Kind of an odd picture but I will come back to it near the end. In 1 Peter 5 we see the shepherding function directly referred to elders in the church. It is an interesting passage because while most epistles to the church are directed to the church as a whole, and conspicuously not just leaders/elders/pastors, Peter specifically is addressing a subset of the church. This is a commonly referenced set of verses so I want to look specifically at verses 1-5 to see what they tell us about shepherding:
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. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Peter 5: 1-5)
Now at the onset I would point out that shepherding, as everyone knows, is hardly a glamorous profession. Shepherds didn’t have sheepskins from Sheep-Keeper Seminary (pun intended). They were, from my understanding, not the pillars of the community or terribly respected. They were just dudes who hung around with sheep and kept them from harm.
So what specifically is Peter exhorting his fellow elders to focus on in regards to shepherding?
- Exercise oversight
- Do so willingly, not under compulsion
- Not for personal gain
- Not with an attitude of domineering but through example
Missing from this list is what we traditionally expect from pastors. There is no talk of sermons or vision casting or counseling or budget committees. There is a serious disconnect between the Biblical description of shepherding and what we expect from shepherds/pastors. We expect them to lead and we will follow. They teach, we learn. They minister, we are ministered to. They rule, we submit. That all is fine and dandy but it is not shepherding.
Shepherding in God’s church does not come by dispensing nuggets of knowledge in 40 minute chunks during a sermon or by creating a “vision” that others are obligated to follow. It comes by sacrificial service to the Body and lives that should be emulated by others. We are called to imitate their example, not simply extol their virtues. Oversight, leadership, pastoring, shepherding are all less about ruling and control than they are about edification and self-sacrifice. When the Great Shepherd walked the earth, His ministry included a great deal of teaching but it also included modeling of service. In Matthew 20:20-28 we see Christ describing greatness as resulting from service, that even He came not to be served but to serve. Christ extolled the virtues of the humble and chastised those who sought personal recognition. Christ later lived this out in a most unbecoming act, stooping down at the feet of His disciples, the King of the Universe washing the dirty feet of His creatures. Service and holding others as more important than yourself are the hallmarks of shepherding and that sort of behavior is nowhere restricted to a special class of Christians. In other words, shepherding through leadership and service is a function of all Christians. It may manifest itself differently in different Christians but it shouldn’t be absent in any follower of Christ.
This brings me back to my original question. Is shepherding an office in the church or is it used to describe Christians who shepherd others in the church? It seems pretty clear that what is being described in the Bible is more functional than official, more serving than ruling.
Ultimately the most important thing to remember about shepherding is that pastors, elders, evangelists, shepherds in other words, are first and foremost sheep. They are not “under-shepherds” with some sheep like qualities; they are 100% sheep that are called on to perform some shepherding functions. That is an important distinction.
My point is that shepherding can only be correctly understood when we recognize Jesus as the Shepherd and ourselves, even the most famous pastors, as sheep. We may perform some shepherding functions but when we lose sight of Christ as the Shepherd and the only Shepherd of the church, we get into trouble. The two thousand year history of Christianity is littered with men who sought to supplant Christ as Shepherd and every time it led to heresy and error. Pope after pope proves this, not to mention cult leaders like Joseph Smith, David Koresh, Jim Jones and on and on.
So about that picture. Some years ago when we lived in Northern Michigan we had a short lived experiment with raising sheep. During this experiment we learned a lot about sheep, especially concerning the metaphor of Christians as sheep in the Bible and how that wasn’t really complimentary. The sheep in the middle of the picture is Cortland and she was the “lead sheep” in our little four sheep flock. Here is where this is pertinent. Cortland, even though she was the lead sheep and the one others would follow, would often wander off. The others would follow right behind her until they were at the neighbors farm or way down the road. You see, she might have been the leader but she was still just a sheep. The danger of sheep being reliant on other sheep to lead them is that sheep are…sheep. That is why we have a Good Shepherd and why we who are His sheep hear His voice and follow Him. We all know all too well how fallible men are but if we follow the Good Shepherd He will never lead us astray.