Elders: Shepherds Of The Flock Of God

1 Peter 5:1-5 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: 2 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; 3 not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. 4 And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. 5 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.”

(In addition to the Bible itself, this sermon is largely influenced by two documents: 1) The Shepherd Leader, a book by Timothy Witmer, and 2) Our church’s elder position paper.)

Grace, God loves his people. With everything else the bible addresses and society focuses on, it can be easy to forget the simple reality that for his people, God’s primary disposition is love. One of the primary expressions of God’s love for his people is the reality and manner of his constant care for us. And one of the primary ways in which the bible describes God’s loving care for his people is as our Shepherd.

You see, we might like to think of ourselves as strong lions or innocent doves or wise serpents, but the bible most frequently describes us as lowly sheep. We struggle to know what’s best for us. If we’re left alone we’re prone to wander into trouble. We are largely unable to protect ourselves from those who would do us harm. We need help even to know how to find fulfillment and rest. For that reason, it is truly good news to know that God is always leading and guiding us as a good shepherd. He is always working to keep us close, safe, well fed, and well rested. He is always watching over us, leading us exactly where we need to go.

All of that is what this sermon is primarily about—a particular expression of the continual loving, shepherding care of God. Specifically, it’s about the fact that one of God’s primary means of shepherding his people today is through elders within the local church.

In our passage for this morning, Peter assumes all of this. My aim in this sermon is to show you why. That is, I mean to help you see how the shepherd/shepherding metaphor runs throughout the entire bible, right up to 1 Peter 5:1-5; and in so doing I’m going to do my best to make explicit what, for Peter, is implicit. It is my hope, then, that all of this will set us up well for next week when we actually get into this particular text.

Let’s pray, therefore, that the Holy Spirit of God would be pleased to give us clarity of thought on the bible’s treatment of God’s shepherding care through local church elders and its significance for rightly interpreting and applying this passage.

Our passage for this morning begins with these words: “So I exhort the elders among you: … shepherd the flock of God that is among you.” The connection between eldering and shepherding is what we’re after. How did Peter come up with that job description? What’s behind and underneath it, and, once again, what difference does it make for rightly understanding and applying 1 Peter 5:1-5?

Specifically, this morning I mean to help you all see what the bible says about: 1) The origin of eldership, 2) The definition of eldership, 3) The duties of eldership, and 4) The qualifications for eldership. It is my hope, that by doing so, we will be able to more fully understand the meaning and implications of this passage.

Beginning with the first question, then, where did the office of elder come from?

One quick point of clarification: In many places in the bible (like Genesis 50:7) the term “elders” is largely synonymous with “elderly”—someone who is older than most. In other places it also referred to an older person within a family, village, or tribe who had been recognized (formally or informally) as one with notable wisdom. In situations like these there was an element of authority and leadership conferred upon the “elders”.

In our passage for this morning (1 Peter 5:1-5), however, Peter used the term differently. For Peter “elders” are not “older Christians” or informal leaders, but men who formally hold a God-given office within the church.

Again, the purpose of this sermon is to help you see what the bible has to say about God’s loving, shepherding care for his people through those who hold the office of elder. To that end, we need to do a bit of biblical theology; tracing the office of elder back to its biblical roots. In other words, if we are going to understand the NT office of elder—which Peter wrote about in 1 Peter 5:1-5—the first and most important thing to see is the relationship between that office and the shepherding care God has provided for his people from the beginning.

Let me share with you two (of many) examples of this in the OT.

Just prior to his death, Joseph’s father, Jacob, blessed Joseph’s children saying, “…God…has been my shepherd all my life long to this day…” (Genesis 48:15). Jacob’s blessing was rooted in the unwavering greatness of God. And for Jacob, right at the heart of God’s greatness was the faithful, effective shepherding God had provided for him throughout his life.

Similarly, consider the source of comfort in one of the more comforting passages in the bible, “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. 3 He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. 4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:1-4). The source of the psalmist’s comfort is, of course, knowledge of God’s shepherding care.

There are many other such verses I could share with you along these lines, but my main point here is easy to see: God’s direct care for his people is often described as shepherding his people.

The next thing to see is that God, perhaps surprisingly, often provides his shepherding care for his people through his people. That is, God, at times, shepherds by designating shepherds from among his sheep. The patriarch Moses, for instance, is called the shepherd of Israel (Isaiah 63:11).

King David too is called a shepherd of God’s people by God himself, “You shall be shepherd of my people Israel” (2 Samuel 5:2). The Israelites recognized and sang about the rightness of this. Consider Psalm 78:70-72, “[God] chose David his servant and took him from the sheepfolds; 71 from following the nursing ewes he brought him to shepherd Jacob his people, Israel his inheritance. 72 With upright heart he shepherded them and guided them with his skillful hand.” Do see what’s happening in that passage? The psalmist (Asaph) was praising God for his faithful, shepherding care of his people…through one of his sheep, King David!

Jeremiah the prophet also refers to himself as a shepherd of Israel (17:16).

God never stops shepherding his people, even though he uses different means at different times to do so. Therefore, it is right to think of the shepherding care of the patriarchs, judges, kings, and prophets as expressions of God’s love, God’s care, God’s shepherding.

But it didn’t stop there. In the NT we are told that God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to shepherd his people. In John 10 Jesus refers to himself as the “Good Shepherd” and to his people as his sheep.

John 10:11-15 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me…

The care of God for his people in Jesus was still referred to as shepherding.

But the metaphor doesn’t end with Jesus either. It continues on with his apostles. In John 21:15-17 Jesus charged Peter to feed his sheep (do the work of shepherding). In Acts 20:28 Paul charged the leaders within the Church to “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock…” (be good shepherds). Indeed, the role of an apostle was largely that of shepherding on God’s behalf.

We must not miss the fact that the metaphor still does not end there. The apostles (most clearly seen through Paul and Peter) understood their shepherding care to be passed on to and continue with those who hold the NT office of elder. The clearest example is found in our passage for this morning where Peter wrote, “I exhort the elders among you…shepherd the flock of God…”.

The office itself is a bit like baptism…its precise origins within the Church are a bit murky; it just sort of shows up in the early church. The main thing to see, though, is that when Peter charged the local church elders to shepherd the flock, his meaning was drawn from thousands of years and thousands of examples of God shepherding his people with his people. Understanding this is critical to truly grasping and obeying this passage.

Again, Grace, find joy in the fact that God loves you and cares for you and shepherds you—he always has and always will. And marvel at the fact that he’s able to do it so well (perfectly) through whatever means he chooses—even means as humble, vulnerable, and imperfect as human elders (sheep).

As simply as possible, then, as elders we’ve done our best to come up with a definition of the office of elder that fits this rich and deep biblical theology, as well as Peter’s meaning in 5:1. Here it is: Elders are the shepherd-leaders of the local church, under Christ, who is the chief shepherd. That is, elders are the pastors and overseers within a church who are primarily called to shepherd on God’s behalf. (The term elder in the New Testament is used synonymously with the terms pastor (shepherd) and overseer (bishop).)

But what, specifically, has God charged elders to do in their shepherding? We see some specifics in 1 Peter 5:1-5, but once again, let’s back up a bit so that we know best where to fit Peter’s instructions.

When we consider both the rich history of God’s shepherding in the bible and the specific NT elder-shepherding, it seems that there are four main parts to the job description of an elder: knowing, leading, feeding, and protecting the church. Let’s briefly consider each.

Elders are Charged to Know their Sheep
Elders, as overseeing shepherds, are called to care for their sheep and therefore they must know their sheep, like the Good Shepherd. An elder must be committed to moving past surface relationships to pursue a deeper understanding and a personal relationship with every person that is under his care.

As we read earlier, Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me…”. One of the clearest examples of elders sharing in this responsibility (to know their flock) is found in 1 Thessalonians.

1 Thessalonians 2:7-8 But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. 8 So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us…

An elder must truly know and care for the sheep in his care if he is to effectively care for their souls. This is one important reason why formal membership is so important; so elders know which sheep they are to know. Thanks for your help in this, Grace. Most of you have made it really easy to get to know and care for you.

Elders are Charged to Lead their Sheep
Second, elders, as overseeing shepherds are charged with the leadership of the local church. We must be diligent in reminding ourselves that we are not called to determine where to lead God’s people or even how to do so, but to faithfully lead to the places and in the ways God has already declared—and yet we must lead.

God, of course, is continually leading us as our shepherd. We see that those who hold the office of elder are to share in leading God’s people in passages like the one we’re considering in 1 Peter.

1 Peter 5:1-3 So I exhort the elders among you…: 2 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; 3 not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock…

Elders must lead the church according to God’s commands, for God’s purposes, and through God’s means. Let me tell you, this is at times a humbling and challenging charge. On behalf of Matt and Kyle, though, I want to thank you all for making our job as joyful as possible. You really want to be led to Christ’s likeness.

Elders are Charged to Feed their Sheep
Next, elders, as overseeing shepherds, are responsible to feed and oversee the health of their flock. Our primary means of doing so are the Scriptures and the other means of grace described in the bible. Elders are called to preach, teach, and exhort with the Word of God in both public and private settings.

In Matthew 4:4 we read Jesus’ words, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Therefore it should not surprise us that Paul charges elders (in 1 Timothy 4:13), “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.”

It is an elder’s responsibility to make sure that the church is eating the good food of God’s word. This is why the main sermon diet we feed you is expositional preaching. What you need most is not our insight or our wisdom, but God’s word. It alone is able to nourish and strengthen and transform us. Our aim, therefore is to explain God’s word to you and help you understand how it applies to your lives. I love that you love that.

Elders are Charged to Protect their Sheep
Finally, elders, as overseeing shepherds, are to protect the flock from internal and external danger which requires watchfulness, discernment and courage. This protection includes the refutation of false or unhealthy teaching, correcting divisive persons, and practicing church discipline.

In John 10 Jesus declares that he protects his sheep from thieves, robbers, strangers, and wolves. In passages like 2 Peter and in 1 John the church is warned against the dangers of false teachers. Therefore, in Hebrews 13:17, God’s people are commanded to “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls…”.

As elders it is our responsibility to constantly be on the lookout for people and ideas that are contrary to the gospel and, therefore, dangerous for your souls.

Knowing, leading, feeding, and protecting are what God does for all his people. One particular way in which he does so is by giving them as the primary job description to elders in local churches.

Grace, contemplate with me the love of God. We would do well to ask the Psalmist’s question, “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him” (Psalm 8:4)? But God is mindful of his people. He loves us, and in his love cares for us, and in his care shepherds us. What’s more, he is so great that he’s able to accomplish this through finite, fallen means. What’s more, he is so great that he allows some of us—fallen and finite though we are—to be elders and participate in his loving, shepherding care.

Elders are pastors and overseers (shepherds) of a church and therefore the question of who can be an elder is very important. God did not leave it up to us to decide what makes a person qualified to be an elder. He loves us enough to make it clear what the requirements are. 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 are the primary texts we look to, to answer the question of who can be an elder. From these passages (and a few others) we’ve identified four categories of qualification.

Calling and Maturity
The first area of qualification is calling and maturity. A calling to eldership is both internal and external. Internally, Paul wrote (1 Timothy 3:1) that a person must understand the office and aspire to it. Peter says the same in 5:2. There must be no begrudging elders. Externally, the church must acknowledge a person’s fitness (by considering him in light of the qualifications below) for eldership; recognizing him as an elder.

That leads to the other part of this first category of qualification: maturity. Every elder, if he is going to lead others to follow Jesus, must first be a follower of Jesus himself. Ample evidence of a life of repentance, faith and love towards Christ is essential.

1 Timothy 3:6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.

The calling, maturity, and experience of a man is important in the role of eldership. We must look carefully at his track-record in the church and out of it. There is no replacement for time and observation.

Manhood and Family
The next category the bible gives us is that of manhood and family. The New Testament teaches that the office of elder is reserved for men (1 Tim. 2:11-15 among other places). This is not because men are inherently more gifted or spiritually mature, but because men are designed to image Christ even as women are designed to image the Church. Elders represent Christ to the church in a special way as shepherds and overseers and therefore must embrace a biblical, Christ-like masculinity.

The biblical authors understood that one of the primary places this masculinity is uniquely put on display is in the home–the family. There seem to be two main requirements regarding an elder’s home life.

First, he must be “the husband of one wife”. That is, he is a “one-woman-man” (1 Tim. 3:2; also see Titus 1:6). He takes the role of husbandman seriously and works for the flourishing of his wife.

And second, “He must manage his own household well, with all dignity…”. In particular the bibles says that an elder must keeping his children submissive” (1 Timothy 3:4; Titus 1:6b) and that they must be believers (Titus 1:6). An elder must take the role of “pastor dad” seriously by taking responsibility for the discipleship of his children (Ephesians 6:4). Indeed, “If someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church” (1 Tim 3:5)?

Character and Godliness
Third, the bible speaks regularly of character qualifications. That is, most of the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 relate to the character, integrity and reputation of a person. This must never be overlooked for the sake of skills or gifting. We must look for evidence of the fruit of the Spirit in the life of the man. Here is some of what Paul says about the character of the elder:

1 Timothy 3:2-3 Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.

1 Timothy 3:7 Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.

Titus 1:7-8 For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, 8 but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined.

In short, one significant requirement for eldership is that God’s people must be able to point to a potential elder as an example of Christlikeness—not perfect, but characterized by godliness.

Skill and Giftedness
Finally, although the bible’s main requirements for an elder is on the man’s character and not what he brings to the office in the way of skill, the Scripture does give several requirements regarding giftedness. Specifically, elders must be able to teach and defend the Word of God against false teachers.

1 Timothy 3:2 “able to teach”

Titus 1:9 He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.

Grace, an elder must be someone who is able to handle the word of God well. This does not mean that advanced degrees are required. But it does mean that elders must be given to studying God’s word, growing in their understanding, and being aware of where their understanding ends. In short, an elder must be someone you can confidently go to with significant theological questions, who can communicate biblical teaching clearly and precisely, and who is able to recognize and correct false teaching.

Calling and maturity, manhood and family, character and godliness, and skill and giftedness are four helpful categories the bible gives us are requirements for eldership. Again, the main point is that shepherd-elders must look like the Good Shepherd as our only job is to represent him within his Church.

These are not mere suggestions. These are the requirements of God for all who would hold this office and shepherd his people. Expect these, Grace. Require them. And pray for God to maintain them in us.

The NT office of elder, addressed by Peter in 1 Peter 5, is a continuation of God’s shepherding care for his people that went through the patriarchs, judges, kings, prophets, Jesus himself, and the apostles. Elders shepherd as God intends when they give themselves to knowing, leading, feeding, and protecting those within their church. Those called to hold this office under Christ, are to be exemplary in their Christlikeness.

This is a lot to take in, but it is crucial that we see all of this as we work our way through Peter’s instructions to elders. It will help us both as elders and sheep to appreciate our roles in light of God’s grand design.

Above all, though, once again, if you are a Christian don’t get hung up on the details, get hung up on the simple fact that God loves you in such a way that his shepherding care for you is constant, benevolent, and perfect regardless of the means through which he chooses to bring it. And if you are not a Christian, consider all that God offers through his Son, Jesus Christ. You too may experience (even today) this kind of love and care.