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In the previous studies in this series we have been dealing with the church and with the main ministries of the church. We divided these ministries into two different categories: those which we called Mobile Ministries which function within the universal church and are available to the whole body; and the Resident Ministries which function within a local church and whose ministry is restricted to a given locality. In our last study we dealt with the two main local ministries: the bishops or elders or shepherds, three different names for the one ministry; and the deacons or servers.
I’ll briefly recapitulate what we said about that and then move on to the present study which also will deal with elders. We said in the previous study that there are three different Greek words used to describe these local leaders: Presbuteros= Elder; Episkopos= Overseer or bishop; Poimen= Shepherd or pastor. These three different words all denote one and the same ministry, and that normally they are referred to as elders.
In the New Testament, these local leaders—elders, bishops, whatever you call them—are always mentioned in the plural. They are never found anywhere in the singular. This is a basic principle of Scripture. The elders are the vital link between the mobile ministries and the resident members of a local church. The maximum total personnel of a local church are elders, deacons, and saints—or all the remaining believers. Thus the New Testament gives us this basic principle, that the local church need never be divided. The number of leaders is multiplied in proportion to the number of members. But even if you have a place like Jerusalem or Antioch with fifty or more thousand members, you still have one church and the number of leaders is multiplied in proportion to the number of members.
Now we’ll go on to study more fully some aspects of the teaching of the New Testament on elders. First of all we start with the work of an elder. What is an elder expected to do? I think this is stated as briefly and as clearly as possible in 1Timothy 5:17 where it says this,
Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine.
In many places where the King James Version uses the word doctrine,it does not mean the abstract established truth, but it means the process of teaching and being taught. And that is what it means here. So the two main functions of elders are first of all ruling, and secondarily teaching. All are expected to rule. The suggestions is that all do not necessarily teach in the same degree, but there are those who specially labor in teaching. But generally, they are expected both to rule and to teach.
Now with regard to the ruling function of an elder, there are three different Greek words used in the New Testament and it is illuminating to look at them each and see the specific meaning of each word. The word that is used here in 1Timothy 5:17 means literally to stand in front or stand at the head. And that same word is used in 1Timothy 3:4–5, where it is also speaking about an elder and says this,
[He must be] One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; (For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?)
In each of those two verses, the word to ruleis the same as in 1Timothy 5:17, and it means to stand at the head.It’s twice used of the relationship of a father to his family. So this gives us some idea of what is intended by the ruling of a local elder.
Then the word is used again in 1Thessalonians 5:12–13, where the King James Version says,
And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; And to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake...
There the suggestion is that there are three main functions of an elder. They labor, which means to work hard—it’s a word that denotes real hard work. They are over you and they admonish you, or teach and warn you. Now where the King James Version says are over youit’s the same word that’s words in those passages in 1Timothy to stand at the head. You see that the members of the congregation there are very definitely exhorted to esteem and love those that stand at the headand work amongst them, and even admonish them. It’s not always easy in the natural to love somebody who admonishes you, but the Bible says that’s what the relationship should be.
The second main word that’s used for the leadership in the church is a word that means literally to leadand therefore suggests the activity of an Oriental shepherd who always walked in front of his flock and whose flock followed him and followed his voice. The same Greek word also produces a Greek noun which means a general or a leader of an army.Now this word is used three times in the epistle to the Hebrews, verse 17 and verse 24. We’ll glance at each of the three verses, Hebrews 13:7.
Remember them who have the rule over you, [that means who lead you] who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation.
We notice there that these people lead. They also speak to the others the word of God and they set an example of faith which is to be followed. If the leaders in a local congregation do not lead in this way, than the Bible is not exhorting us to follow them. We are to follow those who lead, who speak the truth of God’s word, and set an example of faith. This is what these leaders are required to do. In verse 17 it says,
Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.
So here the leaders are those who watch for the souls of the rest of the flock and because of this responsibility the flock are required to submit themselves to them. Then in verse 24 it says,
Salute all them that have the rule over you...
So that word is used three times in the thirteenth chapter of Hebrews and you’ll notice that each time it’s in the plural. Never is there a suggestion of one man who is the head of the leader of the local congregation.
The third word that means to rulethat’s used in this connection is a verb that is derived directly from the Greek noun shepherd,and therefore, the plainest and best English translation is to make shepherd into a verb and translate it to shepherd. This word is found in Acts 20:28 where Paul is speaking to the elders in the church at Ephesus and he says,
Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God,...
But the Greek is to shepherdthe church of God. They were elders, overseers and shepherds. Their responsibility was to shepherdthe church of God.
In 1Peter 5:2, Peter uses the same word also in connection with elders. He writes in verse 1,
The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof...
So there the elders are told to feed which again is the Greek word to shepherdthe flock of God and to take the oversight of it. As we’ve already pointed out, both Paul and Peter assume that the leaders of the local church are in the plural. They are elders, they are overseers, and they are shepherds. These three words being used of one and the same man or ministry.
This word to shepherdor to rulehas some other interesting uses in the New Testament which are worth looking at for a moment, because it indicates a very definite degree of authority and discipline. In Matthew 2:6 we are given a quotation from the Old Testament about the Messiah taken from Micah 5:2, which we don’t need to look at, and the quotation as given in Matthew 2:6 is this,
And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, art not the least among the princes of Judah: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.
That word ruleis the Greek word to shepherd. And then in Revelation we have this word occurring three times. In Revelation 2:27 the promise is given beginning in verse 26,
And he that overcometh, and keepeth my works unto the end, to him will I give power [or authority] over the nations: And he shall rule them with a rod of iron; as the vessels of a potter shall they be broken to shivers...
The word ruleis shepherd.And the reference to a shepherd is emphasized by the use of the word rod. But instead of being a wooden rod or staff, it was a rod of iron. But you’ll notice that it goes directly together with “breaking them in pieces like the shivers of a potters vessel,” and therefore the thought of authority and discipline is very, very powerful in this word.
Likewise in Revelation 12:5 it says about the woman clothed with the sun and so on,
And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron...
And in Revelation 19:15 it says that the Lord Jesus Christ,
Out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations” and he shall rule them with a rod of iron: and he treadeth the winepress with the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God.
In each one of those three cases in Revelation, the implication of ruling with authority is very, very strong. Now I am not suggesting that the shepherd of the church should ever rule with a rod of iron, but I am pointing that there is a very strong implication of authority. As a matter of fact, I think if you study the New Testament generally, the emphasis is not so much upon the sheep being in subjection to the shepherd—that is pretty well taken for granted. Much more the emphasis is upon the shepherds not lording over the sheep, not taking their authority to excess, which I think is somewhat the reverse of the situation of the modern church in America where the idea of anybody ruling anybody is almost considered old fashioned.
Now let’s consider for a moment the other aspect of the work of an elder which is teaching. We’ve seen that this is stated in 1Timothy 5:17. We don’t need to turn there. It’s also brought out in Titus 1:9. In this passage of the first chapter of Titus, Paul is giving a list of the requirements for a man who is to fill the position of an elder. Verse 6 he says,
If any be blameless, the husband of one wife... [verse 7] For a bishop must be blameless... [where we see he uses the word bishopinterchangeably with elder. And then in verse 9 he brings forth this qualification] Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught that he may be able by sound doctrine [but better to say teaching] both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers.
So an elder is a man who has been thoroughly taught and, in turn, he must be able to teach others.
This picture I think is given very clearly in 2Timothy 2:2, which is a very easy reference to remember—2Timothy 2:2, where Paul is giving instruction to Timothy on how to bring forth teaching leadership in the congregation, and he says this,
The things that thou has heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach other also.
And somebody has pointed out, you have really four spiritual generations there linked together by teaching. You have Paul, who taught Timothy; Timothy was to teach faithful men; and those faithful men were to teach other faithful men. This is the type of background that the Scripture presents for an elder in respect to teaching. He’s a man who must have been taught, and then must be able to transmit the teaching which he has received to other potential leaders. In this way there’s always a supply of potential teaching leadership. It doesn’t die off. It’s transmitted from generation to generation. Those who have been taught teaching others, and teaching those others to teach others, and so on.
Now when it speaks about teaching in this connection with an elder I think we have to get away from a picture of a pulpit personality. I pointed out that the teaching ministry within the whole body, in a certain sense, demands the public exposition of Scripture in a pretty systematic way. We took the example of Apollos. But I think when it comes down to the local elder the teaching is much more on a small scale. It’s personal counseling and teaching small groups. And many men that would not find themselves fully at home in a kind of pulpit ministry, can be extremely effective and very much used in a more intimate person to person counseling which is desperately needed in the church today, because there are hardly any who can do it.
Being, myself, in a teaching ministry, I appreciate this continually. When I finish a sermon, when I’m out preaching, I’ll have a line of fifteen people standing there to ask me questions. Others that are in the same ministry will experience exactly the same thing. Most of those questions should be and could be answered by any normally equipped elder. There’s no need to stand and line up for some visiting preacher to answer these questions. But these people, in most cases, have no one to go to locally to get the answer to their question. This is one of the desperate needs that we should seek to supply to the church at this time.
Now I would like to move on to the ministry of a shepherd, treating the same office but treating it now essentially as a ministry. This is one of the five main ministries: apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers. I pointed out already that Jesus is the pattern of every ministry. He’s the pattern apostle, the pattern evangelist, the pattern prophet, the pattern shepherd and so on. So when we want a pattern of the shepherd ministry I think it’s good to begin with Jesus. And of course, the tenth chapter of John’s gospel, is the one that deals with the Good Shepherd. And as has been pointed out, the word gooddoesn’t mean morally goodprimarily, it means efficient, capable, the one who knows his job.And so He set forth here in His own words as the shepherd who knows what a shepherd ought to do. That makes it worth studying what He says. I’ll read rather quickly verses 11–16 and comment on them briefly.
[Jesus says] I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep. But he that is an hireling and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep. The hireling fleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep. I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine.
Now there’s a better version than the King James Version and this which is given in my margin which makes much for sense for verses 14 and 15.
I am the good shepherd and know my sheep and am known by mine as the Father knoweth me and I know the Father.
In other words, the relationship between Jesus and the Father is parallel in the relationship between the sheep and the shepherd.
As I know the Father and the Father knows me, so my sheep know me and I know them.
I believe that’s the true meaning that give much more significance to those two verses. But you see the emphasis is on knowing the sheep and being known by them, and it’s an intimate personal relationship. Verse 16,
And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.
Again better authenticated manuscripts would lead us to say not “one fold” but “one flock” and one shepherd, which is again a little easier to understand.
Then in verse 27 we have the final statement that I want to choose,
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me:
Now in your outline you’ll find that I picked out three features of the shepherd ministry based on those words of Jesus and stated them as follows: to lay down his life. Essentially the life of the shepherd does not belong to himself. It belongs to the sheep. Any man that wants to lead a self-pleasing, self-indulgent life has no right to be in this ministry at all. This is the first requirement—a man puts his life on the altar for God and for the service of God’s people. A man who is not willing to live as a servant to the people of God cannot fulfill this ministry.
Secondly the man is required to know his sheep individually in a close personal relationship. Thirdly, he’s required to be personally knowable, accessible to the sheep. And fourthly, he’s required to speak and to lead, and to lead them by speaking. Because he says, “My sheep hear my voice and they follow me.” Now I believe that wherever Christians are found this need exists, for people who are knowable, accessible, and who know the sheep.
When I last pastored a church, which is sometime back now, I undertook to preach on this ministry, the shepherd ministry, and I gave essentially what I’m giving now. But when I’d finished I said, “I want to tell you people that officially I’m your shepherd, I’m your pastor. I’ve preached to you out of the Scriptures what a pastor should be. Now,” I said, “I do not want to be a hypocrite. I want to acknowledge publicly before you all, I know I am not doing what a pastor should do. So don’t call me a hypocrite. You may blame me, but at least I am not a hypocrite. And one reason why I am not doing it, is because I cannot do it. There are too many of you and I don’t have enough time to have this kind of relationship and to offer this type of ministry.”
It wasn’t a big congregation. It didn’t amount to two hundred people. But it was absolutely out of the question for me to offer them that type of ministry that’s offered there. And this brought it home to me so clearly that this shepherd ministry cannot take on a large congregation. The people must be broken up into smaller groups and each group must have one or two, or perhaps three men who are their leaders. Then they can go to that man, that man knows them, he knows their problems, he knows their family situation, their marital situation, their business situation. He can talk to them man to man and help them. And I believe every believer needs someone to whom he can go for this type of ministry and help. This is the great crying need of the people of God across this nation today. There really are not local shepherds in this way.
There are many fine men who are pastors, who are doing what they can. Most pastors who try to do this job end up with a nervous breakdown or a heart attack, simply because it is not possible for a man to do on a large scale this type of ministry to a large number of people.
Let’s look also at a few other passages that speak about the ministry of a shepherd. Psalm 23, which is of course a familiar Psalm to Christians, but is the shepherd Psalm and does speak about what a shepherd does for his sheep. David puts himself in the place of the sheep at this point and says,
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Now I’ve taken those three verses and just summarized them there as you will see under the two aspects: to provide water and pasture; to protect, to lead and to control. Again the shepherd’s rod is the mark of control. It is the shepherd’s business to see that the sheep don’t get into the wrong and dangerous places, to turn them away and bring them back.
Then there’s a very powerful passage in Ezekiel chapter 34, where the Lord takes account to the shepherds of Israel. It’s a very solemn and sad account and he chides them for not having done what they should have done as shepherds, which indicates to me that this is what the Lord expects a shepherd to do. Let’s look in Ezekiel 34:1–4. To me it’s a very solemn thought that at the end of this present dispensation there’s going to be a reckoning between the Lord and the shepherds. And I cannot but think that for some professing pastors it’s going to be a very embarrassing reckoning when you consider what is expected. It says here,
And the word of the LORD came unto me, saying, Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, prophesy, and say unto them, Thus saith the LORD GOD unto the shepherds; Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! should not the shepherds feed the flocks? Ye eat the fat, and ye clothe you with the wool, ye kill them that are fed: but ye feed not the flock. The diseased have ye not strengthened, neither have ye healed that which was sick, neither have ye bound up that which was broken, neither have ye brought again that which was driven away, neither have ye sought that which was lost; but with force and with cruelty have ye ruled them.
Now if you make an extract from the teaching there, I think you’ll come up with the same conclusions that I have suggested that the Lord apparently expects six things of shepherds and they are stated in your outline. To feed the flock; to strengthen the diseased; to heal the sick; to bind up the broken; to bring again that which is driven away; and to seek the lost. These are the things that are expected in the shepherd ministry.
With regard to the ministry to the sick, let’s compare for a moment James 5:14-15.
Is any sick among you? [speaking to Christians] led him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.
Notice, this is the New Testament prescription for a believer who becomes sick. “Let him call for the elders of the church.” The shepherds. It’s his responsibility to call for them. Not his responsibility to find out that they are sick. The Scripture puts the responsibility on the believer who becomes sick to call for the elders. Then it’s their responsibility to minister to him, to anoint him, to instruct him, to counsel him, to pray over him the prayer of faith. So we see that healing is still, according to the Scriptures, within the ministry of the shepherd.
Then if you turn to Isaiah 56 you get another passage where there is a controversy between the Lord and the shepherds of Israel. And the shepherds are here referred to as watchmenwhich is another title quite often used for these leaders. Isaiah 56:9–10. There’s an irony in these verses.
All ye beasts of the field, come to devour, yea, all ye beasts in the forest. His watchmen [that’s Israel’s watchmen] are blind: they are all ignorant, they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark; sleeping, lying down, loving to slumber.
The shepherd there, or the leader, or the watchman is compared to the watchdog whose business it is to help the shepherd protect the sheep against the wild beasts. The business of the watchdog is to bark when the wolf comes. The business of the shepherd is to give warning when the wolf comes. Now in the New Testament we are told that the wolves are the false prophets, Matthew 7:15,
Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.
So the one responsibility of the man in this ministry, when the wolf approaches the flock is to bark, to give warning. But in Isaiah’s day the Lord said, “All my shepherd a dumb dog. They can’t bark. All they do is lie down and go to sleep.” And that, I am afraid, is very often the case today. The false prophets, the false teachings come to the church and the shepherds are just dumb dogs. They don’t give a sound. They just let the enemies of the people of God come in there midst.
Then in Ezekiel 33, the Lord speaks to Ezekiel in terms of being a watchman. And again this is related, I believe, to the shepherd ministry. We will not necessarily read all the verse there, but the Lord says to Ezekiel in terms of a watchman, if a watchman is appointed by the people, and there’s a danger of war, it’s the watchman’s business to blow the trumpet. If the watchman blows the trumpet, war comes and people are killed because they didn’t give heed to the watchman blowing the trumpet, it’s the people’s responsibility. But if war and danger come and the watchman does not blow his trumpet, the people will still be killed, but God says, I will require it at the watchman’s hand. Now let’s read verses 7–9 which is the application.
So thou, O son of man, I have set thee a watchman unto the house of Israel; therefore thou shalt hear the word at my mouth, and warn them from me. When I say unto the wicked, O wicked man, thou shalt surely die; if thou dost not speak to warn the wicked from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand. Nevertheless, if thou warn the wicked of his way to turn from it; if he do not turn from his way, he shall die in his iniquity; but thou hast delivered thy soul.
We see there is a tremendous solemn responsibility here. If the watchman fails to warn the wicked, and the wicked is taken away in his sin, God says the wicked will still perish but his blood will be required at the watchman’s hand. Now I am sure in my own mind that Paul had these words in mind in Acts chapter 20 when he spoke to the elders at the church at Ephesus and spoke about his own ministry amongst them and challenged them to walk by the same principles. And he says in Acts 20:20–21,
And how I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have showed you, and have taught you publicly, and from house to house, Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul could say, “I haven’t kept back anything of the truth that you needed to know. I’ve fully declared the truth to you.” And he returns to this in verses 26 and 27. He says,
Wherefore I take you to record this day, that I am pure from the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God.
In other words, the watchman is answerable for his message. The man that does not deliver the full truth of God will be held accountable by God for the souls that were not warned and did not receive the teaching that they should have received. To me this is a very solemn thought, that we have to be able to say, “That I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God.”
When Paul talks about shunning it’s obvious that there must have been some type of pressure that he did not yield to. And in actual fact, in the modern church today there are many pressures that would keep a man from declaring the whole counsel of God. I know many men who know much more than they preach. And the pressures that keep them from declaring what they know are various. Denominational pressure, social pressure, financial pressure, “what will happen if I offend the rich members?, what will happen if I go against the teaching of my denomination?”
But Paul always bore in mind the fact that he was answerable primarily to God and not to man for what he preached and what he taught. And I do believe that this is included in the teaching of Scripture on the responsibility of the shepherd. He is answerable to declare what he knows to be true from the word of God and keep nothing back. The man that keeps anything back, fails to deliver the message, will one day be held accountable by God for what he failed to deliver.
Now let’s turn, in closing this study on the ministry of a shepherd for a moment to the testimony of Jacob as a shepherd which I heard preached on in the land of Israel years ago when it made a deep impact on me at that time. In Genesis 31 Jacob who had served for twenty years with his uncle Laban as a shepherd describes the type of work he did and the type of life he led. And in verses 38-40 this is what Jacob says about his own work as a shepherd.
This twenty years have I been with thee; thy ewes and thy she goats have not cast their young, and the rams of thy flock have I not eaten. That which was torn of beasts I brought not unto thee; I bare the loss of it; of my hand didst thou require it, whether stolen by day, or stolen by night. Thus I was; in the day the heat consumed me, and the frost by night; and my sleep departed from mine eyes.
This is a picture of a very, very exacting ministry and I believe that’s exactly what the shepherd ministry is today. If you compare that with Hebrews 13:17, which we looked at earlier, it says that the leaders of the church watched for the souls of those under their care. Just as Jacob said, “I didn’t get sleep at night because I was answerable for anything that might be stolen while it was under my care.
Now let’s look briefly at the qualifications of an elder or a shepherd. What is expected of him according to the standards of Scripture. I would like to turn first of all to the twenty-first chapter of John’s gospel and read those verses where Jesus speaks to Peter on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. The background of this, of course, is that Peter had been a disciple of the Lord and had vowed that should all forsake Him, he would never forsake Him. And Jesus had warned Peter. “Before the cock crows twice tonight, you are going to deny three times that you know me.” Peter could not believe it was true but it turned out that way. Three times he said publicly he didn’t know Jesus and he had not association with Him. This is a very, very solemn fact because at the resurrection scene when the angel gave the message to the women, the message was, “Go and tell my disciples and Peter.” Peter being no longer a disciple. Why? Because he had denied that he was a disciple. He had made the wrong confession. He had forfeited his right to the title of a disciple. You’ll find in this interview Peter does not understand what the Lord is doing, but the Lord draws out of Peter three times the right confession to make up for the three times that he made the wrong confession.
There’s a tremendous truth in this about right and wrong confession. Many times if we’ve said or done the wrong thing, it has to be canceled by the right confession. This is if we have not forgiven people, we cancel that unforgiveness by forgiving them. And many other respects, this is true. So Jesus deals with Peter on the basis of the fact that three times he denied Him, He leads him to confessing three times, and on the basis of each confession he charges him with the ministry of a shepherd to his sheep. Let’s read the words and I’m going to change the King James Version because the language used in the King James Version does not bring out the difference in the Greek. John 21 verses 15–17,
So when they had dined [but it should have been when they had eaten breakfast which was the first meal in the day], Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me [passionately, totally, devotedly, the strongest Greek word for love] more than these [more than the rest of these? Because you said when they forsook me you were going to stay with, so do you love me more than these?] Peter said, Yea Lord; thou knowest that I am fond of thee [a much weaker word to be a friend.] Jesus said to him, Feed my lambs [on the basis of that confession.] He saith to again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? [passionately, devotedly] He saith unto him, Yea Lord; thou knowest that I am fond of thee. He saith unto him, Shepherd my sheep. [It’s a completely different word. It’s the same word we’ve been dealing with—to shepherd. Of course, I’m amused by Peter. He’d always been so impetuous. He’d always said a little bit more than he was entitled to say, and now he was very careful to say a little bit less.] He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, are you fond of me? [Jesus came down to Peter’s level.] Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Are you fond of me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I am fond of thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep.
So there are three commissions there; feed my lambs, shepherd my sheep, and feed my sheep. It’s not the same each time. You’ll notice that the basic requirement for taking care of the Lord’s sheep is not our attitude to the sheep, it’s our attitude to the Lord. “Lovest thou Me? Feed My sheep.”
I have learned by experience that a sentimental love for the people of God is never going to see a man through this job. Because if our eyes and our minds are centered on the people, there will come a time when either they’ll act in such a mean and unworthy way that that love will not be strong enough, or in loving them we’ll allow them to dictate to us and lead us to things which the Lord would not have wished us to do.
So the primary requirement which is basic to all others is real dedication and devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ. If we have that then He says, “Now, I’m going to commission you to be a shepherd to My sheep.” I have seen so many people go astray in this type of ministry through a kind of second rate, human affection, sympathy or emotion which simply does not stand the test of the hard times. The times when God’s people are ungrateful, mean, criticize you, talk about you behind your back, don’t appreciate anything you do for them. If there isn’t something higher than love for them, it will not stand the test. But the thing that will stand the test, will take a man through and keep him faithful, is devotion to the Lord Himself.
Now with this basis, the Scripture than lists a quite, considerable number of different character points which are required in a shepherd or an elder. Any man that can come up with a hundred percent in these lists is definitely an outstanding character. Now the lists are given in the references there. 1Timothy 3:1–7 and Titus 1:5–9. I’m not going to read them because I want to only deal with them in summary. I suggest if you’re interested you read the King James Version and two or three other more modern versions and put the words together and it will give you a pretty clear picture. But I’ve tried to sum up what is written in those two passages and I’ll give you my summary here under three different headings: personal character, family situations and spiritual ability.
This is intended to be nothing more than a summary and it’s quite possible that you could improve upon it if you studied it. But let’s take personal character first. The following are the positive requirements: He must be blameless. That’s quite something to start with, isn’t it? In other words there must be nothing in his life obvious and persistent, such that a person could say, “If that man is to be an elder he shouldn’t be or do that thing.” Vigilant, patient, self-controlled, righteous, holy, a lover of good.
Then there are the things that must not be found—the negatives. He must not be self-willed, covetous, greedy, quick tempered, violent or a drunkard.
With regard to family situation I think there are three points that the Scripture brings out. He must be the husband of one wife, and you will notice that I have put there, “Not the wife of one husband.” There’s no suggestion in Scripture that a woman can hold this position. There are many exciting and wonderful ministries for women in the church. I am not one of those people who say that women have no right to preach of prophesy. I believe they have. But there’s one position that I believe a woman should never hold, and that is the position of a local shepherd, elder or bishop—as I understand that. I understand I have my wife with me in those sentiments.
So I put that there because I have been in not a few places lately where an apostle has descended out of the sky, traveled around the city, visited five prayer meetings, and left behind him maybe four or five elders of whom several were ladies. And sometimes didn’t even have their husbands with them in the whole business. To my way of thinking, that’s a parody of Scripture.
Secondly, the home and children must be under discipline. Thirdly, he must be able and willing to show hospitality. It’s not merely willing, but it’s also able. You see, if the children are not under discipline a man cannot really show hospitality. I’ve been to homes, not necessarily around here at all, where you could not have an intelligent consecutive conversation because the children were making such a noise and fighting so continually that no one else could get more than five words in without being interrupted. A great deal depends on the whole atmosphere of the home.
Then he must be respected in the community. This is essential. The leader of the local congregation must be a worthy representative of that congregation to the people that are not believers or committed Christians. You see, I’ve seen this mistake again. A man whose been an alcoholic and a wife beater and so on, gets wonderfully converted and the next few days he’s put into some position in the church. Well, thank God for his wonderful conversion, but the world cannot be expected to believe in that. That man has got to prove himself and prove his life so that he wins the respect of the community before he’s put into a position like that.
Then with regard to spiritual ability, as has been pointed out, he has to be well grounded in doctrine and able to teach others also. I think that is a fairly adequate brief summary of the requirements.
Now let’s go on to the appointment of elders. A very interesting subject and in some places very up to date. In Acts 14:23 we read about Paul and Barnabas on their return from their first missionary journey,
And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord...
Paul and Barnabas were the people who had brought those people to the Lord. They were the only people whose ministry those believers knew. It was natural, it was almost inevitable that the appointment of leaders should come from Paul and Barnabas. Paul and Barnabas are also apostles. So we can establish the principle that it’s the ministry of apostles to appoint elders. But we have to go beyond that and say that in this case, it was also plain common sense. Those new converts would not have looked to anybody else for that appointment except the people who had brought them the word of God and brought them to the Lord.
In Titus 1:5 I think the truth is taken a little further. Titus, incidentally, as we saw early on is described in the New Testament as an apostle. At this time he was a co-worker with Paul, and Paul says about Titus being in the Island of Crete,
For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain [or place, or set] elders in every city, as I had appointed thee:
So there the placing of elders was left to Titus, but really partly as a representative of Paul. In other words, it was partly Paul’s authority behind Titus. And we would see in this that the authority of the apostle goes beyond appointing elders in churches brought into being by his ministry to the place where is the ministry of the apostle to set in order and maintain in order local congregations generally. However, we have to get our eye off the purely human to realize that behind any person who makes the appointment there must be the will and the mind and the authority of Almighty God, otherwise the appointment is vain in any case. If you turn to Acts 20:28 you’ll find there that Paul says to the elders at the church Ephesus, and since these were the fruit of his ministry, it is to me highly probable that most, if not all of them, had actually been appointed by Paul. But Paul in this verse does not say “Iappointed you as elder,” he said “the Holy Spiritappointed you as elder.” I’ll read the words,
Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost [Holy Spirit] hath made you overseers...
The responsibility there is directly related to the Holy Spirit Himself. The Holy Spirit appointed elders.
Now as I understand Scripture, Christ is the Head over all things to the church, but He operates by the Holy Spirit within the church. So if you want the total picture, appointments in the church are made by Christ, through the Holy Spirit, using human instruments. All through the church we’ll find that the Holy Spirit uses human instruments. But, nevertheless, behind those instruments when used in obedience to the will of God is the authority of God.
For instance, the Acts is called the Acts of the Apostles. Some people have said it should be the Acts of the Holy Spirit. I say no. Because the Holy Spirit never could do anything until He had somebody to do it through. And so He must find human instruments. But behind the human instruments is the authority of the Spirit of God and behind the Spirit of God is the Head of the church, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now when we turn to 1Corinthians 12:28 we find that in actual fact every person, set in any position of ministry in the church, is set there by God Himself.
And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers...
So the final authority for every placement in the church is the authority of God Himself. But He operates through Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit, using human instruments. In other words, there has to be an interdependence between God and human agents. As somebody said about speaking in other tongues, and this is just an example, you cannot do it without God, and God cannot do it without you. And this is true in many, many realms. It’s true in many ministries. You can’t do it without God, but God can’t do it without you. God has deliberately made Himself dependent on human instruments to accomplish His will. So we look at the human instrument, we acknowledge it, but through the human instrument we must look also to Almighty God whose is the final authority in this.
Now we have already pointed out that there are certain standards that an elder must come up to in order to qualify for appointment. We don’t need to look at those again. We just dealt with them, although I have given the references again.
So I come to this conclusion, which I’ve put here in the outline. Appointing elders combines two requirements. First, to recognize the men whom the Holy Spirit has been preparing for this ministry. Second, to know and apply the standards of Scripture. It is not done by some dramatic prophetic revelation. It’s done by the application by sanctified common sense, plus a sensitivity to the Holy Spirit, an ability to recognize what the Holy Spirit is doing in the lives of men and women. It isn’t just a question of dropping out of the clouds and getting a prophetic utterance and saying, “Thou art an elder,” and so on. That’s an absolute caricature of this method. If I seem to labor this it’s because I’ve actually run into situations where this precisely has happened. A man has been in a city three or four days, gone around and appointed elders, and moved on. Well, this is absolutely a caricature of what the Scripture presents. The man that makes the appointment must know the men. He must know their lives. He must be able to judge whether they’ve been able to come up to the standards. Then he must also get the mind of the Holy Spirit. Are these men whom the Holy Spirit has already begun to prepare for this ministry.
Now it is clear from the New Testament that an elder did not fully function in a local congregation before he was specifically recognized as an elder. There are so many Scriptures to this end that it’s obvious. For instance, “Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the church.” It’s clear that every Christian was expected to know who were his elders to whom he should send in such a situation. I think it is undeniable that even though a man may have all of the qualifications, may have the heart, may be prepared by the Holy Spirit, he cannot fully exercise this function until he’s officially recognized within the body. It’s recognition that gives him the final authority that he needs to function in this way.
My conclusion, therefore, is that we will not see valid New Testament eldership emerge in the body of Christ until we are prepared to recognize it, call it by the right name, and go along with all the things that go along with it. And this is a vital revolutionary step that we’re facing when we begin to do this, as some of us have discovered in a very direct and personal way in the last few months. But the more I go into it, the more I’m convinced that we cannot bypass it. It is nothing but spiritual cowardice to refuse to face up to this need and it’s to fail the church if we do not go through with what God has shown us we must do.
Now let’s consider just a few more little aspects of this before we close. Let’s consider the remuneration of elders. How do they get money? Some people think money isn’t important, but I’m not one of those. As a matter of fact, people only talk like that in church. The moment they get outside church they don’t talk that way. The Bible certainly doesn’t speak that way either.
Let’s look at 1Timothy 5:17–18 again which was the Scripture we began with.
Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine. For the scripture saith, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn. And, the labourer is worthy of his reward [or his hire].
It’s perfectly clear that Paul is talking in terms of financial and material remuneration for those that have this responsibility. And the word honordoes not just mean a bow or a medal, but it means something very tangible and practical in the New Testament. I want to show you this. Look in Acts 28:10. Now this is after Paul and his company had been shipwrecked on the Island of Malta and a ministry of healing had broken out. The people had become grateful and it says in verse 10,
They also honoured us with many honours; and when we departed, they laded us with such things as were necessary.
It’s very clear that the honors there were things that they could be laded with. In other words, they brought them produce, food, clothing. Everything that they would need for their material and physical needs. If you’ve ever ministered in a rather more primitive society like Africa, very many times when you go away from preaching you will be given a hen or some corn cobs or some coffee beans that you have to grind. Things like that. Those are honors, but they are very practical and necessary honors. In that form of society they are things that keep you alive.
Then again in Matthew 15 we find the same use of the honorin the lips of Jesus. Matthew 15:5-6, Jesus is reproving the people of his day, the religious people, for their hypocrisy. He says,
For God commanded, saying, Honour thy father and mother... But ye say, Whosoever shall say to his father or his mother, It is a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; And honour not his father or his mother, he shall be free...
This was a “get out.” People were required to support their parents and care for them but they said to their parents with utter religious hypocrisy, “I’ve dedicated to the Lord what you ought to get from me, so you can’t have it.” See, this is their “get out.” Jesus says, “You hypocrites.” But notice, he talks of supporting parents financially and materially in terms of showing them honor. So the word honorhas this connotation, not exclusively, but it’s included in it, of financial and material provision. And it’s clear that this is what Paul intends when he says, “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, because thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treads out the grain, and the laborer is worthy of his hire.”
And I say this with some emphasis because it is sure to undermine the works of God if no financial provision is made for those who step out into full-time ministry. It’s one sure way to hold back the work of God.
Let’s look at what is stated in 1Corinthians chapter 9 where Paul deals with this question, verses 7–14. I don’t think we need to read the whole set of verses, but just notice the principles involved and maybe you’ll care to read them for yourself later. Paul says,
Who goeth a warfare any time at his own charges? [no soldier ever goes out to fight and has to provide his own wages. He’s always paid by those for whom he fights.] who planteth a vineyard, and eateth not of the fruit thereof? [Every man that owns a vineyard and puts the work in, eats the fruit.] or who feedeth a flock, [but the Greek says who shepherds a flock] and eateth not of the milk of the flock? [He doesn’t slaughter the flock, but at least he takes of the milk. He takes something for his own support. And then Paul says in the 14th verse of that chapter,] Even so hath the Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel.
This is an ordinance of God. That those who give their time to the ministry of the gospel and the people of God, if they devote so much time to it that they cannot also earn a living, shall be supported by the people to whom they minister. This is common sense. But you see there are certain sections of the church that boast themselves that they don’t have paid ministry. The Plymouth Brethren are one example. In actual fact I’ve seen this ultimately undermines the efficiency of God’s servants. I just want to establish it.
Now if a man is not devoting full time to his work as a shepherd, as an elder, then he probably wouldn’t need full remuneration. Or if a man has another source of income and is independent than maybe he would not need full remuneration. It’s according to the need and the amount of time that the man spends. That is how his remuneration shall be. But if he spends a lot of time in teaching the word, than you have to make it up to him by remuneration. The principle is clear. Now let me say one more tremendously important thing as I close this study, and I can’t say it too emphatically. I’ve given references there that we do not actually need to look to. Some of them we’ve already looked at, but there is this principle that sheep must have a shepherd, and that sheep without a shepherd, according to the words of Scripture which I’ve put there, are “scattered, fainting, and a prey to wild beasts.”
This to me is a very interesting fact. You can leave cattle without anybody looking after them, but you cannot leave sheep without anybody looking after them. This is my opinion one reason why there are so many more cattle than sheep in the United States. There must be other reasons, but you see in Britain it’s different. Sheep are the things that people feed on mainly. Their main food is mutton rather than beef. When I first came to the United States I couldn’t understand why sheep were so rare. But one thing I realized was that it costs a lot of money to keep a man to look after a few sheep. And this is true in Scripture that sheep that do not have a shepherd are scattered, they become sick, they faint, they get lost, and they become a prey to wild beasts. There are many, many Scriptures that emphasize this.
And so we come down to a personal obligation of every believer—and I’ve put it this way—you either have to be a shepherd or have one. As far as I understand the New Testament, this is it. Either you’re exercising the ministry of a shepherd, or you must be under the ministry of a shepherd. The New Testament makes no provision for any sheep to be without a shepherd. And today, if you look across this country, you’ll see thousands and thousands of people who have no shepherd, acknowledge no shepherd, and are not themselves shepherds. The result is they’re scattered, they’re lost, they’re fainting, and they’re a prey to all the deceivers, the false prophets and the wild beasts that feed upon the people of God when they’re not protected.
Let’s close with this statement in Acts 11:26. You might look at this reference for yourself and not see the point of it, but let me bring it out as I understand. You just need to read the last sentence in the 26th verse of Acts 11. The disciples were called Christians first in Antioch. To me this is definitive. A Christian is a disciple. A person whose not a disciple is not entitled to the title Christian. And a disciple is one who is under discipline. The word indicates it. And within the church there must be discipline. There must be those who rule and there must be those who are ruled. It requires divine grace to do both—to rule and to be ruled. But I accept it as a principle that a person who is not willing to be ruled can never qualify to rule.