Travelling in Southeast Asia brings its own peculiar challenges for a Scottish evangelist. In addition to the cultural contrasts, there are customs declarations, numerous conversations in broken English and local languages about employment, and the inevitable failed attempts to shake off the title of “Pastor.” The assumption seems to be that anyone who works for the Christian God or Church is a pastor or priest.
The word “Pastor” in our Western culture has different associations. There are the ridiculous caricatures of cult personalities flying about in private jets, with churches housed in concert venues and homes like mansions – the not “over the hilltop” type. Then there are the scandals. Who hasn’t winced when “pastors” with a significant organisation and media presence hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons, leaving wreckage in their wake?
We find pastors all over the world, but do we find them in the Bible? Without getting too technical, the word finds its origin in Latin and French and was a transliteration of the NT Greek word poimen, found in Ephesians 4:11-12. The English Standard Version of the Bible changed the traditional English translation from pastors to shepherds. “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph 4:11-12). Who, then, are these shepherds and what is their function?
It is helpful to look at two occasions in the NT where the verb form of the word occurs. Note first Paul’s use of the word in Acts 20:28: “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock that the Holy Spirit has appointed you to as overseers, to shepherd the church of God, which He purchased with His own blood” (HCSB). Note also Peter’s use: “So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1Pe 5:1-4).
We discover that shepherding describes work done by “overseers” and “elders” among the Christians in Ephesus and readers of Peter’s epistle, and will be rewarded by the “Chief Shepherd” at His appearing.
Other articles in this series deal with the identity, character, calling and accountability of these roles within a local church. However, it is worth stating again that God has designed the local church to be guided, led and fed by a plurality of qualified men (1Ti 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9), called elders or overseers. These words emphasise different aspects of the qualifications and function of these men. Shepherding the Lord’s people is an apt description of an elder/overseer’s service for the Lord.
There are plenty of examples in the OT of good and bad spiritual shepherds. The ultimate shepherd is God (Psalm 23) and He is the standard by which His under-shepherds are measured. He is the example for every elder who is tasked with shepherding the people of God. Then there are the imperfect, yet good, examples of Moses and David. In contrast, Jeremiah and especially Ezekiel (34:1-10) had strong words for the elders of Israel and their abject failure as spiritual shepherds. The list is long and includes leading the people into sin, ignoring the sick and wounded, leaving the scattered sheep to fend for themselves, and behaving harshly.
It is interesting that God’s answer to the failures of His under-shepherds is direct intervention Himself (34:11-17). In contrast to Israel’s failed shepherds, the Lord will search for the sheep when they are scattered, deliver them from danger and recover them to feed them; He makes sure that they are safe, fed and rested.
The NT picks up the same theme of pastoral care which the Lord provides for His people through elders overseeing the local church. Peter, who was himself an elder, provides instruction for elders to lead the people of God as shepherds should lead their sheep (1Pe 5:1-4). It is worth noting that Peter moves from the inevitability of persecution for the Christians in chapter 4 to his instruction to elders in chapter 5. Peter was preparing his readers to endure suffering for righteousness, with strong pastoral leadership from their elders being a necessity for all Christians, especially those experiencing persecution.
The basis for Peter’s exhortation is as follows: “So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed” (5:1). Peter appeals to elders as one of their own. He has already established his apostolic authority (1:1), but now we learn that he also functioned as an elder of a local church. He is making the point that he understands the challenges of spiritual leadership; he can relate to them.
He also knows about suffering as a witness of the sufferings of Christ. It must have been a deep regret for Peter that the Lord’s sufferings would always remind him of his own denial of the Lord. As a beneficiary of the Lord’s pastoral care following his failure, Peter has taken his place as a public witness to the sufferings of Christ. He understands their challenges, knows the blessing of pastoral care following failure, and reminds them that he shares the same secure hope of glory in the face of persecution.
Next, we find Peter’s exhortation to be a shepherd: “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you” (v2a). With empathy and authority Peter commands elders to take care of the Christians that are their immediate responsibility. Their pastoral care is for the sheep under their care and those sheep alone. Could Peter be remembering the command of the Lord to him on resurrection ground (“Shepherd My sheep,” Joh 21:16)? What he had received directly from the Lord, he now commands his fellow shepherds.
How does this translate into the ordinary week-to-week routines of a local church? In dependence upon God, the elders must care for the Christians, as a shepherd feeds his flock, by teaching, preaching, exhorting, rebuking and encouraging with the Bible. They are to be among the people they shepherd so that they know the flock and can appreciate and respond to their needs, strengths and weaknesses.
Pastoral care is all about bringing the Word of God to the people of God. By personal example and the help of others, the spiritual food of God’s Word will strengthen, guide for the decisions of life, and cleanse and protect from the defilement of the world. It will also educate and enable growth in the knowledge of God and our Saviour, bringing hope for the dark times of life experience and a sure foundation upon which to build our lives for God.
Paul emphasises this responsibility when he instructs Timothy that elders must be “able to teach” (1Ti 3:2). It is worth noting that among all the qualifications of an elder that Paul mentions in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, teaching the Word of God stands out in the lists. “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9).
As the elders oversee the local church, they are to be careful not to fall into three common leadership sins. First, Peter writes, they should do it “not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you” (1Pe 5:2b). Similarly, when Paul writes to Timothy setting out the qualifications of an elder, the first point he makes is that an elder should desire to do the work (1Ti 3:1). An elder should want to serve the Lord in this way and not be forced to do so. When difficult circumstances arise, the desire to serve can enable an elder to endure when a coerced person will give up.
Second, the work of the elder should not be tainted by personal greed: “not for shameful gain, but eagerly” (1Pe 5:2c). Spiritual leadership has historically been blighted by greed. It was silver that Judas received for betraying the Lord. Churches have stood out as centres of wealth in the midst of poverty, with leaders enriched by feeding on the flock rather than feeding the flock. An elder requires an attitude of selfless service, more concerned by what he can do for others rather than what they can do for him. Shepherds are not to fleece the sheep.
Third, elders should not take the place as lords: “not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (v3). It is always a bad sign when a church becomes identified with a leader’s name, as if it belongs to him or is subservient to him. This is what an elder must avoid. A person behaving like a chief executive or a tyrant is not serving as an elder. Elders lead by example, teaching, caring, encouraging, rebuking, but never as dictators. Their authority is derived from the Lord, and their overarching aim is to point to Him, for the people in their charge to love and serve the Lord, not them. Rather than drive the flock from behind with a stick, shepherds lead the sheep down a path they themselves have already walked.
Peter will go on in his epistle to speak of the reward that awaits faithful elder service (v4) and the responsibility of the sheep to respond to pastoral care (vv5-11).
In days when responsibility and service are declining for all sorts of selfish reasons, and the need for pastoral care has never been greater, let elders heed the call of the Lord to shepherd the flock of God.
 Bible quotations in this article are from the ESV unless otherwise noted.