This is the third in a series on the work of shepherding. With obvious humility, the writer has outlined for us some very practical suggestions.
On the shores of the Sea of Galilee from the lips of the risen Lord, Peter received the commission “feed My sheep” (John 21:17). Almost 30 years after that memorable day, Peter charged fellow-elders to “feed the flock of God” (1 Peter 5:2). The need for shepherd-hearted men to effectively care for the spiritual health of believers has not diminished.
As the Good Shepherd, the Lord Jesus gave His life for the sheep (John 10:11). There was no limit to which He was not willing to go for the blessing and benefit of others. He gave His all. He gave Himself. Such self sacrificing devotion should be emulated by those to whom God has given both the responsibility and accountability for the spiritual well being of His people. Devotion to the Lord and a care for God’s people, implanted by the Lord (2 Cor 8:16), are essential to those who shepherd the flock. Shepherding puts the interests of others before selfish interests. It is neither part time nor seasonal. True shepherds can empathize with Paul in his “daily care” for the churches of God” (2 Cor 11:28).
Diligence is required to know the state of the flock (Prov 27:23). Both Paul (1 Thess 5:12) and Peter (1 Peter 5:2) emphasize that elders are “among the flock.” Shepherding is not done from an armchair. It means getting involved. It is toilsome labor (1 Thess 5:12). Interacting with believers is essential to an understanding of their personal issues and needs. Distancing or isolating oneself from believers will inhibit our ability to be a help to the Lord’s people.
Under the imagery of shepherding in Ezekiel 34, God charges the leaders of Israel with a lack of watchfulness and care for the flock. Self indulgence had become the order of the day. The sick, the suffering and the straying were neglected. For their not attending to the needs of the flock, God calls the shepherds into account, “I will require the flock at their hand” (vs 10). In the N T, the writer to the Hebrews describes the scope of the work of elders by saying, “they watch for your souls” (Hebrews 13:17). “Watching” has in view both “guiding” and “guarding”. The guides were men whose lives were influenced and regulated by the Word of God, providing a godly example to be followed (vs. 7). As those “holding fast the faithful Word”, they imparted divine truth to strengthen, encourage and preserve the believers from being “carried away by divers and strange doctrines.
As shepherds, elders should be characterized by impartiality, confidentiality and wisdom.
“Doing nothing by partiality” (1 Tim 5:21). Impartiality is a must! Each believer is the object of the interest of divine persons. Different age groups, cultural backgrounds, circumstances, and levels of spiritual maturity create diverse needs. Too often, some believers viewed as “being different” are shunned and not provided the special care they require. Under no circumstances should believers be able to allege correctly that partiality was shown in the assembly because of family connections or friendships.
Although this should be “a given,” it is tragic when confidence between a believer and an elder is breached. Personal problems or issues that have been discussed with the elders, and that do not affect the whole assembly, should not become common knowledge. David underscores the need for confidentiality when in his lament over Saul and Jonathan he said, “Tell it not in Gath, publish is not in the streets of Askelon” (2 Sam 1:20).
Wisdom and understanding
It has often been said that “wisdom is a scarce commodity.” Solomon recognized its true value. He requested its true value. He requested of God wisdom and understanding to discern between good and evil. In response, God gave him a “wise and understanding heart” (1 Kings 3:9). At Corinth, instead of disputes between believers being resolved internally, some Corinthian believers were resorting to litigation. Paul therefore writes, “Is there not a wise man among you? Not one that shall be able to judge between his brethren?” (1 Cor 6:5). Problem-solving and conflict-resolution require wisdom and understanding. Wisdom can only be applied in cases when there is a clear understanding of the issue. This requires skill in active listening and the use of clarifying questions. Getting all the facts is important. Proverbs 18:13 applies: “He that answereth a matter before he heareth it, it is folly and shame unto him.” The adage, “Think before you speak,” is equally important for “The heart of the righteous studieth to answer” (Prov 15:28). A quick “off the cuff” answer should be avoided. Solomon knew the value of carefully weighing his words, searching out “acceptable words” (Eccl 12:10).
Aspects of shepherd work to be considered are ministry in the assembly, visitation, and special needs.
The ministry of the Word of God will both guide and guard the Lord’s people. David protected his father’s sheep from the attack of the lion and the bear (1 Sam 17:34-36). In recording events of the birth of the Lord Jesus, Luke tells of the shepherds who in the night watches guarded the sheep (Luke 2:8). Paul warns of “grievous wolves, . . .not sparing the flock”, and “men arising. . .speaking perverse things. .to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30). Preserving the assembly from external attacks and internal uprising was a concern about which Paul warned. A constant alertness is still necessary to preserve the flock. The assembly needs to be guarded against leaven, whether it be moral (1 Cor 5) or doctrinal (Gal 5). Discouragement, defilement and division are issues against which we need to be fortified. Balanced ministry will help to preserve and guard God’s people. Legalism and liberalism both result from an imbalance in ministry. It is the responsibility of the elderhood to ensure that balanced ministry is provided to the saints. Devotional, doctrinal, instructive and corrective ministry are all necessary to ensure spiritual development and growth. An improper diet leads to spiritual weakness, making one an easy prey for the enemy. Ministry which reaches the heart, enlightens the mind and adjusts the walk is necessary. Not all ministry is profitable (1 Cor 1:29). Being accountable to the Lord for the flock, elders need to address problems of unprofitable ministry in the assembly.
Visitation is a necessary, yet often neglected, work. It conveys the idea “to look upon or to have regard for.” It is not a social call, but has as its goal the meeting of the need of the one being visited. Comforting, counseling and correcting are all included. Brief visits to those that are sick (James 5:14,) with a word of encouragement from the scriptures, and briefly commending the believer to the Lord, prove to be a source of cheer and comfort. Timely visits to believers who are sorrowing, lonely, or facing other of life’s problems (James 1:27) are deeply appreciated. Such occasions should be used to lighten the burden of God’s people and encourage their hearts.
Not all visiting is pleasant. Some visits result from a believer’s actions, attitudes, or absenteeism. These visits are motivated by a genuine concern for the spiritual well-being of the individual. Though often misunderstood and misrepresented as being intrusive and meddling, true shepherds will seek the restoration of believers so that they again will “run well” (Gal 5:7). Seeking the lost, recovering those who were driven away, binding up the broken, and strengthening the sick (Ezekiel 34:16), will be the aim of those that visit among God’s people.
Paul, in 1 Thess 5, identifies three groups having “special needs.” These groups include the disorderly, the feebleminded and the weak. W. E. Vine, in his Expository Dictionary of NT Words, defines the disorderly as “certain church members who manifested an insubordinate spirit, whether it be excitability or officiousness or idleness.” It suggests “one who does not keep rank.” An assembly is not a democracy; it is a theocracy, the rule of God. Behavior in the House of God must be regulated by the Word of God. Warning and reproving are necessary so that the disorderly will amend their ways.
The RV renders “feebleminded” as “faint-hearted.” Vine suggests this word means “small-souled” or “despondent.” It describes believers who through bereavement or life’s problems have become discouraged or downcast. A sympathizing heart is needed to come alongside and provide timely comfort and encouragement. The “weak” are those which experience “weakness in faith and through lack of advanced knowledge, consider externals of the greatest importance”. Personal weakness or lack of spiritual maturity requires elders to draw near, lending support to these so that they are not stumbled. These three classes of individuals still exist today. Longsuffering and patience must by displayed to “all”.
In their unwearying and unceasing care of the flock. Peter encourages the hearts of shepherds that the day is coming “when the chief Shepherd shall appear” and then they “shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away” (1 Peter 5:4).