Shepherds are accountable for their flocks

Recently, I’ve been writing and reflecting about the dignity of the Priesthood, some of the things that make it a great ministry, and some of the things that make it something that should be approached with caution.  Today’s subject is similar to that last note.  Another reason is that Priests, Pastors, etc. are accountable to God for the spiritual condition of their congregations.  Let’s return to our new friend, St. John Chrysostom.

Our condition here [as laymen], indeed, is such as you have heard. But our condition hereafter [in ordained ministry] how shall we endure, when we are compelled to give our account for each of those who have been entrusted to us? For our penalty is not limited to shame, but everlasting chastisement awaits us as well. As for the passage, “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit to them, for they watch in behalf of your souls as they that shall give account” (Hebrews 13:17); though I have mentioned it once already, yet I will break silence about it now, for the fear of its warning is continually agitating my soul.

Especially to the Evangelical mindset, it may seem inappropriate that God would hold anyone accountable for the sins of another.  Aren’t we all to be judged by Christ alone according to our faith (or lack of faith) in him?  If our sins are ‘covered by the blood,’ why should a pastor suffer for the sins of his flock?  Yet, there are many teachings in the Bible that describe the importance of God’s servants to make good use of the “talents” God gives them to steward, and for Priests one of those “talents” is pastoral care of the flock.

St. John Chrysostom appeals to Hebrews 13:17 here, which was one of my personal memory verses about ministry when I was in seminary.  It’s still a mystery to me, exactly how I am (or will be) held accountable for my flock, but I do know that I must minister with that accountability in mind.  Rather than try to explain it myself, let’s let Chrysostom continue.

For if for him who causes one only, and that the least, to stumble, it is profitable that “a great millstone should be hanged about his neck, and that he should be sunk in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6); and if they who wound the consciences of the brethren, sin against Christ Himself (1 Corinthians 8:12), what then will they one day suffer, what kind of penalty will they pay, who destroy not one only, or two, or three, but so many multitudes?

More Scriptures references are brought in to the discussion, wherein we are reminded that if anyone causes a child or someone weak in faith to sin and turn away from God, he will be in a lot of trouble before God!  So Priests & Pastors are not alone in this sense of accountability for the sins of others.  When our own sin (be it active or omission) causes others to sin, we are liable to be judged for that.  Does this mean that we can go to hell if we cause other people to sin too much?  Not necessarily; but Judgment Day will certainly be all the less pleasant as our sins are trumpeted before God’s throne for all the universe to hear.

For it is not possible for inexperience to be urged as an excuse, nor to take refuge in ignorance, nor for the plea of necessity or force to be put forward. Yea, if it were possible, one of those under their charge could more easily make use of this refuge for his own sins than bishops in the case of the sins of others. Do you ask why? Because he who has been appointed to rectify the ignorance of others, and to warn them beforehand of the conflict with the devil which is coming upon them, will not be able to put forward ignorance as his excuse, or to say, “I have never heard the trumpet sound, I did not foresee the conflict.”

As with all other sin, ignorance is not an excuse, especially for those in ordained ministry. Bishops, especially, as the Chief Pastors in the Church, are given the ministry of shepherding many priests and their flocks.  They’re called to “rectify the ignorance of others” by teaching them, warning them of the dangers of sin, and multiplying sin.  Bishop, Priests, Pastors (etc.) are supposed to prepare the people for Last Trumpet as the Day of Judgment approaches.

For he is set for that very purpose, says Ezekiel, that he may sound the trumpet for others, and warn them of the dangers at hand. And therefore his chastisement is inevitable, though he that perishes happen to be but one. “For if when the sword comes, the watchman does not sound the trumpet to the people, nor give them a sign, and the sword come and take any man away, he indeed is taken away on account of his iniquity, but his blood will I require at the watchman’s hands” (Ezekiel 33:6).

When I read through the book of Ezekiel for the first time, I was already thinking about applying to seminary.  And so chapter 33 stood out to me quite strongly.  There, Ezekiel is identified by God as a “watchman,” responsible for warning the Israelites that judgment is coming.  If they respond to Ezekiel’s warning, all is well; if they ignore his warning, guilt is on them.  But if Ezekiel were not to warn them of God’s judgment, then he would be considered guilty of their sin!  I was a little concerned when I first read this – are pastors in the Church still responsible for the flock to this degree?  Though it was not something my evangelical seminary emphasized, the answer still turned out to be yes.

And now here’s Chrysostom bringing this back up as well: ordained ministers, as shepherds, do have the responsibility of warning the flock of dangers ahead.  If and when we keep silent, and the flock should suffer for lack of warning, it’s our fault!  But does this mean that clergy can ‘lose their salvation’ if they screw up their congregation too much? Noting St. Paul’s willingness to trade his salvation for the salvation of his fellow Jews in Romans 9:3, I don’t think God would go so far as to utterly destroy a pastor’s soul for doing a bad job.  That’s salvation (or damnation) exclusively by works, which the Apostles did not teach.  By expressing a willingness to lay down his spiritual life for his people, Paul implies that such a thing is impossible, and therefore its opposite is also probably impossible – a pastor isn’t going to be utterly destroyed for poor pastoral service.

By way of a side note, I’ve also heard this applied to all Christians sharing the Gospel with non-believers: if we don’t warn the world that King Jesus is coming back to conquer the world, and they perish in the Judgment, then shame on us!  While I don’t think this is the primary intent of Ezekiel’s watchman example, it is still a good secondary application, referring to the “priesthood of all believers” in which all Christians function as a priesthood to the world, just like how the ordained priesthood functions toward those in the Church.

Two important take-away lessons here are that first, as Hebrews 13 says, Christians should be attentive and submissive to their clergy, so that their clergy can more effectively serve them.  Second, clergy should remember that they are to be held accountable by God for the condition of their flocks, and should serve them accordingly!  This clergy-lay relationship is remarkably similar to St. Paul’s notes to the Ephesians about the husband-wife relationship, isn’t it?  Food for thought.

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About Fr. Brench

I'm a Priest in the Anglican Diocese in New England interested in spiritual formation, theology, and the growth of God's Kingdom.
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