The church of God is God’s place. In fact the true church is God’s special place on this planet. The church is the place where God’s flock gather. It is designed to be a beautiful home where God’s children share in the blessing of being together and serving together. However, there are times when those who are in church or connected with church wander away. What is the church to do when this happens?
God has given to churches shepherds to watch over His sheep. We read accordingly in 1 Peter 5:2 Peter’s message to the elders to be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them – not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve. Shepherds are called to care for sheep. Alas some sheep, as we have already thought, can wander away. They can do this through becoming discouraged, or they may lose sight of their Saviour, or they get entangled in other priorities, or they may get hurt whilst mingling with the flock. And as a result thy stray. It is the responsibility of the shepherd to go after the sheep who wander away; that is part of the job spec” for being a shepherd.
If you read of the shepherd in Luke 15 you read that he went after the lost sheep in order to find it (see Luke 15:4). In contrast one of the criticisms of the failing shepherds in Ezekiel 34 is that they have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost (Ez. 34:4b). If a shepherd does not go after wandering sheep he loses the right to be respected as a true shepherd.
However, if you read John 6 you will find that the LORD did not go after a group of disciples who turned away from following Him. So if shepherds are obliged to go after sheep why did he not do this? The relevant passage is found in John 6:53-69.
In John 6:53-59 the Lord issues the challenge that it is those who eat His flesh and drink His blood who have eternal life (see v54). The response comes as follows: On hearing it, many of his disciples said, ‘This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?’ (v60). He then reinforces His message in v61-65. Finally, we read From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him (v66). And very strikingly He does not go after them; He does not chase them. The question then once again is why did he not go after them? The answer must be that they were not wandering sheep, but rebellious apostates.
They knew the call of God; it had been very clearly laid before them. But, as the Lord says, they did not believe (see v64a). they weighed up the situation and decided that they did not want to follow Jesus. It is interesting to compare this to John’s statement concerning the false disciples in 1 John 2:19 They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us. Again there is no indication that these were chased after.
The makes us ask the very real question when do we go after sheep and when do we allow apostates to go away. Fundamentally, it must revolve around the attitude the Word of God. When there is a full knowledge of God’s Word and a calculated decision to reject that Word and not go on after Jesus then such people are showing themselves to be apostates. They have as it were, been initiated into the faith, but have decided to reject it.
However, where we have those sheep who just slip away for a miscellany of reasons, some of which were outlined above, the shepherd must go after them.
No doubt shepherds need to be much in prayer, before the Lord, about these issues. Great wastage of time can come in chasing apostates and great harm can be done to souls through failing to go after wandering sheep. And, of course there will be times when we think we are going after sheep, but through their behaviour we realise we are in fact dealing with apostates. In such situations we will have to confess our mistake and alter our actions accordingly.
Oh LORD give us wisdom in these things.