Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Flock Teaching

God uses metaphors in Scripture as a figure of speech to communicate His truth. In some prominent passages, New Testament authors use the "flock" analogy as one of these pictures to portray a particular theological concept. "Flock," of course, starts with an agrarian reality with actual sheep, as seen in the nativity text in Luke 2:8, "And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night." To convey doctrine using a metaphor, we start with the reality, the actual flock led by a real shepherd in a tangible field.

We determine what "flock" means by its usage. In a metaphorical way, the word "flock" (poimnion) is used six times (Mt 26:31; Lk 12:32; Acts 20:28-29; 1 Pet 5:2-3). In each case, like a real flock of sheep, "flock" is a visible group in one locale under a shepherd. It does not illustrate anything universal at all. If someone wanted to communicate a universal concept, he would not use "flock" to do so.

In Matthew 26:31, Jesus speaks to His disciples about the night of His betrayal and quotes Zechariah 13:7 to connect this event as a fulfillment of prophecy. The Shepherd, Jesus, would be smitten, and the sheep, the disciples gathered there, would be scattered. They were an assembled group that would become unassembled. Even if we were to look at this Matthew reference as somewhat ambiguous, which it does not seem to be, we have other references to help us understand how the New Testament uses and how we should understand "flock."

Next, in the gospels one more time, Luke 10:32, Jesus again addresses His disciples as "little flock." Again we see gathered, visible, and local. We have the Shepherd, Jesus, and His flock with Him there in one place. It has all the aspects fitting of the metaphor.

In Acts 20:28-29 we are beginning to become as clear as ever. There Paul is speaking to individual pastors leading an individual church. These were not men in charge of all believers in the world. They were men who were shepherding in one location the believers that assembled there. The wolves would enter into their individual flock, and hurt the sheep that were gathered with them. They did not pastor all the sheep in the world, just the ones in their flock. A flock is again a separate church.

Acts 20:28-29, unambiguous, plain, matches up with 1 Peter 5:2-3, the final usage of "flock" in the New Testament. Peter commands pastors to "feed the flock which is among you." This is to say that there are several flocks. Each pastor is responsible for his own particular flock, not all believers in some universal, invisible, mystical flock. Flocks are separate gatherings of believers that are led by their individual pastors.

In every context of the word "flock," the metaphor speaks of an individual church, a gathering of believers. The concept of the "flock" does not back up the concept of a universal, unassembled entity at all. A flock is a church.

Taking that understanding of flock and then looking at a parallel passage, John 10, will help us to understand what Jesus talks about there. In John 10:27-29, when Jesus mentions "His sheep," who hear "His voice and follow Him," we would assume that His sheep would be a part of His flock. The term "flock" is not used in John 10, but from the other usages of "flock" in the New Testament, we would know that the way His sheep follow Him is through one of His flocks. Those outside of a church are not following Christ. They would not be His sheep. This is not to say that we are saved through church membership. It is to say that saved people will identify with Christ through baptism and by joining a "flock." There may be those who claim to be His sheep, but 1 John 2:19 says that we should not consider those not with an assembly to be "of" that assembly, that is, they would not be regarded as saved people. There is no category of unchurched saint or unflocked sheep in the New Testament.

Jesus' sheep would have a shepherd as seen in Acts 20:28-29 and 1 Peter 5:2-3. The church is the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Tim 3:15), so it is the place of Jesus' voice. Those following Christ would be hearing His voice in the flock that He started, which is local and visible.

We can understand the unity of the flock from John 10. It comes from the voice of the Shepherd, that is, unity comes from the all the Words of the Lord Jesus Christ. We live by all the Words that proceed from the Lord's mouth (Mt 4:4). His followers as a whole, even as seen in the plural pronoun "ye" in Matthew 28:18-20, observe all the things that Jesus said. Just like Jesus came to keep all the things that the Father told Him, so do His followers. We are sanctified like Jesus was (John 17:17-19), which is by all that was commanded. Jesus said the same in John 14, when He said that those who love Him are those who keep everything that He said. The unifying factor of a church is the teaching and then practice of that church. This teaching and practice is also what separates that church from the world and from other entities or organizations with a different belief and conduct.

Those who attempt to read into the concept of "flock" a universal entity are doing just that—reading into Scripture. Instead of taking the plain meaning, they start with an ecclesiology concocted by state churchism and then try to find it in the Bible. To do so, they must pervert the doctrine of "the flock," one based upon its actual usage in God's Word. You will not find a universal church in the usage of flock in the New Testament. In one sense, if there were a universal flock, it is perpetually scattered, not at all within the Biblical understanding of a church.

In John 10:16 we read a related word, "fold." In the context, the fold is Israel. Jesus will lead His sheep out of that fold. Of course, His sheep will join His flock, but what is His flock? His flock is local and visible. That flock is made up of His sheep for sure. The New Testament teaches a regenerate membership. Churches are made up of sheep. We try to keep the wolves out (Acts 20:28-29) even though that takes the skill and labor of the pastor to do so. Gentiles would come into that flock, His church. Each of His churches is His church. Gentiles would be included in the same churches as Jews, therefore, would too be a part of His fold. That whole idea doesn't change the understanding of His flock and how it is used in the New Testament. It fits into the concept that we see also in Ephesians 2 when Paul says that the barrier had been erased between Jews and Gentiles in the church. Both would follow the Lord through His flock.

Unity is found in the flock of Christ. That flock is local and visible. It has a shepherd appointed by the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28). The flock is unified by the Word of Christ.


Brian Connors said...

Having seen this topic in a number of threads, I am wondering if you would be willing to explain exactly why you seem to believe the idea of the universal church (right or wrong, it is still an idea) to be pernicious.

Kent Brandenburg said...

Hi Brian.

I'll probably post on this because I want people to know. I'll give a list of problems.

Brian Connors said...

Just so that there is no misunderstanding, the reason that I asked is for curiosity sake - I have heard it declared that it does not exist by some Baptists, while other Baptists believe in it - in my opinion, it is more a question for philosophy than theology, and the opinion is more shaped by whether one is a Nominalist (one who believes that no universals exist) or a Realist (one who believes the idea of a universal is as real as the particulars). It may be more pernicious than I know, so a list of such reasons is a good idea: I look forward to seeing it. After reading it, I may have some point-by-point questions concerning it, but these are just to have a more perfect understanding of the issue, even if I seem to take the opposite approach.

Gary Webb said...

I am looking forward to Brandenburg's list. I would like to quickly give one major problem with the idea that the NT uses the word "church" (ekklhsia) to refer to all believers. That understanding of "church" destroys or renders useless or perverts many passages in the NT both small and large, a primary example being I Corinthians 12. This passage has virtually no application if this is referring to a "universal body." The fact that this refers to a local body has tremendous application. Note particularly verse 25.
Like I say, I am looking forward to the list, but this would be one primary reason for the "perniciousness" of the "universal church" doctrine.

Brian Connors said...

Just to question the theory of I Cor. 12 for reasons outlined above - Verse 27 says "Ye are the body of Christ" but in the original, the word "the" is not present. If it were anauthorous, we would have to say that our English translation is unreliable because it adds a word that should not be added. Obviously, it could not be articular because that would indicate that Corinth was the one and only body of Christ. If the reading is to be considered abstract rather than anauthorus, it could be read as translated because then Corinth was a manifestation of the idea of the church (which is the true understanding of it if one holds to the philosophy of Realism.) You could probably see this with John 1:1 - it cannot read "the Word was a god" but in the Greek it cannot read "the Word was the God" either because that would make Jesus the only member of the Trinity - being abstract, it says that the Word was fully God and had all the characteristics of such, but was not the one and only person of the Godhead. The same might be said of I Cor. 12

Something about the church needing to be visable - the ecumenical movement seeks for unity based strictly on that. In reading the linked article by Dr. Bauder, I found nothing in it that suggested a universal flock, unless you speak of there being one Shepherd. We find that Christ is the Great Shepherd, which says that each pastor is another shepherd, but they are all properly called undershepherds, because they are under Christ.

If one takes this train of thought too far, he may come to the place where he makes the pastor as head of the church. There is no difference between a pastor as head of one church and the pope as head of many churches - if they must be visible - it makes for a two-headed being, which is, even in mythology, a monstrosity. The reason it does this is that a visible body demands a visible head. If churches are seeking the Shepherd, however, there is true spiritual unity rather than the superficial visible unity of ecumenism prescribed by the World Council of Churches and its primary influence of Neo Orthodox theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (who did not believe Christ literally rose from the dead, and believed that Christians need to learn to live as though God does not exist - as such he influenced Paul Tillich who said that God does not exist unless men want Him to, and William Hamilton who was a founder of Theothanatology, or "God is dead-ism"). Again, I am asking these to get a more perfect understanding rather than to question the belief.

d4v34x said...

Kent, You are bumping up against the "problem of induction" here. I think it's fallacious to say that if the NT uses the flock metaphor a certain way in 5 passages, then Jesus *must* be using it that way in a sixth passage.

Furthermore, it is rather bold to claim that Jesus wouldn't use a flock to picture an unassembled, non-local group because all flocks of actual sheep are local and assembled. The problem with that has to do with how metaphors work.

People often use metaphors in which the tenor (the believers in our case) are likened to the vehicle (the sheep in this case) in a limited way. Stated another way, there are often aspects of the metaphorical vehicle that do not apply to the tenor in a given instance. We recognize these aspects a couple ways, including the point of the poem, story, or parable and the degree to which the various vehicle aspects are stressed.

Since this is the case, one ought not insist that Christ here refers to a strictly local group of belivers. What is stressed in the parable is the sheeplike vulnerability and leadability of the believers (as well as the nature of owner-shephards vs. hirelings).

And Bauder's arguments are quite compelling.

Gary Webb said...

Couple of quick comments:
1) Your Greek is incorrect. Two different rules of grammar apply to John 1:1 & I Corinthians 12:27. In John 1:1 the article identifies which nominative word (logos or theos) is the subject. The "Word" is certainly not "a God" as you indicated, but the Word is fully God. In I Corinthians 12:27 "body" does not need the article to make it definite because of its attachment to "of Christ" which is genitive. This is called the Appollonius Canon & is also seen in the phrase "the wrath of God" in Romans 1:18. "Wrath" does not have the definite article because it is connected with "of God." This is why every version translates the phrase in I Corinthians 12:27 as "THE body of Christ."
2) It is interesting that, though the pastor is never called the "head of the church", he is also never called the "under-shepherd" but shares 2 titles that Christ has: shepherd & bishop (I Peter 2:25). I certainly do not believe that the pastor has the same authority that Christ does over His churches, but the pastor is indeed the bishop - representing Christ in the church like the father represents Christ in the home. This is the Bible designation. It does not make the local church a 2 headed monster. I don't think your argument holds up.

Joshua said...

To answer the second half of Brian's question:

Mat 18:20 For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.

Even though the church is a visible entity, there is still a spiritual element to it. I don't think that by reading it literally you must supplant Christ's headship. I hope your visible local church has a visible local undershepherd. It doesn't make any two headed monster to have one.

Who is the head of my family? Christ, because He is the head of me. Then under Him I have my authority as the husband, then my wife under me etc.

Joshua said...


The problem is that ALL the metaphors used (body, bride, flock, house, temple) are all purely local objects, and when that is coupled with the fact that ekklesia is purely a local term, then we need an exceptionally compelling argument to start spiritualizing this. It's not inductive at all to read them all as local - it's very normal and natural.

I don't find the Spirit Baptism argument of 1 cor 12 to be compelling at all, nor am I impressed with Augustine's use of Plato to get the ball rolling nor Luther's convenient adaption of the original false teaching. Perhaps you've met some better reasons for assuming a Universal Church, but I still don't see it.

d4v34x said...

I should have added to my note above that I'm not sure that accepting the flock in John 10 as one that transcends age and location (basically equating it with the kingdom) necessarily damages a "local only" view even though it might be used to support a universal view.

Furthermore, don't most people who take a universal view also take a "local primary" view?

Brian Connors said...

Dr. Webb:

There are several families in my church who have fled a dictatorship that began because of this principle: making the pastor the head of the church. He was so strong on local-only that his own church became, to his mind, the only true church. He then began, as head of that church, to intrude into the lives of his people: telling them when and whom to marry, where to work, what colour of car to get, etc. If they ever left that area, it was equivalent to them leaving God. I say not that this will happen to those who are local-only, but it could happen.


In Ireland 95% of the people are Romanists - popery does not claim to supplant Christ, but instead claims to represent Him. Notice that the Greek word "Anti" can mean two things: "against" as in "opposed to" and "in place of". The pope does not claim to be against Christ, for he should then deceive nobody. Rather, he claims to be in the place of Christ. I think it is a dangerous practice to equate any man with Christ. You are right, I believe in a spiritual view, for Paul makes it clear that the visible sign of circumcision did not make one an Israelite - for the Jew was not one outwardly but having the circumcision of the heart (see Romans 2). I have heard some say that the idea of "house" or "Body" as applied to the church demands that it be visible - without exception, the churches that do such have great signs of carnality, as though they believed they were only flesh without spirit (see Genesis 6). Jesus said that true worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth. In reality, Israel is called "a house" many times when they were not all visibly assembled (which was only supposed to be thrice yearly if they were not into idols). They are also shown in a body format in other places (aholah and aholibah in Ezekiel).

Gary Webb said...

I am sorry to hear about the pastor who acted like Diotrephes & maybe even worse. Any deviation from the Scriptural pattern is a deviation & harmful to God's people & the testimony of the Lord. Of course, the fact that an over-emphasis of any doctrine "could happen" should not keep us from following Scripture. Many pastors are afraid to preach on finances because of the wrong emphasis by the TV preachers, etc., but I still preach on that subject.
Any way, I know that the Lord met with us in our church when we did not properly understand this doctrine, & I am convinced that it is only by His marvelous mercy that He still meets with us. I pray that He will never remove our "candlestick" because of our unbelief & sin. May the Lord be glorified in our churches tomorrow.

Kent Brandenburg said...


I didn't anyone here saying that they believed Scripture taught that the pastor was the "head" of the church. No one here believes that, so it is a bit of a straw man related to this flock teaching. The pastor is the shepherd, the overseer, the president of the assembly, but we believe also in a congregational form of church government. We oppose pastoral dictatorships, so you wouldn't be able to draw that from any of our writings. Thanks.

By the way, I'm still planning on writing the problems that arise from the universal church idea, but it might not be in the next two weeks to a month. Stay tuned.


How you interpret Scripture is to interpret the unclear in the light of the clear---this isn't a logical fallacy. We can see clearly what the flock analogy means in Acts 20:28-29 and 1 Peter 5:2-3. I think it is clear in the gospels too, but there was only one church at the time, and for that reason it is more ambiguous, perhaps, and only perhaps, because it reads like a local only situation there too. And I agree again with Joshua in that it is a visible and local analogy not fitting with some kind universal idea.

Dr. Bauder's article started by saying that we don't just get our ecclesiology from "church" passages, but also from "flock" passages. I showed that they didn't give a different doctrine.

Brian Connors said...

Personally, Such men as the man I described above give a stench to the honourable authority of a pastor. The Bible does say that elders are to rule well, but not to become lords over God's heritage. That is why I think that a combination government of episcopo-congrego is more Biblical. In a strict congregational government, a good pastor may be forced to leave because he teaches truths that offend the people, or because he exposes a sin in the camp.

Gary Webb said...

Just to make sure, but are you indicating that a "local only" view of "church" in the NT somehow includes the idea of the pastor being the sole authority and excluding the vote of the church? If so, I would have to strongly disagree. I have not yet encountered that form of church government among the men I know who are local only. In my limited range of fellowship, the pastors who hold to a "local only" view of the church are all expositors and believe in the authority of the church to vote combined with the strong leadership of the pastor. I believe this is the Scriptural pattern - demonstrated in the Acts 15 passage, which is twisted by a universal view of the church but which shows 2 local churches resolving a dispute between them.

Brian Connors said...

Never once did I say the two are absolutely linked. I personally do not know the church in which these things happened -only that which has been told to me. As I said before the idea of a universal church is merely that - an idea: which is realised only in the eternal golden age. If the definition of "universal" is seen philosophically, however, it might be seen (a large number of the leaders of the early churches were also philosophers) as the universal is merely an idea, or pattern, of which the particulars are manifestations. As such, Christ would be the pattern for man since man was made in God's image (namely the form in which Christ would come). Even the term "mankind" or "anthropos" is then a universal, as would be the term Ethnos. However, as I said, this is viewing the matter from the standpoint of philosophy.

Anonymous said...

There are several families in my church who have fled a dictatorship that began because of this principle: making the pastor the head of the church. He was so strong on local-only that his own church became, to his mind, the only true church. He then began, as head of that church, to intrude into the lives of his people: telling them when and whom to marry, where to work, what colour of car to get, etc. If they ever left that area, it was equivalent to them leaving God. I say not that this will happen to those who are local-only, but it could happen.

Brian, I'm sorry to hear about this particular case, but at the same time, we should refrain from assuming that one instance of wrong action on the part of a single man somehow "refutes" a biblical doctrine, or shows that it isn't a biblical doctrine. That is non sequitur.