What about “Sheep-Stealing”?

What about “Sheep-Stealing”? July 31, 2018

Our recent post about proselytizing has gotten me thinking about “sheep-stealing.”  One kind of proselytizing is really evangelism, proclaiming the Gospel to a non-believer, with the purpose of changing the person from whatever religion he or she has or does not have into a Christian.  Another kind of proselytizing is trying to persuade a Christian from one church body into joining your church body.  Among pastors (that is to say, “shepherds”), I am told, this can be ethically problematic, since shepherds are not supposed to steal other shepherd’s sheep.

Now I had never heard of this until I became a Lutheran, so I don’t know if this is another one of those Lutheran quirks, or if it is a principle in the professional ethics of all ministers.  (Can any of you address that?)

I had never noticed Baptists refraining from encouraging Pentecostals to join their church.  Catholic priests were always trying to win over Protestants, and vice versa.  The mainline liberal Protestants of my childhood never tried to proselytize anyone, as far as I knew, since in their ecumenism, they thought all Christians were already one.  Actually, I never noticed them trying to evangelize anyone either.

That Lutheran pastors were so hesitant to raid other sheep pens bothered me.  I thought that this attitude hid the benefits of Lutheranism that I was finding so helpful under a bushel, preventing others who also needed these benefits from ever finding out about the.  In inhibiting Lutherans from reaching out to non-Lutherans, the taboo against sheep-stealing meant that we were getting fewer converts from dissatisfied evangelicals, who instead were going to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, unaware that there was a church that was both evangelical and sacramental.  And this hesitancy to win over non-Lutherans, in practice, often carried over into a hesitancy to evangelize non-Christians.

The problem with sheep-stealing, as I came to learn, has to do with Lutherans’ fairly high view of the pastoral office.  Also with their rather generous view of who counts as a Christian.  “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16).  That is, if someone has faith in Christ as savior and has been baptized, he or she is a Christian, even if there are confusions about other doctrines.  Thus, Lutherans have no problem believing that Catholics, Orthodox, and the vast array of Protestants can be Christians.  This is also why confessional Lutherans have little to do with any kind of ecumenical movements, since such efforts tend to water down doctrinal commitments and institutional church unity is not important anyway, since faith in Christ already unifies Christians in the only way that really matters.

Furthermore, when a believer is a member of a congregation and under the authority and care of a particular pastor, that relationship deserves to be respected, even if the pastor and congregation have their doctrinal problems.  So it’s wrong for another pastor to steal those members.  Now if the member decides to leave that congregation to join a Lutheran congregation, that is fine.  But pastors should not actively go about trying to win over other congregation’s members.

I believe this is the reasoning behind it.  Someone correct me if I’m wrong.

Consider the case of a big megachurch coming into town, offering all kinds of attractive programs and bells and whistles, one that grows by sucking members away from all of the small, faithful congregations in the area, forcing them to close.  That is, indeed, sheep-stealing, and that is wrong.

But the metaphor of the pastor as shepherd and the members as sheep reminds me of Milton’s great poem Lycidas, on the pre-mature death of a young man who had been preparing for the ministry.  Milton thinks his late friend would have made a fine pastor, in contrast to the shepherds concerned only for their own bellies who refuse to protect their flocks from wolves.  Meanwhile, “The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed.”

The reality is that there are many church bodies that, whatever their official teachings, are not feeding their sheep with God’s Word.  There are many members of churches, including ones that would think are “evangelical,” that do not know the Gospel of salvation through Christ.

To be sure, there are faithful Christians in a whole array of Gospel-believing churches.  There is no need to steal them.  In other churches, a member may or may not know the Gospel.  In other churches, the Gospel is no longer taught at all.

It isn’t stealing sheep to liberate a lamb from a false shepherd, from a “thief” who “comes only to steal and kill and destroy”  (John 10:10).  The sheep don’t belong to them.

Try this:  Just evangelize.  Evangelize everyone.  Don’t worry about what church they belong to.  Broadcast that Gospel like throwing out seeds (Matthew 13).

When Lutherans talk about the Gospel, they cannot help but talk about the Incarnation, the Cross, the Resurrection, justification, Baptism, Holy Communion, and the Word of God.  These are all of a piece for Lutherans.  Other ministers can evangelize with their own distinctives.

Those who hear but already have faith in the Gospel, if not the full Lutheran understanding, fine.  But there will be others who have gone to church their whole lives but who have never heard about what Christ has done and will continue to do for them.  Steal those sheep.


Photo via Pixabay, CC0, Creative Commons

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