Shepherds vs. Hirelings
Jesus spelled out the difference between authentic shepherds and mere hirelings: “The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep.” By contrast the hireling, “climbs in some other way.” The shepherd is not at all like the hireling. The hired man is picked up over at the employment office, so to speak. He works for his paycheck, but “cares nothing for the sheep.” Consequently, of course the sheep “don’t know his voice” and they “run away from him.” Unlike the shepherd who owns the sheep, when perils arise, the hireling “abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it.” (John 10:1-5)
However, Jesus is no hireling. He is the good shepherd. And the “sheep follow [the shepherd] because they know his voice” (John 10:4, emphasis added). Jesus leads the way.
Jesus also calls church elders to be authentic shepherds. Two apostles, Peter and Paul, make it clear that Jesus has passed on his relational leadership model to the elders of the churches—namely that elders are to be shepherds of God’s flock. Paul pleads with the elders of the church in Ephesus, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). And Peter writes, “To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder.… Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care” (1 Pet 5:1-2).
The hireling may haunt some of us who are today’s religious leaders as well—leaders who may not really be in touch with the needs of our flocks, or leaders who withhold or grant permission with little regard for ways our decisions may wound God’s beloved flock.
When criticism comes, sometimes the hireling kind of leader may attempt to dodge the wolves to save his or her own skin, by doing what he or she might call “the institutionally expedient thing” rather than doing what is in the best spiritual interests of the sheep entrusted to his or her care. This may leave flocks vulnerable, the sheep scattered.
When this kind of leadership does win a following, a hireling may attempt coercion in order to get cooperation from the sheep. But the best result coercion can hope for is mere compliance; at worst it can stir rebellion!
Jesus led the way. And Jesus is no hireling: He is the good shepherd. So the “sheep follow him because they know his voice” (John 10:4).
Jesus calls church elders to be authentic shepherds, as well. So he is not looking for hirelings to care for today’s church. He is looking for servant-hearted, loving shepherds who Smell Like Sheep!