Jerry C. Brewer
When Luke penned Paul’s last words to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20, the Holy Spirit guided his hand 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 the Latin term, pastor, which means “shepherd” and 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)” (Commentary On Acts, p. 21, 22).
The significance of Paul’s final charge to the Ephesian elders has been often overlooked by many who serve as elders in our time—some who are ignorant of their grave responsibilities and others 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 “ravening wolves” who would enter from without, but also those within, “from among your own selves.”
As fallible humans, elders are no more immune from false teaching than the members they oversee. The church’s apostasy in the centuries immediately following the death 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 among the Galatian churches, and John opposed the gnostics in Asia Minor.
The profound tragedy in our age is that far too many who serve as elders have not the faintest idea of what it means to, “shepherd the flock.” Many elders today consider themselves as some sort of “Board of Directors” who make policy and decide financial matters for the congregation. Others see themselves as political “representatives” selected by the congregation to carry out the will of the members, and others see themselves as figureheads, but none want to “shepherd the flock” and guard it against false teachers from without and within. Such an elder, of our acquaintance long ago, was asked, “Who made you an elder?” His reply was, “Brother_____ did.” The querist said, “I thought so. I knew the Holy Spirit didn’t.” That is the kind of man who should never have been selected as an elder.
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.” Since Peter says all Christians must possess this quality, it does not apply only to men, but is the quality of valor and courage to fight the good fight of faith. That quality must never be lacking in an elder.
It is not enough for an elder to possess qualifications set forth in the New Testament for that office. 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 if 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 their own houses and, consequently, the church because they lack the courage to do so. In our first citation from brother Shepherd, he referred to David’s courage as the shepherd of his father’s flock. “And David said unto Saul, thy servant kept his father’s sheep, and there came a lion, and a bear, and took a lamb out of the flock. And I went after him, and smote him, and delivered it out of his mouth; and when he arose against me, I caught him by his beard, and smote him, and slew him” (1 Sam. 17:34-35).
Had David possessed the kind of “valor” many elders today possess, he would have turned tail and run at the appearance of these beastly threats to his father’s flock. That is the reaction of many elders today when ravening wolves threaten the flock they are supposed to shepherd.
About 20 years ago, I preached in a congregation which had three elders. One of them had stirred trouble in the church for 17 years. Both he and his wife were divisive tongue waggers, and proudly bragged that their daughter was an “elder” in the First Christian Church. The man had absolutely no qualifications for the eldership, but the church had made him one, anyway.
Shortly after we moved there, his tongue-wagging and divisive actions brought matters to a head and one of the elders determined that we must do something about the situation. He took me with him and consulted with the third elder. Throughout the meeting, the third elder never committed himself to any course of action, but simply listened in silence. We left the meeting without any commitment from him and the next day, I received his letter of resignation in the mail. Why he sent the letter to me, I never understood. He was appointed by the brethren in that congregation and should have addressed it to them. His refusal to do what was right is a classic example of a cowardly elder who had no business shepherding God’s flock.
Later in the week, we had a congregational meeting in which we asked the divisive elder to repent. He arrogantly replied, “I have nothing to repent of” and his wife cursed a member of the church. At that point, the church withdrew fellowship from him, it without elders. In the wake of that action, sympathizers with the disfellowshipped elder left the congregation and I was promptly fired for “tearing up the church.” That’s the result of a cowardly, virtueless, man being selected to “shepherd the flock”.
The church is in shambles today from denominational attitudes and practices that have invaded it and been sanctioned by hireling shepherds. Mechanical instruments of music have been introduced in congregations which lack virtuous shepherds. Parachurch organizations are supported by gutless elders, compromising the nature of the blood bought church. Cowardly elders allow the unscriptural practice of “reevaluating and reaffirming” elders. Every problem of fellowship with, and the teaching of, error in the church could be stopped dead in its tracks by courageous shepherds. That’s the plain truth of God’s Word.
There were false prophets among ancient Israel, in the days of the apostles, and in the present day. “But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction” (2 Pet. 2:1). 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 before elders understand their grave responsibility to recognize those wolves who tear and rend the flock of God?
Every responsibility they have pales in comparison with this one, and those who allow such wolves to have free access to members of their congregations will go to judgment with the blood of those sheep on their hands, as much as if David had turned tail and run away from the beasts of prey who attack his father’s flock. False teachers in our day are spiritual beasts of prey. As the lion and bear wanted to feed their own bellies on Jesse’s sheep, today’s wolves who have crept into the church want to feed their pockets on the sheep of Jesus Christ. Paul said they serve not God, but their own bellies (Rom. 16:17). Their chief concerns are their pet projects such as their schools of preaching and they will apologize for, and fellowship, any false teacher who can bring in the dollars to fund them. Elders who refuse to protect the flock are complicit in the destruction of it—as much so as Eli was complicit in the wickedness of his sons (1 Sam. 2)—and God will not hold them guiltless.