Pastors Are Not Cowboys

XKH141034 The Highland Shepherd, 1859 (oil on canvas); by Bonheur, Rosa (1822-99); 49×63 cm; Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany; French, out of copyright

I am just back from Cheyenne, Wyoming, which is cowboy country. While there I had opportunity to talk to an old friend and pastor about the business of shepherding and loving God’s people. Wyoming is cowboy country. The cowboy is Wyoming’s “brand.” Even the verb to “to brand” is a cowboy verb. It is the act of heating up a piece of iron until it is red hot and then placing that hot iron on the hide of a calf. It is probably not as gruesome as it might sound but it does sting. Cattle are not only branded, they are controlled (not always successfully) with electric fences (containing a very mild charge, designed to encourage wandering cattle, when their noses touch it, to go in the other direction). Cattle are herded into pens, chutes, trailers, and finally taken to auction or to the slaughter house. Traditionally, a cowboy works around and amid his herd of cattle, on a horse. Today he might be riding a utility vehicle (e.g., a “Gator” or its like) but some cowboys still ride horses. At rodeos cowboys (and girls) learn, hone, and demonstrate the skills traditionally used by cowboys such as riding, roping, and racing. Cowboys must be good at their work. In the midst of a herd of cattle they need a sturdy and reliable horse to control the herd and to keep themselves safe. Calves grow up. A full-grown polled Hereford can weigh as much as 1800 pounds. That is 300 lbs more than the 1961 Volkswagen Beetle. Separating a steer from the herd, getting him into a pen, then into a chute, and thence into a trailer means working in close quarters with an animal that, when frightened, is prepared to crush and stomp the cowboy. I worked on my grandparent’s farm a bit and I can still hear the sound of the steer’s head hitting the fence boards of the chute just below my boots, as I scrambled to escape his charge.

Sheep are rather different. I have little personal experience with actual sheep (but 30 years experience with metaphorical sheep) but I see that, in some larger breeds, adult ewes might weigh as much as 250 lbs and adult rams over 300 lbs. There are other differences between sheep and cattle. I have seen children ride sheep at a rodeo but it would be a crime to put a full-grown man on even the sturdiest ram. They behave differently from cattle because they are different. Therefore they must be cared for appropriately.

It is significant that the Holy Spirit chose to use, in Scripture, the metaphors of shepherd and sheep to describe the church and pastoral ministry. The word pastor is simply the Latin word for shepherd. God’s people are often described as sheep and, of course, the sheep need a shepherd. In John 10:1–5 our Lord Jesus casts himself as the Shepherd of the sheep (ποιμήν ἐστιν τῶν προβάτων). Our Lord Jesus is the Good Shepherd (John 10:11). In the benediction in Hebrews 13:20, the pastor writing to Jewish Christians blesses the “God of all peace, who raised from the dead, our Lord Jesus, the great Shepherd of the Sheep…”.

In John 21:15 Jesus commanded Peter to “feed my lambs.” That is the work of a shepherd (not that cowboys do not feed cattle!). In Acts 20:28, Paul exhorted the Ephesian elders to shepherd the flock (ποιμνίῳ) over which the Holy Spirit had made them “overseers” (ἐπισκόπους). In 1 Peter 2:25, Peter paraphrases Isaiah 53:6, “For you were continually straying like sheep,” and adds “but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” Here Jesus is portrayed as our “Shepherd” (ποιμένα) is also the “Overseer” (ἐπίσκοπον).

The link between “overseer,” a flock, and shepherds is not accidental. Scripture links the pastoral function to the episcopal (overseeing) function. This has implications for the way we should think about the offices of pastor and episcopos. When we see episcopos (overseer) in Scripture we should not think first of all of a bishop and certainly not of a regional manager of the church—which is what bishops became in the late Patristic and early Medieval period—but we should think in the first instance of pastors, shepherds of God’s people. Certainly there is no warrant in Scripture for thinking that Christ instituted a monepiscopacy whereby authority flows from a central bishop to other offices. There is nothing in Scripture about a central episcopacy in Rome. There is nothing about such an office (i.e., the papacy) in the early 2nd century either.

From this evident connection we should also see that it is the fundamental duty of the shepherd oversee his flock so as to protect them. A good shepherd feeds, overlooks, and protects Christ’s flock in imitation of Christ, in obedience to Christ. Because the sheep cannot protect themselves from wolves (Acts 20:29). The pastor, according to Paul, is to regard the visible church, the Christ-confessing covenant community, as the flock for whom Christ shed his blood. He must understand that the flock depends upon the shepherd to do it. He does this by teaching. In Ephesians 4:11 Paul lists “shepherds and teachers” (ποιμένας καὶ διδασκάλους) two aspects of one gift that God has given to the church. They feed and protect Christ’s sheep by preaching and teaching.

The Apostle Peter addresses the shepherding function of elders (πρεσβυτέρους) at some length:

shepherd (ποιμάνατε) the flock (ποίμνιον) of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd (ἀρχιποίμενος) appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory (1 Peter 5:2–4; NASB).

Our ascended Lord Jesus is the “Chief Pastor.” We who are privileged to serve as pastors and overseers of Christ’s flock serve under his watchful, gracious care. We do not serve under compulsion, i.e., unwillingly. One of the more unfortunate aspects of pastoral piety that developed in the Patristic period was the narrative of the “reluctant pastor” (e.g., Augustine). In order to demonstrate true piety the pastor had to protest that he was being dragged into office kicking and screaming. This seems at odds with Peter’s teaching.

Even more important, however, is Peter’s note that pastors do not “lord it over” the flock. Here he all but says, in effect, pastors are not cowboys. We are shepherds. However cowboys may work cattle (I am not impugning that noble vocation) shepherds care for their flock using different tools. The shepherd’s rod is not for striking sheep but for striking wolves. The flock must be guided gently and patiently and by example. The flock will follow a gentle and brave shepherd (see 1 Sam 17:34–36). We speak of “cattle drives” up long trails to market but sheep are led by faithful, self-sacrificing, gentle, overseeing shepherds.

Cowboying is exciting. Great stories are told about bold men (and women) who drove cattle up the Chisholm Trail and the Dodge City Trail to market. I do not recall such films about shepherds and sheep. They are different vocations. The skills and virtues needed for the one are not quite the same as the skills and virtues needed for the other. Both are valuable but it is essential to the well being of the sheep (and the shepherd) that we do not confuse the two.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
    Author Image

    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

    More by R. Scott Clark ›

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!