Leadership in the church is about service. It is not about a position one holds or the perceived attaining of rank. As Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not that way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave” (Mt. 20:25-27). Leadership follows the pattern of Jesus, who came not to use His position to be served by others, but rather to serve.
Within the body of Christ, God has given us the gift of leadership. I use the word gift on purpose because that is how Paul describes it in Ephesians 4:7-11. Not everyone has the gift to be leaders of God’s people. Paul states he has given “some” to be leaders (4:11). Certain individuals have the gifts necessary to lead God’s people. Included in that list of leadership gifts are those who are to be pastor-teachers, or as we more commonly call them elders. This article will focus on this group of servants.
The controlling metaphor to describe elders, and leaders in general, in Scripture is that of a shepherd. Ezekiel 34 provides the richest background to what it means to shepherd the people of God. The chapter lays out the expectations of leadership with the first four verses describing the reasons for God’s anger. They used their status as shepherds for their own gain and treated the flock cruelly. They were supposed to feed, protect, seek, and strengthened the sheep under their care. However, these evil shepherds were so busy caring for their own needs that they completely neglected the needs of the sheep. As leaders they were given the call to aid and strengthen God’s people in their walk. They should have frequently and openly exalted the law of Lord before the people, but they had failed to do so.
They had mistaken the role God had given them. They were to care for the Lord’s possession, not treat the people as if they were their lords. The repetition of the phrase “My flock” (v. 6) demonstrates how the leadership had failed—not with their own possession, but with the possession of the Lord.
Certain principles emerge from this chapter. First, the shepherd is responsible to God for how he guides the sheep, since the flock is God’s. Second, the shepherd is to be in the lives of the sheep providing for them what is needed to keep them safe and healthy within God’s flock. Finally, the shepherd is not to use his position for personal gain, but rather to serve others.
In the New Testament we are presented with certain texts that help us see the characteristics of shepherds today. 1 Timothy 3 is the most used one. Much of the list of characteristics in this chapter simply portrays a godly life and thus is showing that elders must be an example to the flock as to what a godly life is to entail. This is in contrast to the life which the false teachers were portraying to the church at Ephesus. In fact much of what Paul condemns the false teachers for doing in Timothy and Titus finds its antithesis in the characteristics Paul states an elder should have. The elders are to be the exemplars and the teachers of God’s people, leading them away from unhealthy teaching and to the teaching that confirms with the words of Christ. Interestingly, the entire list of qualifications of elders is one that is not extraordinary. Elders are simply asked to exemplify characteristics which all Christians should aspire (minus the need for marriage). Thus, as J.W. McGarvey points out, from 1 Timothy 3 the main function we find from elders is that these individuals are to be exemplars of the Christian life
The second text is similar to the one found in 1 Timothy, but places a greater emphasis on the teaching role of the elder. This text is Titus 1. Specifically verse 9 states: “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 shepherd has a responsibility to feed the flock of God. They do this in both a positive and negative light. Positively, they are to be able to give instruction in sound doctrine. Negatively, they are to be able to rebuke those who teach falsely.
The third text is in Acts 20. In verses 17-38 Paul speaks with the elders at Ephesus at the port city of Miletus. Paul discusses his work amongst them and then he turn his attention to what the elders should do in his absence (v. 28-31). The main point of this section is seen in Paul’s chiastic argument. In the chiasm the central point of this section is Paul’s departure. The point is the elders had to take the place of Paul in aiding the church in their defense against false teachers. Thus the role of the elder is portrayed in this passage as one who defends the flock against those who would harm it.
The final text is 1 Peter 5:1-3. In these verses Peter urges the elders to do the work of shepherding and taking care of the flock of God. This text gives us a positive understanding as elders being proactive shepherds. They are men who are overseeing the spiritual wellbeing of the flock. Like a shepherd would check over his sheep to make sure they were whole, the elder examines his congregation to ensure they are healthy. This text adds to our discussion the limits Peter puts upon the elders, reminding them that they are not to “lord it over the flock” nor participate in the work for “gain,” something Peter borrows from the teachings of Jesus and Ezekiel. The point here is that pastoral leadership must be freely and willingly undertaken with no trace of self-serving or “lording it over” the flock. This passage establishes that the function of the elder is not that of a domineering leader, but rather one of service rendered as an “under shepherd” of Jesus the chief shepherd.
I hope you see that the overarching motif for elders is they are to function as shepherds to God’s people. Using the principles from the texts earlier, I want to share some practical ways elders accomplish that role.
First, shepherds need to guide and lead. This requires vision. A clear vision of where your flock needs to go. Vision requires a goal and the goal of the flock is to become like the Chief Shepherd, Jesus. Elders need to know where the church is at the moment and develop a plan to mature the people of God. Vision requires telling the truth about where you are and then giving clearly defined directives of how we will grow into the image of Christ.
Second, this means the shepherds must interact with the sheep. There is no such thing as shepherding from a distance. Shepherds have a close relationship with their sheep. As Jesus illustrated, the sheep know the voice of the shepherd. Elders are in the life of the congregation. They must be able to see when the sheep are hurt, weak, and in need of care. They must know what food the people need to grow. The work of the shepherd must be done within a relationship. This means shepherds need to create spaces where they can develop bonds with the people. This could be informal gatherings or it can mean regular meetings with the members in order to know their needs. This is why Paul was concerned with the elders’ ability to lead his own home. If the shepherd does not have the sort of relationship in his own family that leads to godliness, how will he do it within the family of God?
Third, shepherds are not the only “gifts” of leadership God has given the church. In Ephesians 4 we also have Paul calling evangelists gifts to the church and in 1 Timothy Paul places elders alongside deacons as those who serve the church. Shepherds need to work well with these other leaders as well. Deacons have the responsibility to serve in various areas. Most churches have found it helpful for the elders to assign these areas. Once assigned elders should allow the deacons to function and do the job given them. Preachers and elders have complementary and overlapping roles. For the elder their emphasis is within the congregation itself, while the emphasis of the evangelist should be upon those who have not heard the truth (although both have a vital function to perform in regards to evangelism and edification). The evangelist’s primary function is in the study and proclamation of the word of God. The elder has this same need to know the word of God, but also must have enough wisdom to handle the interpersonal problems which occur within the congregation. Elders need to allow preachers to time and opportunity to do the work God has given them.
The job of an elder is a difficult one. God has gifted the church with these men because they are needed in helping the entire body grow up and become like Jesus. The primary role of an elder is to shepherd of the flock. A role where he cares, guides, protects, and feeds the sheep.