Working as a Shepherd
The debate has been fierce among leadership scholars for some time now: “Are people born leaders, or can people learn to be leaders?”
There is no consensus among leadership scholars, but I tend to think that it’s a mix of the two—there are personal characteristics that people just have that help them to be leaders (e.g., charisma), but there are behaviors every leader can learn to help him or her lead more effectively. I don’t think the idea of needing to learn to lead comes into play any clearer than when it comes to the church.
Leading in the church is, by and large, totally opposite of how people lead in this country—it’s service, not power. This morning, we want to see what the Scriptures say about the work of an elder. We want to learn about the work of a shepherd this morning.
Serve as Examples
“Tend the flock of God that is in your charge, not by constraint but willingly, not for shameful gain but eagerly, not as domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock” (1 Pet 5:2-3).
Elder need to live proper lives so that they can be examples. Before Paul told the elders at Ephesus to take heed to the flock, he told them to take heed to themselves (Acts 20:28). Do you think it’s just an accident that Paul tells these elders to take heed to themselves before he told them to take heed to the church? Is it not precisely because elders must be examples to the church that Paul said, “Watch out for yourselves?”
The qualifications of elders in 1 Timothy and Titus speak about men who live good lives. “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith” (Heb 13:7). How can you imitate the faith of a leader if he does not set a proper example?
Examples can do so much. We learn to talk by hearing others talk, and talking is just the beginning of our learning from others through example.
2 Chronicles 33:1-9. Manasseh practices the religion of the nations around him. In so doing, he “seduced” his subjects to do as he was doing. Since he was their leader, the people trusted Manasseh and did what he did.
An example can lead one to Christ: “Likewise you wives, be submissive to your husbands, so that some, though they do not obey the word, may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, when they see your reverent and chaste behavior” (1 Pet 3:1-2).
Elders need to set the proper example so that they can care for my soul. Elders need to practice what they preach so that they can call us to a higher standard of living. If an elder came to me to talk about sin in my life, and I knew he was an alcoholic, that he beat his wife, and the like, I’d laugh in his face.
Visit the Sick
“Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord” (Js 5:14).
I do not believe that the praying and the healing under discussion in this passage is miraculous, because:
- Not all elders would have had the miraculous measure of the Holy Spirit, and James simply says to call for the elders of the church.
- Prayer wasn’t the means of miraculous healing in the New Testament. Prayer sometimes did take place before a healing—e.g., Jesus at Lazarus’ tomb. But prayer was not the means by which they were healed.
- The context of this passage is dealing with the power of prayer. “The prayer of faith will save the sick” (v 15), not the power of the Holy Spirit. “The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects” (v 16).
When we’re sick, the first people we should call should be the elders, and we should ask the elders to pray for us.
Defend the Truth
Elders are to be able to teach. 1 Timothy 3:2. Titus 1:9-11. Titus needed to appoint elders because there were many false teachers; the elders needed to keep these false teachers at bay. Acts 20:30-31. Paul told these elders that false teachers would come from their own number; therefore, they needed to be alert. Elders, today, need to be alert, because they never know when false teachers might arise.
False doctrine is dangerous. Some of the Christians at Pergamos accepted the doctrine of the Nicolaitans (Rev 2:15). The Nicolaitans taught one could eat food sacrificed to idols and could commit sexual immorality (Rev 2:14). Jesus hated this doctrine (Rev 2:15). Jesus told the church there to repent or he would come against it in punishment (Rev 2:16). Christ does not take false teaching lightly and neither can we.
The elders have the right to fire a preaching for teaching false doctrine. I’ve known elders who needed to do that very thing. The elders have the right to determine who preaches and who doesn’t; they have the right to determine who teaches and who doesn’t.
As a corollary, the elders help settle doctrinal disputes in the church—they played that role at the Jerusalem Conference in Acts 15. “When Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.” “The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter.” The apostles and the elders decided to send men with Paul and Barnabas to Antioch with a letter explaining the doing away of the Old Law. That letter began: “The brethren, both the apostles and the elders, to the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greeting.”
Thus, at the Jerusalem Conference, we see the elders explaining the word of God to the Gentiles, and saying, “This is what Scripture means.” When we have a question about Scripture, we ought to go to the elders and say, “Help me understand this.” The elders also, as this text demonstrates, have the right to say, “Here’s how this congregation is going to understand this passage. This is the way this congregation is going to follow this passage.”
Shepherd the Flock
The Scriptures speak of the need for elders to shepherd the flock. “Take heed 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 the blood of his own Son” (Acts 20:28). “Tend the flock of God that is in your charge” (1 Pet 5:2).
Shepherding involves caring for the church.
Elders need to care for our souls. “Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account” (Heb 13:17). Elders need to exhort people to do right and kindly rebuke those who do wrong. Whenever members of the congregation are experiencing spiritual problems, they ought to go to the elders and ask the elders to help them deal with their struggles. When the elders know that a member of the congregation is struggling spiritually, the elders need to go to that Christian without prompting and encourage him or her.
Turning someone back from error is wonderful (Js 5:19-20), and elders have the responsibility of turning people back from error.
Some people act as tough it’s not the elders’ business how they behave and what they do, but Scripture says differently. In fact, Hebrews 13:17 says that the elder will give account to God for how they have cared for your souls.
Shepherding involves ruling the church.
“Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Tim 5:17). “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith” (Heb 13:7). “Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account. Let them do this joyfully, and not sadly, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Heb 13:17).
They are not to rule “with an iron fist” (1 Pet 5:3). Their duty is to enforce the law of Christ.
One day, the elders will give account before God (Heb 13:17).
One day, we, too, will give account before God.
This sermon was originally preached by Dr. Justin Imel, Sr., at the Main Street church of Christ in Pikeville, Kentucky.