt with because the gospel bears on all of life), people were going, "Hey, man," and jumping and applauding, and the pervasive energy in the room increased. That's sad.
If you, as the shepherd of your home, are leading in a way that communicates you are more excited and more moved by a contemporary social issue than you are the gospel, there is a problem. You are not leading your family well. We ought to speak to issues like that because of the gospel, but nothing matters more than the gospel. That's what it means to lead our families well. We need fathers who stink because they bear the stench of being in the context of their families, in the burdens and the difficulties and the challenges and the joys. They are with their flock. We need fathers who lead and who are gospel shepherds in their home, who point the way. We need fathers who fight.
In Psalm 77:20, the psalmist says about God: "You led your people like a flock." In other words, "You shepherded your people like a flock." You know what he's talking about? He's referring back to the redemption from bondage and oppression in Egypt. The people were slaves. They were in bondage: they were oppressed, humiliated, pushed down, and dying. But God, the shepherd of his people, led them out like a flock. You know how he did it? He parted the waters. We tend to turn this into almost a cartoonish saying. It would have been sheer awe and fear to walk between those walls of water, knowing you are totally at the mercy of the one who has the power to split the sea, and at a second's notice, you could be engulfed and dead. To walk through those mighty walls of water, to see the awe and the power of God as he led you through: when you got on the other side, swoosh, there are the dead bodies of the strongest fighting force in the world. He led his people like a flock.
So you know what a shepherd is? A shepherd is a warrior. When God's people stood on the other side of that sea, and they sang about the shepherding action of God, they said in Exodus 15:3, "The Lord is a warrior; the Lord is his name." A shepherd fights for his people.
When Jesus came as the Good Shepherd, he said, "The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep" (John 10:11). The Cross is an act of spiritual warfare. It is a declaration of defeat of the enemy of God, of all of the enemies of God. It is that great, incredible reality where the one who comes as the deliverer, the Redeemer of his people, is a suffering servant. The Good Shepherd, in an act of spiritual war, lays down his life for his sheep, and he purchases the flock of God, which he obtained with his own blood. Shepherding is warfare. It's a battle.
I wonder, family pastor: are you leading the fight? I want you to know that Satan and the host of darkness, the principalities and powers arrayed against the purposes of God in this world, hate your family. You, as a shepherd, are to lead in spiritual battle. It may be hard for us to understand in our remote control, recliner lifestyle, but it's a fact nonetheless. You are called to lead your little flock in spiritual battle on a daily basis, and you must not be found negligent in this calling. You must be a man who is willing to lead and to set the priorities in your family for the sake of the gospel. You must be one laboring in prayer, with calluses on your knees, because you understand what is at stake. Don't get lulled to sleep in a middle-class lifestyle, thinking that if you get your kids through college, then they will have a good job and everything will turn out okay. Some of the most miserable people in the world have great jobs and big houses and nice cars, and their lives are falling apart: they are filled with misery and despair, and they are doomed and damned to hell for eternity apart from Jesus Christ. Don't let middle-class Americana lose the sense, shepherds, that this is warfare. It has always been and it still is. It's warfare. Do you act like it?
Fathers, shepherds, household pastors: do you stink, or have you not invested enough in the flock that God has given you to bear the smell of a shepherd? What do your priorities say? Do you lead? I don't mean that you make an occasional decision when it's convenient for you. I mean: do you lead? Are you in the trenches, establishing gospel priorities with tears and prayers? Is it costly for you to make decisions for the sake of your family? Are you bearing burdens for your wife and displaying the gospel to your children? And do you fight? Do you act like it's warfare?
I wonder how many fathers there are in this room whose children couldn't even imagine them ever fighting, because all they see is a nice guy. That's not a positive. If somebody were to ask your children who would fight for them, they ought to say, "Daddy." Who leads you? "Daddy, of course." Who is so close to you that they bear your burdens, that your smell is upon them? "Daddy." Or I wonder if your family sometimes feels like forming a pastor search committee themselves.
Perhaps you're here today and you need to know God the Father through Jesus Christ the Son. You need the Shepherd of your soul before you can ever be the shepherd God's called you to be in your home. You need to bow before the Lord Jesus, declare your dependence upon him, and trust him. You need to say for the first time, by way of faith and trust, as your only hope of salvation today, "Abba Father, Jesus. My great elder brother, God, and Shepherd of my soul."
You can do that today. You can throw yourself on his mercy. He will lead, he will feed, he will guide, and he will fight for you now and forever. The decisive blow has already been delivered on the cross of Jesus Christ. You can be accepted into the family of God. No qualifications, no reservations, child of God: you can say today, "Abba Father."
If you are a father, a family shepherd, or a pastor, and you know you've been blowing it, I've got good news for you today. If you're a Christian, then before you're a father, you're a son. You are never without a Father to run back to, to cry out to. He, by the work of the Spirit of God, will remind you, "Oh, son, you are my child, and you are forgiven. You can rise up from this place on this day to reflect that kind of gospel love in your family in the days ahead."
I would encourage you, if that's true of you, to do something decisive today. Step out, pray, make a declaration. Pull your family around you today and say, "Hey, I've been blowing it, and God loves me anyway, and I know I want to do a better job reflecting him in this family because that love is good."
What about it? Do you need to turn to the Shepherd of your soul today, because you don't know where you stand in relation in the sight of God? If he is not your Shepherd, he is your Judge. Today, do you need to say, "As I try to be a father as a Christian, I need to remember that I'm a son, and I need my Abba Father"? Will you look to him to refresh and renew today?
David Prince is Pastor of Preaching and Vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, KY. He also serves as Assistant Professor of Christian Preaching at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. He is the author of In the Arena: The Promise of Sports for Christian Discipleship and he blogs at www.davidprince.com.