Sovereignty as Shepherding – Or Why God Was Never a Calvinist

Ok, the title of this article was a small attempt at humour to hopefully draw you in. I guess it worked if you are reading these words. Having said that, I have recently expressed how, over the past few years, I have moved away from a more reformed Calvinist theological perspective (see here). Yet, as with most Christians, I have still pondered what might be the most appropriate ways to communicate the sovereignty of God. And this article is one attempt at such.

God’s sovereignty is pretty clear in Scripture. He is God. He is Lord. He is sovereign over all. It’s right there in the good book.

But what does all that mean? What does it practically mean for God to be sovereign?

In the past, I was never what might be identified as a hyper-Calvinist. But I was pretty close. I held to double predestination – God both destines some for heaven and some for damnation. And my view of God’s involvement in the affairs of life was pretty meticulous. Whether in a card game, choice of cereal or choice of vacation, God was deeply involved in each and every decision of life.

As I’ve already stated, I still very much believe God is sovereign. It’s hard to deny such. But I’m no longer in a place of a more stringent Calvinism. I don’t think it’s fully biblical, nor even reasonable when we ponder what it means for God to be sovereign.

You see, for many Christians (Calvinist or not), God’s sovereignty is about him ultimately directing every single situation and decision out there. Whether it’s the salvation of people or the proverbial choice of cereal you eat in the morning, God is behind it all in some form or fashion. And for our Calvinist friends, if something happens, it usually means that God has willed it to happen within his sovereign purposes. All of this would very easily flow into our theology concerning creation, Scripture, and even sin in some sense.

Now, I must do certain brothers and sisters great justice and recognise that all of this would not include God choosing or causing sin. God, as completely good, is to be absolved of any responsibility with sin. It’s not an option! But still, somehow, some way, God was at work behind the scenes in all things.

I would saw my view is now more ‘relaxed’.

Why?

Well, I would say it hasn’t simply come down to deeper study of Scripture, as I have studied the issues quite well, especially in earlier years. Rather, this has come about as I have pondered things within my own ministry context of pastoring-leading a church. I now believe that a more reformed-Calvinist view can project God as too over-controlling. I can only speak this way because of what I’ve noted in my own life – a control freakishness that has needed to be (and still is being) slowly worked away.

You see, I like to be in control. It is very easy for me to approach all matters of life as wanting to control them. I approach parenting as a disciplinarian. Well, if we only implement A, B and C, then we will make sure our children obey, at least most of the timesIf we simply discipline our children when they are bad, then they will learn and change.

And the same can easily become part of ministry. If we only implement enough teaching on faithfulness and challenge people enough about their follow-through, then we will curb most, if not all, their unfaithfulness.

Many of you already know that this approach is well short of the answer.

In all, it flows out a desire to control people and situations, moulding them into what I want rather than what God wants. And if something has gone wrong, well, you get personally involved to fix the matter. People need fixing and fixing happens by implementing all sorts of measures. And to implement, you need to get your hand in all things to control them, make sure they happen just the way you like.

But I don’t believe this is how God works.

Of course, God is very much involved in our lives. Psalm 139 is a beautiful song-prayer to describe such. He is intimately acquainted with all our ways. Though, to be intimately acquainted is not usually the same as being intimately controlling.

And it is very true that God does get specifically involved in the affairs of life. Salvation is wrought by the Spirit. Healings and miracles come by his work. Prophetic words come by the Spirit speaking directly into our lives. Understanding Scripture comes via his revelation and illumination.

Still, while God is intimately acquainted with all our ways and involved in the situations of our lives, I do not believe he is specifically shaping every single detail. Rather, his sovereignty is best described through that of shepherding – always guiding and leading and directing, at times getting specifically involved in situations, but not needing to be involved in every single decision and detail. God is relational and he is not completely absent from the details of our lives. But I would not and am not surprised to find God asking, at times, ‘What do you think, my daughter (or son)?’

Shepherds are called to guide and lead, not over control by being involved in every single detail of the local church. Remember, I’ve had to learn this quite a bit over the past few years. And it’s not as if shepherds don’t care about the details. It’s just that we need to create space for people to grow and mature on their own in their own time. True, God is a relational lover and I do believe lovers desire to be closely knit together. But even lovers give space to one another. Otherwise there would be smothering.

Another helpful adjective that I believe describes God’s sovereign work is that of overseer. God oversees the affairs of all people, all things, all nations. He is sovereign. But this, by no means, points to his putting his hand into every single affair or detail. Yes, I am aware of passages like Prov 20:24. But I still keep it in tension with other passages that allow for God to be sovereign but not an over-controlling dictator. (As a side note, I don’t mean to suggest that all or even most Calvinists view God as a dictator in a negative way. I’m simply using the word to denote ‘one who has absolute power’. In reality, God does have absolute power. But his exercise of that is different, removed from being over-controlling.)

God is shepherd and God is overseer. And it is interesting that Christ is called the shepherd and overseer of our souls (1 Pet 2:25). I find this a liberating description of our God and his sovereignty.

Therefore, as best as I can understand it today, God’s sovereignty is most sensibly comparable to that of shepherding. God has shepherded the creation process. God has and is shepherding human history. God has and is shepherding nations. God has and is shepherding his people. He still remains intimately acquainted with all our ways, but his shepherding will, at times, call for specific involvement and, at others times, call for overseeing and directing our affairs without controlling them.

So maybe God is not a Calvinist. Who knows? But I am very certain he is a shepherd.

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6 thoughts on “Sovereignty as Shepherding – Or Why God Was Never a Calvinist

    • Sounds interesting, Mike. I think I could imagine some of it (although my mind does want to run to think of Blue Like Jazz).

      And when will you put in a good word to Chaplain Mike that I could make a good guest poster? 🙂

      • Hi Scott,
        Guest poster? I had been thinking that actually. I have another idea for you actually. I will send you an email at 13:00 E.S.T. with a bit of a proposal.

        Mike

  1. Our view of God is simply a view, a single frame of reference. It is absolutely true that if God is sovereign then He is sovereign over all. He orchestrates the seasons of our lives, the events that shape us, that brought us to Him, etc. He orchestrated the who, what, when, where and why of how ywe met/fell in love with and married our spouses. He was right in the middle of not only drawing us to Himself but also orchestrating the life events that brought us to Him. In order to not become neurotic, we have to look at the big picture of what God is doing. He is fulfilling His purpose in the earth, bringing everything under the headship of Christ. If choosing one brand of cereal over another could somehow cause a chain of events that would interfere with His plan for you/community/world then you’ll choose the one He wants. Be careful assuming that God is not a certain way because you see that quality in yourself and you don’t like it. For you to brag about your son and in every relationship you have you direct people to admire him, would be worshiping an idol. When God does it, He receives glory and it is righteous.

    • Brien –

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

      I do not doubt can use the very choice of a cereal to set forth a chain of events for something special in his purposes. The sovereign shepherd definitely can and does so. But I’m not so sure he is specifically drawing you towards a particular brand of cereal each and every time you (or the billions of others in the world) choose so. So I agree. But I am not convinced his sovereign shepherding makes it happen each and every time.

      You said: Be careful assuming that God is not a certain way because you see that quality in yourself and you don’t like it.

      I think I understand the point you are getting at, which seems connected to not comparing God with ourselves because he is so unlike us. I don’t think God and I are fully alike, maybe even less alike than more alike. But, first off, the reality of dealing with my own sin is not the only reason that I would describe God’s sovereignty through the description of shepherding. It was one of the major points in this article. But that aspect is not the only one that leads me, or others, to ponder God’s sovereignty as best being described through shepherding.

      Also, it was the very fact that this over-controlling is recognisable as sin which has led me to believe God is more like a shepherd in his sovereignty, rather than a control freak wanting to control each and every minute detail. Now, God’s control of every single minute detail in life could flow out of love rather than a desire to over-control. So the control issue as sin in my life is still only one aspect in the equation. But one major way I find myself able to understand somewhat of what God is like or not like is by reflecting on his work in my life by his Spirit. I believe he has shown me at times how unpleased he is with my desire to overly control life. For all the negativity that could be said of such a practice, mainly because it is too subjective, well subjective truth is not all that bad. Unless one is actually God, they cannot be fully objective.

      I also tried to talk about the descriptive word of overseer as well, which I think connects in with shepherding. Jesus is the great shepherd and overseer of our souls. What does that mean in his relating to us? I can only imagine he gives us space to learn, grow and mature, rather than “making it happen”. I think God’s sovereignty over creation is the same – shepherding his good creation, letting trees produce trees, letting humans produce humans, letting things happen in very long processes, etc.

      Every description falls short. Even with shepherding being a biblical description, it does fall short. They are only descriptions, pictures, to try and describe the indescribable. But sovereignty as shepherding is a good one, at least as I can grasp it now.

      Anyways.

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