I found myself in church today, frantically wiping away escaping tears. Trying to breathe deeply, slowly, in an effort to calm my pulse and push back the flood behind my eyes.
Normally wet eyes in church are a sign of spiritual conviction; of hope welling up or hard truth sinking down. Today's emotions were different. The heat of hurt mixed with the cold of bitterness, and I was grateful when it was time to pray with closed eyes so that I could sniff away the traces of my feelings until the car ride home.
One of our pastors preached on John 10, Jesus as shepherd. Towards the end he shifted away from the passage and into an examination of the human shepherds in our lives, those who mentor and teach and guide us towards a loving Jesus. Amid reminders that we should respect these people, with humility he admitted that leaders, even himself, get it wrong sometimes. Questioning and accountability keep the church alive, and shepherds are human too.
All good, until the end. As he wrapped up his message, this pastor asked that we pray for our shepherds. He asked the spiritual guides within the church to stand: "The elders, the deacons, the fathers, and the single mothers." He repeated this short list. Around us those people stood while my heart fell. Jason widened his eyes at me, grabbed my hand, and stayed seated next to me. That's what solidarity looks like: My wonderful husband, sitting if I cannot stand by his side.
Here is the problem: I am a spiritual shepherd. To my son, possibly more than anyone. But also to my husband, my friends, hopefully my siblings, and maybe the occasional stranger craving kindness or a conversation about life's meaning. Chances are that you too are a spiritual shepherd. If you hope through your actions, your position, or your words to show Christ's love to others, you are a spiritual shepherd. We are both also spiritual sheep, if we ever learn from others. My parents, my grandparents, my husband, my friends, my pastors, my teachers, my siblings, and even, unknowingly, my toddler--they have all at one time or another shepherded me by showing me a sliver of God's character.
I cried in church today because with several carefully chosen words, this pastor invalidated the spiritual impact of a good portion of his congregation. Since all of the elders in my church are complementarian, they believe that a husband is the spiritual head of his wife (justified by one of several interpretations of Ephesians 5; my interpretation coincides more with this one). This belief is often taken even further, to imply that the husband has sole spiritual authority over and spiritual responsibility for all of his family, although this view is unsupported by Scripture. I can only assume that this is the reason this pastor specifically asked single mothers to stand, rather than all mothers--somehow, mysteriously, it is only appropriate for a woman to shepherd her children if their father is not living in their home? This is the implication of this pastor's words, and the unfortunate logical conclusion of the concept of male spiritual responsibility as defined by many complementarians.
Just as I reject the overemphasis of gender roles in the church, I have to speak out against the exaltation of hierarchical authority within the faith community. The New Testament writers put far more emphasis on humbly sharing life together than they do on having authority over one another. This is probably because we all follow a Man who, "being in the very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing" (Philippians 2:6-7, emphasis mine). Who, after all, are the shepherds in our lives, but living compasses, pointing us to God (1 Corinthians 3)?
I deeply respect this pastor, and believe that the intention behind his words today was good. I agree with him that there is a place in the church for loving leaders, willing to spend the bulk of their time doing the hard work of theological study and teaching. But I think that if we contemplate our lives, and focus on those who have climbed with us up our spiritual mountains, we will realize that the distinction between "sheep" and "shepherd" is blurred.