Pastors sometimes say stupid things. Sometimes those stupid things are catchy and wind up being repeated by many other pastors. One of the more preposterous statements I’ve heard many preachers say is, “Sheep are dumb.” They say this as shepherds in reference to the sheep of the church—the congregation. The idea is that sheep are dumb, and must be led well. We shouldn’t be surprised when they do stupid things.
My problem with this statement is that it disrespects people made in God’s image and redeemed by God’s Son. Its mocks the church and exalts the self. The church isn’t stupid. Sinful, yes. Stupid, no. Speaking of the church in this way will get a chuckle from some leaders (who aren’t already bored by the worn-out expression), but will create distance between leadership and the people pastors are called to lead.
The sheep aren’t dumb. In fact, we would do much better if we thought of the sheep the way the Puritan Thomas Watson (1620–1686) described them in his sermon, “The Good Shepherd.”
Sheep Are Innocent
Sheep aren’t harmful creatures; they’re harmless and peaceful. Christians are, by their new nature, peaceful and peacemakers (Matt. 5:8; Rom. 12:18; Gal. 5:22). As Watson observes, “They would rather suffer wrong than do wrong. Those who are set upon mischief are not Christ’s sheep but are ravenous birds of prey.”
Sheep Are Meek
Sheep are meek creatures who know their place and willingly submit. “Let the shearer take its wool, it does not resist,” Watson observes. “If you strike a sheep, it does not snarl or fly in your face. All Christ’s sheep are meek-spirited (2 Sam. 16:12). Though a child of God may sometimes fall into a froward fit—yet he grieves for it and weeps for his unmortified passion.”
Sheep Are Clean
Sheep look for green pastures and search out clean water. And Christ’s sheep have been made clean; they’re justified and sanctified. Watson describes them this way: “Though they are not perfectly holy, they are perfecting holiness in the fear of God. . . . They will suffer anything rather than defile their conscience. A good Christian breathes after sanctity. A child of God may fall into sin unawares—as did David—but he does not lie in sin. He recovers himself again by repentance. A sheep may fall into the mire, but it does not lie there; it gets out again.”
Sheep Are Useful
Every part of a sheep is useful. Its meat, its wool, and its skin are offered up for the good of others. In a similar way, the whole life of a believer is useful. According to Watson, “They are still doing good, they are profitable to others by their knowledge, counsel, example, prayers, and good works. They are useful in their places.”
Sheep Are Content
A sheep will “feed upon any pasture where you put it,” Watson observes. “Put sheep upon the bare common—and they are content. They feed upon the little they pick up in the fallow ground, a perfect emblem of true saints who are the sheep of Christ. Let God put them into whatever pasture He will and they are content (Phil. 4:11). They have learned in every state therewith to be content.”
Sheep Are Timorous
Finally, a sheep is timorous. “It is very fearful if any danger approaches,” Watson notes. “It is easily frightened by the wolf. Thus the saints of God, who are Christ’s sheep, pass the time of their sojourning here in fear. They are fearful of provoking God; fearful of wounding their peace; fearful of temptation; fearful they should come short of heaven through sloth (Heb. 4:1).”
The sheep recognize the dangers around them and trust in the shepherd to protect them, to guard and guide them.
Watch Them Flourish
Go on calling the sheep “dumb” and you will encourage foolishness in them and pride in yourself. But call them what they are by God’s grace and watch them flourish in his grace.
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.” (John 21:15–17)
Editors’ note: This article was originally published at The Christward Collective.