Shepherding and Military Chaplaincy: Insights from Kenneth E. Bailey’s “The Good Shepherd”

The Text: The Good Shepherd : A Thousand-Year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament. London: Spck Publishing, 2014. About the Author: Kenneth E. Bailey (ThD, Concordia Theological Seminary), New Testament Scholar, seminary professor, Presbyterian career missionary, author and lecturer in Middle Eastern New Testament studies. He spent forty years living and teaching New Testament in Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem and Cyprus. He survived seven Middle Eastern wars. Bailey wrote many books in English and Arabic, including The Cross and the Prodigal and Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. He died in 2016, less than two years after Good Shepherd was published. He considered it his best work.

“The texts here studied offer a matchless window into a biblical vision for Christian leadership in every age. The Good Shepherd from Psalm 23 to 1 Peter 5 is a guide for good shepherds in every generation.” 273

Dr. Bailey’s book offered a strong biblical theology of the Good Shepherd theme. This metaphor has been esteemed by Christians from the earliest times. It is found in the Old Testament, the four Gospels and in the book of 1 Peter. In the Roman Catacombs it was a key “characteristic symbol along with the Fish, and the Vine.” 21

When I noticed Good Shepherd on a Pastoral Care/Counseling syllabus from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, I was drawn to it. Perhaps this is because as a Chaplain serving in pluralistic settings over the last 10 years, I have seen the broad application of the term “pastoral” among various religious traditions. While its use is broad, I have also held close to my heart its Christian significance. To begin discussing the text, let me provide brief orientation to Bailey’s approach. In his book he explores and uncovers the exegetical meaning of nine key shepherd texts (4 from the Old Testament, 5 from the New Testament.)[i]  He finds 10 recurrent themes woven throughout these texts.[ii] (See end notes). His approach examines each text’s cultural and linguistic milieu[iii], its structure, key related Scriptures, and then moves to offer theological and ethical applications.[iv]  He does not use critical theoretical lenses to apply insights on the Good Shepherd to other fields. This would have added richness.

I connected with the text on multiple levels. The writing was strong. Bailey’s rare life experience of serving God in a Middle Eastern context for 40 years as a fluent Arabic speaker, teacher and missionary represents a kind of ministry I would gladly emulate. On a practical level, I found a double application for each insight he offered of the Good Shepherd.  The first was personal. All shepherds (Christian ministers and chaplains) must be rooted in an ongoing experiential knowledge that we have a Shepherd who calls us by name[v]. The second application is that the way the Good Shepherd cares for me is a guiding paradigm for my own pastoral ministry. Here are specific insights from Bailey’s text which helped me to think about my Christian and Pastoral identity. 

Personally Relating to the Shepherd:

  1. The Lord protects me when no other will or can[vi]–as a sheep, my only security and defense is in the shepherd.[vii]
  2. He satisfies me in in the most challenging circumstances.[viii]
  3. My Good Shepherd leads me, he doesn’t drive me.
  4. The valley of the shadow of death awaits each person, but I am assured that God will be with me. This holds great hope for the future, and offers calm for life’s frequent anticipatory anxiety.[ix]
  5. God is a gracious host, who protects me, and attends to me lavishly. “My cup overflows”
  6. God’s mercy, is a sign of His covenant faithfulness, and an awesome display of grace to sustain me.[x] “Surely goodness and mercy…”
  7. Sheep intimately know the shepherd’s voice. I believe this is developed in many ways to include: personal devotion, community, corporate worship, ordinances, and service.

Relating to “Sheep” in the Way of the Good Shepherd:

  1. Christ shows me how to be a good Shepherd. I want to use His pattern to evaluate my own shepherding.[xi]
  2. Christian Shepherds can lose their way and can stand in need of being found.[xii]
  3. Christian Shepherds should mirror the Lord’s hospitality. They are steadfast when encountering dramatic resistance from enemies who unjustly oppose their serving the “Sheep”.[xiii] (267)
  4. Being a good shepherd means one’s integrity is on the line if they “lose” a sheep. Caring for others is a weighty task.
  5. It is costly for the Lord, and for us, to return the sheep which is lost. It involves suffering.[xiv]
  6. Do not be afraid to be personal in pastoral ministry. Sheep know the voice of the Shepherd. But recognize the limits of this metaphor. They should not erase relational and emotional boundaries God wants to keep in place.
  7. Shepherding in Christ’s way leads to a unique kind of glory: a wisdom/gravitas.[xv]
  8. Shepherds share a unique identity marker with Jesus (the chief shepherd)
  9. Shepherds must resist the love of money and not lead with a domineering style. (266)
  10. Shepherds must serve willingly.
  11. Good Shepherds are “examples to the flock.” (267)
  12. The sheep we serve have a will, and are in danger of straying. (“straying like sheep” 1 Peter)
  13. Shepherds must keep the End in sight: the coming of Jesus, and his giving a crown that won’t fade—(perhaps similar to a medal ceremony at the Olympic or Isthmian games). Remember when tired, that there is a completion point to the race…known only unto God, who sustains us to the finish.
  14. Evangelism is at the heart of Jesus’ model: “The good shepherd pays a price to seek and save the lost.” (Luke 19:10) (273)

The shepherd identity is one I’ve sought to live out as a Chaplain, its significance is relevant in many ways. Christian military chaplains wear the cross on our uniform. Jewish Chaplains wear tablets. Muslim Chaplains wear a crescent moon and Buddhist Chaplains wear a wheel. Some have considered using a unified emblem that captures our work, by using a Shepherd’s crook.[xvi] I take seriously that I am in a ThM program in a Pastoral Theology/Care track. Often in my semi-annual officer evaluations (called Fitness Reports, they form the building blocks of Chaplains’ promotion opportunities) I’ve used the language of “Shepherd” to describe my work. Once a highly respected tactical Commander called out to me in front of 200 members of my unit at an “All Hands” formation, “Hey Chaps, how’s the flock?” I answered that they were, “Well, Sir.” The group laughed. Understanding and integrating pastoral identity of my work has felt critical, especially in what is often an increasingly secular world. There are many administrative tasks and “good things” which commanders task chaplains to do. But often they are not the central things that a commander and a unit need most. The Chaplain must fight to keep their ministry centered on Pastoral Care, to give the best of their attention and time.…not left-over crumbs. Bailey’s text reminded me of the personal faith and Shepherd identity which motivate and carry Christian Chaplains in their ministry to people and units. Such Chaplains will be grounded by remembering that they first experienced a call from the Good Shepherd Himself. This led to a time when they learned to know Jesus’ voice, to understand what grace and redemption are all about. Out of this maturing experience can flow effective pastoral care to touch others’ lives in their wounds, times of worry, work and of rejoicing.

Discussion Questions:

For military chaplains, what does it look like to faithfully shepherd those of one’s own faith group–A requirement of our Endorsing Religious Denominations.  How does this differ from pluralistic institutional Chaplaincy care for the majority of others from different faiths and philosophies. Can they also be “shepherded?” or is a different metaphor needed?

Bailey writes, “The shepherd must lead the flock, but needs to do so willingly, spontaneously, and not because of external pressure. It is not an easy life but when there is a deep love for the sheep it is a joyful calling. (263)  Costly, personally sacrificial shepherding, which Bailey describes is no easy task.  How can one shepherd in the way of Jesus without developing a “messiah” complex and experiencing burn-out?


“Midrash (interpretation) is the hammer which awakens the slumbering sparks in the anvil of the Bible” Opening Epigraph

“I invite you, gentle reader, to join me on the journey from David’s famous psalm through good shepherd texts in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the Gospels to a final word from St. Peter on the subject.  A rich biblical feast of ethical, theological and artistic delight awaits us.” 19

“The scope of texts…has been quite daunting…Psalms, three different prophets, Jesus, the Four Evangelists and Peter are all a part of the journey before us…our focus is on the unfolding of the extraordinary (Shepherd) story that is created in Psalm 23 and repeated (with changes) across a thousand years down to the penning of 1 Peter.” 27

“Surely our task is to understand as best we can the original intent of the various accounts of the good shepherd and to strive to faithfully apply those meanings when applicable to the church and to the world in our day.” 27

“The image of the good shepherd had great weight in early Christianity. My prayer is that the significance …will be restored to its original power and splendor.”  28

“The Psalms offer a “minority point of view” regarding the nature of God. Yes, God can be likened to a high tower, a fortress and a rock. Yet he can also be understood to be like a good shepherd, a good woman and a good father” It is no accident that the trilogy of parables in the Luke 15:1-31 centers on a good shepherd, a good woman and a good father.

Good Shepherd image used in 3 ways in the OT:  God is described as the Shepherd of Israel (Psalm 78, 79, Isaiah 40); the leaders of Israel are also referred to as shepherds (Psalm 78, Isaiah 63); OT includes a promise of a new leader in Israel who will come forth from Bethlehem (Micah 5:4)  31

God acts like a woman in Psalm 23:5 (which accords with Genesis 1:27 (male and female he created them (in his own image) “This inclusion of both male and female components in the “good shepherd psalm” disappears for a thousand years and then dramatically reappears in Jesus’ matching parables of the good shepherd and the good woman (56)

“In the East, a man’s fame is spread by means of his table and lavish hospitality rather than by his possessions.” Lamsa 54

“As a survivor of seven middle eastern wars, I can remember days when an atmosphere of evil seemed palpable.” 61

“Jesus experienced the “agony of rejected love” He came to His own but His own did not receive him.” 254

“Few concepts in antiquity were more important than honor, distinction, esteem and glory.” 256

“In Luke 15, when Jesus is challenged as to why he welcomes “sinners” and eats with them, he tells the three parables of a good shepherd, a good woman and a good father.” 273

Jesus was the good shepherd promised in Jeremiah 23, Ezekiel 34, and Zechariah 10, and who appeared in Luke 15, Mark 6, Matthew 18 and John 10. 273

End Notes

[i] A constructive or progressive theology could employ the wealth of his insights by leveraging lenses such as disability, trauma, or feminist critique.

[ii]  1. The good shepherd and his identity 2. The bad shepherd 3. A lost sheep/a lost flock 4. The good host (ess?) 5. The incarnation of the shepherd 6. The shepherd pays a high price to find and restore the lost 7. Repentance /Return (and the use of the verb shuv) 8. The bad sheep 9. A celebratory meal 10. The ending of the story (in the house, in the land, or with God)  33

[iii] Bailey, a student of Hebrew and Greek, and fluent in English and Arabic, pays careful attention to Hebrew and Greek words and their later translations explaining, “Translation is interpretation”

[iv] I noticed in the Psalm 23 Chapter that Bailey had interviewed shepherds in Egypt, Lebanon and Palestine, and mined through early Christian and Eastern Christian texts for culturally relevant readings of this Psalm.

[v] The Shepherd calls us by name, and yet calls us into an interdependent flock.

[vi] The rod of the shepherd is like a mace (often 2.5 feet, and iron studded) it was also used for counting (keeping an eye on sheep.) The staff (often 5 feet and sometimes with a crook for rescue) is for gentle guidance, and ‘remaining” as the shepherd leans on it.

[vii] “The open pastureland of Samaria and Judea stretches from the Eastern part of Samaria down to the Negev south of Beersheba…The Lord is my Shepherd, among other things means, “I have no police protection”…in those open trackless spaces the traveler and his companions are alone. Thieves, wild animals, snakes, sudden blinding dust storms, water shortages, loose rocks and furnace-like heat are all potential threats to any traveler” 37

[viii] Settles me or leads me “to lie down” even in arid climates like Israel for 9 months of the year in many places. In harsh seasons of danger (drought, flood, cold) he protects me from the elements and from powers (robbing bandits, wolves). Life has no season beyond his reach of provision.

[ix]  “If the Lord is my shepherd, I know that he will lead me through the darkest valley and I am delivered from my anticipatory anxiety.” (From ancient context, this reality also flows from the sheep’s knowing ‘I MUST pass through this valley of the shadow of death’ to continue on my way home)

[x] “Chesed is a coin with two sides: faithfulness within a covenant; Khesed is grace that is freely offered to the undeserving.”

[xi] In prayer, and counsel, seek God’s wisdom to know if the ministry rightly reflects the Shepherd.  There is grace…the crown of Glory mentioned in 1 Peter 5:4 is promised unconditionally “not if” but that “you will receive.” Bailey explains this is a “healing word of encouragement” (269)

[xii] “Sadly we in the West have lost the image of a lost sheep that is at the heart of Psalm 23.” 45

[xiii] “He prepares a table in the presence of my enemies.” Again and again Jesus engenders hostility because of the people with whom he chooses to eat his meals (58)

[xiv] “The true glory of God shines forth through the weakness and suffering of the cross” 257

[xv]  “We need to retrain our reflexes. When we hear the word glory as applied to people, we should instinctively think of wisdom born of suffering, not wealth or power.” 258 Bailey points to glory as the weight or gravitas of people. For instance, Nelson Mandela’s gravitas meant that if he were invited to help mediate an international dispute, his very presence would shine a bold light on the moral call to forgiveness, grace and reconciliation instead of revenge and retaliation. “In the epistles we see case after case of suffering that gives birth to wisdom/gravitas.” 261

[xvi] Markoe, Lauren. “Chaplains push for uniform religious badges.” September 8, 2011.  The Christian Century.   Accessed 25 March 2021

The Dedication Page Gave a Special Insight into the Heart and Life of the Author