Words are indeed beautiful as they foster the transmission of thoughts and ideas. Oftentimes however, we lose track of how certain words came into usage and thus, some of that beauty.
One such word is the word bellwether. Sometimes, we may use it to mean indicator of things to come, or marker of the state of affairs, but the actual birth of the word is very visual.
The original term came from the world of shepherding; it was comprised of two words. A bellwether was a male sheep, one who was effectively an alpha male; it is this sheep the others were prone to follow. The shepherd would place a bell around the neck of this leader of the pack to help identify its whereabouts – thus, the first part of the expression.
The second part of the word identifies that this individual was a neutered male, one who was “wethered.” The shepherds would castrate the animal in order to keep him from being distracted; he could focus on his task at hand, avoiding any potential distractions.
This leader of the herd thus earned the moniker of “bellwether,” and the Flock was pleased to follow where he would lead. They would look to him as their example as to where to go, what to eat, and when to be concerned; the bellwether would “set the pace.”
He however, was still under the authority of the shepherd himself. It was the shepherds call that governed everything.
In much the same way, those in the pastorate are bellwethers to the Flock of God, subject to the Chief Shepherd. We are to be identified as leaders, and focused as to our positions in ministry.
Scripture communicates many times the need for faithful examples in Hebrews 13:7, 1 Peter 5:3, and twice in 1 Corinthians.
The writer of Hebrews encourages Christ-followers to imitate the faith of their leaders and teachers: “Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7).
Peter exhorts the elders to lead by example rather than by compulsion but by submission to Christ: “… nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3).
And Paul communicates something of the sort in 1 Corinthians 4:16 and 11:1, that the people to whom he was writing would follow him, follow Paul’s example. “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.”
In both of Paul’s entreaties, he is not imposing himself as the model of Christ. Rather, he commands that disciples follow his example, in the same manner as he is pursuing Christ. In these verses Paul issues the desired response to the many practical examples of a Christ-follower stated in the previous verses.
Likewise, shepherds invite others to follow behind us, to exhibit the same fidelity in their daily walk, to follow in our footsteps; a muted bell, or loss of focus impairs our ability to lead faithfully. How sad it is to see the many who have fallen to the wayside, misleading many.
Flocks of sheep can follow the bellwether to worlds of green grass and water; they can also unwittingly follow to their deaths. In the ovine world (pertaining to sheep), it is not uncommon to hear of an entire flock dashed to deadly bits on the rocks below a cliff having followed an errant leader, one by one, to their doom below.
For the bellwether pastor the goal is always Christlikeness – that the Flock of Christ be more and more conformed to the image of Christ Himself. It is however, the visual witness of the bellwether which demonstrates to the others that this pursuit of Christ, this emulation of Christ is possible.
We do not need to carry the metaphor too far to understand the gravity of the call placed upon us – our lives as leaders, are on display. The sheep look to the lead under-shepherd as a role model. This in itself requires that we get our theology focused, our hearts right, our witness in in order, and that we are headed in the right direction – following Christ!
If you have been called to lead, then there will be those that follow.
Lead well to the glory of Christ!
Excerpt from Shepherds of the Flock (Summer 2021) by Kelly Larson
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