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The Dynamics of True Shepherding
In walking alongside survivors of religious trauma it is very tempting to focus the light on the darkness. But the darkness of spiritual abuse is first clarified and then outshined by the brightness of the Good Shepherd, and without continually redirecting our gaze to the True Light, our lights grow dim. Diane Langberg does this so well in her book Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church, demonstrating how the dynamics of spiritual abuse are best understood through loving contemplation of the one who never hurts his sheep.
So after exploring spiritual abuse last week in the blind man’s story from John 9, it seemed only natural to explore Jesus’ teaching about himself as the Door and the Shepherd in John 10.
According to G. Campbell Morgan, mentor and predecessor to Martin Lloyd Jones at Westminster Chapel, when Jesus talks about being “the door of the sheep” (10:7), he has in mind the blind man who just entered into better pastures by faith. So think again about this man who was just cast out from the center of Jewish life. Morgan believes this was formal excommunication:
“The ‘putting out’ there means excommunication in the full sense. So they cut that man off. From that time he had no right to cross the threshold of the temple or synagogue. From that moment he was cut off from all the privileges of his religion, excluded from the society of devout and decent souls. It was no light matter.”1
Perhaps you have experienced this yourself, or know someone who has. This is not the excommunication of 1 Corinthians 5 which has a sinner’s ultimate good in mind. This is the shame-filled casting out that happens to Mormons and Muslims and other religious followers when they become Christians. And it is the casting out that is happening to victims of abuse in evangelical churches. You likely know some of these stories. Think of those hurting people when you think of this man.
And then think of this man being just a few feet from Jesus, learning from the Good Shepherd himself about the dynamic of true shepherding. I can imagine Jesus looking this man in the eye, really seeing him. He uses his eyes to draw back the man’s wandering gaze which wavers between the awe of the Son of Man and awe of the bright, color-filled world around him. The man sees Jesus looking at him. And being seen, he listens to these soul-healing words of comfort:
You followed me because I called you by name. You followed me because you recognized the voice of the Good Shepherd (v. 3-4).
You weren’t just cast out by your faith leaders. You rightfully fled from them because they are strangers and thieves and robbers (v. 5).
By faith in Me you left an unprotected flock and entered into safe pastures, abundant with life (v. 9-10).
The pastures you feed on are fed by the overflowing river of love between Me and My Father in the Holy Spirit from which I lay down my life for you (v. 9-10, 15, 17).
You were wrongfully made to bear guilt and shame which really belongs to the wolves, but fear not, I will never leave you or flee when wolves come for you (v. 12).
No, rather than flee, I take the brunt of wrongful blame and shame by standing in your place so that the wolves’ fangs tear into Me rather than you (v. 15).
You are not alone. There are other sheep who are lost and hurting as you were, and just as I called you and brought you in, so will I call them and bring them in, and you will all be My flock, and I will be your Shepherd (v. 16).
That’s something of what I imagine this man hearing: the dynamic of true shepherding. If the dynamic of spiritual abuse is misusing religious power to wrongfully transfer responsibility onto an innocent other, the dynamic of true shepherding is taking full responsibility for the protection of the sheep, even if it cost the shepherd his life.
Quote from G. Campbell Morgan
“He died in conflict with the wolf; and then through that dying He released His life, that His sheep might share it, and by sharing, possess that which would make them also more than conquerors over the destroying wolf.”2
A Burning in My Bones: The Authorized Biography of Eugene H. Peterson, by Winn Collier. Before you read another book about how to spot and respond to abusive church leaders, read this portrait of a faithful shepherd who avoided becoming a wolf. Knowing the good when you see it is just as important as being able to spot the bad.
The Hidden Years at Nazareth, by G. Campbell Morgan. I discovered Morgan through a quote from this book that Diane Langberg shared. It too is a healing portrait of Jesus’ humility and how Christians can avoid becoming wolves by imitating the lowly Christ. It’s almost a long pamphlet rather than a short book. You can read it online or download a free PDF at archive.org.
When you see sheep fleeing from the flock, what is your first assumption? That they are “neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some” (Heb. 10:25)? Or could it be that they are fleeing from the stranger, whose voice they no longer recognize and should not follow (John 10:5)?
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G. Campbell Morgan, The Gospel According to John, p. 168, in Studies in the Four Gospels. Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1931.
Morgan, p. 175.