Teaching, preaching, writing, and articulating the need for more serious shepherding work in the assemblies are not common in our time. Practical pastoral theology, relating theology to ministry is seldom discussed even among church leaders. However, postmodern times challenge us with the urgent need for a profound commitment to the biblical mandate of pastoral (shepherding) ministry in the church. It is significant that the Bible’s most favorite metaphor for spiritual leadership is that of shepherd. The Lord Jesus Himself used this metaphor often to describe Himself. The spiritual leader as shepherd remains a powerful theme throughout both the Old and New Testaments. Though we frequently talk about servant leader, we often forget the imagery of shepherd leader. Both the servant leader and the shepherd leader are complementary models in the Bible. Since most denominations use the term “Pastor” as a title, we have gone to the extreme of abandoning its use even in its biblical sense, possibly to avoid unnecessary confusion. As a result, I wonder, whether we have lost the significance of the shepherd concept in eldership roles and responsibilities.
Elders, Dare to be Shepherds (Pastors)
The task of shepherding care is not professionalized in the Bible, nor is it secularized as an employment. It is a ministry (service) open to all believers. But like any other ministry, those who have the gift of shepherding will be able to do it more effectively. Pastors (shepherds) are mentioned in Ephesians 4:11 as one of the equipping gifts given to the church by the resurrected, ascended, glorified Christ. In the New Testament the work of shepherds is closely related to that of elders in the local church. While the command to pastor is given only to elders (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:1-2), it does not mean that the shepherding care of the flock of God falls exclusively upon elders. Each individual member of the church has a personal obligation to be engaged in a shepherding ministry to others (Rom. 15:14; Gal. 6:1; 1 Th. 5:14-15). When the elders are commanded to shepherd the flock of God, it points to their corporate function rather than to an individual activity. The elders are collectively commanded to shepherd the flock with the responsibility for collective pastoral care of the assembly. The plurality of eldership is a team work. While the elders have a collective pastoral function, it is assumed that each elder will also have a personal pastoral ministry as well. Jesus’ instruction to Peter at the time of his restoration is a good example – “feed my lambs, shepherd my sheep” (Jn. 21:15-17).
Overseeing and managing are the means to the elder’s goal of shepherding. Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesian elders sheds much light on their collective shepherding responsibility: “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God…” (Acts 20:28). Elders are appointed as overseers by the Holy Spirit for a specific ministry – to shepherd the flock of God. Shepherding is the sum and substance of the collective ministry of elders. Pastoral care is provided for the flock when the elders faithfully oversee, manage, feed, lead, and guide. Though “pastor” is not used in Acts 20:28, the related verb “poimaino” (to shepherd) is found in v.28. This clearly suggests that those who are “elders” (Acts 20:17) and “overseers” (Acts 20:28) are to be pastors in the church, though the gift of shepherding is not restricted to them.
Paul and Peter agree on their pastoral theology. Peter’s exhortation to his fellow elders (1 Pet. 5:1-2) is not different from Paul’s instruction to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:28) – “shepherd the flock of God.” “Shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight….” (1 Pet. 5:2). Tend the flock entrusted to your care (1 Pet. 5:3). While the actual word “shepherd” is not used by Peter, the work of the shepherd is implied by the verb “poimanate” which includes all that is involved in the work of a shepherd (the same word is found in John 21:16 and Acts 20:28 referring to the entire work of a shepherd). In other words, elders are to be shepherds. This seems to be a clear job description of elders. The Lord Jesus told Peter three times to shepherd the flock (Jn. 20:15-17). The Lord Jesus and His apostles are in full agreement of the nature of pastoral ministry in the church.
Feeding, leading, guiding, providing, caring, and protecting are the major responsibilities of the shepherds. The pastoral ministry of counsel, correction, and consolation are of immense value to the flock of God. Visit the sick, support the weak, encourage the faint-hearted, console the bereaved, and instruct the ignorant are of top priority to the caring shepherd. A true shepherd always pays particular attention to the lambs. Pastors are primarily occupied with the care of souls. Every shepherd of God’s flock should take heed to the soul-searching question: “Where is the flock that was given you, your beautiful sheep?” (Jer. 13:20)
Plural and Pastoral
In NT assemblies, there should always be an emphasis on the plurality of elders in the church. Plurality was the uniform practice of the churches in the New Testament (Acts 20:17; Phil. 1:1; Tit. 1:5; Jas. 5:4; 1 Pet. 5:1, 2). But we must remember that plurality is not the only truth about elders. The pastoral nature of eldership is even more emphasized in the New Testament. Biblical eldership is not only plural, it is also pastoral. This is a clear and forceful teaching in the New Testament. Forty years of full time ministry with the assemblies have convinced me that the pastoral aspect of eldership is a neglected truth or a forgotten truth that needs to be rediscovered and reinstated in the assemblies. The word “pastor” is a misused term in many denominational circles. But just because a term is misused does not mean we should not use it in the proper scriptural sense. Remember, words express concepts and without the words, sometimes the concepts are lost. Let us not run into the danger of losing the concept of elders as shepherds of the flock of God.
The role of elders can be summarized in this way: Biblical eldership is by a plurality of men of Christian character who are appointed by the Holy Spirit to provide spiritual leadership in the assembly. Their role must include gently feeding and humbly tending the flock of God in their care, as well as overseeing.
A Pastoral Crisis?
Are we facing a pastoral crisis in many assemblies? Many believers and elders I have talked to agree that the single greatest issue facing the assemblies around the world is pastoral leadership. In order to minister effectively to people who go through the challenges, struggles and crises of life in a sin-trodden society, we definitely need more shepherds with “integrity of heart and skillfulness of hands” (Ps. 78:72), who have the necessary grace, knowledge, and skill in dealing with pastoral issues. This is the need of the hour. We cannot continue to ignore, deny, miss, or sidestep these vital issues any more. Let us pray earnestly that the Lord may raise up and appoint His servants in positive shepherding leadership among God’s people, who can do their pastoral work as the first priority of their calling. The Lord’s people should be encouraged to acknowledge, honor, and support the ministries of such men in our midst. Believers should also develop a mindset to be shepherded. Pastoral visitation, counsel, correction, and guidance should not be seen as meddling in one’s life. These are real issues to work on.
May the Lord of the church, the Great Shepherd of the sheep, give us the vision to formulate a philosophy of ministry that is truly doctrinal, practical, and relevant.