Book Review: The Shepherd Leader at Home, by Timothy Z. Witmer


Timothy Z. Witmer, The Shepherd Leader at Home: Knowing, Leading, Protecting, and Providing for Your Family. Crossway, 2012. 176 pages.


Our culture is awash in confusion and disillusionment about the nuclear family. Our disenchantment with domestic life, though, is rooted in either ignorance of, disappointment with, or rebellion against God’s design for husbands and dads to lead their families in his truth and grace.

The results have been tragic. Very often, as dad goes, so goes the culture, for better or worse. This is why Tim Witmer’s book is timely; but it’s not social critique or theological treatise. It’s simple, practical, Christian wisdom, rooted in biblical truth and love.

After establishing seven biblical foundations for Christian marriage, Witmer gets right to the heart of his shepherding concern: knowing, leading, providing for, and protecting our wives and children. These are the fundamental responsibilities of the shepherd to the sheep.


If we are to lead our family-flocks effectively, then we must first take the initiative to know them well. That takes being a good listener so we can use our words to encourage, build up, and give grace to our wives and children in light of who they are, what they think, and how they feel. We need both quantity time and quality time to do this, so Witmer suggests daily dinners with the family (48-49), taking a day a week together (50), and then using strategically planned times through the year to invest in knowing and encouraging first our wives (34-35) and then our children.

One great strength of the book was beginning with the importance of knowing our wives and children. We often assume we know them, but we men have often made ourselves notorious for being poor listeners. Is it any wonder, then, why we don’t have the relationships with our wives and children that we wish we had? Or why they don’t respond to our “leadership” as we wish they would? Relationships require knowing . . . but knowing requires listening, and listening requires time. We keep forgetting that. Witmer reminds us. I’m glad he did.


Witmer then clarifies that leaders exist to accomplish goals and influence followers to accomplish their missions (64-65), the goal in the family being that our wives and kids will know the Lord (66). I found this little section on leadership refreshingly simple. Sometimes we can feel as if leadership is an ethereal, mystic, even mythic quality, unreachable for all but the extraordinary few. Here, though, we have leadership demythologized, demystified. All the cookies are on the bottom shelf. Young husbands and dads in your church will benefit from this simple clarity on what their position of domestic leadership means and requires. Maybe you will too.

Theologically, Witmer reminds us that shepherd leadership is borne of Christ-like love; and Christ’s love for his church is unconditional, sacrificial, and for the church’s holiness (78-81). The Good Shepherd laid down his life for the sheep when the sheep were biting him.

That means our loving leadership of our wives is not based on them meeting certain conditions or benchmarks. I am to love my wife simply because I set my love on her, not because she is constantly earning my affection. After all, am I constantly earning hers? My love should be sacrificial, serving her in domestic tasks as simple as laundry, kitchen clean up, and leading the kids to help around the house. If I’m unwilling to do such things in the home, then I should not wonder why my wife is always exhausted or frazzled. The way I love her should promote her holiness before the Lord, not just my convenience. For Witmer, all this underscores the importance of leading by biblical principles and godly example (88-92).


As a material provider, the shepherd leader at home should lead his family to trust the Lord as the Ultimate Provider, and so to pray together that the Lord would meet needs and provide opportunities. When God does provide, the godly man leads his family in expressing both gratitude to God and generosity to others (99-102).

As spiritual provider, the husband and dad leads by both telling and showing truth from the Word of God—right doctrine applied in right practice. One of the concepts I’m sure will help many young husbands and dads is “Ministry by Wandering Around” (116). Much like a manager can learn a lot by wandering around the shop floor and talking with workers, so a husband and dad can grow more effective and compassionate by visiting the kids in their rooms, getting on their turf, doing things alongside them, and seeing what life is like in their world. This ministry by walking around also happens by inviting them into your world. Doing, reading, and watching things with them—and then leading them in a conversation about what you just did, read, or watched together—can provide welcome opportunities for engaging the hearts of your wife and kids. And as we engage their hearts, we develop the relationships necessary to lead them well.


For Witmer, protecting your marriage will mean protecting it from your own infidelity by starving your own lusts (124-138). These pages are packed with biblical wisdom and godly common sense on nipping adultery in the bud by killing lustful thoughts before they even germinate to flower. Witmer also encourages us to heed both the biblical warnings against adultery, and the biblical encouragements to cultivate joyful intimacy with your own wife. Here again, these are golden counsels for new husbands, and remedial counsels for lapsed ones.

As husbands and dads, we are also responsible to protect our children from cultural wolves like relativism and materialism (141). We can do this by proactively setting clear boundaries for their speech and behavior (142-146), like a fence around the fold; and then responding clearly and consistently when those boundaries are crossed so we don’t provoke our children to anger by being negligent, over-strict, or inconsistent and unpredictable (147-153). Here again, though, our own example will either confirm or call into question the boundaries we set for our families. It’s all too easy to expect from our children better behavior than we ourselves are willing to model.

It’s also too easy for us to expect obedience to boundaries, when we have failed to show our children what obedience looks like, or how to carry it out practically (145). We dads can be full of expectations for our kids, but we need to protect them from disillusionment and frustration by showing them not only what to do but how to do it well so they feel they can please us. Our approval means more to them than we realize. Expectation without demonstration will lead our children to frustration. Witmer clarifies what it means to provoke our children to anger, and how to not do that.


I have two hopefully gracious critiques of an otherwise very good book.

It might feel a little “musty.” That is, you can go away with the idea that there’s a lot I must do as a husband and father, some of which are applications that may not necessarily correlate to every family situation. Is it as realistic to expect a family of eight to sit down together every night for dinner, as it is for a family of four? Maybe not. This “mustiness” can also end up overlooking the sovereignty of God’s grace in the salvation of our children. Even if we do all the “musts,” our kids could still end up like Manasseh after growing up in Hezekiah’s home (2 Kgs. 21:1–9). Conversely, we could fail at every “must” and yet see God do a work of sovereign grace, like raising up a royal shepherd like Josiah from a home like Amon’s (2 Kgs. 21:19–22:2).

That said, it’s supposed to be a short book, and Witmer cannot say, and indeed does not need to say, everything possible about Christian leadership in the home. But I personally know parents who have done all the musts, and still God has not seen fit to bless their faithfulness with the conversion of their children. A book on family leadership might do well to shepherd fathers through such a possibility so that they can lead their hearts and their wives through it.

My only other quibble was with a somewhat uncareful statement intended to celebrate marriage, “Think of how miserable you would be if you were alone” (21). As a gratefully married man, I resonate with that comment. Even with all the frustrations and challenges of marriage and family in a fallen world, my wife is my earthly best, and I do well not to forget it. I do not want to imagine my life without her. She makes me a better man, a better pastor, a better friend. The joy of our marriage, her godly companionship and help in ministry, is the greatest earthly encouragement of my life. Even our local church would not be as encouraging without her in it with me.

Still, I wonder how a single brother preparing for marriage might read that statement. I think Witmer would readily agree that all single people are not miserable. Even all widowers and single dads are not necessarily miserable. God would provide for my joy even if he took away my wife as he did Ezekiel’s. I trust that the gospel’s joy in my life would continue, even if the gospel’s illustration in my marriage came to an end. Again, I trust Witmer would resonate with these sentiments.


All quibbling aside, I recently recommended this book to a young husband and dad in our congregation. He devoured it and then suggested it as required reading for all our young husbands. I tend to agree with him. The content, the brevity, and the study questions all make the book useful not only for personal reflection but also for group discussion in a discipling context. You could even use it as curriculum for a men’s Sunday school class or small group. If you’ve got young families in your church, this can be a go-to source for helping young husbands and new dads get a grip on their new reality. It’s faithful. It’s readable. It’s practical. It’s transferrable. And for those reasons, it’s highly recommended.

Paul Alexander

Paul Alexander is the Pastor of Grace Covenant Baptist Church in Elgin, Illinois.

9Marks articles are made possible by readers like you. Donate Today.