/ Church / Stephen Steele

Britain's Loneliest Sheep

A high-profile new resident arrived in South West Scotland recently – a ewe once known as ‘Britain’s Loneliest Sheep’. Fiona, as she has been named, was rescued after being stranded for more than two years at the foot of cliffs in the Scottish Highlands. Fiona’s plight hit the headlines after a kayaker photographed her still trapped at the foot of a steep cliff at the Cromarty Firth, two years after a previous sighting. An online petition to rescue her attracted thousands of signatures, before four farmers came to the rescue. Despite protests from an animal rights group, she arrived safely at Dalscone Farm in Dumfries under cover of darkness, and has been there ever since.

So what was it about Fiona that captured the nation’s attention? Quite simply, it was that she was on her own. And everyone knows that sheep aren’t meant to be alone. Yet as a minister I often hear people say: ‘I don’t need to go to church to be a Christian’. Or: ‘I can worship God as I walk in the hills’. Or: ‘I just watch services online’. One reason that’s a problem is because the Bible repeatedly describes Christians as sheep.

Most people are familiar with the opening line of Psalm 23: ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’. When Jesus came, he described himself as ‘The Good Shepherd’. He said ‘My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me’. If we see a sheep on its own, we know something is wrong. We should look with similar concern on someone who claims to be one of Christ’s sheep, and yet shuns involvement in a gospel-preaching church. Especially if we work on the assumption that God created sheep for the very purpose of showing us what we are like and what we need.

Certainly, our relationship with God must be personal. Too many try to substitute a connection with a church for a personal relationship with Jesus. We must be able to say ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’. But the Bible’s vision is not for ‘you in your small corner and I in mine’. The New Testament pattern is that when people are baptised, they are joined to a particular body of believers. Most of the New Testament letters are written to churches. Those which are written to individuals, are written to church leaders[1]. The New Testament has no concept of an individual Christian (or a Christian family) which is not under the shepherding care of a local church.

Christians in the New Testament are frequently described as ‘saints’. Unlike the popular idea of a halo-wearing, super-holy person, the word simply describes those who God has set apart for himself. Significantly, the word ‘saint’ is always plural in Scripture. 1st Corinthians 12 describes the church as a body; some people are hands, some are eyes, some are ears. Everyone has a role to play. Those who isolate themselves (Proverbs 18:1), refuse to play their God-given role. James Bannerman, a great Scottish theologian of the past, said ‘A solitary Christian is a contradiction in terms’.

Some point to a bad church experience in the past as the reason they’ve decided to go it alone. If that’s you, I sympathise deeply. But if a sheep has been badly treated on one farm, the answer isn’t to rescue it and then set it loose to wander. Often, bad church experiences come at the hands of self-appointed leaders who are a far cry from the ‘shepherds after my own heart’ God promises through Jeremiah. True shepherds must be ‘sent’ (Romans 10:15). Just as the New Testament expects individual believers to join themselves to a local church, so it expects the leaders themselves to be under spiritual authority. If you are in a ‘church’ where the leader is not accountable to anyone for his actions, get out! Indeed, the very idea of a church with one individual making the decisions is neither healthy or biblical.

After two years, Fiona the sheep might have been quite content to be by herself. But it was not what was best for her. Surely she is happier now? Living week in, week out, alongside other believers can be a challenge at times. We will sin against one another and be sinned against. We’ll hurt one another and disappoint one another. But by God’s grace we’ll also fulfil the New Testament commands to encourage one another and build one another up. God in his wisdom has not designed sheep to be alone.

A version of this article is due for publication in the Stranraer & Wigtownshire Free Press, 29th February 2024.

[1] The one possible exception is Philemon, who is described as a ‘fellow worker’ (v. 2; cf Colossians 4:11). Calvin says ‘it is probable that [he] belonged to the order of pastors’. Even if Philemon was not a church leader, there was still a church meeting in his house (v. 2) and the letter is about reconciliation and relationships between Christians.

Stephen Steele

Stephen Steele

Stephen is minister of Stranraer RP Church in Scotland. He is married to Carla and they have four children. He has an MA from Queen's University Belfast where his focus was on C19th Presbyterianism.

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