Acton Institute Powerblog

The shepherd motif: Gregory Thornbury on Cain, Abel, and culture-making

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“It needs to be our job to envision a different future for the church in which we teach our young people to compete in the arena and be so excellent that they cannot be denied — to be shepherds.” -Gregory Thornbury

In a recent lecture at the ERLC’s 2016 National Conference, Gregory Thornbury, President of King’s College in New York City, challenges the church to “stop talking about culture and engaging culture” and begin sending competitors into the “heart of the arena,” whether in finance, business, the arts, politics, or otherwise.

“I am concerned that the rightful teaching of grace in our churches may be producing a slacker generation that will damage our witness in culture for coming generations,” Thornbury says. “We need to recover the work ethic that made the people of God who they were in every cultural situation.”

That ethic, Thornbury continues, can be spotted in the shepherd motif of the Biblical story, beginning with the story of Cain and Abel. While Cain simply accepts the curse on the ground, operating cynically from the scarcity of a fallen world, Abel “understands that the human being is created in the image of God and part of the cultural mandate is to subdue the earth.” Cain toils, but Abel deploys. 

From the latter, the arc of the story of God’s people only begins:

It is not by any mistake that for the rest of the Bible the shepherd motif becomes the key understanding for what it means to truly be a leader amongst the people of God, beginning with Abel, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, all of the patriarchs. King David understands what it means to be a shepherd. He sends the sheep out. He deploys them, and it gives him time to do other more creative things like write poetry and write music…

And it’s all surrounded by this concept that we are kings. We are lords of the world. And this is what sets the Jewish people apart amongst all of the other people and nations of the world. The other pagan, ancient, Canaanite cultures all had a servile attitude, a Cain-like attitude. They were just accepting their fate. “We are slaves. We bow down and listen to what some chieftain or suzerain or potentate or king tells us to do.” Not so with the Jewish people.

You are to be shepherds. You are to control your environment. And so it’s no mistake that we call our Lord Jesus Christ our Great Shepherd…We are his sheep, the people of his pasture, and we are doing the job for him.

gthornburyFor more, see Thornbury’s plenary talk at Acton University, which gives a range of examples of how Christians might operate and compete more boldly and faithfully in our “post-reality” context.

For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles DVD

For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles DVD

For the Life of the World is an entertaining film series that explores the deeper meaning of Salvation. Have you ever wondered, “What is my Salvation actually FOR?” Is it only about personal atonement, about getting to heaven, or something that comes later? Is it just to have a “friend in Jesus?”

Join Evan Koons and his friends – Stephen Grabill, Amy Sherman, Anthony Bradley, Makoto Fujimura, John M. Perkins, Tim Royer and Dwight Gibson – as they discover a “new perspective,” the BIGGER picture of what it means to be “in the world, not of it.” This seven-part film series will help you, your friends, church or organization investigate God’s Economy of All Things – OIKONOMIA (a Greek word that has a lot to say about God’s plan for his creation, the world, and us.)

Explore how God’s purposes are woven into every area of our lives: family, work, art, charity, education, government, recreation and all creation! The Bible calls us Strangers and Pilgrims, living in "the now and not yet" of God’s Kingdom Come on earth. We are also called to be salt and light, to have a transforming presence among our neighbors. Rediscover the role of the church and how our lives lived on earth matter in God’s plan for the world.

Designed for deep exploration, the series invites viewers to watch the series again for new insights. Also, check out the companion Field Guide to jump-start group and individual investigation and enhance the film experience! FOR THE LIFE OF THE WORLD Field Guides are available in print or via streaming access at

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.