Do you know any shepherds? If you live in Great Britain, or certain other countries where sheep-herding is still common, you may know of a farm or two that raises sheep. However, here in the United States, sheep farming is not a large industry1. Other countries continue to raise sheep in large numbers, but the chance of someone in my city knowing an active shepherd is relatively slim. Instead, here, sheep appear in petting zoos, state fairs, and museums as a novelty – an animal that we read about but don’t see very often. (They also never seem to look like the puffy, white, rotund example from the Little People nativity set that my mom bought for our family some years ago.)
This may explain why many U.S. pastors have to spend portions of their sermons explaining what sheep are like, as well as the social position of shepherds in historical times (although the latter may have changed over the years). Regardless of their role in today’s environment, though, it would seem that God worked with shepherds a lot:
- Moses (Exodus 3:1-6)
- David (1 Samuel 16:11, 1 Samuel 17:34-35, 1 Samuel 17:40)
- Rachel (Genesis 29:9) – a female shepherd, no less!
- Amos the prophet (1 Samuel 17:34-35)
- Early witnesses of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:8-20)
Today, although they may not actually raise sheep, leaders in the Body of Christ (this body being the church – those who follow Jesus) are called to be shepherds. As an ancient shepherd or a modern sheep farmer works to keep a flock safe and healthy, church leaders are called to called to care for the helpless, do the lowly things when necessary, and to serve their part in God’s plan.
For instance, Paul charged the elders of the church in Ephesus with instructions like the following:
Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.
Acts 20:28-30 NASB
Like sheep – who lack claws and fangs required to fight their way up the food chain – many members of the church are susceptible to attack by forces that they are not equipped to defend against. These followers of Jesus wish to do the right thing, but may not have the expertise to discern right teachings from deception. Some may not have the tools needed to resist temptation. Others may need direction to avoid temptation entirely.
These elders were commanded to be shepherds. They were called to protect the body: probably not against actual wolves (although Christians were persecuted in many ways back then), but against teachings that would destroy the lives – both physical and spiritual – of those who were deluded by them. In some ways, the elders were the champions of truth, defending against lies and deceptions, and ensuring that truth won the day in the hearts of those who sought it. The early church had to battle some serious attacks from those whose ideas would contradict the teachings of Jesus, and history confirms that this battle for truth continues today. (Note also that the elders needed to be on guard for themselves, as well. Even the shepherd is at risk when wolves attack.)
Note that this doesn’t diminish the value of the “sheep” (the others in the Body of Christ for whom the elders are responsible); it just defines roles and responsibilities for the elders. Any of us who aren’t elders still need to do our part in the Body, of course. Whether you are an elder or not, be on guard for yourself and for others, in a world that spews lies in abundance, trying to out-shout the truth.
In the book of 1 Peter, the namesake author writes to elders in various cities (see 1 Peter 1:1-2), and explains how this leadership should be carried out:
Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as Lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.
1 Peter 5:1-4 NASB
Note the key points, here, that explain how an elder should serve others in the Body of Christ:
- Working because they want to see God’s will be done (see Matthew 6:10), rather than fulfilling a requirement. Being an elder is not just about “checking a box”.
- Working to help the flock, rather than to make money (perhaps even illicit profit). Shepherds have rarely been rich in the history of the world, and spiritual shepherds in the church are called to a special type of sacrifice.
- Living in a way that can be emulated by others for their good, not to attain a position of status. Many elders that I know dread being singled out as elders – both because they don’t want to be put on a pedestal, and because they know that elders are often sought out by those who wish to complain.
Finally, while I believe – based on my studies – that there is a role of “elder” in a given community of Christians, and that this role is specifically called to shepherding, I don’t think that these commands need to be limited to a few people who serve that role. The formal identification of elders (hopefully, by selecting those whom God has appointed) doesn’t preclude the rest of the flock from looking out for each other. If we have influence or opportunity to care for other “sheep” in God’s kingdom, we can serve the role of a shepherd.
So, even in the modern world, God loves shepherds. May you and I care for other members of God’s flock today, regardless of our role in the church. And, may we be well-behaved “sheep” for those who are called to keep us on the right path, as well as for Jesus, the Great Shepherd.