The Good Shepherd and the Death of Autonomy

Andrew DeLoach
Monday, August 31st 2015
Sep/Oct 2015

Somewhere in the protracted frenzy of my preparation for the California bar exam, one of my professors gave a piece of indelible essay-writing advice: ‘Be a sheep! Don’t try to stand out. Don’t do things your own way. Stay with the herd.’ He meant, almost counterintuitively, that by avoiding the temptation to express my unique perspective and instead doing exactly what every other student was doing, mine would remain safely a part of the flock of passing answers. The advice (or something else) worked, and I now regularly pass it on to my own law students.

There is also something in this advice for the Christian church. Both Old and New Testaments speak of the church as sheep and Christ as our Shepherd. God tells Ezekiel that he will seek the lost sheep, bring back the strayed, bind up the injured, and strengthen the weak (Ezek. 34:16.) David sings of his Shepherd’s restoring mercy and his comfort in the shadow of death (Ps. 23). Jesus identifies himself as that Good Shepherd who knows his sheep and lays down his life for them (John 10:14’15). He calls them by name and leads them ‘where streams of living water flow’¦ and, where the verdant pastures grow.’ (1)

Even so, Scripture is clear that the sheep are prone to scatter. And for many former evangelicals (like me) who have converted to a more historic Christian confession, it seems as though we were stray and injured sheep who have been graciously rescued back into the flock. The pastures never tasted so rich. In euphoric wonder we asked: Where had we hitherto been grazing? On what had we been feeding before? Thus we keep a constant watch over those who of their own accord have stayed behind’often our closest family and friends’and over the churches they attend. We observe every sermon series, praise song, and pastoral vision. Among former evangelicals, it is difficult to find many complimentary words about the nondenominational churches we grew up in. Of course, there are the routine nods to sincerity, neighborliness, and zeal, but the commendations are only occasional and emphatic endorsements are rare. More unusual still is an acknowledgment of the debt we owe to evangelicalism. All our disconcerted observation demonstrates, however, that we are indebted to evangelicalism for constantly pushing us back to our confessions, back to the history of the church, and back to Christ’not to ourselves.

For if anything about evangelicalism remains constant, it is the emphasis on autonomy. We get this word from the combination of two Greek words, autos (self) and nomos (law). Autonomy is ‘self law’’self-determination, self-governance, the capacity to decide and act for oneself. And these are precisely the attributes of American evangelical autonomos, which sets up individuals as laws unto themselves: freed of subjection to authority, unwilling to be bound to dependence on a shepherd. In fact, it appears that the preponderance of evangelicals are actively seeking to remain stray sheep, with every sheep a shepherd to himself. Although all children of Adam have this inherited nostalgia for autonomy, ‘autonomians’ eagerly echo Emerson’s creed of self-reliance:

And truly it demands something godlike in him who has cast off the common motives of humanity, and has ventured to trust himself for a taskmaster. High be his heart, faithful his will, clear his sight, that he may in good earnest be doctrine, society, law, to himself, that a simple purpose may be to him as strong as iron necessity is to others! (2)

It is this ‘law to himself’ that is the lifeblood of American evangelicalism. This is no mysterious principle revealed to the eventually enlightened, but is a rather explicit feature. Converting to a church in the Reformation heritage demands a lengthy education in a new (ancient) religious vocabulary, but one always recognizes the language of autonomos:

‘God spoke to me.’
‘He laid it on my heart.’
‘You can’t question what I felt’
I experienced his presence!’

All the genetic traits of autonomos are there: the Bible as guidebook for living; the buffet-style theology; the focus on personal encounter with God; the sermons aimed at discovering life at its best; the therapeutic cheer. If the practice of ‘church shopping’ is not entirely compelling evidence, consider the increasing frequency with which we see churches offer service shopping: Find a venue to suit your style! The Living Room (watched live from cozy couches), Video Café (an acoustic unplugged coffeehouse setting), or Soul Celebration (with spirit-filled gospel worship). These are the isolated assemblies of autonomians, busily taking selfies in a community-obsessed crowd. In effect, they have said, ‘I prefer to do church my own way,’ finding that this is eminently ‘more flattering’ to the self-esteem. (3) Autonomians are proudly conscious of their autonomous personality. (4) This leads, as it must, to a sort of personalized, trivialized cuius regio, eius religio (‘Whose realm, his religion’). Hence the quite deliberate project of evangelical autonomos is authentic expression of the inner experience encountered in one’s own personal relationship with God, detached from the constraints of creeds, confessions, and doctrines. It is a scarcely restrained appetite for unmediated self-shepherding, which so often becomes an unbearably disguised self-sanctification.

While our historic creeds and confessions bind congregations to biblical boundaries constituted solely by Christ, evangelicalism constitutes itself in the absence of boundaries. The shepherds feed themselves on their own varied visions’uninterested in standing by the precedent of gospel and sacrament ministry’and direct the sheep through pious optimism and a catalog of procedures to feed on these visions. The sheep, otherwise free to roam, pursue every passion in any pasture that will feed them. They lose their appetite for the common possession of the church’fellowship, participation, koinonia in the body of Christ’and instead forage individually wherever their tastes may lead them. Without defense, the sheep are alone among thieves and wolves. ‘So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts’ (Ezek. 34:5). Some survive, but many others are vulnerable to despair and doubt. Apathy and agnosticism are mere reflexes.

Deliberate as the autonomian program is for much of American Christianity, the nostalgia for autonomy is a universal human longing. Human beings think of themselves as the center of the world, and we innately want to choose what is best for ourselves. Autonomy has a robust pedigree in philosophy, and it is the core of every debate in bioethics. But carried into Christianity (even into many of our ‘confessional’ churches), the addiction to autonomos frees us to fashion a god who can satisfy our wishes and support our own brand of spirituality. (5) Everything is personal’the worship experience, the fill-in-the-blank Bible study, the utility of a pastor’s message’and so everything is disposable. If the sheep don’t like what they see, they will quickly find what they want elsewhere. What place is there for biblical discipline, catechesis of the youth, or resolution of doctrinal disputes in soil of such impermanence? Autonomos and accountability are uneasy allies. The consequence is that the sheep are scattered; any true relationship to the Good Shepherd’and the flock he gathers’is either deferred or destroyed. In its place, the void is filled by what George Steiner calls a ‘surrogate creed.’ (6) New energies are poured into the autonomian attempt to encounter God in a community that ‘speaks Jesus in a language you can understand.’ Pastors become coaches, consultants, and network directors. Ushers are ‘experience architects.’ The laity is trained to be ‘sacramental entrepreneurs.’ While some of the Christian tradition clings to this innovated culture, autonomos ensures that it is merely a coincidence of grammar rather than a commitment to confess with intrepid hearts the faith of the catholic and apostolic church. As we former evangelicals flee this embrace of autonomos and cling to our confessions, the autonomian church eschews such barriers to self-law, impudently trading in recalcitrant largesse.

But even in the thick darkness of autonomos, the Shepherd is there ‘among his sheep that have been scattered’ (Ezek. 34:12). Indeed, God’s word is clear that we are all sheep’recovering and devoted autonomians alike. Good Shepherd Jesus knows his sheep and lays down his life for them (John 10:11). That gracious death puts to death all our notions of self-shepherding and raises us up again as one flock, with one Shepherd’the only One with true autonomy to lay down his life and raise it up again. Thus we may vary Robert Capon’s axiom to say that God is in the shepherd business, and he has solved all the world’s problems without requiring a single human being to do a single autonomous thing. (7) The cross is the death of autonomos, and with it all personal spirituality. The true church is found instead where crucified and risen Jesus is at the center of the flock, feeding it with his good pasture.

This gospel of grace is the distinguishing mark of the church in a world of autonomian religious grazing. It removes all ability to self-justify and self-sanctify. For the many former evangelicals who have been relieved of this endless striving, we heartily acknowledge that our debt to evangelicalism is that it keeps us as former autonomians. While prone to ephemeral wandering, the sheep are always sought by their eternal Shepherd. We pay no heed to Emerson’s ‘Ne te quaesiveris extra‘ (‘Do not seek for things outside of yourself’), but instead hear the voice of our Shepherd and follow him. As sheep of the Good Shepherd, we know that faith in the crucified and risen one is all we have going for us, and therefore we always remember that it is good to be a sheep! Giving up our autonomy, we lack nothing’for we are under the care of the Good Shepherd.

1 [ Back ] 'The King of Love My Shepherd Is,' by Henry W. Baker (1868), Lutheran Service Book (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing, 2006), 709.
2 [ Back ] Ralph Waldo Emerson, 'Self-Reliance,' Essays: First Series (1841).
3 [ Back ] Gerhard O. Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 27.
4 [ Back ] Adolf Köberle, The Quest for Holiness (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2004), 3.
5 [ Back ] Naomichi Masaki, 'Community: We Are Not Alone,' in Lutheran Spirituality (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing, 2010), 217.
6 [ Back ] George Steiner, Nostalgia for the Absolute (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 1974), 2.
7 [ Back ] Robert Capon, The Mystery of Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 62.
Monday, August 31st 2015

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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