USA Today carried this story in 2005 from Istanbul, Turkey:
“First one sheep jumped to its death. Then stunned Turkish shepherds, who had left the herd to graze while they had breakfast, watched as nearly 1,500 others followed, each leaping off the same cliff, Turkish media reported. In the end, 450 dead animals lay on top of one another in a billowy white pile, the Aksam newspaper said. Those who jumped later were saved as the pile got higher and the fall more cushioned. After one of the sheep tried to jump a ravine, the rest of the flock followed.”
What is going on here? You have heard the mythical story of lemmings rushing to the sea, all caught up in Groupthink gone horribly wrong. Here we have a similar story, only this time it’s a herd of sheep, all following a leader who is very confused. This rogue sheep made a deadly decision and 1,500 of his closest friends blindly followed him. You could spin this story and say that 450 of the sheep laid down their lives for their comrades. But don’t pull the wool over your eyes. That’s not what happened here. You could say that sheep are naturally sociable and would rather die together than live alone. That, too, would be wrong, and I would be fleecing you to even suggest it. You could say that since these sheep lived in Turkey, perhaps they thought they could fly. That would be a really “baaad” attempt at humor, and it, too, would be off the mark.
No, these sheep were simply acting the way God designed them. Sheep are not the brightest of four-legged creatures. If left unattended, sheep will wander off a cliff, or into a thicket where they are held fast, or stumble over rocks and end up ‘cast’ (on their backs, unable to turn). In any of these scenarios, the sheep that leaves its shepherd is easy prey for a wolf, a hyena, or any number of sheep-eating predators. Besides that, sheep are pest-magnets: they get ticks, lice and worms, and regularly have to be dipped in strong chemicals to keep them healthy. Maybe all of those reasons combined explain why God compares us to sheep in the Bible. “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned — every one — to his own way…” The hymn writer said it this way: Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.
This is why sheep need shepherds, and why pastors and elders, those who shepherd the local church, need to carefully stay under Christ’s authority. Paul said to the elders of the church at Ephesus, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made your overseers, to care for the church of God, which He obtained with His own blood.” Think about that verse for a moment. Leaders must pay careful attention first to their own lives, and make sure there is no gap between what they say and how they live. They are also to care for the church, which belongs to God, and which He purchased with the blood of His Son. Do you get that? The purchase price for the church is unmatched in the universe. There is nothing more precious than the blood of Jesus. That means the value of the church to God is incalculable. There are not enough zeros to match the price God paid to redeem His people.
Don’t follow sheep off a cliff. Find shepherds who follow the Lord and stay close. But remember that those shepherds in your church are just sheep to whom God has given a precious responsibility. Pray for them. Encourage them. Don’t let your hearts grow bitter towards them. They need you as much as you need them.