Whenever one attempts to teach orally or through the written page, he runs the danger of being misunderstood. There are those who have not studied a subject in depth for themselves but have only drawn conclusions from hearing others talk about it. Usually, they are the ones who misunderstand the quickest and broadcast their criticisms the loudest. Some are not as spiritual as they should be and tend to misunderstand the meat of the Word of God (Heb. 5:11-14). There are others who automatically are opposed to any idea that runs counter to what is taught traditionally, without giving it consideration. They cannot even state your position accurately, but they know for certain you are wrong.
Our topic, The Work of Shepherding, is a vital subject for our consideration and should continue to command our attention. I hope to focus that attention upon some important issues surrounding this "work" as we try to understand it through the experience and teaching of the apostle Paul. I ask you to set aside preconceived ideas and try to approach this study as objectively as you possibly can. If we can do that, we will discover the great truths that God intended for us to know and to apply in our work of saving souls. For, I believe that the work of shepherding is primarily that--saving of souls.
Without a doubt, there are some good and faithful shepherds among the flock of God today. They are carrying out the work that God intended His shepherds to do. Yet, in my thirty-four years as a Christian, I can truthfully say that the majority of men whom I have known have not come close to doing what God had in mind for shepherds. Tragically, they are recognized as, and are called by the unsuspecting--"their elders." It is difficult for me to believe that most of them, down deep in their heart, really think they are doing the work of shepherding the flock. But then, it is easy for one to deceive himself.
There are situations where this work, along with a title, has been thrust upon men who really do not want it. Consequently, they are called "elders," but are not doing the work. Still others have been chosen and dubbed "elders" as an honorary consideration, a reward for being "a faithful member of the church." Is it any wonder that most "elders" feel inadequate and insecure when it comes to teaching the word of God? Can you see why they have to hire an "expert" (preacher) to do their work?
People have misunderstood me in times past on the subject of elders/shepherds/overseers. Some have accused me of not believing in "elders," period! That really amazes me, since it is quite evident from Scriptures that they were prevalent among the first century Christians. But, I understand why it is said. If you want to discredit someone when you cannot answer his arguments, and/or you do not want to spend time studying his arguments, and/or you are afraid he might be right, just accuse him of some radical position that is sure to put him in disfavor immediately, even though it is not his position, and you will succeed in destroying his credibility with all who want to believe it without investigating for themselves. Certainly, I believe in the concept and the reality of "elders." In fact, we should be encouraging our young men to develop the spiritual maturity and the skills to be shepherds among God's people as soon as possible.
One place in the Scriptures where we find a lot of information about "elders" is in Acts chapter 20, beginning with verse 17. Here, we find the apostle Paul has landed on the west coast of Asia Minor, in what is today called, Turkey. From the little village of Miletus, he sends out a call to Ephesus, a major city in the province of Asia, to fetch to him "elders of the church." The word, "elders," is from the Greek word, presbuteroi, which means "older" or "senior." IT IS NOT A TITLE, but a word of comparison. The English word, presbyters, is a transliteration of the Greek. These men were serving (working) as shepherds of the flock among God's people in Ephesus.
Paul had a special reason for calling to him these older, wiser men from Ephesus, and I think it is significant that the Holy Spirit saw fit to preserve for us an account of this very moving and detailed event. A careful study will be most rewarding.
Paul knew these elders. He had labored among them, and he called them to his side in Miletus to remind them of certain things he had done while he labored among them. He wanted them to make sure they continued this work in his absence. It is profitable to study Paul's farewell address to these elders in order to determine what the work of shepherding is all about. Consider verses 18 and 19:
And when they were come to him, he said unto them, Ye yourselves know, from the first day that I set foot in Asia, after what manner I was with you all the time, SERVING THE LORD with all lowliness of mind, and with tears, and with trials which befell me...
The first thing that we should recognize is that Paul was among them "SERVING THE LORD." He considered his work in Ephesus very important, something he could not shirk; he was SERVING THE LORD. Certainly, he was moved to serve people, but only as he was instructed by the Lord. Remember, this is the apostle who taught servants (slaves) to serve their earthly masters as if they were SERVING THE LORD, and wives to be in subjection as "unto the Lord.
A point made in passing is that Paul did not ever think of himself as an employee of the church. He considered himself to be a "slave unto Christ," but never to the church. Even when he received "wages" from the churches, he never once expressed his relationship to them as one being in a employee-employer relationship. Paul worked for the Lord and the disciples supported him in that work.
Paul did not strive to please men!
For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? or am I striving to please men? If I were still pleasing men, I should not be a servant of Christ (Gal. 1:10).
Paul was a "servant of Christ," ministering to the spiritual needs of saint and sinner alike. He labored to please God, not men. The implication of all this is that elders are servants of Christ, ministering as did Paul, SERVING THE LORD. They, too, are not to serve to please men.
The second thing we notice from Acts 20:19 is that Paul served the Lord WITH ALL LOWLINESS OF MIND. He was a humble man of God. Oh, he could get stern and rebuke when he needed to, just like our Lord, but his over all disposition was one of meekness. There was nothing pretentious about Paul. He did not pan himself off as some great orator or philosopher, hoping to build a great reputation in the brotherhood. No, Paul's message was simple and plain.
...I came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: that your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God (1 Cor. 2:1-5).
Notice how Paul's humility reaches out to you as you read this scripture. You do not get a picture of a man carried away with sell importance; one who feels a sense of power from some kind of derived authority; or who is obsessed with the desire to control an imaginary, structured organization, like "the local church." In fact, Paul readily admitted that he did not "have lordship over" their faith. (2 Cor. 1:24).
All shepherds of the flock must have this same kind of "lowliness of mind." Instead of being puffed up, arrogant, proud, haughty, dictatorial, deceptive, and difficult to be entreated, by which spirit no man shall see the kingdom of God, they must be humble, gentle, peaceable, not self-willed, willing to serve and not to be ministered to, counting others better than themselves, pure in motives, full of mercy, and easy to be entreated. It goes without saying that all followers of Jesus Christ must develop this kind of disposition, but elders are to excel in these attributes and set the example for the rest of God's people. When people see great inconsistencies in their leaders concerning these matters, they lose heart and fervor; they resort to paying lip-service in their acknowledgment of the shepherds; and finally, become "bench warmers," if they do not just quit altogether. Especially is this true among our young people, who cannot stand hypocrisy, and understandably so.
Next, we see that Paul served the Lord WITH TEARS. This shows the genuine concern of the apostle. He was in tune with what was going on among the saints, being sensitive to their needs. He loved the souls of men and prayed for them constantly. He was willing to suffer hardships, trials and persecutions, yea, even be spent for the sake of his brethren. He demonstrated this time and again while in Ephesus. Courageously, he "shrank not from declaring unto you anything that was profitable, and teaching you publicly, and from house to house..." (v. 20).
Should the shepherds of the flock have any less love, any less concern for the sheep? I think not. Paul wanted to make sure that they did not come up "wanting" in this regard, that is why he called them to him. In Ephesus, Paul had taught them "publicly" and "from house to house." That is what he wanted THEM to do. He wanted them, the shepherds, to TEACH. Where Paul? Publicly and from house to house. THAT IS WHAT HE DID; HE WANTED THEM TO DO THE SAME!
Oh, how sadly different it is today! The majority of those called "elders" are "apt" NOT to teach instead of being able to teach the word. Most cannot "convict the gainsayer," as is required of them (Titus 1:9). But, have no fear, they will take care of these little inadequacies by bringing in the professional preacher, who has been to one of "our schools" and who is properly trained and is qualified for this kind of work. It matters not that God placed these responsibilities upon the shepherds, they will discharge them by proxy! They will hire someone to do their work for them while they busy themselves looking after things like bank accounts, church buildings and parking lots (and don't forget the thermostats and door locks). Through the years this kind of misconception has earned them the notorious appellation, of "glorified finance committee." Has it ever occurred to you that if elders can "preach, teach, and convict the gainsayer" by hiring it done (by proxy), then they can carry out any requirement of God if they have enough money to pay someone to do it for them?! If the elders can do these things by proxy, why can't all the saints do likewise? "Be not deceived, God is not mocked?
Yes, I have seen some elders teach and preach, but nearly always on Sundays and Wednesdays when the disciples gather together at the "meeting-house." Put it another way: many elders don't "elder" unless they are "at the appointed place, at the appointed time, doing the appointed things." Then, most of the time, they are not doing what Paul instructed "the elders of Ephesus" to do. Paul labored in Ephesus to save the souls of the people. How did he accomplish that? He did not limit his activities to something called "the assembly." He went out to the people, teaching them "publicly, and from house to house." We tend to think that they had one large congregation, and Paul waited for everyone to come together so he could teach them. That is the way we do it in our twentieth century American culture, and we are just positive that is the way they must have done it in Paul's day. No, Paul taught wherever he could get an audience, in public and from house to house. He testified to Jews and to Greeks "repentence toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ" (v. 21). This tells me that Paul preached to the alien sinners in public preaching, and taught and edified the disciples house to house in "house churches." His main subjects were "the gospel of the grace of God" and "the Kingdom" (vv. 24-25).
I want to underscore this point: Paul made disciples of them by preaching the gospel (we are called by the gospel, 2 Thess. 2:14). After baptizing them, he taught them whatsoever Christ had commanded (Matt. 28:20). He labored with them because he was concerned for their souls; he wanted to build them up spiritually; and he wanted to strengthen them in the faith. In short, PAUL WAS SHEPHERDING THE FLOCK! THAT IS RIGHT! HE "PASTORED" THEM, AS ANY GOOD ELDER/SHEPHERD WOULD DO! Do you understand what he is telling these elders from Ephesus? He is rehearsing the work he did while living among them previously, so they could understand what SHEPHERDING is all about. In so many words Paul is saying "This is what I did while I labored among you; now, you go and do likewise!" Drop down to verse 35: "IN ALL THINGS I GAVE YOU AN EXAMPLE..." Paul did not call these men to his side to pass the time of day. It was important that they understood the work of shepherding, and Paul was their example. That is why he recounted his experience while in their midst. "Go, do what I have done; follow my example" he might have said to them.
Furthermore, he wanted to remind them of their "appointment" and the responsibilities that it entailed:
Take heed unto yourselves, and to all the flock... (20:28a).
A man who desires the work of shepherding must "take heed unto himself." Literally, this means "to hold the mind toward something," and expresses constant action. Lenski put it this way:
He who is to take heed of others must first take heed to himself. Be clean yourself before you try to cleanse others. Be taught yourself before you try to teach others. Be light yourself before you try to give light to others. Be near to God yourself before you attempt to bring others near. So Paul did, so he bade these elders do, and that pertains to you (Acts, pp. 846-847).
Lenski is talking about setting the proper example. "So Paul did, so he bade these elders do." If a man is what he should be and is shepherding properly, he will attract people to him who will consent to his leadership. The flock will gladly take instruction and counseling from him. HE WILL NOT HAVE TO INSIST THAT HE POSSESSES DIVINE AUTHORITY THAT PEOPLE MIGHT FOLLOW HIM. This is the apostasy of Romanism. Paul never claimed that kind of authority to get people to follow Him. Those who aspire to be shepherds should look to Paul's example and then look to themselves to make sure their motives and pure and their practices measure up.
...in which THE HOLY SPIRIT HATH MADE YOU overseers, to feed the church of the Lord which he purchased with his own blood (20:28).
In verse 28, Paul sets forth the figure of a shepherd watching over the flock. He should be concerned that the flock is being fed, that it is in no danger, and that none is straying away. All of it is spiritual work, assigned, guided and regulated by the Holy Spirit. Paul is saying that these elders from Ephesus were God-made, not man-made, shepherds!
I am convinced that men were called "elders" and were respected because they were seen as more spiritually matured than others among them. They were called "shepherds" because they were already feeding (teaching) the flock. They were called "overseers" because they were watching out for the flock. They were not doing these things because some group of Christians "appointed" them, but because the Holy Spirit "made" them overseers. The shepherd must set the example and epitomize the kind of person God wants all His people to be.
According to the modern practice of "selecting elders," it is possible for a group of Christians to overlook a man who is already considered by God to be one of His shepherds. Just because a group does not acknowledge him as an "elder," does not mean he is not one. In other words, he does not have to wait for a group to "appoint him" before he involves himself in the work of shepherding. It is preposterous to assume that a man like Peter, Paul, Timothy or Titus would have to refrain from doing the kind of work that Paul did in Ephesus for three years until the brethren "appointed him!"
How does the Holy Spirit appoint him? When he allows himself to be led by the Spirit's teaching to take on the Divine nature of Jesus Christ, to learn the work of shepherding, to spend himself sacrificially for the spiritual well-being of others, and otherwise be an "imitator of God" (Eph. 5:1), I believe it can be stated that he is "Spirit-appointed." Read 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Here, Paul did not give an exhaustive list of examples and situations depicting the matured overseer, but he did reveal enough that we get the picture.
WE NEED TO UNDERSTAND THAT A MAN IS CALLED "ELDER" BECAUSE OF WHAT HE IS: OLDER AND MORE MATURED IN THE FAITH; HE IS CALLED "OVERSEER" BECAUSE OF WHAT HE IS DOING: WATCHING OUT FOR THE SOULS OF PEOPLE; AND HE IS CALLED "SHEPHERD" BECAUSE OF WHAT HE IS DOING: FEEDING THE SHEEP! Why is a man called a baker? because he bakes; why is a man called a teacher? because he teaches; why is a man called a shepherd? because he tends to the flock. He is what he is because of what he does. The matured man of God is called a shepherd because he is doing the work of shepherding the flock, per instruction of the Holy Spirit! You can select a man by the most sophisticated system and put him through a dozen ordination services, and if he is not already doing what God wants him to be doing as a shepherd (elder, overseer), then, by no stretch of the imagination is he one. If he is not "Holy Spirit Made," HE WILL NEVER MAKE THE GRADE. He is not really a shepherd of God's people!
But, someone raises a question about two verses of Scripture that seem to indicate that appointment of elders was made by someone other than the Holy Spirit:
And when they had APPOINTED FOR THEM ELDERS IN EVERY CHURCH, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord on whom they had believed (Acts 14:23).
For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that were wanting, and APPOINT ELDERS IN EVER CITY, as I gave thee charge (Titus 1:5).
In Acts 14, Paul and Barnabas retraced their steps through the cities where they had left disciples in the wake of their preaching. They returned to strengthen the brethren in the faith and to teach them further concerning the kingdom of God (vv. 21-22). Then, we read that they "appointed for them elders in every church." The first observation is that "they" (Paul and Barnabas) did the "appointing."
If this verse proves anything different than what I am setting forth, it proves that those who preach the gospel are to "appoint elders." The idea that the congregation selects and "makes" their own elders is not in this verse. I do not believe that Paul and Barnabas did anything contrary to what Acts 20:28 teaches. According to that scripture, the Holy Spirit made them "OVERSEERS." Notice, that it does not say that the Holy Spirit made them "ELDERS." In 14:23, Paul and Barnabas did not "make" them "elders." They helped the people TO RECOGNIZE them for what they were, older, wiser, spiritually matured men among them. It was easy to recognize them because they already were doing the Lord's work when Paul and Barnabas returned. In other words, these men were not appointed (made) TO BE ELDERS (it is impossible to "make" someone older, wiser, spiritual, etc.): they were already older, wiser, spiritually matured, but these elders were appointed (recognized) "overseers (shepherds)" because of the spiritual work they were doing. In the infancy of the times, Paul and Barnabas helped the people of God to understand that there existed such a work, and that those who did that work were to be recognized, respected and esteemed.
The Scriptures are silent as the tomb about an "ordination service," one in which men are "appointed," and made into something they were not just a moment ago. This is an invention of the Catholic Church and a hand-me-down from the Denominational Churches. We should recognize it as such and call for the cessation of this heretical practice!
The Greek word in Acts 14:23 if from cheirotoneo. W.E. Vine states that the word in this passage indicates "THE RECOGNITION OF THOSE WHO HAD BEEN MANIFESTING THEMSELVES AS GIFTED OF GOD TO DISCHARGE THE FUNCTIONS OF ELDERS...It is also said of those who were appointed (not by voting, but with general approbation) by the churches in Greece to accompany the Apostle in conveying their gifts to the poor saints in Judaea, 2 Cor. 8:19" (Vol. 1, p. 69). There is a suggestion by Vine that these "elders" possessed spiritual gifts and were working among the brethren even before Paul and Barnabas returned. Therefore, easy recognition was possible.
In Titus 1:5 the Greek word for "appoint" is kathisteemi. "The R.V. (Revised Version) translates it by 'appoint' in Tit. 1:5, instead of 'ordain,' of the elders whom Titus was to appoint in every city in Crete. NOT A FORMAL ECCLESIASTICAL ORDINATION IS IN VIEW, BUT THE APPOINTMENT, FOR THE RECOGNITION OF THE CHURCHES, OF THOSE WHO HAD ALREADY BEEN RAISED UP AND QUALIFIED BY THE HOLY SPIRIT, and had given evidence of this in their life and service" (Vine, Vol. 1, p. 67). The emphasis in the quotations are mine. I believe Vine to be right. What Paul and Barnabas, and later Titus, did was to recognize men WHO WERE ALREADY FUNCTIONING AS OVERSEERS (SHEPHERDS), that the saints might come to understand the work of shepherding.
It has not made sense to me for a long time that a group of baptized believers of all ages (including 10-12 year olds), and people of all levels of Bible knowledge (including those totally ignorant of God's will), and those spiritually dead could be capable of choosing spiritually matured men to serve as shepherds of the flock, and that these men could not engage in the work of shepherding until such choosing took place! The old Devil has thrown a monkey wrench into the works again, as he did even in the first century when Paul said, "the mystery of iniquity is already at work," and has succeeded to confuse the many who seem to be content to be on the broad way that leads to destruction.
Paul warns of dangers that can creep in among any group of leaders.
I know that after my departing grievous wolves shall enter in among you, not sparing the flock: and from among your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them (vv. 29-30). .
This narrows it down quite a bit. Some of the men who were acting as overseers were either already corrupt or would become so at some point in time. Paul said it would happen, and he was concerned about it. Anyone who is a shepherd must constantly be on guard so as not to give in to the lusts of the flesh. He must not only be sensitive to the pressures of immorality, but he must recognize the temptation to become a "little tin god."
Wherefore watch ye, remembering that by the space of three years I ceased not to admonish every one night and day with tears (v. 31).
Now, come on, Paul. "Three years, night and day with tears?" That is what he said. Was he concerned? How many among the shepherds today are so concerned that they have been weeping night and day for three years?
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 them that are sanctified (v. 32).
Here is the authority Paul turns them over to, "I commend you to God," or "I charge you to place yourself under God and follow His word, which is able to strengthen you and to lead all to the great inheritance."
Then Paul makes this appeal, "I coveted no man's silver, or gold, or apparel." There was no ulterior motive in Paul. He did not work three years with them for money. "Ye yourselves know that these hands ministered unto my necessities, and to them that were with me" (v. 34). Paul often supported himself by making tents. He did not want to be a burden upon the brethren with which he labored in the Lord. Now notice verse 35, which is a key verse.
IN ALL THINGS I GAVE YOU AN EXAMPLE, THAT SO LABORING ye ought to help the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that he himself said, "It is more blessed to give than to receive."
What things Paul? "In all things that I have been talking to you about! In all the things I shared with you while working among you for over three years. In all things I did while with you, serving the Lord. I wanted to be effective so I shrank not from declaring to you anything that was profitable; I taught with confidence because I taught the truth; I taught the people with deep concern and carefulness in my heart; I taught with humility and a clean conscience; I taught with tears; I taught that they might quit sin; I taught so they would come to know the love of the Lord; I taught so they would know the mysteries of His will; and I taught plainly so they could be saved! Now, IN DOING ALL THESE THINGS, I GAVE YOU AN EXAMPLE OF HOW TO DO THE WORK OF SHEPHERDING!''
Read that paragraph again and tell me that Paul was not qualified to be an elder, an overseer, a shepherd. Why, he puts any man to shame that I have ever known, who lays claim to the designation!
Consider also the expression in verse 35, "that so laboring." In the Greek construction this means, "all this work that I have detailed to you is what I mean by 'laboring'." "So laboring ye ought to help the weak." etc. "Remember the words of the Lord Jesus... 'It is more blessed to GIVE than to receive'." Preachers like to lay this on the people in the pew so they will put more in the contribution, but let me tell you what Paul is saying. You want to be a shepherd, a servant, a minister? There is a cost. You cannot be one without it. You cannot be one in name only and be pleasing to the Lord. BUT, THERE IS TRUE HAPPINESS IN GIVING SERVICE TO OTHERS THAT THEY MIGHT LIVE!
Too many who claim to be "elders" are taken up with the physical things concerning the meeting house: decor, carpets, pews, landscape, parking lot, budgets, bank accounts, etc., instead of spending themselves in the things that Paul did in Ephesus. That is why we are in such a deplorable condition across this land of ours. "It IS more blessed to give than to receive."
I remember the words spoken by our Lord at a time when His closest disciples were arguing for preeminence and power in the kingdom, when they wanted to be in positions of authority and be ranked over the people. He said:
"Ye know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. NOT SO SHALL IT BE AMONG YOU: but whosoever would become great among you shall be your minister; and whosoever would be first among you shall be your servant: even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Matt. 20:25-28).
Is this what the Lord meant when he said, "It was more blessed to give than to receive?" I think so!
Surely, this study of Paul's farewell address to the elders of Ephesus should help us to understand what the work of shepherding is all about!
Albert Barnes said:
"A shepherd regards the interest of the tenderest of the fold as much as the strongest; and a faithful minister will seek to advance the interest of all. To do this he should know all his people; should be acquainted, as far as possible, with their peculiar wants, character, and dangers, and should devote himself to their welfare as his first and main employment" (Acts, p. 296).
Matthew Henry, commenting about the apostle Paul in his Commentary on Acts said:
"He was a faithful preacher. He not only preaches that which was profitable, but he preached every thing that he thought might be profitable, and kept back nothing, though the preaching of it might either cost him more pains or be disobliging to some and expose him to their ill-will. He declined not preaching whatever he thought might be profitable, though it was not fashionable, nor to some acceptable.'' (p. 262).
Should anyone doing the work of shepherding settle for anything less?
Did these elders from Ephesus heed the teaching and the warning from the apostle Paul? Probably some did and some did not. By the time the apostle John wrote Revelation, the disciples at Ephesus were commended for some things and condemned for others (Rev. 2:1-7). But the real question now is how will YOU react to what I have presented here. Will you give serious study to these things, or will you go on your way and forget what the teaching was? I will be praying for your sincere deliberation.