“The customer is always right.”
“Satisfaction guaranteed or your money back.”
“Thirty days free trial!”
We sell Christianity by trying to make it low cost, high value.
It’s been argued that elders should really be shepherds (well, they should be both, per the Bible, right?) It’s been argued that elders should be first and foremost about the emotional health of the flock, dealing with divorces, funerals, and illnesses (and, of course, this really does fit squarely within their job description!)
But what is the ultimate end of eldering/shepherding/overseeing? Is the final goal for the members to be well supported and encouraged? Is that enough?
Now, I’m not asking whether that should happen. Of course, it should. But is that the ultimate goal? When we elders get to heaven, will Jesus ask first, “Did you provide emotional support for my sheep?” I’m confident the question will be on his list, but will it be first question?
You see, I have this worry. If we’re not careful, the care and support of an elder could become a goods and service that the members feel entitled to as a product they bought from their church. They may read it all through consumer eyes. And consumers either get what they want or they shop somewhere else!
And that will happen, I think, unless we first build a solid theology of the work of the elders and so place the care and comfort of members (which is essential!) in its proper perspective.
So let’s talk about what the Bible says elders (or shepherds or overseers) are to do. There are lots of passages, and I don’t want to do 20 posts on this topic. And so let’s go with the plainest, most direct passages.
(Tit 1:9-14 ESV) 9 [An overseer] 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. 10 For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. 11 They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach. 12 One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” 13 This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, 14 not devoting themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth.
Paul explains to Titus why it is that overseers (elders, shepherds) must be ordained. Overseers are to “give instruction in sound doctrine and … rebuke those who contradict it.” Their teaching must be “sound in the faith” and keep people in “the truth.”
Now, as we’ve covered many times in the past, Paul uses “truth” to speak of the truth about Jesus — the gospel. He is not speaking of systematic theology. He is speaking of being true to the gospel. Just so, “the faith” is a reference, not to ecclesiology (how to organize and church and worship), but to faith in Jesus — what Christians must believe to be saved.
And this makes sense when we recall that Paul is speaking about the errors of the “circumcision party,” and thus along the lines of Galatians, which is all about faith, leading to being crucified with Jesus, receipt of the Spirit, and love.
We next turn to Acts 20, where Paul meets with the elders in Ephesus and, in a passionate speech, speaks of his own ministry among them —
(Act 20:17-25 ESV) 17 Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. 18 And when they came to him, he said to them: “You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, 19 serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; 20 how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, 21 testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
He first describes his ministry as “teaching you in public and from house to house” and “testifying … of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” It seems that the first praise deals with his ministry to those already converted and the second to the lost.
22 “And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, 23 except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. 24 But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. 25 And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again.
Again, Paul describes his ministry as being to “testify to the gospel of the grace of God” and “proclaiming the kingdom.”
(Act 20:26-27 ESV) 26 Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, 27 for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.
He concludes this section of his speech by emphasizing that he taught “the whole counsel of God.” He is speaking of his own example that he wishes the elders to follow, and he repeatedly speaks in terms of teaching and preaching the gospel.
Paul next turns his attention toward the overseers, charging them —
(Act 20:28-31 ESV) 28 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. 29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.
They must “care for” the church. The Greek is prosecho, meaning “to be in a state of alert” or “to pay close attention to something” (BDAG) or “to turn the mind to, attend to, be attentive” (Thayer).
Paul’s concern is that the church will be invaded by false teachers (“men speaking twisted things”), and the solution is to “admonish every one with tears.” “Admonish” translates noutheteo, meaning “to counsel about avoidance or cessation of an improper course of conduct” (BDAG) or “to admonish, warn, exhort” (Thayer). He’s speaking of teaching — but a deeply passionate, urgent form of teaching — against the false teachers.
(Act 20:32 ESV) 32 And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.
Paul concludes with a benediction, commending them to God, of course, and “to the word of his grace” — not meaning the New Testament, which largely hadn’t yet been written, but to the gospel (Acts 14:3 is quite clear.)
Peter considered himself an elder as well as an apostle. He taught the elders among his readers —
(1Pe 5:1-4 ESV) 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: 2 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; 3 not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. 4 And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.
First, he commands them to “shepherd” the flock. We’ll return to this verb in the next few posts.
Second, he gives them “oversight” (episkopeo). This is, of course, the verb form of episkopos, meaning “overseer” or, per Gingrich, superintendent or supervisor. They are told to superintend or supervise the church. In secular use, the verb refers to middle management, just as “superintendent” and “supervisor” do in English. It refers to positional authority — but authority constrained by the gospel, as Peter says plainly.
Thus, elders may not “domineer” (katakurieuo), surely a reference to Matthew 20:25 and referring to, per Friberg, “exercising dominion for one’s own advantage.”
Peter does not deny the positional authority of elders, but strongly insists that elders not overreach. Indeed, they are to be “examples to the flock” — of what? Check the context —
(1Pe 5:4-10 ESV) 4 And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. 5 Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” 6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, 7 casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. 8 Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. 9 Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. 10 And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.
If those who are younger are to be humble, then the elders must be examples of humility. Just so, the elders must be examples of sober-mindedness, firmness in the faith, and standing up for Jesus despite suffering.
All of which is why Peter begins this section with “when the chief Shepherd appears.” His implicit — but plain — point is that elders are to be examples of living like Jesus. Thus, he gives as examples humility, sober-mindedness, firmness in the faith, and standing up even when the faith brings suffering.
In short, Peter calls on elders to be like the Shepherd — modeling the characteristics of Christ — submission, service, sacrifice — even suffering when necessary. That’s because, you see, the job of an elder is to bring the congregation — the flock — into Christ-like living.
And that can’t be done by domineering. The example must be set. But on the other hand, the church must follow those who have God-given authority. You see, they must be submissive, servant-hearted, sacrificial people who are also willing to suffer for the sake of Christ — as led by their elders as the under-shepherds of the great Shepherd.
We cannot each be our own shepherd. Nor can we split and divide into churches that conveniently disagree about nothing and so involve no need to submit and sacrifice. That’s sheer selfishness and an unwillingness to sacrifice for fellow Christians.
Nowhere in here do we read of comfort or never being offended or getting our way. You see, the customer isn’t always right. There’s no 30-day free trial. But satisfaction is guaranteed — but only for those who are willing to submit to the Spirit’s work in each of us to transform us into the image of Jesus.
If we insist on remaining in the image of an American consumer, where we have ultimate authority and autonomy as individuals who answer only to our own preferences, well, we’re not going to be satisfied with real Christianity at all.