There’s a form of pride that can lurk in a pastor who seems humble. He may be the first to admit he’s wrong, the first to apologize for impatience, and the slowest to criticize others. He’s happy to give young, inexperienced men the opportunity to share in ministry responsibilities; he may even be open with his flock about his personal struggles with sin. He’s approachable. Every question is met with a listening ear and an admission of not knowing everything.
And yet, all of this can be present in a man who is actually proud—too proud to lead with conviction in ways that will make him less liked. It’s an attitude that communicates a lie: What matters most as a pastor is that you fulfill what others want you to be.
Though I’m not an elder, I already see this form of pride in myself. It’s not at all exclusive to those in leadership, and it’s a sin that is exceedingly deceitful.
Not all passive pastors are prideful. They may act from a genuine desire for congregational authority, or a well-founded fear of being authoritarian. Or maybe they’ve worked for so long that they’ve fallen into a worn-out indifference to the future of the congregation. But whether by pride or by negligence, God’s commands to elders can be glossed over in favor of the flock’s desires. Rather than shepherding the flock (1 Pet. 5:2), the elder begins to follow them helplessly into their favorite pastures. He’s teachable, but at the expense of being able to teach (1 Tim. 3:2). Urging sound doctrine (1 Tim. 6:2) turns into suggesting good ideas. The overseer who should be keeping watch over the souls under his charge (Heb. 13:17) and the teaching that he gives them (1 Tim. 4:16) can become the puppet of those souls, teaching them only what they want to hear because he knows they want to hear it.
If we met the apostle Peter, we’d all be surprised to see how much he, a fellow elder, was tempted with this very thing. Underneath his bold, quick-to-speak tendencies, he too loved the applause of fellow men. He loved endorsements as much as you and I do. If you doubt this, consider how he stood for truth in front of Pilate’s servant girl (Mark 15:66–72), or check out how his gospel-based, Gentile-affirming principles held up when Jews walked in the room (Gal. 2:11–14). And yet, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, listen to how he exhorts his fellow elders:
So I exhort the elders 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 the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, 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 Pet. 5:1–3)
Notice the main command: Shepherd the flock. That’s a word picture we can learn a lot from. When we think of sheep, we think of short-sightedness, rash decisions, and a lack of discernment. They’re prone to wander, skittish, and quick to run the wrong way when danger is near.
But shepherds don’t despise sheep for their vulnerability. They care for them proactively. They consider the dangers around, think through ways toward new pastures, help the weak, separate the bullies, care for the lambs, and look out for predators. They don’t fulfill their responsibility by being liked by the rams or playing their harps for the ewes or petting the lambs. Rather, they exercise oversight to help their sheep find nourishment, safety, and health. They know that if they return to the chief shepherd having lost some sheep, excuses like, “but they really liked that pasture next to the cliff!” will be self-condemning.
Not Just Any Oversight
Peter makes it clear that not just any kind of oversight will do. A pastor’s oversight must have the right attitude: willing, eager, exemplary. And this is where the analogy of a shepherd reaches its limit, because no sheep ever looked at its shepherd and thought, I want to follow his example. I think I’ll start looking out for danger, too. A sheep doesn’t do that, because their shepherd isn’t a sheep. But an elder is an example because though he’s entrusted with God-given authority, he knows that he’s no different from his flock. He knows himself to be a sinner in need of God’s mercy, in need of his flock’s help. So he exercises authority through sacrificial love.
Think about a choir conductor who stops the rehearsal to tell one singer that he’s out of tune. He need not have written the music; he must only know how to read the music to speak with confidence and clarity. Bach’s motet will be performed no better under a shy conductor who refuses to correct the bass than under a conductor who pontificates endlessly over why he could have written it better. But here’s the thing: Both conductors are misusing their authority. One’s too passive, while the other’s domineering. Either way, the result is the same: The whole group suffers.
Likewise, the elder who shies away from exercising oversight does the church a disservice just like the authoritarian elder who rules with an ungodly dominance. The authoritarian may do more initial and more obvious damage, but the puppet elder who’s silently ruled by the opinions of others may do more harm in the long run.
Crave Praise from Above
In short, an elder’s authority must be carried out with both confidence and humility, as both an overseer and an example, recognizing both his God-given role and his deep need of God’s help.
And humanly speaking, that’s impossible, which is why a pastor must look to his chief shepherd as the head of the church. He must let the Lord’s grace fill his heart with awe, and surround himself with people who remind him of his need for grace. Everything he does to help others to be changed by the Word must come from a heart that’s being continually changed by that same Word.
But most of all, the passive pastor must realize the praise he longs for cannot come from men. It isn’t circumstantial, and it’s not based on the ever-changing opinions of others. Instead, the praise he longs for will be given by the Chief Shepherd on the final day. It’s certain, kept in heaven.
So pastor, live, teach, and lead as one who will one day be vindicated, judged, and rewarded by the slain and resurrected King of glory.