THEME: Working with the Saints

by Gary Watt

Synopsis: The work of shepherds with the saints is a critical ingredient to a productive church (Heb. 13:7). The shepherds’ primary priority is identifying and meeting the spiritual needs of their saints.

From the time I was first selected by a congregation to serve as one of its elders, and in the years since, the admonition from the inspired writer of Hebrews has always been at the front of my mind:

Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. . . (Heb. 13:17).

Without diminishing the qualifications of one who would serve as an elder (clearly set forth in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9), the Hebrew writer succinctly describes the nature of their work, and responsibility toward the local congregation in which they serve. All elders do well to remember this thought.

This verse in Hebrews harmonizes with the comparison of elders and their congregation to that of a shepherd and a flock of sheep. The New Testament is filled with analogies that effectively relate God’s word to the common life-experiences of first-century disciples. Even today, most people understand the responsibility of a shepherd to protect and provide for his flock. The Master Teacher of the New Testament, Jesus Christ, is identified as the “great Shepherd” just three verses later (v. 20), and the “Chief Shepherd” (1 Pet. 5:4). In the same context, Peter exhorts his fellow elders, saying, “Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers” (1 Pet. 5:2). Luke records that Paul spoke in a similar fashion. Summoning the elders of the Ephesian church to Miletus in order to encourage them, Paul said,

Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood (Acts 20:28).

Shortly before Saul’s conversion, individuals who composed local congregations were identified as “saints” (Acts 9:13). Not too long afterwards, they were first called “Christians” in Antioch (Acts 11:26). Thus, we identify the focus of this article: We are considering ways in which shepherds work with the saints, i.e., individual disciples who share fellowship in a local congregation.

The work of shepherds with their saints is best summarized by the word “service.” A shepherd will have difficulty building a productive relationship unless he first has the heart of a servant. The lyrics of the hymn, “Servant’s Song,” remind me of this important point: they apply to Christians in general and elders in particular. Paul said, “Though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more” (1 Cor. 9:19). No greater example of spiritual service can be offered than that of Jesus Christ. Speaking to the Jerusalem Jews, Peter said, “To you first, God, having raised up His Servant Jesus, sent Him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from your iniquities” (Acts 3:26). Indeed, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve” (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45).

An abiding commitment to service is at the root of an elder’s successful relationship with those for whom he is spiritually accountable and responsible. Such relationships blossom and grow when they are built on trust rather than scriptural authority alone (Heb. 13:17). Shepherds are encouraged to serve, not as “being lords over those entrusted to you,” but through “being examples to the flock” (1 Pet. 5:3). My leadership experiences in the secular and business world (over many years and in a variety of scenarios) have taught me the relationship benefits of “leading from the front.”

When considering the qualifications of one who “desires the position of a bishop” (1 Tim. 3:1), a potential (or even existing) elder should recognize the implied relationship between his ongoing service to the church and the necessity of consistently showing the qualities of being “temperate. . . of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach. . . (of being) gentle, not quarrelsome” (1 Tim. 3:2-3). Similarly, he must “not (be) self-willed, not quick-tempered, but hospitable, a lover of what is good, sober-minded, just, holy, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught” (Titus 1:7-9). These traits serve as building blocks of the trusting relationship between a shepherd and his fellow Christians.

The shepherds’ first priority is identifying and meeting the spiritual needs of the flock. Secular business experience taught me not to assume the needs of my customers, but to have them express their needs in their own terms. I often remind myself of that as I work as a shepherd with my fellow saints. Shepherds need to devote their full attention to this vital task. Unfortunately, elders can be distracted by other issues, such as the fiscal needs of the congregation. Too often, congregations are unable or unwilling to appoint more than the minimum two elders needed to satisfy the scriptural requirement of a plurality (Titus 1:5). Moreover, there may not be enough men who are qualified or willing to serve as deacons. Worse still, deacons may fail to perform their assigned tasks. When these situations occur, assorted burdens often default to the elders, resulting in an “unequal yoke” between spiritual and fiscal responsibilities. This can be a dangerous distraction—allowing error to creep into the congregation without early detection or prevention. Shepherds should encourage the saints to assist in the local work. As a shepherd, I have experienced the mutual benefit of having each member periodically complete a volunteer task list, which enables the shepherds to “spread the workload” while simultaneously encouraging the saints to contribute of their time and talents.

There are several key actions that shepherds must consistently exhibit in order to identify and meet the spiritual needs of their saints. Two of the most important follow:

Excellent Communication

While a shepherd’s personality is likely well established before he meets the scriptural qualifications to serve in that role, he should, nevertheless, continually devote effort to be outgoing and proactive in communicating with the brethren. Listening is a trainable skill and shepherds must seek to excel at it. Saints should feel that their shepherds are approachable, accessible, and dependable. May they also understand that shepherds are not being nosy when it is necessary for them to ask certain questions in keeping with their charge in Hebrews 13:17. Saints should also have confidence that information shared with their shepherds is confidential unless Scripture dictates otherwise. Prudence should guide whether one-on-one meetings between shepherds and saints are appropriate. Having multiple elders in a meeting with a member is often more productive in discussing and finding solutions for the spiritual or benevolent needs of that individual and their family. As a shepherd, I have been told that such meetings can sometimes be intimidating, but I believe this concern can be avoided through cultivating a trusting relationship.

Frequently exercising a shepherd’s qualification of being “hospitable” (1 Tim. 3:2) provides excellent opportunities for informal communication between shepherds and saints. Meetings between shepherds and those wishing to place membership provide a helpful setting for establishing good communication. They give all a better understanding of the spiritual needs of prospective members. Another useful communication builder is periodic group meetings between the shepherds and the saints to share information of general interest to the church. To be clear, this is not the typical format often used for men’s business meetings in congregations lacking elders. Technological tools, such as group emails or a members-only portal in the church’s website, can expedite congregational communication when used appropriately.

Scripturally Sound Teaching

Before being appointed to the role, shepherds must have shown that they are “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2). Just as Paul encouraged Timothy, a shepherd’s teaching should reflect his abilities in “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). The primary duties of an actual shepherd to his flock includes guiding, feeding, and protecting; such terms also define the work of a spiritual shepherd. Saints need a steady diet of God’s Word along with guidance from their shepherds on how to grow in their knowledge of it and continually apply it to their daily lives. A strong Bible class program, targeted preaching, and periodic gospel meetings are excellent ways of providing for increased knowledge. While topic suggestions are always helpful from the saints, it remains the responsibility of the shepherds to select proactively those topics most needful for the congregation.

I confess my reluctance to embrace a growing trend among non-institutional churches of Christ to reduce or “repackage” the number of services/classes each week in an apparent attempt to make such more convenient for the saints. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 restrictions of the past year and a half have inadvertently made it easier for Christians to attend services “in their pajamas.” I fear that, after all restrictions are lifted, the returning numbers will be reduced as some have felt the tug of the world and grown comfortable with a reduced spiritual commitment. Shepherds must repeatedly remind their saints to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matt. 6:33)—arranging their life priorities accordingly.

Through his teaching, an elder demonstrates his knowledge and wisdom. By correctly applying God’s word, he is able to vigilantly protect the saints from false teachers, spiritual error, and apostasy (Matt. 7:15; 1 Pet. 5:8; 2 Pet. 2:1-3). Like the secular shepherd protecting his flock of sheep, an elder must be ever watchful. Although threats today seem to be different, they are every bit as real as they were in the first century. Faithful shepherds must be continually vigilant. The best preventive is to identify spiritual threats early and deal with them promptly.

Elders should also provide ample opportunities for members to grow in their teaching skills. Teaching development and proficiency come from doing. There is a natural reluctance from some Christians to step into this role. Many excuses, as opposed to reasons, are offered. Yet, teaching usually requires increased study and results in a growing knowledge of God’s Word. How can that not be a good thing? As well, elders should recognize the added benefit of systematically preparing the next generation of shepherds.

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