“So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:1-4).
In my first post on leadership in the local church, I made the case for the plural elder model, I alluded to two primary functions of elders in the local church–to teach and to “shepherd the flock,” while similar in many ways, these two functions are distinct. Understanding these functions is essential to understanding how elders should operate in a plural elder model. In this post I want to focus on what it means that an elder is to “shepherd the flock” and “exercise oversight” as the Apostle Peter tells us in the above text. In the third and final post I will breifly address the teaching function of elders in the local church.
What does it mean “to shepherd the flock of God”?
Needless to say the word gives the picture of a herder of sheep. The verb “poimaino” (to shepherd) is the same verb that is found in John 21:16 where Jesus commands Peter to “shepherd my sheep.” A literal sheep-herder would continually direct, tend to the needs of, and protect the sheep in his care. Similarly elders are to give direction to the flock of God, tend to their spiritual needs and protect them from false doctrine that would spiritually wound them (1 Tim. 6:20, 2 Tim. 1:14). The same verb “to shepherd” is also used in Acts 20:28 to describe the responsibility of elders in the church. Here Paul charges the Ephesian elders to “pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.” Thus Paul understood that eldership involves the responsibility to pay close attention to those in the under the elder’s charge.
It should also be noted that both in 1 Peter 5:2 and Acts 20:28 elders are given the task of overseeing–but the church cannot be considered theirs as the church is referred to as the “flock of God” and “the flock . . . which he obtained with his own blood.” Thus whatever oversight an elder posses has been given to him as he has been charged of the Holy Spirit to shepherd the flock. Thus anyone who wishes to be an elder should remember that the Holy Spirit appoints elders–thus it is not a position that one ought to campaign for (I do not mean to sound overly spiritual here, I am a congregationalist–so I think the church approves of such appointments by voting to accept those brought before the church as potential elders). Also, because Christ purchased the church with his own blood, the church is not an entity that an elder can utilize to celebrate his power over the flock. This is confirmed in 1 Pet. 5:3 when elders are challenged to shepherd in such a way that they are “not domineering over those in [their] charge, but being examples to the flock.”
So we have established essentially what it means to “shepherd the flock of God,” but what does it mean to “exercise oversight”?
Often the participle translated in the ESV “exercising oversight” is rendered substantivaly in the NT to mean “overseer” which is a term used synonymously with “elder” or “pastor.” In 1 Peter 5:2, however, Peter has already used the term “elder” and the participle “excercising oversight” probably refers to the function elders are to serve in the church. Thus in 1 Peter the participle is utilized instead of the noun “overseer” (1 Tim. 3:1-2) to signify function. This word “exercising oversight,” “episkopeo” in the Greek is the combination of two words just like it is in English, “over” and “sight.” Visually it gives the picture of looking out over the congregation and setting its direction. Thus, I believe it is the function of the elders of the church by the leading of the Holy Spirit and under the direction of God’s word to set the vision and direction of the church.
Setting the vision for the church is not something that the elders do in and of themselves but it is something that they are to do “voluntarily, according to the will of God” (1 Pet. 5:2 NASB). Thus the elders are not charged with setting just any vision, but a vision that accords with the will of God.
Finally, elders are to exercise oversight “not for shameful gain, but eagerly.” Thus elders are not to exploit their congregation for selfish benefit or monetary rewards. Instead an elder should find joy in guiding, protecting, and caring for the members of his church. Being a good elder requires tremendous humility. Also elders are not to “exercise oversight” in such a way that they domineer “over those in [their] charge,” but instead they ought to be “examples to the flock.” Thus an elder has the tremendous challenge of serving his congregation by simply being a spiritually edifying example to those in his church.
The idea that Christ is the “chief shepherd” in 1 Pet. 5:4 seems to imply that every elder in every local church is an under-shepherd to Christ who has bought the church with his blood and sealed its future with his resurrection. Realizing that elders are subject to Jesus the “chief shepherd” seems to indicate that to shepherd the flock of God and exercise oversight is no easy task. In fact, it is quite daunting. As someone who plans to be an elder/pastor in the future, this job-description in 1 Peter 5 seems a bit overwhelming. Thankfully, it is Christ’s church and not mine, he purchased it with his blood and he has set its course in eternity by his own Word and He promises to guide those who lead it as elders with his Holy Spirit! Thus, on the foundation of God’s Word and by the power of the Holy Spirit, our churches really can grow through the shepherding and oversight of its elders to more clearly display the glory of Christ!