Elders as Shepherds
John Salisbury, Northampton, England
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third of a short series on this very needy and practical area of elders. It is designed to emphasize the spiritual nature of this work and how we need to encourage younger men to be exercised about the responsibility of caring for the flock of God locally.
The Shepherd Character of God
There are frequent references through-out the Old Testament to the shepherd character of God in relationship to His people. Asaph described Him as, ‘the Shepherd of Israel’, Ps. 80. 1. David wrote, ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want’, Ps. 23. 1, and described in detail the shepherd care that he received, and would rejoice in day by day until he reached heaven. In Ezekiel chapter 34, God promised His people that, even though their leaders might fail in their shepherding of them, He would never fail.
The Lord Jesus described Himself as ‘the good shepherd’, who ‘giveth his life for the sheep’.1 The writer to the Hebrews calls Him, ‘that great shepherd of the sheep’.2 In this, as in everything else, He is the supreme example to elders who are shepherds. To be a good shepherd is to give one’s life to the work.
Shepherds are Gifts to the Church
In Ephesians chapter 4 verse 11, shepherds are seen as a gift of the ascended Christ to the church. Apostles and prophets were foundational and temporary, 2. 20. Evangelists, pastors (shepherds) and teachers are the permanent gifts which are still with us today.
Isaiah reminds us that humanity is sheep-like in character. Peter wrote to believers, reminding them that, ‘Ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned to the Shepherd and Bishop (Overseer) of your souls’, 1 Pet. 2. 25.3 In our Saviour we see the work of shepherd and overseer combined as He provides constant ongoing care for His sheep.
He who is the Good Shepherd is also the ‘Chief Shepherd’.4 He who gifts the church with ‘pastors’, or under- shepherds, giving them responsibility to care for His flock, will in a coming day review and reward their faithfulness in their stewardship as shepherds.
Overseership is a noble, a high calling to which a man aspires, being called by the Holy Spirit to this work.5 This man, we have seen, is a gift of the ascended Christ to the church, taking character from the Giver, who is Shepherd and Overseer of our souls. He is answerable to the Chief Shepherd for his stewardship. It is therefore an awesome work that the overseer-shepherd engages in. Can there be any higher calling than to serve the Chief Shepherd as an under-shepherd amongst the flock of God which He has purchased with his own blood?
The Flock of God has many needs
The needs of the people of God are many and varied. They are hungry; some are weak, some are sick, some are broken, some have strayed or have been driven away! The one great need of the day is for leaders who are true shepherds. Many of God’s children in assembly fellowship know how easy it is to feel unloved and uncared for, unimportant and lonely. As such, these dear saints are in need of shepherd care which sadly seems to be lacking in many quarters. God gives us His view of the needs of His people and sends a strong rebuke to failing shepherds in Ezekiel chapter 34 verses 1-10.
What does God expect of Shepherds?
They must feed the flock; they must strengthen those that are weak; they must bring healing to those that are spiritually sick; they must gently restore those that are broken, and they must go after those that have strayed. It is clear that shepherding is a full-time occupation and is not something reserved for monthly ‘elders’ meetings’! In fact, shepherding is what is done every day between those meetings.
Shepherding is Spiritual Work
Shepherding is a spiritual work involving the spiritual well-being of the people of God. Shepherds should not become distracted by other avenues of service, but take to heart the lessons of Acts chapter 6. There the apostles were presented with a pressing need regarding the welfare of the Greek widows which required immediate action. They fully appreciated the need and would have been well able to deal with this matter themselves, but instead they instructed the believers to choose seven eminently spiritual men to undertake the task. They explained their reaction to this crisis by saying that it was not a reasonable thing for them ‘to leave the word of God, and serve tables’, Acts 6. 2. They went on to explain that while other spiritual men were engaged in this practical service for God, ‘We will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word’. What was the result? ‘The word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly’, v. 7.6
Sadly, it is often the case that shepherds involve themselves in too many assembly activities and ministries to the detriment of the spiritual well-being of the flock of God. Shepherds are men of prayer, men who give themselves to the study and teaching of the word of God, both of which take time. The demands on the time of overseers are immense and they need to remain focussed on their divine calling, not become distracted by involvement in every avenue of service around them.
Some aspects of the work of the shepherd are:
Watching over the Flock
The expression ‘flock’ in the New Testament is really ‘little flock’, emphasizing the vulnerability of the local assembly to attacks from within and without, and the need for protection on the part of shepherds. Early in the Gospels we are introduced to shepherds ‘keeping watch over their flock by night’, Luke 2. 8. What an apt description, a night scene, with its potential danger, but a flock safely resting under the constant care of a group of shepherds!
In Acts chapter 20, Paul instructed the Ephesian elders to ‘watch’.7 What for? For those from without, who would devour and destroy, ‘grievous wolves’ who would ‘enter in among you, not sparing the flock’. For those from within, who would divide and draw away, ‘Of your own selves shall men arise’ seeking to ‘draw away disciples after them’.
Paul understood the cost of shepherding. He ‘ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears’. If saints are warned or corrected by their shepherds, they must remember that they are doing so because they are watching over them in light of their accountability to the Chief Shepherd.8
Feeding the Flock
Feeding is specific. Peter was commissioned by his Lord to, ‘Feed my lambs . . . feed my sheep’. He would always remember who the flock belongs to! He would make specific provision for lambs as well as sheep. The shepherd will feed the word of God to the flock of God in an intelligent, specific way in order to meet the need of the saints.
In a healthy local assembly there will always be babes in Christ, requiring the simple foundational truths of the word of God, ‘the sincere (unadulterated) milk of the word’, 1 Pet. 2. 2. At the same time there will be mature believers who, although enjoying hearing the basic teaching of scripture, will be looking for food for their own souls. The shepherd will provide teaching for these, bearing in mind that, ‘strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age’, Heb. 5. 14.
Shepherds who watch over the flock know the needs of the flock and are best placed to provide appropriate spiritual food to ensure its spiritual well-being.
Shepherding the Flock
Shepherding is general. It has to do with the ways of God. The word translated ‘feed’ can also have a more general idea than specific feeding.9
In John chapter 21 verses 15 -17 we note that the prime requirement for shepherding is love for Christ. Three times the Saviour challenged Peter, ‘Lovest thou me?’ Love for Christ, and love for His people, His flock, is essential to the shepherd or else he will soon become embittered and disillusioned in this arduous work. The saints will respond positively to the man that they know loves the Lord and loves them too.
Shepherding will involve general spiritual care for the flock. There is a lovely expression in 1 Timothy chapter 3 verse 5, ‘Take care of the church of God’. We see what this means in the parable of the good Samaritan, Luke 10. 30-35. The good Samaritan ‘took care’ of the dying man. This involved coming alongside the man, he ‘came to where he was’. It involved compassion, ‘he had compassion on him’. It provided immediate care, he ‘bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine’. And ongoing care, he ‘set him on his own beast’, took him to an innkeeper and provided for his future care, ‘take care of him’.
The shepherd will care for individual members of the flock, seeking to meet their specific needs, instructing the young who may be contemplating baptism, fellowship, marriage, etc., encouraging young parents in raising their families, those who are older and some who may be housebound.
He will be given to hospitality, and the saints will be free to visit him and discuss their problems and seek advice. He will not forget those who have gone astray.
Leading the Flock
The words ‘them that have the rule over you’, found three times in Hebrews chapter 13, would perhaps be better expressed, ‘them that guide you’, or ‘lead you’. The idea is leadership, not rule.
The Eastern shepherd always led his flock, generally over paths familiar to himself, although not necessarily to his flock. David spoke of the Lord, his shepherd, leading him in green pastures and by still waters.
The saints are constantly looking for guidance in every aspect of their lives and shepherds are there to lead and guide them. A leader is one who is one step ahead spiritually. He calls the saints to follow where he has already trodden. In this light, Peter calls elders to be examples to the flock, 1 Pet. 5. 3.
If God has blessed us with shepherds like these, we should be very thankful to our God, knowing that there are few like this today.
We should do all we can to encourage them in their labour for God. We should ‘obey them’ and ‘salute (greet) them’. Heb. 13. 17, 24. We should ‘honour’ them and support them financially, if necessary, 1 Tim. 5. 17-18. And we should pray for them in their service for God amongst us, and that God will continue to raise up such men among us for the continued well-being of the little flock until the Lord returns.
- John 10. 11.
- Heb. 13. 20.
- In an Old Testament context, ‘All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way’, Isa. 53. 6.
- 1 Pet. 5. 4.
- 1 Tim. 3. 1; Acts 20. 28.
- Distraction from their calling would have diluted their ministry. This passage shows that their prayer life would have been curtailed. Their ministry of the word would have lacked power. The work of God would not have prospered as it should.
- Acts 20. 29-31.
- The writer to the Hebrews reminded them that their leaders ‘watch for your souls, as they that must give account’, Heb. 13. 17.
- Examples of this are seen in the following verses: ‘Feed (shepherd) my sheep’, John 21. 17; ‘Feed (shepherd) the church of God which he hath purchased with his own blood’, Acts 20. 28. ‘Feed (shepherd) the flock of God which is among you’, 1 Pet. 5. 2.