After Jesus had applied this shepherding metaphor to his apostles, he in turn had the apostles tag elders of the church as shepherds of God’s flock. Two apostles, Peter and Paul, make clear that elders are to “be shepherds of God’s flock.” Paul pleads with the elders of the church in Ephesus:
Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. (Acts 20:28, emphasis added)
Again Peter writes:
To the elders among you. Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care. Be eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away. (1 Pet 5:1-4, emphasis added)
Let me grab the modern church leader by the literary ears: don’t move along too quickly. Camp a while on this shepherd metaphor. By the time Paul and Peter call elders shepherds, the shepherd motif has gathered centuries of significance. A massive iceberg of divine meaning accumulated across the Bible and now lies below the surface of this word. Paul’s elder friends would know this well. Luke is also quite intentional about the words he recalls from the lips of Paul. Paul’s choice of words surely triggered a familiar spiritual leadership paradigm in the minds of these men. He is invoking a whole theology of spiritual leadership, not merely throwing in a colorful figure of speech.
Take note again: both Paul and Peter use three different words or metaphors to describe spiritual leaders in the church. The word “elder” is translated from the Greek word presbuteroi. That metaphor will be explored later in another article. A second word, episkopoi, is popularly translated “bishop” or “overseer” (an often distorted metaphor), also to be explored later. The word “pastors,” or more commonly “shepherds,” is translated from poimainoi. This is the word used in the Greek for all of the shepherd passages cited in this chapter article.
Some suggest that an eldership is made up of a plurality of leaders, some of whom are bishops, some presbyters, and still others pastors—each functioning according to their giftedness. Maybe…
Also, while it is definitely true that Jesus gifts each Christian uniquely, and some elders do appear stronger in one role, while others appear strong in another role, all three terms—presbuteroi, episkopoi, and poimainoi—are used interchangeably in both passages to refer to the same persons. It seems likely to me that these three words are simply metaphors which shape out the various roles of a church leader. However, the dominant metaphor, the foundational image throughout the Bible, is that of shepherds. All elders, whatever else they do, are meant to shepherd. Again, shepherd is not a position of “institutional authority” (flashing a badge and brandishing a gun, displaying shoulder stripes or slamming down a gavel). Quite the opposite! As my father used to say, an elder who has to assert his authority doesn’t have much of it. For example, most parents realize that when we resort to the words “because I said so,” we have already lost this relational round with our child. Rather, elders are to be gentle shepherds, who live with the sheep, serve the sheep, feed, water and protect the sheep, touch and talk to the sheep—even lay down their lives for the sheep. Elders smell like sheep! This results in enormous credibility for the shepherd.
This post is adapted from They Smell Like Sheep: Spiritual Leadership for the 21st Century, by Lynn Anderson, Howard Books, 1997.
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.