by John Caldwell
Throughout the Bible the people of God are referred to as “sheep,” such as when the Psalmist writes, “We are (the Lord’s) people, the sheep of His pasture.” (Psalm 100: 3). There are many reasons that figure of speech is appropriate. Sheep are prone to stray, they follow the flock (the crowd), they are dependent, and they need shepherds to feed, protect, and guide them. In I Peter 5:1-4 we learn that the shepherds or elders of the church are to “care for,” “watch over,” and “lead (the flock) by your own good example.”
There are many things Scripture does not prescribe about the eldership, the shepherds of the church: method of selection, term of service, organization, and many other issues that the local church is free to determine as to what is best in their particular situation. The qualifications (so-called) in I Timothy 3 and Titus 1 speak primarily to the character of the shepherd. The example of the Good Shepherd in John 10:1-16 speaks not only to character but to duty or responsibility as well.
I would suggest, however, that the most extensive description of the dutiesof a shepherd/elder is found not in the New Testament but the Old. Take a careful look at Ezekiel 34:1-10 and you will find that God expects His shepherds to…
- Feed the sheep
- Take care of the weak
- Tend the sick
- Bind-up the broken
- Bring back the wandering
- Seek the lost
- Protect the flock
- Not use force or cruelty
The Apostle Paul captures much of that in his instructions to the elders of the church in Ephesus: “And now beware! Be sure that you feed and shepherd God’s flock – his church, purchased with His blood – over whom the Holy Spirit has appointed you as elders. I know full well that false teachers, like vicious wolves, will come in among you after I leave, not sparing the flock.” (Eph. 20:28-29). Hebrews 13:17 indicates that the primary duty of church leaders is to “watch over” the souls of the people entrusted to them; and we’re told that such leaders will be held accountable in that regard.
I recently heard a message on the parable of the lost sheep in Luke 15. In that parable Jesus indicates His heart for the lost, leaving the ninety-nine to go search for the one. No passage better demonstrates the value God places on each sheep. The speaker suggested, however, that the ninety-nine had had their chance and could fend for themselves. But even as the church has a primary responsibility to reach the lost, the ninety-nine who are not lost are also in need of shepherds who do for them all those things we find in Ezekiel 34. And from the parable of the Good Shepherd (John 10) we learn that those sheep need shepherds who know them, who are known by them, who lead by example, and who are trustworthy.
Many modern day elderships reflect a corporate board philosophy of ministry. What is often missing is the tender care of loving shepherds for sickly sheep, rebellious sheep, wandering sheep, and even nasty sheep. There are also healthy, contented sheep for whom the shepherds are responsible; and there are wolves in sheep’s clothing that must be exposed and dealt with. To fulfill the Biblical calling of a shepherd/elder is a tremendous challenge but has tremendous rewards. “When the Great Shepherd appears, you will receive a crown of never-ending glory and honor.” (I Peter 5:4).