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The Bible is filled with images, and those images are filled with meaning and beauty. But what happens when a biblical image may not have the same meaning today?

For example, consider the image of God's people as sheep — livestock. As a metaphor for the people in the pews.

Hey, Kinnon." you say. "It’s biblical.”

Indeed, madam. You are correct! Sheep as a metaphor for God’s people is, in fact, to be found in the Scriptures.

Sheep were highly valued. Then.

Think of Jesus’ story of the one lost sheep, and the shepherd who left the 99 to search for that one.

How quaint.

I would suggest we view sheep as having much less value today — if we view them at all.

And what of the shepherds? Well, then they were were possibly the lowest of the gainfully employed. (Think of Jesse not even considering having his youngest son, David, the shepherd, later to be consecrated by Samuel.) Shepherds lived with their sheep. They smelled like their sheep. They knew each one by name. A single shepherd tended no more than 100 sheep in New Testament times.

Today, returning to the church livestock metaphor, a shepherd (or pastor, in its Latinate form) with only 100 sheep would be considered a failure. And how could any “successful” shepherd be expected to know all of “his/her” sheep.

Might I suggest the metaphor breaks down in its present usage within the church. And that this misused/misunderstood metaphor is responsible for much damaging separation between those who call themselves shepherds and “their” sheep — as if the shepherds are their owners. (Sheep cannot be stolen — except from their owners.)

Might I further suggest that the use of the phrase “sheep-stealing” is particularly bizarre amongst those who call us to be missionally-minded.

The reality is that we are all sheep. Or none of us are. (Shall we save the goats for another conversation?)

Bill Kinnon (website: Kinnon.tv)

A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982, with many roles in the church in the following 3 decades, including worship leader, elder, mega church communications director and ordained pastor. He's written hundreds of posts at his blog, kinnon.tv on the missional conversation and on the critical importance of discipleship. Today, Bill is the Managing director of Medri Kinnon Productions — a company he began with his wife, Imbi Medri, in 1985.

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John E Miller

commented on Apr 17, 2013

Articles like this are good because they turn our minds to the study of the scriptures. Sheep are viewed as stupid, helpless and wayward but Christ's view is that His sheep are attached to Him because they have come to understand His love (John ch.10).

David Buffaloe

commented on Apr 19, 2013

Not sure what the point of this article was, if indeed, there was a point.

Dav Ross

commented on Apr 19, 2013

I'm with David Buffaloe. What is the point of the article?

Bill Williams

commented on Apr 22, 2013

I imagine the point is that there are many objects used in the Bible as metaphors, such as sheep, which are not familiar to contemporary audiences. The danger, then, is that we may not understand--at best--or misinterpret--at worst--the meaning of the metaphor. Part of the job of the preacher is to help the listeners understand how the original readers/hearers of Scriptures would've understood these metaphors.

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