So what does all this mean for, you know, shepherds … as in shepherds of a local church?
As I mentioned in part 1 of this series, I’ve posted extensively on that question back in the fall. The links are there. I have just a couple of stray thoughts to toss into the mix.
First, it’s just beyond comprehension that God would call the elders of a local church “shepherds.” In the Old Testament, that term is used of God himself or for his king. In the New Testament, the term refers to Jesus. It’s just unbelievable that any congregation could ordain some men to wear that title. Not a one of us deserves it.
Second, despite much teaching in the Churches of Christ to the contrary, John 10 and Ezekiel 34 aren’t about elders becoming comforters and counselors. It’s not that elders shouldn’t comfort and counsel — but you can’t reach that conclusion from John 10 and Ezekiel 34. We’ve not been doing our exegesis very seriously; but that happens when you start with your conclusion.
Third, rather, the point surely is that elders — shepherds — must be like Jesus, and they must be like Jesus in the ways that he is illustrating in John 10 especially. That means that they’ll have followers who hear their voices. It also means that they’d readily give their lives for the flock. That’s what the text says.
They may not be greedy or seek gain or glory. There’s no glory in the job done right. That comes later. In the meantime, it’s about sacrifice.
Moreover, it’s about there being just “one flock, one shepherd.” A true shepherd leads toward unity — not just within the congregation but among congregations. There is only one flock, and anything else is division.
Fourth, shepherds, like Jesus, lead. In particular, shepherds lead the flock toward Jesus. He is green pasture. He is still water. He restores our souls.
Shepherds are not called to be politicians or to represent a constituency. They are not to look after the special interests of the old or of the young. They are to lead them all toward Jesus.
Salt and light. Compassion for the city. Submission, service, sacrifice, and even suffering for the Kingdom.
Because one of the essential characteristics of Jesus is his submission, the shepherds must teach submission. By definition, submission means obeying even when you don’t want to. Any self-important, self-indulgent so-and-so can submit when he wants to. That’s called “getting your way.” Submission is all about not getting your way.
The elders begin, of course, by not getting their way. They don’t get their taste in music or worship style or whatever. But neither can they condone selfish demands. After all, selfishness is the very opposite of Christlikeness.
Certainly no eldership should expect people to instantly learn submission. But neither do you teach submission by giving in to un-submissive demands.
Think hard about it. Pray about it. Discuss it with your fellow elders. Your staff. Your ministry leaders. Make a plan designed to lead your church away from consumerist, selfish, self-indulgence and toward sacrifice and submission.
Don’t think or act like a politician. The politicians of this world aren’t serving the true Kingdom. As Americans, our every instinct is to lead as politicians — as much as we detest them. Some teach elders to lead from the middle.
But what we forget when we do that is that we can easily be captured by the temptation to be approved. And approval is a political concern, not a Christian concern. Jesus never, ever sought approval.
Rather, the only value in approval is if it helps you lead people toward Jesus. If you find yourself merely appeasing this group or the other, then you’re no longer a shepherd. True shepherds lead the flock to green pastures, and so you can’t let your flock lead you somewhere else. Then they’d be the shepherds and you’d be the sheep.
Finally, as I said back in the fall, do not let your shepherds become a program. Many a church and many a preacher push elders to become counselors, so that the elders provide a valuable service to the church as surrogate fathers, comforters, and emotional healers.
This is not wrong, by any means, unless the church sees this as one more fringe benefit of membership. If so, you’re not leading; you’re selling.
If you were leading, you’d be training others to do the same, because all Christians should be doing exactly those things. The notion that elders should particularly provide those sorts of things as a service to the rest of the church is completely anti-Jesus. No, the entire church, as it walks toward and with Jesus, should comfort and counsel the rest of the church. The elders may well be called to lead in that particular ministry, but they lead others into the same ministry. It’s not a ministry unique to the elders. And these chapters say nothing to the contrary.
In short, the solution to having elders sitting as a board of directors is not to turn them into a counseling center. It’s to free them to lead the church toward Jesus. Shepherds comfort the sheep, but that’s not their main job. Their main job is to lead sheep to green pasture, to protect them from predators, and to heal them when they’re wounded — by sin.
This is not the conventional, comfortable way to think of elders. It’s not what many preachers seek when they urge their leaders to be “shepherds” rather than “elders.” After all, shepherds in the Middle East demand absolute submission by the sheep, not because they love power over animals but because they know that a sheep without a shepherd will die.
Sheep without Jesus will die. Lead toward Jesus and lead the flock to become like Jesus. And break the news gently: Jesus was all about submission and sacrifice and, most especially, not getting his way.
(John 10:17-18 ESV) 17 “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”
Shepherds lay down their lives, and call the flock to follow them in so doing. It’s that simple.