In seminary, I took several pastoral ministry and Christian leadership classes. In those classes, the emphasis was more on programs than on understanding the task and responsibility of the Pastor or elders. Granted, programs have an important place in the Church in terms of helping guide people towards growth but they are not ultimate nor do they define the role of a pastor/shepherd. While what I learned in those classes has helped me but it also left me with a sour taste in my mouth and with the lingering question, “Why aren’t seminaries focusing on equipping men to be Pastors who are leaders with discernment?” As I began to think about this question, recently on social media I asked people to suggest a few topics they would like to see me write on. One of these topics was from a friend of mine who wanted to see me explore the biblical model of shepherd/overseer verses the CEO American “pastor” model.
At the outset, I wish the reader to understand I am not opposed to programs but I am opposed to them if by them the Church thinks that by having programs they are “equipping” people to do ministry. Jesus never came with a program, rather He came with a message of redemption and reconciliation. The task of Pastors and ministry leaders in the Church is to equip the people of God for the ministry of carrying forth the Gospel (Ephesians 4:11-15). Let me put it bluntly: If we fail in the task of equipping the people of God then we fail the Lord Jesus. Even so, the Lord’s ministry goes forth in spite of us because it is His ministry and He has called us to be part of His divine plan. Therefore, what I want to focus on in this article is a comparison/contrast of a CEO model of ministry verses the biblical model of shepherd/overseer, set forth three critical areas of ministry for the biblical shepherds, and then look at Jesus as the Good and Chief Shepherd over His people.
First, let me state as clearly as I can that I believe local churches should be lead by a plurality of male Pastor/elders that includes the Pastor and any male pastoral staff should be ordained by biblically qualified elders (1 Tim. 3; Titus 1).
The Pastor as CEO runs the organization and has his “hand” in everything. The Pastor as CEO is one of the biggest reasons why the American church is floundering. If the leadership of the local Church is unhealthy spiritually, then so will the people in that congregation. The Pastor as CEO focuses on managing people and programs but this places the shepherd primarily in a defensive posture rather than an offensive posture. By offensive I mean the only offensive weapon Christians have been given is the Sword of the Spirit, the Word of God which contains the message of the Gospel. The Pastor as CEO views his job from the angle of management rather than leadership. Rather than advancing the Kingdom of God, the Pastor as CEO is more interested to maintain what happened during the movement of the Spirit. In contrast to this, the Gospel calls us to carry forth its message so the lost may be saved and people may have the scales of spiritual darkness removed in order to know and serve the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Bible’s strongest warnings are for those who lead the people of God astray. Now I am not saying that the Pastor as CEO will lead people away from God, but I am saying that if he doesn’t lead them closer to God then he is at most a bad shepherd and at worst a false shepherd. If the Kingdom of God is about advance then there is no way the Kingdom of God is simply about or solely concerned with maintenance or the status quo.
Psalm 23:1 says, “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.” The Lord is the Shepherd of the people as a whole as well as over the individual members of the body of Christ. The Deity as shepherd motif is common in the Bible (Genesis 48:15; 49:24; Psalm 28:9; 80:1; 95:7; 100:3; Rev. 7:17; Psalm 49:14). The Bible also uses shepherd imagery to describe the work of those who lead God’s people (Ezek 34). Thus, when Paul and Peter directly exhorted the elders to do their duty, they both employed shepherding imagery. It should be observed these two apostles assigned the task of shepherding the local church to no other group or single person. Conversely, it was the responsibility of the elders in the local body. Paul reminds the Asian elders that God the Holy Spirit placed them in the flock as overseers for the purpose of shepherding the church of God (Acts 20:28). Peter exhorts the elders to be all that shepherds should be to the flock (1 Peter 5:2). We, then, must also view apostolic Christian elders to be primarily pastors of a flock, nor corporate executives, CEOs, or advisers to the pastor. Christian elders and their work are defined by the imagery of shepherding. As keepers of the sheep, New Testament leaders are to protect, feed, lead, and care for the flock’s needs.
Now let’s discuss the function and responsibility of the shepherd.
First, they protect the flock. A major part of the New Testament elders’ work is to protect the local church from false teachers and wolves in sheep’s clothing. As Paul was leaving Asia Minor, he summoned the leaders of the church in Ephesus for a farewell exhortation. The essence of Paul’s charge is guard the flock because wolves are coming:
Acts 20:17, 28-31: “Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.”
According to Paul’s required qualification for eldership, a prospective elder must be rooted in Scripture in order to refute false teachers:
Titus 1:5-6, 9: “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you– if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. 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.”
The Jerusalem elders, for example, worked with the apostles to judge doctrinal error. Acts 15:6 notes, “The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter.” Like the apostles, the Jerusalem elders had to be knowledgeable in the Word so they could protect the flock from false teachers. Protecting the flock also includes seeking the lost, straying sheep, a critical aspect of shepherding that many church shepherds totally neglect. Moreover, protecting the flock involves disciplining sin, admonishing improper behavior and attitudes (1 Thess. 5:12), and stopping bitter infighting. Although the New Testament emphasizes the elders’ role in protecting against doctrinal error, the elders cannot neglect seeking the lost and correcting sinful behavior.
Protecting the flock is vitally important because the sheep are defenseless animals. They are utterly helpless in the face of wolves, bears, lions, jackals, or robbers. Phillip Keller, writing from his wealth of experience as a shepherd and agricultural researcher in East Africa and Canada, explains how unaware and vulnerable sheep are to danger, even inevitable death:
“It reminds me of the behavior of a band of sheep under attack from dogs, cougars, bears or even wolves. Often in blind fear or stupid unawareness they will stand rooted to the spot watching their companions being cut to shreds. The predator will pounce upon one then another of the flock raking and tearing them with too and claw. Meanwhile, the other sheep may act as if they did not even hear or recognize the carnage going on around them. It is as though they were totally oblivious to the peril of their own precarious position.”[i]
Guarding sheep from danger is clearly a significant aspect of the shepherding task. The same is true for church shepherds. They must continually guard the congregation from false teachers. Although the guarding ministry can perhaps been viewed as a negative aspect of shepherding, it is indispensible to the flock’s survival. Charles E. Jefferson, pastor and author of The Minister as Shepherd, underscores this vital point: “The journey from the cradle to the grave is hazardous if every man is surrounded by perils, if the universe is alive with forces hostile to the soul, then watchfulness becomes one of the most critical of all the pastor’s responsibilities.”[ii] Elders, then, are to be protectors, watchmen, defenders, and guardians of God’s people. In order to accomplish this, shepherd elders need to be spiritually alert and must be men of courage.
Second, a good shepherd is always on alert to danger. He knows the predator well and understands the importance of acting wisely and quickly. Moreover, shepherd elders must be spiritually awake and highly sensitive to the subtle dangers of Satan’s attacks. It’s hard, however, to be alert and ready to act at all times. That is why Paul exhorts the Asian elders to “be on the alert” (Acts 20:31). He knows the natural tendency of shepherds to become spiritually lazy, undisciplined, prayerless, and weary. The Old Testament proves that fact. The Old Testament prophets cried out against Israel’s shepherds because they failed to keep watch and be alert to protect the people from savage wolves. Israel’s leaders are vividly depicted by Isaiah as blind city watchmen and bum dogs:
Isaiah 56:9-12, “All you beasts of the field, come to devour– all you beasts in the forest. His watchmen are blind; they are all without knowledge; they are all silent dogs; they cannot bark, dreaming, lying down, loving to slumber. The dogs have a mighty appetite; they never have enough. But they are shepherds who have no understanding; they have all turned to their own way, each to his own gain, one and all. “Come,” they say, “let me get wine; let us fill ourselves with strong drink; and tomorrow will be like this day, great beyond measure.”
Shepherd elders must be watchful and prayerful. They must be aware of changing issues both in society and the church. They must educate themselves, especially in Holy Scripture, diligently guarding their own spiritual walk with the Lord while always praying for the flock and its individual members.
Who can calculate the damage done during the past two thousand years to the churches of the Lord Jesus Christ because of inattentive, naïve, and prayerless shepherds? Many churches and denominations that once stood for sound orthodox doctrine now reject every major tenant of the Christian faith and condone the most deplorable moral practices conceivable. How did this happen? The local church leaders were naïve, untaught, neglected communion with God, and became inattentive to Satan’s deceptive strategies. They were blind watchmen and dumb dogs, preoccupied with their own self-interests and comforts. When their seminaries jettisoned the truth of the gospel and the divine inspiration of the Bible, they were asleep. They naively invited young wolves in sheep’s clothing into their flocks to be their spiritual shepherds. Hence, they and their flock have been devoured by wolves.
Finally, shepherds must also have the courage to fight fierce predators. King David was a model shepherd of outstanding courage. I Samuel records David’s experiences as a shepherd protecting his flock from the lion and the bear:
1 Samuel 17:33-37, “And Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him, for you are but a youth, and he has been a man of war from his youth. But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him. Your servant has struck down both lions and bears, and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, for he has defied the armies of the living God.” And David said, “The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” And Saul said to David, “Go, and the LORD be with you!”
As we’ve looked at some of the tasks of a biblical shepherd/overseer we’ve seen the importance of teaching biblical doctrine to the people of God, protecting them from false shepherds to include the need for fervent prayer and courage. No Pastor/elder/overseer or ministry leader will fulfill his tasks perfectly. Every single ministry leader is a work of God’s grace in progress but that does not diminish the reality they are held to the high standard Paul sets in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. There is good news for you and I and that is Jesus is the Good Shepherd (John 10:11; 1st Peter 5:4).
John 10:11, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” In contrast to the Pastor as CEO is Jesus the Good Shepherd who “lays down his life for the sheep”. The sense in which this is meant cannot apply to an ordinary sheep-herder, no matter how good he may be. Such a shepherd may indeed risk his life in the defense of his sheep (1 Sam. 17:34-36), but he does not really lay down his life meaning he does not yield his life as a voluntary sacrifice. Also, in ordinary life the death of the herder means loss and possible death for the herd. In this case the death of the shepherd means life for the sheep! The good shepherd gives Himself so His sheep may have eternal life!
The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the benefit of the sheep, but the only way in which he can benefit the sheep, saving them from everlasting destruction and imparting everlasting life to them is by dying in their place, as we learn from Matthew 20:28 and Mark 10:25. It is for the sheep and only for the sheep that the Good Shepherd lays down his life. The design of the atonement is definitively restricted. Jesus dies for those who had been given to Him by the Father, for the children of God, for true believers. This is the teaching of the Fourth Gospel (3:16; 6:37, 39, 40, 44, 65; 10:11, 15, 29, 17:6, 9, 20, 21, 24). It is also the doctrine of the rest of Scripture. With His precious blood Christ purchased His Church (Acts 20:28; Eph. 5:25-27), His people (Matt. 1:21), the elect (Rom. 8:32-35). Nevertheless, the love of God is wide as the ocean. The sheep are found everywhere. They are not confined to one fold (John 10:16). Jesus is the Good Shepherd (Ezek 34:23; Luke 15:3-6; Heb 13:20; 1st Peter 2:25; 5:4).
Every biblical shepherd and Christian is to look to Jesus. Every biblical shepherd will seek to teach you the truth from the Word of God and lead you closer to Jesus Christ. False shepherds will give you soothing words that will only lead you astray and away from the fencepost of God’s word. Only the Bible is God’s truth. Only the Bible and the teaching therein is given by God and profitable for teaching, correcting and reproof (2 Tim. 3:16). Therefore, the Pastor as CEO is ultimately a man-made concoction to contain the move of the Spirit of God among the people of God. The biblical shepherd knows this reality which is why they seek to be both teacher and student of the Word in order to train the people of God to be discerning and receive sound biblical teaching, rejecting unbiblical doctrine.
While some of the tasks of the biblical shepherd are now clear from our examination of them, there is still much more to this topic that we don’t have space to go through in this article. The biblical shepherd will lead the people of God within the context of the local Church to grow increasingly like their Savior by preaching and teaching them of the need for ongoing repentance, growth in the grace of God, evangelism, apologetics and missions so the Kingdom of God may go forth with great speed. The kind of shepherd who leads in this manner may not be the famous Pastor you hear or read about. Regardless of their level of fame or lack thereof, such a shepherd is faithful not only in his calling but most importantly to His Savior Jesus Christ and to the Gospel. Such faithfulness is what is needed in this hour. It is for shepherds like that I join a chorus of people in praying that God would continue to send humble and teaching shepherds to His church so His church may continue to grow, expand and be nurtured in His Word.