Lesson 5 The Shepherds Of The Church

“Shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to me flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Pet. 5:2-4).

The Lord Jesus is the Chief Shepherd of His people (1 Pet. 5:4), not an administrator or executive director. He cares for our souls. He tends, guides, protects, and feeds His flock. His work parallels the work of God in the Old Testament as when David said, “The Lord is my Shepherd” (Psa. 23:1). This Psalm is a remarkable picture of the relationship between the Lord and His people. God is not remote, solitary, and uninvolved in the details of the lives of His people. He lives among them as Friend and Guide. It therefore should be no surprise that those who lead local churches are undershepherds.

In Scripture various names are used for leaders of the church, each reflecting a different perspective of shepherding. They are called elders (Acts 20:17; Tit. 1:5), indicating that the man himself is more mature and older in experience in the faith. Elder was a typical name for leaders of tribes or villages in the ancient world. They are called overseers (bishops in some translations) (1 Tim. 3:1,2; Tit. 1:7; Acts 20:28), indicating the work of those who look after the flock of God. The passages show that both terms are used interchangeably and refer to the same person. The term pastor is another translation of the word shepherd, used in 1 Peter 5:1,2. This is another way of describing the work of those who oversee the people of God. This is not a hierarchy of leaders, one over another, but a description of the simple pattern which the Lord presents for the caring of His people. It is leadership of the local church by a team of elders or shepherds.

This Biblical description of a shepherd-pastor bears little or no resemblance to the pattern generally seen in Christianity among Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and even Protestant churches. Among most churches there is a division between those called the clergy and those called the laity or common people. Most of the clergy are called by titles like reverend, or even more exalted terms. Some wear special garments to set them apart from the laity. Such men are trained outside of the churches in special institutions. They are given degrees, and even called priests, as though they were a special caste of men. Such an arrangement is not consistent with the teachings of the New Testament. Religious titles were denounced by the Lord (Matt. 23:8-10). If the care and government of the local churches is to be like that in the New Testament, it must be quite different from the forms generally seen today. Let us briefly examine several areas.

Plurality Of Shepherds

Scripture presents team leadership rather than a pastor-teacher as the proper form of church government. In Philippians 1:1, a group of elders and deacons are addressed, along with the saints, not a single pastor-teacher. Titus was sent to Crete to appoint elders, not a single pastor (Tit. 1:5). Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in every church they established (Acts 14:23). When Paul went to Ephesus he called together the elders of the church (Acts 20:17). Peter addresses his letter to the elders and called himself one of them (1 Pet. 5:1,2). The concept of a single pastor is absent from the Acts and the Epistles. Attempts to show that Timothy in Ephesus, James in Jerusalem, and the angels of Revelation chapters 2 and 3 were pastor-teachers are not convincing. Timothy was an itinerant missionary, like Paul. James was a mediator, statesman, and prominent leader in Jerusalem. The angels referred to in Revelation chapters 2 and 3 are simply angels, by Scriptural interpretation. None of these are termed pastor-teachers of churches.

Pastors do not seem to have been hired from outside the flock in Biblical times. The system of search committees, job interviews, sample sermons, investigation of candidates from other parts, and financial inducements is one of later development. There was no such thing as assignment of pastors to churches by officials or governing groups. Rather, the shepherds arose from within the flock itself on the basis of willingness to serve and spiritual qualifications. In many churches outside of the western world this is still the way it happens.

A shared leadership certainly is not without its difficulties, nor is the single leader system. Spiritual leaders are necessary, whatever the system, for churches to work well. Form does not guarantee life. Unspiritual or inept leaders will sink any system, Biblically conceived or man imposed.

The challenges of the team leadership system begin with the fact that this is not the way things are handled in most of the Christian world. A familiar habit or custom is hard to break. Greater demands are placed upon several men to study, work, and lead since they cannot simply leave it all to the pastor. They may not know how to assume shepherd duties unless someone trains them. There may be none willing or able to help them develop the needed experience over a period of time. It is so much easier to delegate everything to a paid staff to do all of the important duties, especially teaching and shepherding.

Nevertheless, the advantages of a plural leadership, if spiritual, are significant. Plurality leads to a greater development of spiritual gifts among the men, especially in preaching and pastoral work. Scope is given for all the spiritual gifts to function, rather than expecting most gifts to reside in one person. It gives greater responsibility to the male leaders who function as shepherds when they are no longer termed laity or lay persons. It decreases dependence on one man and focuses attention on Christ as the rightful Leader. In any case, no one man can have all the requisite gifts or bear the strain of carrying the entire load himself. This burden has broken many a solo church leader. In countries where believers must operate as house churches, or underground churches because of persecution, plurality is ideal. The same is true for small rural churches. The joint effort of a team leadership does not require that so many gifts be found in a single man. It permits more than one viewpoint in determining the will of God, and guards against dictatorial rule. The final argument is that the Bible teaches it.

Responsibilities Of Shepherds

What are the varied duties of overseers? Unfortunately, among most churches there is very little resemblance to the picture presented in Scripture. In a typical church the elders attend a monthly meeting and review issues that have little or nothing to do with the care of souls. They may head administrative committees which prepare the church budget, or distribute the elements at the communion service. In some cases they are ushers.

The Biblical picture is entirely different. Overseers must be able to teach the Word (1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:9), take real spiritual leadership, and watch over the souls of the flock for whom they are responsible to God (Heb. 13:17). They have the task of genuine pastoral care (1 Pet. 5:2), involving the guidance, correction, and protection of the sheep (1 Pet. 5:3; Acts 20:28). They are the guardians of doctrine in the fellowship (Acts 20:29-31). Failure of shepherds in their duties in Old Testament times brought the Lord’s sternest denunciation (Ezek. 34:2-16). God pledged Himself to do what the shepherds failed to do. Certain elders are to be financially supported by the local church, especially if they labor in preaching and teaching (1 Tim. 5:17,18). This implies a full time service to the local assembly.

In summary, we see in Scripture that a team of elders should teach, lead, and shepherd the flock, equipping the saints for the work of the ministry (Eph. 4:12). They should seek the development of the believers to do the various things which are, in today’s churches, reserved for the professional and paid staff.

Qualifications Of Shepherds

Spiritual or character qualities, rather than personality distinctives, are prominent in the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9. Being an ordained clergyman or graduate of an institution is neither listed nor implied. Being godly is more important than being academically qualified. Spirituality is the most important mark of a godly leader.

The first quality mentioned in 1 Timothy 3:1 is the desire to fulfill the role. Voluntary willingness is mentioned also in 1 Peter 5:2. It is something more than mere human ambition. A desire for a place of prominence (“to be seen of men,” as the Lord would say) is a disqualifying trait. Caring for people out of love for Christ is required. The Lord stressed to Peter the care of His sheep as a test of love for Him (John 21:15-17). A man who is reluctant to tend the sheep does not have the right preparation for the job. This is especially true if it is due to worldly interests or unwillingness to bear the burdens associated with pastoral work. It is a different matter if one is simply modest about personal ability. In such a case one should defer to the judgment of others. No man is a fair judge of his own abilities.

There is a difference between qualities important in worldly leadership and those in God’s leaders. The Lord made a distinction between the two in rebuking the disciples’ ambition to be preeminent as leaders, as the heathen. He said, “…it shall not be so among you.” Instead, leaders must take the place of servants. The greatest leader of all, our Lord, exemplified the servant attitude. The corresponding quality of humility is evident in several places. For example, there is warning about the danger of conceit, hence the barring of new converts from the role (1 Tim. 3:6). There is the disqualification of one with a contentious spirit (1 Tim. 3:3); also the self-willed, quick-tempered, and pugnacious man (Tit. 1:7). No Diotrephes (3 John) would arise if this were taken to heart. The shepherd must lead by moral example, not as being one of the lords over God’s heritage (1 Pet. 5:3).

The shepherd’s role is restricted to a one-woman man (1 Tim 3:2; Tit. 1:6). This is the literal translation from the Greek, and it has occasioned much dispute. Some have thought it means to eliminate the divorced person. Others think it bars bachelors. Certainly it eliminates a polygamist. Clearly no woman could qualify (1 Tim. 2:11,12). The idea of matrimonial fidelity to one woman is central. Effective leadership of wife and children is required (1 Tim. 3:4,5). Otherwise how can a man properly care for the church of God?

In all respects a shepherd must be a man of exceptionally high character, esteemed both within and without the assembly for his testimony. A blameless character is the stated idea. A leader should be a man who can initiate action and make decisions as required. Otherwise he is not a true leader. A passive or fence-sitting man, though otherwise a good Christian, will not make a good leader. He is unable to “rule well” (1 Tim. 5:17).

Any man who can warn, rebuke, prevent factions, promote harmony and maintain good communications with the congregation, is certainly a good leader. Such qualities are also mentioned in the Scriptures. It is important to be a diligent and hard worker (1 Thess. 5:12), even as our Lord demonstrated. Zeal, not laxity, is needed in leaders.

A shepherd must be able to teach (1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:9), especially to maintain sound doctrine in the church. It is not said that he must be a gifted preacher. He ought to be well grounded in the Word and able to use it effectively in dealing with others. He should be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict (Tit. 1:9).

Appointment Of Shepherds

The assembly is not a democracy, as many think, but a monarchy directly ruled by Christ our King. Shepherds should serve as His local governing representatives. The question then arises, “Who appoints the elders?” Ultimately their appointment should be by the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28). The congregation should recognize those who both exhibit the qualifications and are doing the work required. A qualified man is not created by simple appointment to an office.

Titus appointed elders under Paul’s authority (Tit. 1:5). Paul and Barnabas appointed them in every church they established (Acts 14:23). No doubt such men had already passed the test of life and character prescribed. In the present absence of apostles or their delegates, the existing elders, or the missionary who sets up a new local church, would be the appropriate person to make the appointments among qualified men. The people should recognize those who are qualified and active among them (1 Thess. 5:12,13). If there are no existing elders, no missionary, and no church planter, then believers should recognize among themselves the most spiritually qualified people who are already assuming leadership. The elders should be a recognized body, just as with deacons, about whom more will be said later (Acts 6:6; Phil. 1:1). Since deacons were to be tested by prior responsibilities (1 Tim. 3:10), it is also logical to test potential shepherds in this way.

It is not wise to make a hasty decision about appointing an elder (1 Tim. 5:22). How long do elders serve? No fixed age is indicated in Scripture, nor length of service. It is instructive to remember that our Lord was about age 30 when He began His public service. Under Mosaic law, the age of 30 was required for all who would serve as priests. Obviously a man can no longer serve if prevented by infirmities of any kind including age. Moral failure, family breakdown, absenteeism, and failure to do the job are the typical reasons that elders should step down or be removed. In short, the shepherd serves as long as he is able to function effectively and enjoy congregational support. The wise shepherds will help train younger men as successors and make way for their replacements to become active workers. It is a mistake to cling to any office until death, when one’s usefulness has declined or energy has waned.

Training Of Shepherds

Overseers came entirely from within the fellowship in the early assemblies. They were not recruited from outside agencies or from other churches. Elders should know their people and their condition better than an outsider. The logical and most effective method for spiritual development is known as personal discipleship. This was patterned by the Lord Jesus with the Twelve, as well as Paul with the several young men with whom he worked. Discipling involves regular interaction. It includes teaching in the Word, mutual prayer, serving together, and on-the-job training that is carefully supervised. Many leaders have not been trained to do this, but it is possible to learn if they are serious. Materials are available to help. Churches are often willing to share with other churches where they have had successful leadership development, and to seek whatever help is needed to do so. The important thing is to be committed to training prospective leaders.

There is nothing wrong with having younger men go to institutions or training programs that can help them. Many times the needed help is simply not available from qualified men within the fellowship. The point is that the local church should be able to carry out good basic training within, and should not ignore this responsibility. The Lord is indeed the Great Shepherd leader, and the Lord has been pleased to use His key servants to continue to train up future leaders. Elders should guide promising young men through their basic Christian development, particularly in character traits. To broaden and deepen a godly young man in the Word and in ministry experiences is a major opportunity and responsibility of leadership.

Assisting The Shepherds

No group of men which takes care of the flock and ministers the Word can do this well while being weighed down by too many unrelated duties. Elders should not be responsible for the more mundane but necessary matters relating to assembly function. The apostles saw this in establishing the first group of men to handle material needs of the church (Acts 6:2-6). The deacons carry on the responsibility of taking care of the temporal needs of the assembly (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:8-13). Other ministry leaders should be trained to assist the elders in the work of the Lord. Their qualifications should also require being high in their level of spirituality. They should be working as “load lifters” for the elders. This training can be good preparation, or testing, for becoming an elder.

Response To Shepherds

God tells His people to esteem, heed, and respect their overseers (1 Thess. 5:13). The ideas of freedom and individualism have flourished in recent times. Independently minded and unteachable people bristle at the idea of accountability to anyone less than God. Scripture does not support such attitudes. The word flatly tells believers to obey those who rule over them (Heb. 13:17). The Scripture says that to resist authority is to resist God (Rom. 13:1-5). The Scripture lays down an order of submission to authority (Eph. 5:21-6:9; 1 Cor. 11:3-12). Of course, no one should do anything that is illegal, immoral, or a clear violation of a good conscience. No spiritual leader would require this. Leaders are entitled to protection against unconfirmed or malicious charges (1 Tim. 5:19). They ought to have prayer support from the entire assembly (1 Tim. 2:1,2).

A strong church needs a dynamic leadership, empowered by the Spirit of God. We urgently need God’s fullest blessing through godly leaders. We cannot expect to cure a lack of spirituality or initiative by correct form alone. Changes may come slowly and should never be forced on a church in a divisive way. Prayer and patience are necessary. The careful training of young men as spiritual leaders is basic to improvement in shepherding, and eldership.

Lesson 5 The Shepherds Of The Church

1. Read 1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-8; and 1 Peter 5:1-4. List three alternate names for senior assembly leaders and indicate the significance of each name. Can you think of any Scripturally unfounded names? Why are they unscriptural?

2. List at least three advantages of plural church leadership. List three reasons why you think a system involving a single pastor-leader is commonly used instead of this.

3. From the above mentioned passages in 1 Timothy, Titus, and 1 Peter, list ten major qualifications for being a godly overseer.

4. How were elders designated in the days of the apostles? (Tit. 1:5; Acts 14:23) How should they be designated today?

5. Being true to the Scriptures, how should the saints respond to their elders? (1 Thess. 5:13; Heb. 13:17; 1 Tim. 5:19; Rom. 13:1,2)

6. Opinion: What in this lesson most impressed you and why?

7. Is there anything in this lesson on which you are not clear?