When Peter tells elders to shepherd the flock in 1st Peter 5:2 he is not telling them to be at the church building early to make sure the doors are unlocked. He is not telling them to make sure the building gets cleaned every week and the bills get paid every month. He is not even telling them to decide which bible class material to order for the coming year. He is telling them to lead!
Among all of the responsibilities that an elder has, the most often overlooked is the responsibility to lead the congregation in paths of righteousness. All too often we have reduced the role of the eldership to one of administration. We assume that just because a man can manage a business, a bank, or a city, that he can manage a congregation. Such a man may be a great manager and at the same time be a spiritual shipwreck. However, the humble man who empties the wastebaskets for the manager may be far more suited for the responsibility of spiritual leadership required of elders.
In 1st Peter 5:3, Peter goes on to tell the elders that they are to be examples to the flock. That is leadership. Peter is telling them to get out in front and lead. One cannot lead from behind. An elder must do more than just tell the souls entrusted to them what they need to be, they must show them what they need to be. They must demonstrate before the whole congregation what it is to be a Christian. In verse four Peter speaks of the Chief Shepherd, this is the one who leads all of us. This is the one from whom elders are to take their example. The 23rd Psalm tells us about the work of the Chief Shepherd. In addition to all of the good and the protection the psalm tells us that the Shepherd provides, it says twice that He leads.
An elder is to lead the congregation not drive them. He is to lead them to the still waters of the word of God so that they can drink deeply and be satisfied. He is to lead them in the path of righteousness by traveling that path himself. From the 23rd psalm numerous lessons ring out that every elder needs to hear and know, yet the lessons on leadership will ring the loudest.
In over thirty years of Christianity I have witnessed far too many failures of leaders within elderships. The goal of many elderships has shifted from leading souls to heaven to keeping everyone happy. “Let’s not rock the boat.” “Let’s not create a stir.” “Let’s not upset brother or sister so and so.” The list goes on and on. A man once said to me, “I don’t know the way to success, but the way to failure is trying to make everybody happy.” It is the path of righteousness that elders are to be leading us in, and that won’t make everyone happy. A man who is going to be an elder, I mean a true shepherd of God’s children, will need to accept this fact.
As an elder there are going to be times when you are going to have to make hard choices, and difficult decisions. You are going to have to choose between that which is right and that which is easy. These times are going to require you to “take heed to the flock over which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” as Paul warned the elders in Ephesus in Acts 20:28. Unfortunately some elders take more heed for themselves than for the flock in difficult times. I have known men that willingly served as elders until some hard situation arose and then decided that maybe they should step down. The church needs elders who will step up in difficult times and not step down. It is in the most difficult times that a congregation needs the surest leadership. Every congregation will experience the “valley of the shadow of death” at times. This is when they need the comfort of knowing that their shepherds are with them and that they will not forsake them.
Listen to what Jesus says about shepherding in John 10:11-13 –
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. But a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them. The hireling flees because he is a hireling and does not care about the sheep.”
The reason Paul gave his warning to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:26-31 is because he knew that “savage wolves” would come into the church and devour the flock. Some of these would originate from within the flock itself. Churches need men who will be vigilant and watchful. We need men who know God’s truth and will not compromise it regardless of what others may think or do.
I know an elder who was once taken to task by a member of the congregation because the eldership made a decision without consulting the whole congregation. His response was a testimony to his leadership, “This is not a democracy,” he said. When you are in the position where you must give an account of the souls for whom you watch over then you will make the decision. Until then that responsibility falls to the elders.” This is not the “lording it over them” that Peter warns against in 1st Peter 5:3; it is being a responsible shepherd.
Congregations with elders who will not step up and lead are as vulnerable as flocks without shepherds to protect and care for them. Not only are there wolves to contend with, there is the very natural tendency for churches to engage in self destructive behavior just as real sheep do. Again, the lessons that could be taught on this are numerous. One example comes from Paul’s warning to Timothy in 2nd Timothy 4:3-4 –
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables.
The church needs godly men who will prepare themselves to be leaders. Men who will step up and not falter when things become difficult.