Review: “Shepherds & Sheep: A Biblical View of Leading & Following” by Jerram Barrs

This book is pleasantly concise (98 pages including endnotes), but ably provides a solid overview of biblical church leadership. The book was written in 1983, and Barrs seems to be especially responding to ministries that stress a controlling “shepherding” or “covering,” and also churches that overemphasize a directing type of prophecy with no checks or safeguards—both of which were prevalent at the time. He also shows the danger of a licentious, anything-goes kind of approach, but doesn’t spend as much time exploring this side of the imbalance. Along the way, Barrs reveals some of the unhealthy extremes in the teachings of Watchman Nee, as well as troubling practices in Witness Lee’s Local Church movement.

But the relevance of this book isn’t limited to specific church movements. Both a libertarian lack of control and a legalistic authoritarianism are both potential dangers for churches at all times. The author focuses on the biblical principles of church leadership and shows how a consistently scriptural leadership model will protect us from falling into either extreme. When we neglect scriptural principles or enforce our own extra-biblical standards, we fall out of the balance described in the New Testament. I particularly appreciated Barrs’ insightful comments about the ‘upside down pyramid’ approach, having been part of a church that followed this kind of structure.

Some readers may quibble with details of the author’s views on apostles, elders, prophecy, etc. But even if you disagree with certain aspects of Barrs’ positions on these issues, you can still benefit from the main points on which he focuses attention. For instance, along with Howard Snyder (in the book’s foreword) I would disagree with Barrs’ assertion that the office of Apostle of Christ was limited to the 11 plus Paul. But his warning about leaders today claiming to be Apostles, with no or inadequate clarification of what they mean by the term, is spot on and necessary. His understanding of prophecy generally compares well with those of Wayne Grudem (Prophecy in the New Testament and Today) and DA Carson (Showing the Spirit). One may not agree with every nuance, but still appreciate the way he seeks to guard against the abuse of supposed prophetic utterances used to control others and direct their lives in very detailed ways. He brings out the biblical principles of a plurality of pastoral leaders in each church and the ministry of each part of the body, but in a book of this brevity it’s understandable if he doesn’t explore the application of these principles in greater depth.

This is a brief, but very helpful, book on a healthy, biblically balanced model of church leadership that leads to liberty in the life and ministry of churches, and on the necessity of guarding against the extremes of both license and legalism.