The Shepherd’s Gravest Task

Jerry C. Brewer

Using the figure of dogs and shepherds, Isaiah delivered a scathing denunciation to Israel’s elders who had failed in their obligations to protect God’s people, saying,

His watchmen are blind: they are all ignorant, they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark; sleeping, lying down, loving to slumber. Yea, they are greedy dogs which can never have enough, and they are shepherds that cannot understand: they all look to their own way, every one to his gain, from his quarter (Isa. 56:10-11).

In dozens of places, the same charge could be laid at the feet of hireling elders across our land today who are more devoted to their schools, social connections and money than the blood bought church of Jesus Christ. They are sleeping dogs and blind watchmen.

When Luke penned Paul’s last words to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20, the Holy Spirit guided his mind in selecting a single word that graphically sums up and illustrates the work of elders. That word is, poimaino. According to McClintock and Strong, this word means, “to tend as a shepherd (or fig. supervisor) :- feed (cattle), rule” (Greek Dictionary of The New Testament, p. 59). The root word for poimaino is poimen, which McClintock and Strong define as, “shepherd, pastor” (ibid). The word pastor occurs only once in the New Testament in Ephesians 4:11, but it is the English rendition of a Latin word which means “shepherd.” It is also translated from poimaino. In both instances, the words feed and pastors should have been translated, shepherd. Elders are shepherds of the flocks over which they have the oversight and that word, selected by Divine genius in its simplicity, carries a depth and richness that fully describes the work of elders. After discussing the titles episcopos (bishop) and elder that belong to that office, J. W. McGarvey wrote,

The title Shepherd is still more significant than either of the other two. The Jewish shepherd was at once the ruler, the guide, the protector, and the companion of his flock. Often…he slept upon the ground beside his sheep at night. Sometimes, when prowling wolves came near to rend and scatter the flock, his courage was put to the test (John 10:12); and even the lion and the bear in early ages rose up against the brave defender of the sheep (1 Sam. 17:34-36). He did not drive them to water and to pasturage; but he called his own sheep by name, so familiar was he with every one of them, and he led them out, and went before them, and the sheep followed him, for they knew his voice (John 10:3-4) (A Treatise on The Eldership, 1962, DeHoff Publications, Murfreesboro, TN, p. 21, 22).

The significance of Paul’s final charge to the Ephesian elders has been often overlooked by many who serve as elders today—some of whom are ignorant of their grave responsibilities and who are not qualified to be elders in the first place. Here is what he said:

Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things to draw away disciples after them. Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears” (Acts 20:28-31).

Paul’s charge requires elders to lead the flock to pasture and water and know them intimately. But above all, the shepherds are to guard the flock against the ravening wolves who come to rend the flock with false and divisive doctrines. That is the paramount responsibility that rests upon an elder’s shoulders. Brother McGarvey again wrote,

This apostolic command, has failed to make its due impression on the English reader, because of the very inadequate translation of poimaino. Let it be noted , then, and never be forgotten, that the term employed in these passages expressed the entire work of a shepherd, of which feeding was very seldom even a part in the country where this use of the term originated. The shepherds of Judea, and those of Asia Minor, pastured their sheep throughout the entire year. Their duty was to guide them from place to place, to protect them from wild beasts, and to keep them from straying; but not to feed them. Here, then, are two specifications under the general idea of acting the shepherd, and they are strictly analogous to the work of the literal shepherd. It is made the duty of the eldership, first, to protect the congregation from false teachers from abroad; second, to guard carefully against the influence of schismatics within the congregation; third, to keep watch both within and without, like a shepherd night and day watching his flock, so as to be ready to act on the first appearance of danger from either direction. (ibid, pp. 25, 26).

When Paul commanded the elders to shepherd the flock, they understood what the work of a shepherd was. The significance of his charge in Acts 20 was that he dwelt upon one particular aspect of a shepherd’s work—protecting the flock from dangers within and without. The fitness of a shepherd to provide such protection was addressed by Paul when he gave the elder’s qualifications to Titus as one who is, “holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers” (Titus 1:9). The charge Paul gave included not only guarding against “ravening wolves” who would enter from without, but also from within—“of your own selves.” The church’s apostasy in the centuries immediately following the deaths of the apostles was fueled by a change in the government of local congregations (“of your own selves”) that resulted in the rise of the papacy and even in the apostolic era, false teachers sought to subvert the church (“shall grievous wolves enter in, not sparing the flock”). Paul dealt with Judaizers, especially among the Galatian churches, and John opposed the gnostics in Asia Minor.

Among the qualities every Christian must possess is virtue, set forth by Peter in these words: “And beside all this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue” (2 Pet. 1:5). This quality is indispensable to the Christian character and, certainly, no less so in the elder. Virtue is translated from the Greek, arete, which McClintock and Strong define as, “manliness (valor).” Its root word is arrhen, meaning “male (as stronger for lifting):-male, man.” All Christians must possess this courage, especially elders who are charged with guarding against and opposing ravening wolves who would destroy their charges.

It is not only requisite for an elder to possess the qualifications set forth in the New Testament for that office, but he must also have the valor, or courage, to rule in the church. Paul said an elder must be, “One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; (for is a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?)” (1 Tim. 3:4-5). Elders often fail to rule the church because, knowing what is right, they lack the courage to do what is right. In the first citation from brother McGarvey, he referred to David’s courage as the shepherd of his father’s flock. Had David possessed the kind of “valor” many elders today demonstrate, he would have turned tail and run at the appearance of those beasts that preyed on his father’s flock.

Jesus said, “beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves” (Matt. 7:15) and Paul said, “…grievous wolves shall enter in among you, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:29). How much clearer must a warning be for elders recognize those wolves who rend the flock of God? Compared with this, every other responsibility they have pales in comparison. Shepherds who allow spiritual wolves to have free access to the congregations they oversee will go to judgment with the blood of the Lord’s sheep on their hands, as David would have had the blood of his father’s sheep on his hands if he had run away instead of defending them.

As the lion and bear wanted to feed their own bellies on Jesse’s sheep, so today’s wolves who have crept into the church want to feed their own pet projects and positions of power (Rom. 16:17) and too many elders are complicit in that nefarious work by failing to act and stop the mouths of gainsayers.

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