Over the years in ESN, we have considered many of the responsibilities and labors of church elders. Providing leadership among the people of God is certainly a noble theme and exhaustless in its breadth. But on occasion we need to contemplate the unseen part of what it means to be an elder, specifically, what kind of heart motivates the elder?
Simply put, elders are men in whom God has been developing the heart of a shepherd, a love and sympathy for people, especially God’s people in all their frailty and need. When the disciples gazed at the city of Jerusalem, they were awed by the magnificent buildings (Mk 13:1); when the Lord Jesus beheld the city, He wept over it (Lk 19:41), knowing that the people “were as sheep not having a shepherd” (Mk 6:34).
The shepherd/sheep theme runs right through the Bible. Isaiah gives a good summary, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way, and the Lord hath laid upon Him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6 KJV). In the New Testament, angels announced the Savior’s birth to shepherds (Luke 2:8). God was sending His Shepherd into the world, so it was fitting to notify other shepherds. And yet He was coming as a lamb, God’s lamb (John 1:29).
Throughout His ministry, the Lord gave many illustrations about sheep, and described Himself as the Good Shepherd who gives His life for the sheep (John 10:11). In the epistles, this analogy is continued as He is called the Great Shepherd (Heb. 13:20) and the Chief Shepherd (I Peter 5:4).
As believers, elders are themselves sheep in need of a Shepherd. They, too, are being conformed to the image of Christ. Yet in a special sense, elders become God’s “under-shepherds” caring for His flock in their own local area. They can appreciate the words of the Lord Jesus to Peter making a strong correlation between love for the Lord and taking care of His sheep (John 21:15).
A Matter of the Heart
But a shepherd heart doesn’t just happen. It is the grateful response of one who has himself been a sheep for some time. This puts the whole work on the solid ground of love. There can be no other motivation. Shepherd work must not spring from external pressures or the desire for gain. The elder works directly under the Chief Shepherd and can always say, “The Lord is my Shepherd…”
Now it is true that the noun “shepherd” or “pastor” is never applied directly to elders as a title. Yet, as seen in Jesus’ instruction to Peter, they are instructed to feed, nourish and tend the flock of God (John 21:15-17). And they are told to shepherd the flock of God among them (1 Peter 5:1-2). These are tender and intimate labors that spring from a heart of compassion rather than the calculated decisions of a business executive. Always, the elder ponders the shepherd ministry of the Lord Jesus, seeking to understand His heart and follow in His steps.
Without attempting an exhaustive study, let’s think about some of the marks of a shepherd’s heart. “Love” will not be listed as a separate item since it is the basis of all. Without love, there can be no true shepherd work.
In his first letter to Timothy, Paul likens the small flock of the elder’s own family to the larger flock of God’s church. He uses the word care, “…how shall he take care of the church of God?”(3:5). Later, in describing this same young man, Paul explains that he has no other helper like Timothy who will naturally care for the state of God’s people. Paul knew the weight of this word because he had earlier referred to the burden that was upon him daily in “the care of all the churches” (II Cor. 11:28).
Shepherds care! People are like sheep: weak, defenseless, often entangled and an easy prey for the enemy. The shepherd heart does not punch a time clock or have hours when care is in session. He must care for them because the Good Shepherd cares for them.
Peter, in writing to his scattered readers, reminds them that by God’s grace they have returned to the “Shepherd and Bishop of their souls” (I Peter 2:25). The order of these beautiful titles is noteworthy. “Shepherd” speaks of ownership and sacrifice. “Bishop” (or Overseer) speaks of order. Both are important, but feeding the sheep must have priority over organizational pressures. Many in the business world today reverse these and display greater concern for decision making and administrative duties than concern for people. This is always a danger, especially in a growing church where administrative functions can sap emotional tenderness, not to mention his time.
Knowing the Sheep
Proverbs 27:23 charges the shepherd to know the state of his flock. As families grow, this becomes a challenge. What are the names of all those little sheep (children) coming along? Can we call them by name? The Good Shepherd does (John 10:3). Praying for them one by one, and visiting them in their homes will be a great help in getting to know and love them as individuals.
Another question: Do we have some idea of what the next growth step is in each life? Understanding this will help us decide what passages of Scripture to expound in the teaching time; what contributions fellowship must be making to families, what prayer needs should be emphasized in the assembly prayer times, and so on.
The Basin and Towel
Before He went to the cross, the Lord Jesus gathered His own in the upper room to spend time with them. There were things in their lives that needed attention before He could teach them about the future. In John 13 we see Him patiently washing the feet of each disciple. They might not understand the significance of all this now, but in time they would see the need to do for one another what He had done to them.
Shortly thereafter, He speaks to them in a different analogy: the vine and the branches (John 15). Here the subject is fruitfulness—the vineyard owner comes with his knife to prune the branches. Washing feet is a dirty job; lopping off branches suggests power and control. How do we think about all this in regard to our own work as elders? Note that the Lord gives to each of us the ministry of the basin and towel, but he never lets the knife go from his own hand. It’s a great temptation when the sheep are stubborn and unthankful, to abandon the basin and seek for the knife! Yet the shepherd heart knows that only One hand is worthy to do that work.
The Rod and Staff
Eastern shepherds had few tools of the trade, but they usually carried a staff, sometimes called a “crook” due to the curved hook on one end. This was useful for pulling a straying lamb back into the pathway. David, the shepherd-king, knew the value of this instrument in working with sheep and mentioned it in a famous song, “Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4).
When a sheep strays some will say (or think), “Let him get what he deserves….” But the shepherd cannot reason that way. He leaves the 99 sheep in a secure place and heads out into the hills to seek the lost one. This can be thankless and time consuming work! But when the sheep is safely home, the heart of the shepherd shines forth. Calling friends together he says, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost” (Luke 15:6). Is there provision in your assembly for celebration when a wandering soul is returned to the fellowship?
Developed Over Time
Shepherd hearts are not mass produced, they are formed over time in life’s experiences, and through quiet fellowship with the Head Shepherd.
Remembering the Basics
Every elder should keep the basic in focus: remembering that his own family is a small flock; that through the Word and prayer he can sit and learn at the feet of the Great Shepherd; that his fellow elders are co-workers among the flock; that the elder’s meeting is not primarily a business meeting, but a mini-shepherding conference; and that healthy, well fed sheep will grow and reproduce. Working in an environment like this will lead the busy elder to join in song with David: “My cup runneth over…”