From other articles in this issue, it will be clear how great a burden falls on those who have responsibility as leaders in a local assembly. We should pray continually for them that they will be able to fulfil the role of shepherding the flock for the good of the assembly.
The elder, sometimes called overseer or shepherd in Scripture, will not be someone who has sought a position of prominence or dominance in the assembly. He will not see the role as standing at the top of a hierarchical ladder of status or achievement, looking at the rest in the assembly as subpar Christians. Scripture specifically forbids this: “neither as being lords over God’s heritage” (1Pe 5:3). It is worth noting that for a person to take up the role, as just described, he will not be able to fulfil it completely, but will, nevertheless, be held accountable for doing so. The same standard of assessment will be applied to all, irrespective of the degree of fitness for service.
Rather, the spiritual leader will be a brother who approaches the task with all gravity, knowing that he will be held accountable for how he exercises that role. In Hebrews, the saints are reminded not only to remember those leaders, now in glory, who had previously taught them and lived as examples of faith in such a way that they should imitate them (Heb 13:7), but they are also to obey them that presently have the rule over them. One of the reasons for this was that “they watch for your souls, as they that must give account” (13:17). Some questions arise, then, in relation to the overseer’s accountability. Who is he accountable to? Who is he accountable for? What is he accountable for?
Who Is He Accountable To?
The scriptural elder will recognise that the assembly is not his but God’s, and that all Persons within the Godhead are involved and interested in it; thus, he exercises overseership conscious that he is accountable in that function.
First, the assembly is “the flock of God” (1Pe 5:2). Sometimes when, in a colloquial way, we refer to “our” or “your” assembly, we ought to be clear that it is not in a possessive sense, but more by way of personal identification with a particular local assembly. It is God’s assembly, and a heritage or charge that has been allotted to elders to oversee and shepherd.
Second, the elder will understand that his role is given to him by the Holy Spirit. When Paul met the elders from the church at Ephesus, he reminded them that they should take heed, or be on guard, for themselves and the flock, “over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers” (Act 20:28). The same stewardship of the Holy Ghost that makes a man an overseer will fit that man for such a service.
Third, Peter writes of the Chief Shepherd, who, when He appears, will review and reward a crown of glory for the elders of the flock (1Pe 5:4). So, elders are appointed by the Holy Spirit of God over the flock of God and are accountable as under-shepherds to the Lord Himself. This review will take place at the judgment seat of Christ following the Rapture of the Church.
Who Is He Accountable For?
From Acts 20:28 it can be seen that leaders are accountable for a “flock,” an assembly of Christians in a given locality. Paul, making his way to Jerusalem, instead of passing through Ephesus sent for the elders of the assembly there to come and meet with him at Miletus. They were responsible as overseers for one assembly in one particular place, Ephesus, and nowhere else.
What Is He Accountable For?
The most prominent picture of a leader in an assembly is that of a shepherd and a flock for which he, with others, has responsibility. Sheep by nature are wayward, vulnerable animals, almost impossible to train and often a prey to devouring wolves. Their welfare is a very onerous task that can only be adequately fulfilled by a person who cares for them (1Ti 3:5) and has the experience and ability to do so. There are several functions for which a shepherd will be responsible and accountable to the Chief Shepherd. These will be dealt with more thoroughly elsewhere in this issue, so a brief mention in the context of accountability will suffice here.
Leading the Sheep
The Lord gave a picture of such leading when He, speaking of the true Shepherd, said, “When he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him” (Joh 10:4). Again, in Psalm 23:2-3 we see that the shepherd “leadeth me beside the still waters” and “he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness.” Thus, the Chief Shepherd leaves the perfect example of guiding and directing the sheep.
Feeding the Sheep
The shepherd is responsible for the dietary needs of the sheep and lambs and thus should be able to bring the sheep into pastures convenient to their changing needs. The elders cannot delegate that responsibility to visiting deacons; they must remember that they are still accountable for the proper and appropriate feeding of the sheep. An elder is to be “apt to teach,” and the soul with a true shepherd heart will know the needs of the flock best. Thus, Paul charged the Ephesian elders to “feed the church of God” (Act 20:28).
Guarding the Sheep
Paul also warned the elders to “take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock” (v28). To “take heed” is to be on guard, beware, or pay careful attention to. There are grievous wolves who would not spare the flock, and the shepherd needs to be ever diligent for the safekeeping of the sheep both from without and within.
Watching Over the Sheep
If the guarding of the sheep has primarily an external focus (because of enemies who would destroy), watching over the sheep has more an internal focus, on the conduct of the sheep. In Hebrews, saints are charged to obey and be submissive to those who lead or go before them (13:17). Thus the conduct of the sheep can determine if the shepherds, when giving account, do so with joy or grief.
Rescuing or Recovery of the Sheep
Sheep at times do wander and need to be rescued. In Matthew 18:12, the Lord spoke of the shepherd who “goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray.” He added in verse 13 (“if so be that he find it”) that there will be cause for rejoicing over a lost and now rescued sheep.
Thus, the elders in an assembly have an onerous and oftentimes lonely task that requires great exercise of heart, wisdom, patience and prayer. They will, like all of us, have to “give account of himself to God“ (Rom 14:12) and “receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done” (2Co 5:10).
 Bible quotations in this article are from the KJV.