Why is Sheep Stealing such a bad thing?

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Last Sunday, I wrote about the issue of sheep stealing by which I meant the attempt to poach/steal/attract people from another church to join yours.  But why is this a problem? Surely we are part of the one family of God, surely as long as people are in the kingdom it doesn’t matter too much where they go to church? That is of course true and for that reason, it’s important not to over-react when someone lets you know as an elder that they think it is time to move on.  I would rather see them in church somewhere, especially if it is somewhere that they will be able to serve Christ than to be nowhere.

However, here are a few reasons as to why sheep stealing is negative and potentially dangerous.  The first reason is that if we are practising it then, we are prioritising attracting other Christians to join our church over reaching people who have not yet heard the Gospel. This is inward looking and prioritises our feelings of comfort and success over the need in our communities for people to hear the good news. Furthermore, it suggests a lack of trust in God to provide people to come and join with us.

Secondly, sheep stealing prioritises minor issues over essential issues. The sheep stealer is saying “come to our church because …” and there will be a whole list of reasons including:

  • The preaching is more exciting or interesting.
  • The music is better
  • There are more people your age here
  • We are friendlier
  • We are theologically purer on x or y topic.

These things are placed over and above the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Thirdly, sheep stealing places the focus on specific leaders, they encourage us to join them. They become the ones who meet our needs not Christ. I don’t think it is too sharp to argue that sheep stealing is a form of idolatry.

Fourthly sheep stealing discourages us from thinking about our commitment to a local church where we find fellowship and accountability. It encourages a consumer mentality where people in effect sit in judgement on the elders.

Jesus warns in Scripture about wolves that come in to scatter, devour and destroy the flock but he also warns about thieves. He says:

“Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.”[1]

Jesus contrasts himself with the thief:

10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.[2]

I think this is so important because the sheep stealer is displaying character traits that are in sharp contrast with the fruit that the Gospel should be having in their lives. This also means that elders or under shepherds have a responsibility within the church to train the sheep to know the true shepherd’s voice and to discern false voices.

This means that where such practices are happening, even if it is not your church that is being targeted, I think it is right to speak out, to warn of the dangers and to challenge the church leader that is behaving in such a way. This is also important because the church which you have a responsibility for needs to know that you care for the members, that you value them, love them and will always act to provide for them and protect them.

[1] John 10: 1-5.

[2] John 10:10

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