by Mark Mayberry
Synopsis: David, the sweet psalmist of Israel, protected the physical flock of his father, Jesse, and guiding the nation of Israel. What lessons might elders/overseers/pastors learn today?
God the Father and Jesus Christ are depicted in the Scriptures as Shepherds (Ps. 23:1-3; John 10:11-18; Heb. 13:20-21; 1 Pet. 2:25). David famously declared, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul; He guides me in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake" (Ps. 23:1-3).
Spiritual leaders in the Lord's church are similarly identified. Addressing the Ephesian elders, Paul said, "Shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood" (Acts 20:28-32). Their collective work is not only to protect and preserve, but also to build up believers—bringing them to a state of maturity (Eph. 4:11-13). Peter offered similar counsel to the eldership of local churches (1 Pet. 5:1-4).
While the religious world is often confused regarding its use of terms such as bishop/overseer, elder/presbyter, shepherd/pastor, collectively, they describe those who exercise spiritual responsibility for a local congregation. Stepping backwards from this specific usage, and considering various OT occurrences, we gain valuable perspective.
Consider Joshua. As Moses neared the end of his long ministry, he asked the Lord to appoint a worthy successor who would faithfully lead Israel so that the congregation of the Lord would "not be like sheep which have no shepherd." God commissioned Joshua and Eleazar, the priest, assigning leadership roles to each (Num. 27:15-23). Specifically, Joshua was charged to carefully do according to all that is written in the Law of God, and not turn aside to the right or the left (Josh. 1:6-9). Joshua served faithfully in this regard, as is witnessed by his charge and legacy (Josh. 24:14-15, 31).
Observe David. Israel experienced seven years of division and instability after Saul's death; however, the people eventually acknowledged the Lord's sovereign choice, "You will shepherd My people Israel, and you will be a ruler over Israel," and thus anointed David as king over all the tribes (2 Sam. 5:1-5). Saul's disobedience was disqualifying, so the Lord sought out a man after His own heart to lead His people (1 Sam. 13:13-14). Attentive to both the flock of his father, Jesse, and the people of Israel, David "shepherded them according to the integrity of his heart, and guided them with his skillful hands" (Ps. 78:70-72).
Shepherds sometimes fail miserably in their duty, acting foolishly and fecklessly (Ezek. 34:1-6), selfishly and sinfully (Zech. 11:15-17). The Lord said, "Woe, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves!" Because they healed not, but harmed; sheltered not, but scattered; defended not, but destroyed, divine judgment would be relentless and severe.
Reflect upon Rehoboam. Rejecting the wise counsel of the elders of Israel, and accepting the immature perspective of his peers, Rehoboam was hard and harsh, demanding and dictatorial: "My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke; my father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions" (1 Kings 12:1-15, esp. v. 14; 2 Chron. 10:1-19, esp. v. 14).
Evidencing the arrogance of youth, the gall of the greenhorn, and the naiveté of the novice, Solomon's son heeded not the wisdom of his father, who said, "A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise makes knowledge acceptable, but the mouth of fools spouts folly… A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but the slow to anger calms a dispute" (Prov. 15:1-2, 18).
Spiritual leadership is not entrusted to a novice, "lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil" (1 Tim. 3:6). Over the years, I have observed younger/immature Christians criticize their spiritual overseers, believing their youthful judgment superior to that of the elders, thinking they understand the needs of a congregation better than those to whom its care has actually been entrusted. Like Rehoboam of old, such attitudes are disruptive and divisive.
Parents need patience (Eph. 6:4; Col. 3:21). I attempt to approach my combined work as an elder/evangelist from the standpoint of a loving parent (1 Thess. 2: 7-8, 10-12; Heb. 12:4-13). Good parents discipline their children when necessary, but their primary interaction is not one of constant criticism, censure, and rebuke. While discipline must be appropriately and consistently administered, loving parents provide a healthy environment where their children may grow and thrive, while offering necessary instruction, and encouraging them to reach their full capacities.
Paul's charge to Timothy is equally applicable to evangelists/preachers and elders/pastors: "I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction" (2 Tim. 4:1-2). Carefully note the closing admonition: Reproofs, rebukes and all forms of exhortation should be administered "with great patience and instruction." Patience is needed by preachers and all others who would stand before a congregation (the flock of God) and present lessons from God's Word.
Analyze Ahab. Ahab, the son of Omri, was the seventh king of Israel (1 Kings 16:30). Despite reigning for twenty-two years (873-852 BC), his legacy is decidedly evil. Evidencing an adversarial attitude toward true prophets of God, and an acceptance of all forms of idolatry, Ahab sold himself to do evil in the sight of the Lord (1 Kings 21:20, 25-26).
Predicting the defeat of Israel and the death of Ahab, Micaiah said, "I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, like sheep which have no shepherd" (1 Kings 22:17; 2 Chron. 18:16). Because of Ahab's failed leadership, Israel had (in reality) been like sheep without a shepherd for many years! In the Christian era, congregations that do not guard against the spiritual descendants of Jezebel stand similarly condemned (Rev. 2:20–23).
What are the desirable, spiritually praiseworthy characteristics of sheep? They are agreeable creatures. Although they frequently go astray, sheep are easily guided, dependent, trusting, etc. (Ps. 78:52-53; 119:176; Matt. 9:36-38; Mark 6:34).
What are the spiritually undesirable characteristics of goats? They are disagreeable creatures. Independent-minded and self-willed, they are not so easily led but may have to be driven. Seldom satisfied with their pasture, goats often think the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. Indiscriminate in diet, they will attempt to eat anything, including trash and tin cans. They are reckless, often climbing to precipitous and perilous heights, something sheep would never voluntarily do. Finally, they are stubborn—a frequent failure of those who are arrogant, self-willed, and entirely too full of themselves (Ps. 78:5-8; Ezek. 3:4-11; Zech. 10:3).
Compare the difference between Ezra and Nehemiah. Ezra was the more compassionate; Nehemiah, the more aggressive. The former wept over the sin of Israel, identifying with them in his confessional prayer, pulling out his own hair: "When I heard about this matter, I tore my garment and my robe, and pulled some of the hair from my head and my beard, and sat down appalled" (Ezra 9:3-15, esp. v. 3).
The latter militantly confronted wayward Israelites, contending with them, cursing them, pulling out their hair: "So I contended with them and cursed them and struck some of them and pulled out their hair, and made them swear by God, 'You shall not give your daughters to their sons, nor take of their daughters for your sons or for yourselves'" (Neh. 13:23-29, esp. v. 25).
Both are counted as faithful servants of the Lord. Their differing approach represented different personalities and different circumstances. In the case of Ezra, the people were penitent and pliant. In the case of Nehemiah, they stubbornly persisted in sin. In the first example, Israel acted like sheep. In the second example, they behaved like goats and were treated accordingly.
Spiritual leaders face a daunting challenge—meeting the needs of an entire congregation: correcting bad attitudes, cultivating good attitudes, confronting sin, encouraging faithfulness, etc. As they admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, and are patient with everyone (1 Thess. 5:12-14), they deserve the respect of those with whom they labor (Heb. 13:7, 17).
Are you a follower of the Good Shepherd, enjoying His provision and protection, trusting and obeying His word (Ezek. 34:12-14)? Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, who offered Himself as the perfect sacrifice for sin, is simultaneously our Great Protector: the Lion of the tribe of Judah (1 Pet. 2:21-25; Rev. 5:4-5). If you have wandered astray, will you return to Him while there is time and opportunity?
Author Bio: Mark and Sherelyn Mayberry have labored with the Adoue Street church of Christ in Alvin, TX since 1998, where he serves as the evangelist and an elder. The church website is ascoc.org. His Bible study website is markmayberry.net. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.