The judgment scene depicted by Jesus has Him separating sheep from goats and inviting the sheep into the eternal kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world (Matt. 25:31-34). Then He explains why the sheep in His flock were invited and the goats were not.
From this we should not be surprised when there are those who portray themselves as part of the flock of God while not fully submitting to the Good Shepherd.
In exhorting elders, Peter described local churches as “the flock of God which is among you” (1 Pet. 5:2). If there are “goats” among the Chief Shepherd’s flock, there no doubt will be “goats” in local churches.
I’m not an expert on farm animals, but some research has taught me that while there are some similarities between sheep and goats there are also some significant differences. To the casual observer, some goats look like sheep and are often in the same pasture, but they behave quite differently.
A shepherd will guide the sheep to “green pastures” and the goats will tag along, but they are willing to eat just about any trash they find along the way. Sheep have a reputation for being submissive and willing to be led, while goats are more independent and sometimes have to be driven. Goats tend to be more stubborn and occasionally combative. To the casual observer, goats may even seem more playful, making the sheep appear somewhat boring.
Of course, when it comes to “sheep” and “goats” in the church, the Lord has no problem distinguishing between them; but the task is a bit more difficult for shepherds in a local flock. Unlike the animal version, the distinction cannot be determined by appearance.
Jesus warns about other intruders whom he describes as “ravenous wolves” dressed “in sheep’s clothing” (Matt. 7:15). (That’s another animal!) It’s by their fruits we can identify them(v.16). It’s not that easy to identify the “goats” among us, especially if we see them doing many “works” (cp. Matt. 7:22).
The goat-like church member often has that independent attitude which is resistant to correction or conformity. If things aren’t to his liking, he is likely to find another local flock where his independence is tolerated. Because of his independent nature, he is liable just to slip away quietly and resist any effort to bring him back into the fold. In some cases, he may even find a whole flock of goats who pride themselves in their non-conformity, even to the point of extending fellowship to some wolves.
The “goats” among the sheep will swallow the doctrines of “wolves” who give lip-service to the authority of the scriptures but find ways of interpreting them to fit their own views of “fairness.” They discount an increasing number of scriptures as not being applicable today by claiming that they were written based on the cultural norms of the first century.
In case you think that I am just being paranoid, let me give you an example of teaching that is being endorsed by some among us. There is a movement among some of our brethren which is being promoted by popular authors and internet bloggers. One such blogger who claims to be an elder in a local church in Alabama has written a 205-page book dedicated to refuting what he calls “legalism” which denies women the right to serve as preachers and elders. Imagine that! A book of that length attempting to explain away what the Holy Spirit clearly said is “shameful” (1 Cor. 14:34-35) and one of the inspired qualifications of an elder (1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:6). Of course, it doesn’t stop with a single issue. The so-called “progressive movement” is anxious to open the floodgates to many more digressions from God’s word. Hopefully “sheep” will not be moved by such attempts, but I fear for “goats” who may be attracted to such trash.
In the physical world, no matter how much it tries, a goat cannot be transformed into a sheep; but in the spiritual realm, it is possible. It requires being “transformed by the renewing of the mind” (Rom. 12:2) and being “clothed with humility” (1 Pet. 5:5). For proud Americans this does not come without effort, for we love our “rights”— almost to a fault. The founding fathers of our nation issued a “Declaration of Independence” that must not be applied to our spiritual lives. When it comes to following the Good Shepherd, we need to issue a “Declaration of Dependence.”
The Chief Shepherd sent the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth, including how we ought to conduct ourselves in the church (1 Tim. 3:15). This includes obeying and submitting to those who lead us in our local congregations (Heb. 13:17). To do this, we must act like sheep—not like goats.
I have to wonder if one of the reasons more good men don’t “desire the office of a bishop” (1 Tim. 3:1) is that they see the flock among them acting more like goats than sheep and can’t imagine being able to shepherd those who have not demonstrated a willingness to submit to their leadership. However, even if my suspicion is correct, it’s not an excuse for failing to “set in order the things that are lacking” (Tit. 1:5).
Perhaps we would all do well to heed the message in the lyrics of a children’s song: “I don’t want to be a goat…nope! ’Cause a goat ain’t got no hope!”