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Shepherds in the Church

by Aaron

Leaders are essential. Every football team needs coaches, every business needs managers, every school needs administrators, and every flock of God needs shepherds. This article will explain the role of shepherds in the church and the responsibility of the sheep toward those shepherds.


The word “church” is used in two senses — universal and local. The universal church consists of all the saved everywhere, while the local church consists of those who work and worship in a specific location. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 1:2, Paul said he was writing to the “church of God at Corinth.” Obviously, he was writing to one particular congregation (or local church).


Local churches are to have qualified leaders. These leaders are referred to in a variety of ways in Scripture. They are called “shepherds” or “pastors,” “overseers” or “bishops,” and “elders” or “presbyters.” These terms are all used interchangeably and refer to the same group of men. In fact, we see all three of these Greek terms used together in Acts 20 and 1 Peter 5:


“Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders (presbyteros) of the church to come to him… Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers (episkopos), to care for (poimaino) the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:17, 28).


“So I exhort the elders (presbyteros) 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: shepherd (poimaino) the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight (episkopeo), not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:1-3).


I get the impression that Luke preferred the term “elder,” Paul preferred the term “overseer,” and Peter preferred the term “shepherd.” Without question, the most dominant model for spiritual leadership in the Bible is “shepherd.” That metaphor appears over 500 times across both the Old and New Testaments. This is how "AMG’s Comprehensive Dictionary of New Testament Words" defines the word for shepherd: "a. In a lit. sense: to guide, guard, and otherwise take care of the flock, as well as lead it to nourishment. b. In a spiritual sense: to act as a shepherd taking care of souls, i.e., ensuring they have good food, guiding them in the right way, and taking care of those who are weak and sick."


One of the most well-known Psalms, Psalm 23, captures the idea of a shepherd’s responsibilities. Though this psalm is often read at funerals, it is actually about living with God as your shepherd.


“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever” (Psalm 23:1-6).


Notice that a good shepherd provides for the needs of his sheep. He nurtures them, leads them, protects them, comforts them, and helps them to prosper. He is a trustworthy leader who the sheep willingly follow.


In Bible times, the shepherd often lived with his sheep. At night, he would lead them into a barricaded area usually made of brush, sticks, or rocks. These makeshift-sheepfolds were built with one opening, and that’s where the shepherd would lie down. You’ve heard the expression “over my dead body.” Well, that’s literally the way it was for a shepherd. If wolves or robbers were going to come inside and harm the sheep, it would have to be over his dead body.


I want to share a brief excerpt with you from the book “They Smell Like Sheep.” It helps to demonstrate just how intimate of a relationship shepherds had with their sheep.


“When a tiny lamb was born into the wilderness world, the shepherd took the trembling newborn into his hands, warming it and caressing it. Among the first sensations felt by the shivering lamb was the tender hands of the shepherd. The gentle voice of the shepherd was one of the first sounds to awaken the lamb’s delicate eardrums… Each sheep came to rely on the shepherd and to know his voice and his alone. They followed him and no one else. Of course, the lambs understood clearly who was in charge. Occasionally, the shepherd might tap an unruly lamb on the ear with a shepherd’s crook. But this was a love tap, embraced in an enfolding circle of relationship. The shepherd smelled like sheep” (pp. 19-20).


Are you beginning to see why church leaders would be described as shepherds? The symbolism is unmistakable. Just as a physical shepherd takes a keen interest in the welfare of his sheep, spiritual shepherds are equally devoted to the care and well-being of their sheep.


It is important to note that shepherds lead the sheep, they do not drive them. They are not cowboys who force the herd to go their way by shouting, cracking whips, and poking them with sticks. Nor are they sheriffs who go around “flashing their badge” and asserting their authority to gain compliance. Shepherds lead; they don’t lord.


Have you ever heard the name “Diotrpehes?” He was a first-century Christian who went around bullying other members into submission. It was his way or the highway. Some believe that Diotrephes may have been a leader in the local church. If so, he is a perfect example of what shepherds are not to be. 3 John says that he liked to put himself first, refused to receive certain brothers, threw people out of the church, and even maligned the apostle John. That’s not an overseer, that’s an oppressor!


A tour-guide in Israel was explaining the tender relationship between a shepherd and his sheep to a bus full of people, when he was interrupted by a guy chasing sheep outside. He was throwing rocks, hitting them with sticks, and siccing dogs on them. The guide jumped off the bus and ran over to the man yelling, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself. What kind of shepherd assaults the sheep like that?” The sheep-chaser paused for a moment and then said, “Man, you’ve got me all wrong. I’m not a shepherd, I’m the butcher.” Sadly, I think some church leaders act more like butchers than shepherds. They batter their sheep to death. And as Tiberius once said, “It is the duty of a good shepherd to shear the sheep, not to skin them.”


Peter told church leaders to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you” (1 Peter 5:2). That indicates two things: (1) It is God’s will for each flock to have leaders. The idea of going years getting by with business meetings is not how the church was intended to function. Sheep need shepherds! (2) The shepherds have limited oversight. They are responsible only for the flock “among them.” This is in keeping with God’s plan for each congregation to be autonomous (or self-governing). Of course, these shepherds work under the authority of the “chief Shepherd" (v. 4).


In the New Testament, you never read about one shepherd (or pastor) in a local church. There was always a plurality of shepherds. That’s why 1 Timothy 4:14 speaks of “the council of elders.” This chart demonstrates the pattern found in Acts and throughout the epistles.


  • Acts 14:23 — elders in church at Lystra

  • Acts 14:23 — elders in church at Iconium

  • Acts 14:23 — elders in church at Antioch

  • Acts 15:4 — elders in church at Jerusalem

  • Acts 20:17 — elders in church at Ephesus

  • Philippians 1:1 — elders in church at Philippi

  • 1 Thessalonians 5:17 — elders in church at Thessalonica

  • 1 Peter 1:1, 5:1 — elders in churches of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia


Shepherds should be men of conscience. “Conscience” is that inner-faculty that approves when we do right and accuses when we do wrong. In order to be reliable, the conscience has to be programmed properly and obeyed. The Bible speaks of a weak conscience, a seared conscience, and a clear conscience. I’m sure you’ve seen images of a person with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. Well, that angel encouraging him to do right represents a good conscience.


I heard about a golfer who hit his ball into the rough. As he walked up to it, he stepped on a twig that slightly moved the ball. He said to his caddie, “I moved the ball, count a stroke.” His caddie replied, “Sir, I didn’t see it and neither did anybody else.” The golfer said, “Yeah, but I did. That’s enough.” He was a man of conscience.


Sheep need shepherds. — Not just sick sheep, or new sheep, or not-so-smart sheep. All sheep. That includes scholarly sheep, seasoned sheep, and sophisticated sheep. All sheep. — We need to be cared for and watched after. We need to be led, fed, admonished, and encouraged. Even shepherds need shepherding, which may be another reason why there is always a plurality. Shepherds should mentor each other, teach each other, and hold each other accountable.


For a shepherd to be successful, his sheep must be willing to follow him. Members need to be submissive, obedient, and compliant.


“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Hebrews 13:17).


“We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves” (1 Thessalonians 5:12).


Notice some of the key words in those passages — obey, submit, respect, and esteem. These are the expectations God has for sheep toward their shepherds. It’s not, “submit when you want to, or when you agree with the decision.” This is something each member is required to do at all times.


One reason men are reluctant to take on the role of church leadership is that those who should be following are so rebellious and critical. They aren’t good sheep. Therefore, the men think to themselves, “Forget that. Why would I want to put myself and my family through the stress of trying to lead people who won’t be led?” And as a result, good men are sidelined. They don’t fear the wolves, they can’t get respect from the sheep!


I think we sometimes expect too much of our church leaders. We hold them to unrealistic standards. We need to remember that no one is perfect. Everybody makes mistakes. There will be moral lapses and poor judgments from time to time. That’s part of being a human.


Now don’t get me wrong. There should be consistency between what a person says and how he lives. If there is a pattern of behavior that betrays his stated convictions, he is not qualified to lead and should step down immediately. However, the only perfect shepherd was the chief Shepherd. The rest of us smell like sheep. Don’t hold your leaders to unrealistic expectations!


There is obviously a lot more we could say, but hopefully this article has helped all of us to better appreciate our church leaders. Again, sheep need shepherds! I will close with this quote: “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” I think that pretty much sums up what it means to be a shepherd in the local church.  

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