Shepherding the Flock of God: An Invitation to Methodist Ministers

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by Johnathan Arnold and David Fry

“Shepherd … Not Domineering”

Ministers of the gospel are called to exemplary character and conduct. A person entrusted with a shepherding role (pastor/elder) in the church has the implicit trust of the sheep. This requires us to exercise our office with great care. The Apostle Peter warns against church leaders having unaccountable oversight of the church: “shepherd the flock of God … not domineering over those in your charge” (1 Pet. 5:2). Shepherds lead, care for, direct, admonish, and warn the sheep, yet not in a way that is harsh, haughty, driving, divisive, mean-spirited, manipulative, or shame-based (1 Cor 4:14). Pastors set an example for the flock by being clothed with humility and submitting to one another in mutual accountability (1 Pet. 5:5; Eph. 5:21). When we stand in the pulpit or rub shoulders with the sheep, we should reflect “the chief Shepherd” (1 Pet. 5:4) who said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart” (Mt. 11:29).

“Not a Bully But Gentle, Not Quarrelsome”

The qualifications for overseeing the flock of God in 1 Timothy 3:1–7 and Titus 1:5–9 are high and exacting. A person is unqualified for eldership if he is addicted to wine, a bully, or greedy (1 Timothy 3:3). Of these three, plēktēs, translated as “bully” (NASB, CSB), “striker” (KJV), and “violent” (ESV), is contrasted with the virtue of gentleness: “an overseer … must be above reproach … not a bully but gentle, not quarrelsome” (1 Tim. 3:3 CSB). Pastors and teachers should especially be gentle and humble in their preaching and leadership.

Shepherds lead, care for, direct, admonish, and warn the sheep, yet not in a way that is harsh, haughty, driving, divisive, mean-spirited, manipulative, or shame-based.

Even opponents are to be corrected with kindness and gentleness: “The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition” (2 Tim. 2:24-26). Adam Clarke comments that an elder should be “no persecutor of those who may differ from him; not prone, as one within said, ‘to prove his doctrine orthodox by apostolic blows and knocks.’” Being quarrelsome, contentious, harsh, overbearing, or threatening is inconsistent with “how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).

“With Complete Patience and Teaching”

Furthermore, ministers are to “preach the word … with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2), clearly and graciously explaining ourselves from Scripture (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16), not assuming that our own word is sufficient or unquestionable. Ministers should not place themselves above testing or assume an unapproachable posture. An angry, arrogant, or unapproachable posture is antithetical to the heavenly wisdom that is “peaceable, gentle, open to reason” (Jas. 3:17). Since they set an example for younger ministers, older ministers should be especially sensitive to these concerns, in accordance with the command in Titus 2:2 that older men exude temperance and moderation.

An angry, arrogant, or unapproachable posture is antithetical to the heavenly wisdom that is “peaceable, gentle, open to reason” (Jas. 3:17).

A shepherd’s rhetoric should be clear so that we do not, perhaps unwittingly, hinder from, or even poison our sheep against biblical truth (2 Tim 2:14–16). Clarke adds, “All preachers and divines should be very careful, both in speaking and writing, to explain the terms they use, and never employ them in any sense but that in which they have explained them.” Intentional equivocation, passive aggression, and other forms of ambiguous rhetoric are usually felt by innocent lambs (“he must be talking about me”) and laughed at by the wolves. Labeling other believers pejoratively is not only poor reasoning (the ad hominem fallacy) but fails the standard of doing our best to rightly divide the word of God (2 Tim. 2:15). 

The Character of a Methodist

These biblical concerns have always been close to the heart of the people called Methodists, whose banner is perfect love, described in 1 Corinthians 13:3–7: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.” In “The Character of a Methodist,” John Wesley explains that true Methodists are not characterized by quarreling over opinions or weaponizing “words or phrases of any sort.” Wesley asks, “What then is the mark?” and answers, “A Methodist is one who has ‘the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost given unto him.’ … He is therefore happy in God, yea, always happy.”

Quarrelsome preaching from the public pulpit can hinder outsiders from observing the single most important characteristic of the Church: our love for one another (John 13:35).

Ministers bearing the name “Methodist,” then, should be exemplary servants, “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15)—a love that is joyful, winsome, gracious, and drawing. We should be characterized by happiness in God, not by an angry or combative attitude. Our speech should “always be gracious, seasoned with salt” (Col. 4:6), especially when outsiders are present (cf. Col. 4:5). Quarrelsome preaching from the public pulpit can hinder outsiders from observing the single most important characteristic of the Church: our love for one another (John 13:35).

“Not Quarreling Over Opinions”

Finally, the attitude and emphasis of the preacher should reflect the relative importance of the truths he is proclaiming. Paul admonished us “not to quarrel over opinions” (Rom. 14:1). Pulpit ministry is given by God so that the Church may unequivocally uphold the great doctrines of the Christian faith and remain the “pillar” and “ground” (KJV) of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15). Repetitive, dogmatic contention about secondary or tertiary matters (matters that do not distinguish believers from unbelievers) risks obscuring the clarity and simplicity of the gospel.

While all quarrelsome and divisive rhetoric from the public pulpit is urgently discouraged by the Apostle Paul, doing so on nonessential issues is especially offensive to the catholic spirit that is the heart of biblical Christianity and classic Methodism. John Wesley models this attitude in his sermon on “Catholic Spirit”: “‘If thine heart is as my heart,’ if thou lovest God and all mankind, I ask no more: ‘give me thine hand.’” For more on this point and how it applies to our attitude and emphasis in preaching, see “Theological Triage: Unity in Essentials, Charity in Nonessentials.”

The character of a Methodist, wrote John Wesley, is “to think and let think” on “all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity.”

Ministers should not avoid, compromise, or water down the truth at any point; however, we should always conduct ourselves with an attitude that is worthy of the gospel of Christ and reflects the relative importance of the truths they are proclaiming, especially when those “truths” are actually opinions. On matters which divide traditions within the Christian faith, as in Methodists from Lutherans, we should speak clearly yet charitably, always upholding the love of believers before the world on these secondary issues. On matters of disagreement within our own heritage of faith (we call these tertiary issues), a minister could say,

I am concerned about the move away from [x]. Here are a few biblical, theological, historical, and pastoral reasons why I think that [x] is worth keeping. I’d encourage you to reconsider moving away from [x]. Please feel free to reach out to me after the service, and I would be honored to sit down with you, listen to your questions and concerns, and do my best to think through this with you.

The character of a Methodist, wrote John Wesley, is “to think and let think” on “all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity.” It is not becoming of a Methodist to show hostility toward another believer who disagrees on tertiary or even secondary issues. The written word of God is “the only and sufficient rule both of Christian faith and practice” so that “whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man … to be thought requisite or necessary to salvation” (see Article V of The Twenty-Five Articles of Religion).

An Invitation to Methodist Ministers

The sentiment of a Methodist minister follows the character of a Methodist. A Methodist minister is a Christlike shepherd, speaking the truth in love, not domineering over God’s people, but preaching with complete patience and teaching. We humbly recall with sorrow our own moments of personal failure. We seek, with God’s help, to preach every message, to fulfill every duty, and to honor always the office of a minister with a spirit of kindness and charity. We invite all who call themselves “Methodist” to join in this sentiment, that Christ may be exalted and his people built up in their most holy faith.

Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is a husband, father, and aspiring pastor-theologian, as well as the founder and president of holyjoys.org. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.