Luther’s Warning to Leaders

I’m not one to cast stones at our church leaders. The job is frightfully hard and full of judgment and rife with people’s disappointment in you. I have a number of friends who are ordained and in full time ministry; I also have a lot of friends who are ordained and in teaching (read: leadership) positions. And, I am training to be a leader/teacher in the church. So, I’m sensitive to casting judgments and dolling out critique and criticism. Leaders are human, prone to error, suffer like the rest of us, and need as much grace as the sheep do. Our leaders are not Christ incarnate (even if they’ve fallen for that lie, time to time); they are merely the ones gifted to be the mouthpieces through which Christ calls His sheep to himself through the proclamation of His gospel.

But then: Luther.

Luther has the unique ability to calm my nervous mind and kick me in the gut.  Today, I’m sharing the kick in the gut.

I’m currently reading the second volume of his First Lecture on the Psalms (Psalms 76-126). I’m merely a scant 133 pages in and have become overwhelmed with his admonitions to leaders. You know the type of overwhelmedness I’m talking about: the type that makes it a little bit harder to swallow, the type that quickens your heart rate, makes you grab for your inhaler to help you breath, the type that might make you use appropriate profanities as sweat beads up on your brow and you question why the H-E-double hockey sticks you’re in this racket to begin with.

Luther’s main concern in all of these passages I’ve come across is: Christ’s flock, the sheep. Here is Luther commenting on the names listed in Psalm 83:11, specifically on the name: Zeeb (I’ll be quoting him at length):

Zeeb (that is, ‘wolf’) is an evil prince and shepherd who devours the sheep with his destructive teaching. He is the same as Oreb [mentioned briefly in the paragraph above Zeeb]. For every such person…is dry and does not have the moisture of grace and the true doctrine with which to feed the sheep. Therefore it follows that he is the wolf and not the shepherd, devouring and not feeding. Concerning them, Ps. 5:9 says: ‘Their throat is an open sepulcher.’ Why? Because they dealt deceitfully with their tongues, a that is, they taught falsely. Therefore they devoured the sheep with open throat and entombed beyond recall the dead and wretched souls in the word of their falsehood, that is, in their throat. Then follows: ‘Will they not know, all they who devour My people as they eat bread?’ (Ps. 14:4). Therefore they are rightly called Zeeb and wolves. And the same psalm makes clear why they are called Oreb, for ‘destruction and unhappiness are in their ways.’ This is the dryness and aridity of souls which afflicts them with thirst or rather kills them. And note the individual words:

‘Sepulcher,’ because they bury dead people, not just hide away those who are sleeping.

‘Open,’ because they lead many astray.

‘Throat,’ because they penetrate and prevail upon them; they do not simply tear the unhappy souls with their teeth or lick them with the tongue, but they incorporate them into their own body.

Leaders are called to feed the sheep, not feed on them or scatter them. The sheep are fed by the Word, Christ Himself, the Gospel, which is the doctrine of the justification of sinners. This message is the message that brings the sheep in to the fold and brings them together; the message that draws them close/er to Christ; the message that brings comfort, hope, healing, safety, and peace; the message that brings them true and unending life. When anything else is controlling the words from the leaders’ mouth, the end result for the sheep, according to Luther, will be: scattering, devouring, destruction, strife, and, ultimately, death.

This is no small warning to all of us who are leaders of Christ’s flock. But there is also good news within the warning. Note that Luther, in this passage, is less concerned with the morality of the life of the leader (though, do not be mislead here, he would certainly want his leaders to resemble the description offered by Paul in the pastorals) and the ability of the leader to coerce the sheep to do x, y, and z,  but rather, with the leader’s theology, her message, and her care of the sheep. A good leader is a leader who forever proclaims the gospel to his flock and all who have ears to hear the gospel. This proclamation is the yoke that we bear as “good” leaders and teachers of the flock. While it is a yoke, it is an “easy and light” yoke because it is beautifully and wonderfully neither about us leaders being perfect nor getting the sheep to do what we think they should be doing, but, simply proclaiming Christ crucified and stepping back and letting the Spirit–the Lord, the giver of life–convict and sanctify the sheep.

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