Please note that this article is the first part of a three-part teaching series on Leadership within the Local Church given in Bermondsey Gospel Hall, the audio of which can be found here.
Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. Acts 20:26-31
While the first time you do something is difficult, the last time can be even harder. This is especially true if you know it is going to be the last time. Your last day at your school or work, your last day on holiday, perhaps the last time you speak to a loved one at their hospital bedside. It is in these moments that you take much greater care about what you say and do. You want no moment, sight or word to go to waste. You want to say goodbye properly, leave or leave with a lasting impression.
This must have been what was going through the mind of Paul. We meet Paul here as he making the journey back to Jerusalem for what he knows will be the last time (Acts 20:25). He doesn’t know exactly what awaits him there, but he does know that he won’t be passing by this way again. He takes the last opportunity he has to meet with the leaders of a church particularly near to his heart, Ephesus, and presses into them some key truths. These are carefully planned words and so we must pay attention to them.
We could learn all kinds of leadership lessons from this passage. In fact, it probably sums up the task of the elder better than anywhere else in Scripture, and so those who have that responsibility should continually look to it for guidance. However, in considering the motive of leadership I want to focus on the key sentence in verse 28, ‘the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.’
‘The Holy Spirit has made you overseers…’. This is the first step in appointing leaders. God, by his Spirit, works internally in the lives of leaders over time to prepare them for the task to which they are called. These leaders are then given by Christ as a gift to his church, churches are given shepherd-teachers (Ephesians 4:11). In turn these churches recognise this gift, the work of God that is evident in the lives of their future leaders, and come together to appoint them to oversee and lead them in their life together (Titus 1:5).
The Holy Spirit has made, Christ has given and we have recognised and appointed elders. That much is clear. But for what purpose has this occurred? What is the motive behind such a leadership? Why is it needed? Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit makes overseers in order to care for the church of God. Our first leadership lesson is that leaders are needed to care for God’s church. That’s why leaders are necessary. That is the motive behind leadership.
Leaders are needed to care
The normal way for an organisation to recruit leaders is to prepare an advertisement for applications for the role. In fact, under employment law organisations are legally required to advertise any vacancies to ensure a fair and unbiased recruitment process. If we were to draft up an advertisement for leaders here in our church, it would probably go something like this.
Job Title – Elder, Overseer and Shepherd (or Pastor, which is derived from the Latin term for Shepherd)
Qualifications – A godly man who teaches God’s truth, see 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 for further details.
Salary – The unfading crown of glory from Christ (1 Peter 5:4) and honour and all necessary support from the local church (1 Timothy 5:17-18).
Report to – The local church before whom you must live a godly life (1 Timothy 5:19) and to God to whom you must give an account (Hebrews 13:17).
Job description – In a phrase, to care.
What is the job of an elder? What is the role that elders are required to perform? The most basic job description of an elder is ‘to care’, everything they do is summed up in those four letters, C-A-R-E. That is the sense of the word and how it is translated in the ESV, but more colour and context is added to it when it is translated as ‘to shepherd’ in NASB, NKJV, CSB and NIV. That is really what Paul is telling the Ephesian elders to do, to act like shepherds, care and tend to the church like shepherds do to a flock. We will be thinking about what this means over the coming weeks, as we consider the ministry and method of leadership. But for now, we need to consider the why this role is necessary. Why are leaders needed to care? What purpose do shepherds have? There are two main reasons or purposes we see in the Bible: for protection and for provision.
1. Shepherds are necessary for protection
Leaders are needed to protect a church in the same way that shepherds are needed to protect a flock. We have already seen that it is this imagery of shepherding that Paul has in his mind when he uses the phrase ‘to care’ (verse 28). He builds upon this imagery when providing the reason why the Holy Spirit has made them overseers to care in verse 29-30, ‘I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.’ Leaders, like shepherds, are needed to protect the flock from danger. Danger arising from two sources, from both outside the flock and inside the flock.
A. Protection from those outside
Paul knew all too well the danger of wolves coming into and disrupting a church. Paul spent his ministry planting and establishing churches across the Roman Empire. Everywhere he went a new church seemed to spring up, or an existing group was strengthened. However, almost as consistently as Paul seen churches planted, he seen churches disrupted. Paul’s epistles catalogue his continuing struggle with wolves coming in to disrupt local churches. In Galatians Paul had to protect the gospel against those who were seeking to elevate the Jewish law. In 2 Corinthians Paul had to protect his own apostleship from those who were seeking to undermine the truth by undermining him. In 2 Thessalonians Paul had to protect the doctrine of the second coming of Christ against those who were seeking to deceive. And where were these battles being fought? The battleground against false teaching was the local church. As much as Paul’s ministry was one of evangelism and expansion, it was also one of confrontation and correction in the local church.
That’s why we shouldn’t be surprised that he instructs the Ephesian elders to watch out for wolves, for he had been watching for and wrestling with them for years. Indeed he calls the Ephesian elders to the same alertness that he had when he was amongst them, when he spent three years admonishing them night and day with tears (Acts 20:31). That is the kind of leadership that Paul says elders are to perform. Elders are to labour night and day for years, with tears, to protect the flock assigned to their care.
Far from being the paranoid advice of somebody shaken by his past experiences, Paul’s prediction of trouble ahead in Ephesus was timely. The wolves soon descended on the flock in Ephesus and leaders, like Timothy, were engaged in protecting the flock. ‘Avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some.’ (2 Timothy 16-18). Wolves arrived, or perhaps arose, and the gangrene set it at Ephesus, upsetting the faith of the flock. It took leaders like Timothy, like the Ephesian elders, to protect them.
Leaders are needed in order to protect us from wolves who would seek to come in among us. They must pay close attention to who shows up in our gatherings, and particularly those who would seek to join our fellowship. This is the reason why we drafted the Doctrinal Statement as a local church. We use it as a summary of what we believe and practice in order to ensure that those who would seek to join our fellowship are faithful and healthy Christians seeking to partner together with us in living out our shared understanding of what the Bible teaches. However, to have that on our website or printed versions in the hallway isn’t enough to protect us.
When a shepherd protects his flock from wolves, he doesn’t just put a sign up at the entrance to the field saying ‘Wolves are not welcome here’ or ‘You must be a sheep to come into this field’. A shepherd builds a fence around his flock, and he checks every member of that flock coming within that fence to make sure they are a sheep and not a wolf in disguise. A wolf cannot be trusted to self-disclose their evil intentions, they may not even be aware of them. Shepherds are needed to use godly discernment and assessment in order to prevent wolves from coming in among us, and lead us in removing wolves that may already be among us. I’ve never experience a wolf coming amongst a flock of sheep, but I know that it only take a fox a few moments in a henhouse or run to cause mass destruction. I can imagine it is the same for wolves. It only takes a wolf a matter of moments to destroy an entire flock, especially a flock as small and vulnerable as we are here. One word or one action might be all it takes to wound, or even destroy, some of us. Leaders are needed to protect us from those on the outside.
B. Protection from those inside
Not only must you look carefully at those who would come in among us, but you must also keep an eye on those of us who are already under your charge. Paul warns the Ephesian elders to look out for wolves coming in and to watch out for those arising from their midst, particularly those ‘speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them’. To protect the flock you must keep a watch over all aspects of local church life, but particularly you must watch out for false leaders arising from our midst. In God’s will our local church will flourish and God will raise up other leaders to assist current leaders in their work over the coming years. However, such leaders must never draw the disciples away from them towards themselves. Instead, new leaders must draw alongside current leaders and lead the church with, rather than against, them. The primary way that false leaders will draw disciples away from the current leaders of a local church is through their teaching.
This reality is what dominates the Pastoral Epistles. 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus all radiate with the importance of teaching the true faith and the danger false teachers. Paul would later instruct Timothy who was in Ephesus, ‘Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.’ (1 Timothy 4:16). Indeed, to keep watch on teaching was the very reason that Paul sent Timothy to Ephesus. ‘As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine….’ (1 Timothy 1:3)
All of us who would seek to teach within the context of the local church must heed this instruction, whether we teach on a Sunday morning, at the mid-week Bible study or through the children’s work. Teachers have an increased level of responsibility and accountability (James 3:1). We all must pay careful attention to what we are teaching, both by word or example (1 Timothy 4:16).
Not only do teachers have an increased level of responsibility, but elders have an even greater level of responsibility. They bear the responsibility of not only being teachers themselves, but also of overseeing all other teaching in the church. ‘[F]rom among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert…’ (Acts 20:30-31). Paul says elders must be alert to, watch out for, keep an eye on, those amongst them that may teach falsely. As one writer puts it, elders are required to play both offence and defence (Jeramie Rinne, ‘Church Elders’). They are required to not only give teaching, but oversee and correct the teaching given by others if necessary. Afterall, what do overseers do if they do not oversee?
Overseers have a responsibility to keep an eye on what is taught among us. This goes across all aspects of our life together. Wherever teaching is given in our life together, our leaders need to keep an eye on it and on any who are teaching. It is their role to ensure that all those who teach are qualified to do so and that those that may seek to teach in the future are sound. Leaders must be careful of allowing somebody to take on a teaching role without knowing what they believe. How can you reasonably rely on the safety of their teaching if you are not sure of the substance of their beliefs? Elders need to protect us not only from wolves that would come in, but also from within, particularly from those of us who rise up to speak and teach.
Paul tells the Ephesian elders that they are needed as shepherds to protect the flock from outside and within. Paul told Titus the same thing, it was for that reason that Titus was to appoint elders who were ‘able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also rebuke those who contradict it. For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers…’ (Titus 1:9-10). Do we think that this is any less true today than it was then? Are we happy that we take wise precautions and exercise sound judgement when extending fellowship to outsiders? That if a wolf showed up in sheep’s clothing, they would be recognised and removed before causing any harm? That they wouldn’t just be handed responsibility and influence in our life together? Are we making sure that only those who are qualified and healthy in their faith are teaching others? How is that teaching in the various aspects of our life together will be overseen? These are the kind of issues that overseers are made and given to address.
Without leaders a local church is in danger, from both outside and within. The Holy Spirit makes and Christ gives elders, overseers, shepherd-teachers, to his church in order to protect, shield, guard, defend and preserve it. Shepherds are necessary for protection.
2. Shepherds are necessary for provision
Sarah and I recently purchased a few plants to place on our balcony. They are mostly herbs, with a chilli plant and a tomato plant thrown in as well for good measure. They were bought to provide some nice foliage as well as fresh ingredients for cooking. Any of you who have cultivated plants before know that they require two kinds of care. They need protected from dangers and provided with a suitable diet. You need to make sure that they are toppled over in the wind, dug up by foxes or eaten by insects. They need protected. However, that isn’t enough. My officemate at work has a number of plants sitting around his desk which were all free from danger. There were no insects to eat them, no wind to blow them over and no foxes to dig them up. Yet, when he recently went on holiday and they weren’t watered for a number of weeks, he ended up having to throw the weakest ones away. They were protected, but not provided with the water they needed to live.
A shepherd, like a good gardener, not only knows he needs to protect his sheep, but he also needs to provide for them. The Psalmist captures this emphasis perfectly when he states that ‘The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.’ (Psalm 23:1). Not only does his heavenly shepherd protect him as he passes through the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23:4), but he allows provides for him when he makes him lie down in green pastures and leads him beside still waters (Psalm 23:2). The translators of the KJV pick up on this aspect of shepherding when they translate the word ‘to care’ or ‘to shepherd’ in verse 28 as ‘to feed’.
When focusing on the work of a shepherd here in speaking to the Ephesian elders, Paul undoubtedly concentrates on the necessity of protecting the flock. However, when he writes to the Ephesians in his epistle he instead focuses on the other side of the job, providing for the flock. ‘And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.’ (Ephesians 4:11-14)
What a beautiful aim we are given for our life together in Ephesians 4. Ministering to each other, building each other up until we attain unity of the faith, the knowledge of Christ, mature into the fullness of Christ, no longer being tossed around in our beliefs but standing upon the rock that is the truth. That where we want to get to. That’s what we are gathering together in a local church for. And Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit makes and Christ gives shepherds in order to achieve that.
Ministry in a local church will be defective without leaders. Growth in the Christian life will be stunted without leaders. A local church needs to be equipped for ministry, for the ministry of building each other into maturity, into the fullness of Christ. And Paul says that we need leaders, elders, overseers, shepherds, in order to do this. That is why the Holy Spirit makes, why Christ gives, shepherds. Shepherds not only protect, shield, guard, defend and preserve a local church. They provide for, stimulate, grow, develop, cultivate, encourage, improve, advance and equip it.
To celebrate our first anniversary Sarah and I went off to the Lake District a few years ago. Despite it being mid-July, we had to split our time inside and outside because of the weather. When it was wet we went to the Keswick Convention. But when the weather was good, or maybe more accurately, when it was reasonable, we went hiking together in the countryside. It was a familiar sight on our walks to come across sheep in the hills. However, these sheep weren’t the fluffy white cuddly sheep you see in children’s story books. These were wild sheep. They were left to roam on the open hills, finding food and water for themselves. They were a certain breed that allowed them to survive doing that, living without any real care from a shepherd. However, while they could survive like this, I’m not sure you could say they thrived in this environment. They were wirey and thin, looking almost more like goats than sheep! It is the same with a plant that hasn’t been watered. Some of them might die, others might survive. They might get by with just enough rain water to stay alive. However, they will never grow or flourish like they ought without proper care.
A local church may survive, through God’s grace, without shepherds. However, it will never thrive without them. If a local church is to minster in the way that God desires for it to minister, and if local Christians are to mature in the way that God desires for them to mature, shepherds will be required. Leaders are God’s means for equipping his people to do his work. That’s why they are necessary.
We see a beautiful picture of the cultivating, developing and stimulating effect of good leadership in the Old Testament. David’s life is coming to an end. His rule over Israel has been the greatest period of their history. The nation has grown and flourished under his leadership. In what we are told are his last words, David testifies to this cultivating effect of godly leadership. 2 Samuel 23:1- records, ‘Now these are the last words of David: The oracle of David, the son of Jesse, the oracle of the man who was raised on high, the anointed of the God of Jacob, the sweet psalmist of Israel: “The Spirit of the Lord speaks by me; his word is on my tongue. The God of Israel has spoken; the Rock of Israel has said to me: When one rules justly over men, ruling in the fear of God, he dawns on them like the morning light, like the sun shining forth on a cloudless morning, like rain that makes grass to sprout from the earth.”’
Leadership not only protects the flock, but provides for the flock. Godly leadership allows a local church to flourish and mature, to grow and glorify God in the way that it ought. When one rules justly over men in the fear of God, he dawns on them like the sun on a cloudless morning and like rain that causes growth. No wonder Paul tells Timothy that the elder that rules well is worthy of double honour (1 Timothy 5:17). Without such leadership a church may survive, but it will never thrive. That is why leaders are necessary.
Leaders are needed to care for God’s church
Our focus has been on the necessity of leadership to the local church. Leaders are needed to care for the local church. Leaders are needed to do this job, to fulfil this role, to oversee and care for us because without them we are in danger. Elders need to do this job because if they don’t, we will never mature in faith or in ministry. When they are struggling to motivate themselves to persist in leadership, or when we are trying to motivate ourselves to submit to and support them, we must all remember the necessity of leadership.
However, I recognise that in our human frailty that motivation may sometimes not be enough. After confrontation or conflict, after a change is made that concerns us or after a comment is made that cuts them, leaders may not want to lead us and we may not want to follow them. In that moment, we all will do well to remember that our local church is God’s church. It is not their church, or our church, but his church. Leaders are not lords over us, and we are not lords over them. Instead, he is Lord over us all and we are servants of him and of one another. This is ‘the household of God, which is the church of the living God’ (1 Timothy 3:15). As Paul reminds us here, leaders are ‘to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood’ (verse 28).
That is the price that God paid to purchase this people for himself. His own blood. The blood of his Son in fact, the only begotten Son. He has taken that blood and bought for that Son a bride, a church that is made up of individuals from every tribe, tongue, people and nation. God is gathering a people for his own possession, a bride for his Son. And as he gathers them together, he fulfils what he declared beforehand to Jeremiah, ‘I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, declares the Lord.’ (Jeremiah 23:4). Leaders aren’t doing this themselves. They ultimately aren’t doing this for us. They are doing it for him. Christ is building his church, and he has fitted overseers to oversee that work. Christ is shepherding his flock, and he has given elders the responsibility of being under-shepherds by his side. Christ is preparing himself a bride, and he asks leaders to get her ready.
Leaders are needed to care for God’s church. God’s church needs to be protected and provided for by its leaders. Someday every one of us, not just leaders, will stand before him and give account for what we did in 2018 and beyond. Someday we will be held accountable for how we handled the roles and responsibilities given to us by God. Not only how we used the spiritual gifts that we has given us individually, but how we treated the gift he has given to us all in the church, the gift of shepherds. When things get difficult, perhaps by looking forward to that final day, we can find motivation to act according the intentions of our Father in the days, weeks, months and years ahead.