Shepherds, Jesus, Church Leaders and Eternal Relevance

27 May

So, throughout Old and New, in fulfilment in Christ and perpetuation in the early church, by direct reference to elders and overseers as shepherds and indirect reference to Christians as sheep, the church as a flock, and false teachers as wolves, the Shepherd motif for leadership can at least be described as enduring.

Increasingly though, the contemporary church is depending on different metaphors in order to inform and describe church leadership. Many metaphors from the world of business, some from sports and even other biblical motifs seem to have taken the primacy of the ‘Shepherd’. An example of such a shift is the influential church Mars Hill, Seattle, where the emphasis in leadership tends not to be on the shepherd, but the three fold functions of leadership as prophet, priest and king. In contrast, there are those who are convinced of the shepherd motif’s on-going relevance and its place as the primary metaphor for ministry leadership.

Which perspective is correct? Does the shepherd motif have any lasting relevance or is it a metaphor, once profitable to an agricultural society but now utterly bankrupt? Two further passages are worth considering in depth in order to address these questions. Firstly, the reinstatement of Peter by the risen Jesus and secondly, Peter’s instruction to his ‘fellow elders’ in his first epistle.

John 21 recounts the time succeeding Jesus’ resurrection, when He dines with His disciples following a miraculous catch of fish. Jesus questions Peter 3 times regarding his continuing love for Him, “Do you truly love me more than these? Do you truly love me? Do you love me?” (John 21:15-17). Each time Peter responds positively, only to be instructed by Jesus to feed and care for His lambs and sheep. If Peter is to feed and care for Jesus’ lambs and sheep then he must be their shepherd. The flock remains Christ’s, as is seen by His calling them ‘my sheep’, yet He is commissioning another (in this case Peter) to perform certain functions while He is bodily absent.

Jesus deliberately continues the metaphor of shepherding by commissioning Peter as a shepherd who will take His place when He ascends. “Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself is the Chief Shepherd and Chief Teacher, but he commissions individuals to fulfil these functions on His behalf (John 21:15-27).”

These words no doubt had a great impact on Peter and it is no surprise that when Peter writes his first epistle, the metaphor of shepherd looms large in his mind. Peter, having received his mandate from the risen Christ, writes to the persecuted church to encourage and equip her.

In chapter 2 he plants in the minds of his readers the notion of Jesus as, “the shepherd and overseer of [their] souls” (1 Pet 2:25). Jesus performs, ultimately, both these functions. With this established he then specifically addresses the elders amongst the churches. His instruction is for them to be primarily, “Shepherds of God’s flock…serving as overseers“(1 Pet 5:2).

There are several points of note in this short passage (1 Pet 5:1-4). Firstly, Peter associates himself with the church leaders, calling himself a ‘fellow elder.’ This is important as it shows that in his leadership role, commissioned by Christ, he is not unique. It suggests that if Jesus’ instruction to Peter was to feed the sheep, Jesus’ instructions to all church leaders is to feed the sheep.

Secondly, Peter encourages the elders to principally be shepherds, not for their own benefit but for the benefit of the sheep. This is in stark contrast to the old shepherds of Israel’s history described in Ezekiel 34. Carnes concludes that, “Peter here suggests that the churches’ leaders are “to be servants, not bosses; ministers, not executives.” Walter Wright agrees as he writes, “Leadership is the use of power to serve the people…They [the Israelite leaders] had grown fat off the flock, but they had not used their power and authority to feed the flock, to care for and nurture the people for whom they were responsible.” Leadership according to Peter, described in terms of shepherding, is principally about service rather than position.

Thirdly, Peter reminds these elders that the flock over which they are to act as shepherds’ remains God’s flock. Furthermore it is a flock whose Chief Shepherd is Christ Himself. Peter is aware that a position of power, such as shepherding a flock, is open to abuse and so emphasises to the elders that their positions beneath Jesus.

What is most striking in this passage however is Peter’s description of the task of church leadership in the exact same terms as he has earlier referred to Christ. The job of shepherding or overseeing, far from being unique to Peter or even to the elders he writes to, is nothing more than a mimicking of the roles Jesus Himself performs. Furthermore in verse 4, Peter reminds them that, as they serve as shepherds and overseers, they wait for the coming of the ‘Chief Shepherd’, Jesus, at which time they will receive an appropriate reward for the level of care they have provided the flock.

What is Peter doing then? Is he simply continuing the old Shepherd metaphor which found it’s fulfilment in Jesus? No, he is beginning a new metaphor, one which basis itself not on the shepherds of the ancient near east or the bad rulers of Israel’s past, but on the Good Shepherd, Christ. Carnes suggests that this new metaphor is present even earlier, “In the good shepherd discourse of [John] chapter 10, Jesus proclaims himself the model, the ideal, of all shepherds.”

Peter’s reminder that Jesus is the Chief Shepherd is of vital importance to the question of whether or not the shepherd motif is still relevant. Peter is here pointing not to the shepherding history of Israel and her neighbours but to Christ, the Good Shepherd. He is encouraging the elders to shepherd not in a metaphorical sense but first and foremost by their imitation of Christ. C.J. Mahaney, in an address to pastors, traced the role of shepherding through Scripture and noted that, “…the elders inherit the shepherding function first assumed by God, then handed over to the Good Shepherd, and now entrusted to elders…”

Furthermore, Rogers sees the link between God as Israel’s shepherd being the template for Israel’s leaders and Christ as good Shepherd as the template for the Church’s leaders, “Through the motif of the shepherd, there are insights into the role and character of pastors as Shepherds under the ‘Chief Shepherd’ (1 Pet 5:1-4). When the image of Shepherd is understood to reveal the nature and character of God, those who would choose to join with God in His ministry may gain insight into pastoral ministry by observing and imitating the work of their God.”

Perhaps to say that this is a ‘new’ metaphor is an over statement. Rodgers rightly concludes from his study of Ezekiel 34, “When the image of Shepherd is understood to reveal the nature and character of God, those who would choose to join with God in His ministry may gain insight into pastoral ministry by observing and imitating the work of their God.” Yet in the person and work of Christ, the attributes and character of a good shepherd are brought into sharper focus than had previously been observable.

***This post is taken from a fuller paper written on the topic of the Shepherd Motif and Church Leadership. To view the whole paper, in which references appear and a complete bibliography, is given please click here.***


2 Responses to “Shepherds, Jesus, Church Leaders and Eternal Relevance”

  1. Andy Toovey 27/05/2011 at 10:20 am #

    This is really interesting stuff – thanks for posting. I would have opposed the shepherd view before, because it implies hierachy (rather than ‘every member ministry’) and I hadn’t seen many of the (many) NT passages affirming it. Then I read Skilful Shepherds which was really helpful (dunno what you thought of it?)

    Anyway, do you fancy writing a guest post for perhaps applying the role of a shepherd to a council estate setting, where people are perhaps a little too used to relying on benefits, and other state-provided ‘rights’? How can a good shepherd disciple without smothering?

    No hurry, or deadline, but I think it might generate some comments.

    • Sammy Davies 02/06/2011 at 1:45 pm #

      I like the sound of the article…but fancy that I am entirely unqualified to write it. I wouldn’t even know where to start unfortunately. We could try and work on it together…

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