The Church Captive (4)
‘Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: “As I live,” says the Lord GOD, “surely because My flock became a prey, and My flock became food for every beast of the field, because there was no shepherd, nor did My shepherds search for My flock, but the shepherds fed themselves and did not feed My flock”— therefore, O shepherds, hear the word of the LORD! Thus says the Lord GOD: “Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require My flock at their hand… Ezekiel 34.7-10
“Britain has priests, but they are fools; very many ministers, but they are shameless; clerics, but they are treacherous grabbers. They are called shepherds, but they are wolves ready to slaughter souls.”
- Gildas, The Ruin of Britain
Our way or the highway
In 1935, leaders of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, determined to maintain control over foreign missions within their pale; and to punish upstart conservative pastors for creating an independent missions board, suspended from the ministry those pastors active on that board, including the board’s founder, J. Gresham Machen. Machen’s response was to found a new, conservative denomination – the Orthodox Presbyterian Church – and to continue the missions work of the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions.
It was not the first time liberal theologians, fearing a loss of control, had tried to rein in a conservative missions effort and punish those responsible for it. Late in his ministry, Patrick was summoned to return from Ireland to Britain, to answer a charge for a sin he had committed many years before, even before beginning his work in Ireland – a sin he had confessed to a friend (who had now let it be known) and of which he had long ago repented. The bishops who sought to recall him had refused to support his work when he departed for Ireland, and they exercised no oversight of his ministry throughout its long course. But now that he had made “so many thousands” of converts, and churches were beginning to form, they sought to rein in him and his ministry. Patrick’s response was to write his Confession, refusing to submit to their summons, and to continue his work of evangelizing the Irish – essentially anticipating in his actions what Machen would do in his day, nearly 1500 years later.
We might be inclined to wonder: What kind of leaders are willing to disgrace faithful servants of the Lord and jeopardize the progress of the Gospel?
The answer is: Leaders who are committed only to their own selfish interests, and who are captive to the need for control, “treacherous grabbers” who believe everything has to be done their way or not at all. Leaders like the shepherds in the generation following Patrick’s death, about whom Gildas (500-570 AD) wrote in The Ruin of Britain.
The shepherds of Britain
The Ruin of Britain chronicles the decline of Christian England into a divided state ruled by warring kings abetted by self-serving clerics. As in twenty-first century America, the Britain of the martyrs and Patrick had drifted from its spiritual moorings, and the leaders of its churches, like the generation before them that tried to recall Patrick, had become feeble, fruitless, and feckless, and therefore grasping and controlling.
Writing from within Britain, Gildas charged the pastors of his day with wanting to be popular more than spiritual. They were mired in self-seeking and cared but little for the spiritual needs of their flocks. They looked out only for their own best interests: “And how will you bind anything on earth that will be bound above the world also, except for yourselves…?”
Gildas charged them with betraying the Lord by failing to do the work of shepherding God’s flock. They were “unskilled shepherds, who abandon their sheep and pasture them on folly and do not have the words that the skilled shepherd has.” They built their ministries around the next new idea, rather than the plain teaching of Scripture: “It is a clear sign that a man is no lawful shepherd or even middling Christian if he denies or rejects pronouncements that originate not so much from me (for I am very worthless) as from the Old and New Testaments.” Their focus on themselves meant that they were all “stained with the disgrace of schism, pride and uncleanness.”
All this was evidence that the shepherds of Britain were not true spiritual men. Gildas called them “foolish” because they did not seek the Lord faithfully. A “black shadowing fog” had settled over their hearts, and they had shut their ears to the Law of God. They made a great show of words before the people, but they fed them mostly husks rather than solid meat. Gildas marshalled the teaching of prophets and apostles against the shepherds of Britain, comparing them to the false prophets of the Old Testament and the heretical teachers of the New.
They were not feeding the sheep entrusted to their care, and the effects of their failure were everywhere in evidence. The light of the Gospel was going out in Britain; in its place “a dense cloud and black night of their sin so loom over the whole island that it diverts almost all men from the straight way and makes them stray along the trackless and entangled paths of crime.”
Addressing the believers of Britain, Gildas asked: “What do you expect, unhappy people, from such beasts of the belly (as the apostle said)? Will you find correction at the hand of men who not only do not turn to good deeds but even (in the words of a reproachful prophet) labour to do ill? Will you find light from such eyes, which look with greed only on things that lead steeply down to vice?” He urges them to “swiftly flee these rapacious wolves of Arabia, like Lot fleeing to the hills from the fiery rain that fell on Sodom, then, the blind led by the blind, you will fall together into the pit of hell.”
A warning to leaders
Gildas’ words are harsh, but we must remember that God always expects more of those who are entrusted with the work of shepherding His flocks. All who take up the work of shepherding must be certain that they are doing the Lord’s work the Lord’s way, striving to achieve the goals He defined, and caring for every one of God’s sheep with the tenderness and healing strength of a faithful shepherd.
In a day of declining spirituality, leaders can be easily distracted to “new things” and “proven techniques” in seeking to grow their churches. But such an approach to the work of ministry engenders a spirit of competition; spawns a controlling spirit; and offers the sheep junk food rather than solid food in the hope they will keep coming back for more.
What would Gildas say about the state of church leadership in our day?
May the almighty God of all consolation and pity preserve the very few good shepherds from all harm, and, conquering the common enemy, make them citizens of the heavenly city of Jerusalem, that is, of the congregation of all the saints: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, to whom be honour and glory forever and ever, Amen.
- Gildas, “A Prayer for Good Pastors”
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Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, quotes from Church fathers are from The Ancient Christian Commentary Series (InterVarsity Press).
All quotes from Gildas are from Gildas, The Ruin of Britain, Michael Winterbottom, ed. and tr. (West Sussex: Phillimore & Co., LTD, 1978, 2002).