Michael Brown has rightly criticized the threadbare retort, “We’re electing a president not a pastor!” This phrase is used predictably to marginalize Christians who demand a certain level of Christ purity in political candidates for office. When some have, for example, objected to voting for a Mormon, a Roman Catholic, or a general Statist, the retort flies back in our faces: “president, not pastor!”
Brown fires back:
[D]oes the fact that we’re electing a president—not a pastor (or priest or pope)—mean that the president doesn’t need to have a solid moral base? That he doesn’t need integrity? That he can mistreat and abuse others? That he can be petulant, self-centered and nasty? That ethics don’t matter since he’s our political leader not our spiritual leader?
What kind of thinking is that?
I will go even further: the “president, not pastor” phrase is false to begin with. Christians must recognize that we are in fact electing a pastor also. Not a church official to be sure—there is a separation of church and state, after all. But the word “pastor” simply means “shepherd,” and this word is used in Scripture also to refer directly to civil rulers.
In Ezekiel 34, God Almighty brought a condemnation upon the shepherds (pastors) of his people. Listen to the beginning of prophecy:
“Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel. Prophesy and say to those shepherds, ‘Thus says the Lord God, “Woe, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flock?”’” (Ezek. 34:2).
The word “shepherds” here does not refer to priests, but to civil rulers. And the message is not a comfortable one. The text continues:
“You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat sheep without feeding the flock. Those who are sickly you have not strengthened, the diseased you have not healed, the broken you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought back, nor have you sought for the lost; but with force and with severity you have dominated them. And they were scattered for lack of a shepherd, and they became food for every beast of the field and were scattered. My flock wandered through all the mountains and on every high hill, and My flock was scattered over all the surface of the earth; and there was no one to search or seek for them.” Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: “As I live,” declares the Lord God, “surely because My flock has become a prey, My flock has even become food for all the beasts of the field for lack of a shepherd, and My shepherds did not search for My flock, but rather the shepherds fed themselves and did not feed My flock” (Ezek. 34:3–8).
These were civil rulers in charge of protecting the flock and establishing equity and justice. Instead, they fleeced the flock for their own gain. God pronounced his condemnation of the corruption among these leaders of the community. Pretty much every commentator you can read agrees that this is the clear intent of the passage.
But the flock was not wholly innocent either. They were tyrannized and fleeced for gain by these bad shepherds, but they were not helpless victims. Ezekiel continues with God’s message to the flock itself:
“And as for you, My flock, thus says the Lord God, ‘Behold, I will judge between one sheep and another, between the rams and the male goats. Is it too slight a thing for you that you should feed in the good pasture, that you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pastures? Or that you should drink of the clear waters, that you must foul the rest with your feet? And as for My flock, they must eat what you tread down with your feet, and they must drink what you foul with your feet!’” Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them, “Behold, I, even I, will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you push with side and with shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, until you have scattered them abroad, therefore, I will deliver My flock, and they will no longer be a prey; and I will judge between one sheep and another (Ezek. 34:17–22).
The members of the flock were at war with each other: there was no community, only greed and avarice. It was every sheep for itself, and the advantage went to the one with the horns, or the ones that could somehow gain leverage against others. What we have here is a picture that applies to both lack of charity and political muscling to obtain government favor (unions, lobbying, etc.): for both rely on lack of love for neighbor and on force to maintain one’s lusts. In these sins, much of the flock behaved no better than the bad leaders. Indeed, in such a setting (then as well as today), for a member of the flock to shake hands with the bad shepherds is seen as having achieved something—arrival at success. God said He would come and divide between the good flock and the bad flock also.
Then He gives the promise of His chosen ruler/prince who would come and institute the covenant of peace. He calls this ruler David. Only when this prince rules among them shall the covenant of peace (vv. 25–31) apply and the showers of blessing fall. Fittingly, from the time he pronounces His sentence upon the shepherds until the very last verse of the prophecy, God refers to the flock as His flock—not the shepherd’s flock, not the flock’s flock, but His. The shepherds, like the “powers that be” described in Romans 13, are but the servants of God, and they are accountable to Him. So now, He comes to rule Himself.
Notice that the showers of blessing that flow from this covenant of peace parallel the sanctions listed in Leviticus 26:4–13. The same themes ring verbatim: remove dangerous animals from the land, rain in its season, dwell securely in the land, peace in the land, trees will yield their fruit, and bars of their yoke (slavery) would be broken.
First, what does Ezekiel mean by devouring beasts? They are the bad leaders who fleece the flock instead of protecting and leading it. Patrick Fairbairn comments on this problem: “The judgment of such bad shepherds, therefore, must lie at the foundation of all reasonable expectation of a better future.”1 Moving forward in God’s kingdom necessitates judgment of leadership; bad leaders will be removed from the land. If they remain, God’s kingdom has not progressed as it should. This does not mean that by simply changing leadership we advance the kingdom; but it does mean that when God advances His kingdom, good rulers emerge in society. The dangerous animals will go.
Second, the blessing involves a sending of rain; in fact, showers of blessing. It’s not that the bad leaders were short of promises; they probably, in fact, gained their position of leadership through great promises. False shepherds always promise showers of blessing. False shepherds even try to cause showers of blessing, or give a show of showers of blessing. They try to manipulate the economy: they create money from fiat and hand it out to other false shepherds who will allegedly feed the public with it. They intend to save humanity through humanistic, materialistic means, and so they work with what little resources they can: they print more money, hand it out to other allegedly knowledgeable politicians and elites, but in the process they dilute the money supply and make everyone poorer. They fleece the flock while those who get the immediate infusions of cash get all the gain.
Jesus has come (among other things) to stop injustice. He has come for much more than this, but He has come as this prophesied David, the Prince of God’s people, the Good Shepherd, in order to rule with justice and equity according to righteousness. He sends the showers from heaven. That we get any at all speaks of God’s grace; that we get a fuller measure of what he offers we will see when the bad shepherds, these dangerous animals, are removed, and Christ has preeminence among the rulers of the earth. Only under societies (government, culture, and people together) that uphold righteous law, and follow Jesus faithfully, will we see real showers of blessing.
Jesus applied this prophecy to Himself. He did so explicitly in John 10 when He called Himself the Good Shepherd. Jesus is the Good Shepherd—the only ruler who can genuinely send showers of blessing. All that came before Him—and, we might add, come apart from Him—are as He said in John 10:8, thieves and robbers, and these types of shepherds come only to steal, kill, and destroy. Jesus was applying Ezekiel 34 very clearly.
It still applies today. The leaders of our societies—from home to church to local government to the highest reaches of global decision making—are all God’s ministers, and they must report to Him. As they (and we) break His law, He will judge. As they and we obey and glorify Him, He will send showers of blessing. But this only comes when we know that He is our God, and we are His people, His flock. Peace will not last if it comes out of compromises with, or support for, the bad shepherds. God determines how the peace unfolds, and it begins with our recognition of Christ on the throne.
All of this is to say that when we consider any election for public office, we acknowledge that we are in fact electing a pastor from a certain biblical perspective, and it seems to me that the highest offices in the land are subject to this consideration even more than most. If we compromise here, we lose. We lose peace, security, economy, morality, and every good thing—especially in the long run.
We should not trust in political or economic reform, but under Christ’s shepherding we should expect them to follow. But it will not follow as long as we are using half-truths to justify electing the immoral, idolaters, liars, adulterers, and thieves and robbers.
- Patrick Fairbairn, An Exposition of Ezekiel (The National Foundation for Christian Education, 1969), 370. [↩]