Every leader has a measure of authority. And the legacy of any leader is perhaps best evaluated by how they used their authority. Authority can be used selfishly, arbitrarily, or cruelly. It can also be used for good. The Bible makes a unique contribution to understanding how a leader’s authority should be used. The applications are helpful whether you’re a CEO, a politician, a parent or a ministry leader. The Bible shows how to use authority by pointing to a shepherd’s two main tools, the rod and the staff.
Despite the shepherd’s gentle reputation, they had to face some fierce adversaries. The Bible names wolves, bears, leopards and lions as natural predators of the flock. And thieves would also attack in the night and seek to carry off sheep from careless or cowardly shepherds. To aid them, shepherds carried a rod and a staff. A rod sounds like a steel bar of some sort, but it was actually a short club made from a tree branch. It was the weapon a shepherd used to fend off animals and thieves. A staff was also made from a branch, but it was longer and was often used to redirect sheep who otherwise might stray from the flock. Together, the rod and the staff protected the sheep from predators and from themselves.
The rod and the staff became symbols of authority in Israel. The same word that gets translated as “staff” when speaking of a shepherd is often translated as “scepter” when related to a king. The idea seems to be that a king’s authority should be rooted in the same kind of protective concern that guides a shepherd. Similarly, “the rod” became a symbol for parents’ discipline of their children (Proverbs 13:24; 22:15; 23:13-14). Sometimes, physical consequences are needed to guide children to safety and protect them from themselves. Parents, priests and kings all had a responsibility for using their authority for the protection of those entrusted to them.
While a shepherd might own a rod and a staff, it took courage to actually use them. Jesus criticized those who ran for cover when a wolf came to attack the sheep (John 10:12). He said that it showed that the person “cares nothing for the sheep” (John 10:13). Interestingly, the same criticism is given in Proverbs for parents who won’t discipline their children. A good shepherd, by contrast, lays down their life for the sheep (John 10:15, 17-18). Jesus wasn’t criticizing actual shepherds here, but leaders who didn’t have the courage to protect their followers from external threats, in this case, false teachers. Again, the message is that leaders have a responsibility to use their authority wisely to protect those they lead.
Today, authority has become a bad word. Parents are afraid of becoming “authoritarian.” Governments, corporations and churches have all witnessed stunning abuses of power and authority. And the temptation is to abandon authority altogether. But a shepherd who won’t use their rod and their staff isn’t a good shepherd.
When David reflected on God’s use of His rod and staff, he could say that they brought him comfort (Psalm 23:4). He knew that he could face the threat of death or evil because he believed that God would use His authority to protect him. Authority, rightly used, should bring that kind of comfort and protection.
Are you using your authority to protect those you lead? Do you show courage when the wolves approach? Does your rod and staff bring “comfort” to those under your care?
Our world has lots of leaders, but it needs a lot more shepherds!
In awe of Him,
For more information, check out Timothy Laniak’s book, Shepherds After My Own Heart, which has been my guide in understanding the role of a shepherd in this series.