The first church that called my husband to be their pastor was a small church in the Deep South. Many of the church’s members had walked with Christ for decades, following in the footsteps of parents and grandparents who did the same. On the whole, the congregation was mature, well-taught, and marked by faithfulness to Christ.
Their new pastor was 25 years old.
Newly graduated from seminary, he came to the church with a sincere love for Christ and no experience as a shepherd. He learned to be a pastor one day at a time, pointing people—often people who had been walking with the Lord before he was born—to Christ. In turn, the congregation loved him. They knew he was inexperienced, but they didn’t despise him for his youth; instead, they gladly received his ministry. They knew he was their shepherd, and they determined to be willing sheep.
Throughout Scripture, God’s people are repeatedly compared to sheep. We are “the flock of God” (1 Pet. 5:2), and our ultimate shepherd is Christ. He is the good shepherd (John 10:14), the great shepherd (Heb. 13:20), the chief shepherd (1 Pet. 5:4), and the one shepherd (John 10:16). He’s the perfect shepherd-king, able completely to nourish and protect his people.
As he cares for the flock, Christ appoints men in local churches to serve as shepherds under his authority (Eph. 4:8, 11). These elders—or elders and pastors—have the job of caring for the sheep’s souls. A local church’s elders do not rule on their own merits or according to their own designs but as subjects and delegates of Christ the chief shepherd.
The flock’s duty and privilege, then, is to joyfully receive the care of its shepherds. Our elders may appear to be painfully ordinary men, but, under their loving leadership, we receive the ministry of Christ himself. The question we must ask ourselves is: Am I willing to be shepherded?
Identify as the Flock
Before we can receive our elders’ ministry, we must identify as their flock. This means we must publicly join a local church. Though church membership is often dismissed in contemporary practice, it has always been the practice of God’s people to be counted and named. When the Lord redeemed Israel from slavery in Egypt, he recorded their identities in Scripture (see Num. 1–3). When Moses needed assistance to care for the flock of Israel, he appointed men to judge thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens—specific individuals assigned to specific leaders (Ex. 18:25–27).
Our elders may appear to be painfully ordinary men, but, under their loving leadership, we receive the ministry of Christ himself.
And Jesus himself defines a true shepherd as someone who knows his particular sheep and whose particular sheep know him (John 10:27). Later, the apostle Peter reminds his fellow-elders that they have a duty to “those in your charge,” the particular people Christ entrusts to their care (1 Pet. 5:3).
We are not the flock of God in a general, abstract way. We are particular sheep in a particular section of the flock under particular shepherds. By joining a local church, we submit ourselves to the leadership of those shepherds so they can then know and care for us.
This also means that we take particular care to join a church where the elders meet God’s requirements for their life and practice. The qualifications for elders are not a secret (1 Tim. 3:1–7; Titus 1:5–9; 1 Pet. 5:1–5). God gave them publicly to the church, so believers can wisely recognize those men who are shepherds in the mold of Christ himself.
We are not the flock of God in a general, abstract way. We are particular sheep in a particular section of the flock under particular shepherds.
No elder will be perfect this side of heaven, but if a church’s elders don’t have elders’ gifts, they shouldn’t serve as elders. Believers should beware of joining a church with unqualified shepherds, but in a congregation where godly elders seek God’s help to lovingly lead God’s people, we can happily belong.
It’s Good to Be a Willing Sheep
In his book for elders, Timothy Witmer describes the fourfold ministry of shepherds: knowing, feeding, guiding, and protecting.
As sheep, we should ask ourselves if we are receiving this care willingly. Do you allow yourself to be known by your shepherds—committing yourself as a member of a local church and being transparent with your elders about the concerns of your soul? Do you receive nourishment from your shepherds—eagerly attending to their preaching and teaching and seeking out their biblical counsel one-on-one? Do you follow the guidance of your shepherds—putting into practice what they teach you from the Word and supporting them as they make decisions concerning the life of the church? Finally, do you gladly place yourself under the protection of your shepherds—taking seriously their warnings against sin and false teaching and allowing them to rescue you if you wander into spiritual danger?
The writer to the Hebrews admonishes the local church this way:
Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. . . . 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. (13:7, 17)
We must not forget that we are sheep under the care of shepherds; we must “remember [our] leaders” (v. 7). We ought to pray for them, learn from their teaching, look to their example, submit to their authority, and recognize the enormous responsibility they owe to Christ himself.
As sheep, we should ask ourselves if we are receiving this care willingly.
By doing these things, we will make their shepherding tasks a rewarding and delightful privilege—rather than a burden. It makes sense that joyful and willing sheep would be a blessing to the shepherd, but the writer to the Hebrews concludes these verses with an unexpected twist. Yes, being a submissive sheep is a blessing to the shepherds, but it is also a blessing to the sheep. When we remember our leaders, it is of advantage to us!
No matter how ordinary or inadequate our shepherds may seem, they are Christ’s gift to his church (Eph. 4:8, 11). And when we are willing to be shepherded by them, it will be for our souls’ eternal good.