Inside: a biblical examination of what the shepherd’s rod is and what it is not
I genuinely hope this post comes across seasoned with grace. I absolutely mean no harm to anyone, ever.
But this is a topic I have been simmering on for weeks. Seriously, I have had to ask several Christian friends their opinions and perspectives on this.
What’s the topic?
The shepherd’s rod.
More specifically, how is the rod used? And is it biblically accurate to say it can be used to break the legs of the sheep?
Friends, the answers to my questions, and my own experiences have genuinely left me heartbroken.
We have to do better, church.
The Shepherd’s Rod
I was not actually planning to write this post this soon. I had it in mind but planned to post it in the spring. However, it seems there are several more people out there with the same questions about the shepherd’s rod that I had.
Take this Twitter thread, for example.
And so, I knew it was time to make the post.
The Purpose of the Shepherd’s Rod in Bible Times
A shepherd’s purpose is to care for and protect his or her flock from predators. In today’s times, shepherds have it much easier because of the invention of modern-day technology. But historically, a shepherd would have used a rod to aid their sheep herding duties.
In Bible times, shepherds used the rod to:
- Scare away predatory animals
- Count sheep
- Closer examine a sheep’s wool and skin
- Mark the sheep with dye
- Gently guide or push sheep back into the appropriate path
Biblically, Psalm 23:4 famously says, “thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”
Which is a good indication of what the spiritual rod is supposed to be for Christians, a thing of comfort and protection.
So, dear reader, why have so many Christians been taught to believe the rod is used for heavy correction? As in the shepherd’s rod can be used to break the legs of wandering or misbehaving sheep?
Why were we taught this line of thinking when real shepherds know if they break the legs of one of the precious members of their flocks, they would essentially be leaving their sheep for dead?
Psalm 23:4 does not say, “thy rod and thy staff, they break me.”
Is the spiritual rod really meant to comfort? Or can it be used to wound?
These are the question that sent me down a research rabbit hole.
The Shepherd’s Rod of Correction
It seems many of us have been taught those within a position of authority can use the rod to break the legs of a sheep.
When we think about this in spiritual terms, this line of thinking essentially translates to those within a position of authority hold the biblical right to correct members of their congregation by any means necessary– including hurting and wounding them both spiritually, emotionally, and mentally.
Should a shepherd break the legs of the sheep?
The thought of the shepherd breaking the legs of the sheep is supposed to be combined with the idea of the shepherd nurturing the wounded sheep and bringing it back to health. As the sheep heals from its inflictions, he or she will form a more trusting bond with the one that broke them.
During this time of healing, the wounded sheep is supposed to learn to trust the shepherd and know his voice and commands.
However, let’s think about this line of thinking in terms of parenting for a second, okay?
For example, a parent has a child that is prone to wandering off in a store. Clearly, this is a huge safety issue, as anyone with bad intentions could snatch the kid up and kidnap him. But, instead of the parent taking loving measures to ensure the child’s safety, such as holding his hand and guiding him through the store, the parent takes the child home and beats him. The parent uses some kind of rod to beat the child until his leg is broken. At that point, the child cannot walk, accomplishing the parent’s goal: keep the kid from wandering.
Sounds kind of like misconstrued thinking, right?
That’s because it is.
No sane person would think this is a good way to parent a child. Not only is it illegal, but it is highly abusive.
So, why has this same concept been applied to Christian teaching? Why has the rod gone from a symbol of comfort and protection to one of heavy-handed correction?
Using a rod to beat down a fellow brother or sister in Christ with the intent to wound them to keep them in line is not loving correction.
It is abuse. And it is wrong.
Is It Biblical?
Very rarely have I seen this concept play out with the shepherd nursing the wounded sheep back to health. Instead, the wounded sheep are often left to fend for themselves. They’re expected to pick up their broken pieces and fall back into line. If not, they can be sure more “loving correction” is coming.
But what happens when a wounded sheep (I’m talking about real animals here) lags behind or lies about?
They become easy prey for predators if the shepherd doesn’t slaughter the wounded sheep first.
And wounded Christians?
Also, easy prey for the predator of our souls, considering the Bible does say in 1 Peter 5:8 the devil walks around like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.
I know at this point you might be thinking, “But Cassie. There are scriptures to back up the rod of correction. And sometimes those in authority need to correct a flock member.”
And I will agree with you.
There are clear and unfortunate occurrences when a person within a position of authority must correct a congregation member.
But in those times, leadership must be careful. Leadership needs to be sure their fellow brother or sister in Christ has clearly broken an actual commandment before making any kind of accusation.
And not only that, but leadership must also be careful to follow Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 18:15-20 on the proper way to handle such situations. Especially if the thing that needs “correcting” isn’t even a primary biblical principle.
Jesus, The Good Shepherd
If we look at John 21, we see Jesus instructing Peter to take care of His sheep. Jesus did not tell Peter to beat His sheep with the shepherd’s rod. Instead, Jesus instructed Peter to feed the lambs and the sheep and to watch out for them.
He wanted Peter to care for His flock just as He did. He wanted Peter to love them, encourage them, and guide them.
Just as Jesus did.
Nowhere in John 21 do we find Jesus asking Peter to wound or offend sheep to keep them in line. I’m convinced Jesus is too loving to intentionally wound us spiritually like that.
In fact, we know Jesus is too loving to do something like that because He tells us He is. His parable of the Lost Sheep (found in Matthew 18 and again in Luke 15) tells us Jesus rejoiced over finding the lost one. He did not beat the sheep into submission for the punishment of being out of line.
Instead, He joyfully carried it back to the fold.
Not only does Jesus not beat the sheep with the rod, but if you read all of Matthew 18, particularly Matthew 18:6, He also warns us not to intentionally or needlessly offend others.
How do those with the shepherd’s rod intentionally offend, you ask?
By guilting, shaming, manipulating, and humiliating.
Guilting, shaming, manipulating, and humiliating is not loving and leading, friend.
Read that again and really let it sink in.
Leave the Correction to God
I am not entirely sure why this concept of the shepherd’s rod being used to wound the sheep has been taught in so many churches, although I have my suspicions. That’s a whole other future blog post.`
You might even be tempted to say that Hebrews 12:4-11 justifies a person within a position of authority using the spiritual rod to correct his congregation, but, dear reader, it does not.
Hebrew 12:4-11 mentions God correcting his sons and daughters, not anyone else. We can be sure that while God’s discipline might not feel good at the time, it is necessary and will be used for our good and our spiritual growth.
Friend, it is not our place to pass judgment and punishment onto others. When we do that, we essentially pluck the rod right out of the Good Shepherd’s hands and try to do His job for him.
When we try to be God, we really make a mess of things– including turning others away from the Lord completely.
We are called to be a light, not a harm
It grieves my heart to know so many of us have been taught this line of thinking. And it bothers me even more that so many of us have also been victims of the rod. Especially when it was never intended to be used in that way.
Spiritual abuse is a very real thing.
Friends, we have to do better. We simply cannot get by with parroting the same questionable ideas we’ve heard for years without taking a hard look at the scripture to find the biblical foundation of these ideas. Some of these ideas, like this one, are extremely harmful.
We’re called to guide and love, friends. Let’s leave the rod of correction in Jesus’ hand and do our best to simply be a light.
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