Some Thoughts on Sheep

Sheep

The term “sheep” has become somewhat controversial in our current social and political climate. It is often used disparagingly to describe those who seem to naively follow whatever their leaders tell them to do, even if they are being told to do what appears to be foolish, harmful, irrational, or even wrong. Some have pushed back against this criticism by arguing that, as Christians, we have been called to be like sheep so we should simply follow whatever these orders might be (though each one who argues this will probably have in mind some limit as to how far they believe this compliance should go).

[Note: In this article, I am not going to address any specific cases in which this concept may arise; but I do believe it will be helpful for us to consider some general principles.]

Does the Bible say anything that would address this controversy? Let us consider some thoughts.

The Bible uses the term “sheep” in describing our relationship with the Lord. He is the shepherd, we are His sheep. Notice what Jesus said:

I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep” (John 10:11).

I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep” (John 10:14-15).

My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me” (John 10:27).

Clearly, we are to be as “sheep” in our relationship with Christ by meekly following Him – “the good shepherd” – wherever He leads us. But does this mean we are to act in the same way toward others? Notice what else Jesus said in this same chapter in His illustration about His “sheep”:

When he puts forth all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. A stranger they simply will not follow, but will flee from him, because they do not know the voice of strangers” (John 10:4-5).

If we are His sheep, we are not to follow anyone in the same manner in which we follow Him. That means we will not follow any religious leader who is teaching something contrary to His word. John said that if someone “does not bring this teaching” – the teaching of Christ – we are “not [to] receive him” (2 John 10). It also means we will not follow any civil ruler who is compelling us to do something contrary to His will. When faced with this conflict, Peter said, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

Jesus told His disciples, “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves…” (Matthew 10:16). His point was not that, as sheep, they were to follow along wherever the wolves directed them to go. Instead, He was again emphasizing their relationship with Him. They were to follow Him wherever He directed them to go, even if it was in the midst of wolves.

Regarding our relationship with civil authorities (since this is often the context in which the term is used today), the Bible does teach that we are to submit to those who rule over us (Romans 13:1; 1 Peter 2:13-14). However, Peter also wrote that we are to do this “for the Lord’s sake” (1 Peter 2:13). We do not submit to rulers for their sake, but for the Lord’s sake. The will of Christ trumps the will of our rulers (Acts 5:29). He is our shepherd, so we must follow Him.

Another animal analogy that would be helpful to consider in this context is the one Jesus gave immediately after He said He was sending His disciples out as sheep in the midst of wolves. He said, “Be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Those in authority are often opposed to Christ and His people. In fact, when Paul described the enemies in our spiritual battle, he included “the rulers” and “the powers” (Ephesians 6:12). Therefore, to take the term “sheep” out of its Biblical context and use it to justify following every order from rulers without questioning them is, at the very least, inaccurate and could be, depending on the situation, reckless and even disobedient to the Lord (our true shepherd).

As we face an increasingly dangerous and uncertain world, we are to be wise and serpents and innocent as doves. As followers of Christ, we are to be sheep to Him alone.


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