In some denominations, elders are considered distinct from pastors. In other denominations, elders and pastors are synonymous. In Scripture, elders are instructed to pastor – that is, to shepherd – people. In Acts 20:18-38 and 1 Peter 5:1-4, the only passages of Scripture addressed to elders, the elders are instructed to “shepherd the flock of God”. Using figurative language, Paul and Peter both instruct elders to “care for” or “look after” God’s people. This is often seen as one of the primary responsibilities of elders, and because of these, elders are often called “pastors”.
Interestingly, Jude uses the same term “shepherd” to describe false teachers (those who teach contrary to the gospel) in Jude 12. Apparently, these false teachers “shepherd” (or “look after”) themselves while attending a “love feast” with many other people. This negative use of the verb “shepherd” should help us understand that, in the positive sense, the verb is used to indicate caring for and helping other people.
In fact, in both Acts 20:18-38 and 1 Peter 5:1-4, the verb “to shepherd” is used in relation to other believers. Thus, the verb “to shepherd” falls within the range of meanings of many other verbs, such as “to help”, “to care for”, “to be concerned about”, and “to consider”. In this sense, it is also very closely related to the verb usually translated “to oversee”, but I will look at that verb in the next installment of this series. The verb “to shepherd” also has the connotation of “to teach” or “to grow”. I’ve already discussed the function of teaching. So, elders are responsible for helping or caring for other believers as well as helping other believers grow. Are these responsibilities unique to elders?
As is the case with character, leadership, and teaching, shepherding is not the sole responsibility of elders either. In fact, all believers are instructed to care for and help one another. The “one anothers” of Scripture can be seen as a call to mutual shepherding. Followers of Jesus Christ are to relate to one another in such a way as to know one another’s strengths and weaknesses, to know one another’s needs and resources. The commands to admonish, comfort, encourage, rebuke, and correct are given to all believers; they are not given to elders alone. Thus, all believers are responsible for this aspect of shepherding.
But, what about growth? Are all believers responsible to help one another grown in maturity toward Christ? According to Ephesians 4:11-16, the answer must be a resounding, “Yes!” Though certain gifted individuals are mentioned in Ephesians 4:11, the following verses do not say that the body grows into maturity when these individuals function well. Instead, the verses following Ephesians 4:11 – and especially Ephesians 4:16 – indicate that the body grows toward maturity when each person functions properly (see my series on edification which begins with the post “Edification 1 – Introduction” and my series on Ephesians 4:11-16 which begins with the post “Ephesians 4:11 and the Five-Fold Ministry“, especially the post “Ephesians 4:7-16 and the Growing Church“). Maturity in Christ is a mutual responsibility.
Since proper edification leads to maturity, and maturity is a mutual responsibility, all followers of Jesus Christ should take time to know one another and to serve one another in ways that encourages mutual growth. This seems to be Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 14:26-40. Although Paul makes a distinction between speaking in tongues and prophecy, the point was not about tongues and prophecy per se, but about edification. When followers of Jesus Christ get together, the Spirit equips, empowers, and enables each person to serve others in various capacities in order to grow the entire group toward maturity in Christ. This type of mutual edification is also mutual shepherding. This is the responsibility of every follower of Christ.
Therefore, just as elders are not held to a higher standard in relation to their character, their leadership, and their teaching, neither are elders held to a higher standard when it comes to shepherding. Yes, elders are to shepherd God’s people – helping them and caring for them and pointing them toward maturity in Jesus Christ. However, this is also the responsibility of every follower of Jesus Christ as we function together by loving, caring for, comforting, admonishing, teaching, exhorting, rebuking, shepherding one another.
Series on Elders
1. Elders (Part 1) – Introduction
2. Elders (Part 2) – Character
3. Elders (Part 3) – Leadership
4. Elders (Part 4) – Teaching
5. Elders (Part 5) – Shepherding
6. Elders (Part 6) – Overseeing
7. Elders (Part 7) – Conclusion