A friend caught me after a Sunday sermon on elders as shepherds. “These people don’t know anything about shepherds and sheep in the ancient world,” he protested. “You need to find a current metaphor!”
Seemed like he had a point. So I searched! But I simply couldn’t find a modern metaphor that works. Besides, I discovered that the shepherd/sheep motif is actually the dominant metaphor for spiritual leadership throughout the Bible—actually appearing some 500 times. And it gathers meaning as it goes.
In the world of the Bible, shepherds with flocks were as common a sight as cell phones or traffic lights are today. But we must not imagine that ancient shepherds treat sheep like cowboys in West Texas treat cattle. Modern cowboys drive the herds; they shout and crack whips! By contrast, ancient shepherds led their flocks. No whips. No dogs.
And in ancient times, shepherds did not find their employment through “Help Wanted” ads. That was the hireling way, whereas shepherding was a way of life—not merely a job to be done! In Bible times, a shepherd lived in the pasture and nurtured a lifelong trust relationship with some sheep. For a newborn lamb, the touch of a shepherd’s hands was among its first conscious sensations, the voice of a shepherd among the first sounds the lamb would hear. Gradually, lambs came to associate those hands and that voice with “green pastures” and “still waters.” They grew to trust and follow their own shepherd—and that shepherd alone!
Back in the day, that is how flocks of sheep were formed. And it is how spiritual flocks are formed in our day as well.
A Christian leader builds relationships with Christian lambs. He or she touches them, speaks to them and nurtures their growth—till God’s sheep come to associate that voice and those hands with their spiritual safety, well-being and growth. And they follow that shepherd’s leadership.
So what is a shepherd? Someone who has a flock!
Shepherds in “Olden” Times
Throughout the Bible, the dominant metaphor for spiritual leadership is that of shepherd and flock. But it is never about an authority figure—a manager, sergeant, or CEO. Biblical shepherding is a role, not an office; a relationship, not a position.
God as Shepherd
First, the Bible pictures God himself as the Shepherd of his flock. “The Lord is my shepherd” (Ps 23:1). Imagine a shepherd nuzzling a lamb, gently murmuring to the little creature as they move through the twilight to the rest and safety of the sheepfold. It’s a warm and winsome notion of God!
Prophets, Priests, and Kings as Shepherds
Next, the Bible refers to the Old Testament prophets, priests, and kings—the human leaders of God’s people—as shepherds of God’s flock. For example, when God chose David to be king, “He took David from the sheepfold, from tending sheep to shepherd his people Israel, his flock Judah.” (Ps 78:70-72).
Jesus as Shepherd
Then came Jesus! Scripture calls Jesus “the good shepherd” (John 10:11) and “the Chief Shepherd” (1 Pet 5:4). John writes, “The word became flesh and camped in our pastures” (John 1:14, JBP translation). Jesus came to seek a lost sheep and bring it home on his shoulders (Luke 15:5-6). Think of it—a smelly sheep draped around the neck of God!
Apostles as Shepherds
Again, the first human leaders of God’s people in New Testament times (the apostles) are called shepherds. Jesus charged Peter, a representative of the entire apostolate, to “feed my lambs” (John 21:15), “take care of my sheep” (v.16), and “feed my sheep” (v.17). Jesus spoke to thousands, gathered 120 around him, and sent 70 on a limited mission.
But when it came time to equip his foundational leaders, the Chief Shepherd carefully chose 12 believers and personally mentored them for three years. Wise church elders today will apply Jesus’ way of equipping leaders of the flock (Eph 4:11-12).
Elders as Shepherds
Finally, our brief tour through Scripture leads us to elders as shepherds. Paul charged the Ephesian elders, “Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). And Peter says to his fellow elders, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care” (1 Pet 5:1-4). For both of these inspired writers, I doubt the shepherd/flock metaphor was chosen accidentally. By the apostles’ day, the shepherd motif had gathered centuries of scriptural significance—a massive iceberg of meaning lay beneath the surface of this word shepherds. So when Peter and Paul intentionally selected the term shepherd to address church elders, they were tapping the tip of the iceberg. Shepherd is not merely a throwaway word. On the contrary, this word invoked a whole rich theology of spiritual leadership.
So when my friend criticized my sermon on elders as shepherds, I responded, “I think I’ll just stick with the shepherd/flock idea. I don’t want to clip 500 pages from my Bible—nor risk distorting God’s plan.” We modern church leaders do well to ponder the implications of this ancient shepherd metaphor. Yes, some serious spadework may lie ahead, but what we uncover will generously reward the effort.
Lynn Anderson is the founder of Hope Network Ministries, which has been coaching, mentoring, and equipping Christian leaders since 1996. His 58 years in ministry include 11 years of church planting in his native Canada. He also served for 19 years as Senior Minister at Highland Church of Christ in Abilene, and 5 years as Senior Minister at Preston Road in Dallas. In addition to personally coaching hundreds of church leaders, Lynn has taught graduate ministry courses as an adjunct professor at Abilene Christian University and Pepperdine University. He has also authored numerous books, including “They Smell Like Sheep” and “Talking Back to God.” Lynn and his wife Carolyn live in San Antonio, Texas. They have four children, 10 grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren.