We live in an age that has become painfully cynical about leadership — some of it for good reason. Much of it is simply the mood of our times. And the underlying mood has only seemed to thicken and become all the more manifest in recent years, and perhaps especially in the last eighteen months.
Stories of use and abuse abound, and the letdowns make for big headlines. In the Information Age, we have more and quicker access than ever before to tales of bad leaders. In our own lives, we all have felt the sting of being let down by some leader in whom we had placed our trust. The pain and confusion are real. The wounds can be deep. We learn to guard ourselves from future disappointment. Cynicism can feel like a worthy shield.
But high-profile failures can mask the true source of our discontent with being led: we love self and come to pine for self-rule. Couple that with our generation’s distorted sense of what leadership is. When leadership has become a symbol of status, achievement, and privilege — as it has in many eyes — we desire to “be the leader” ourselves, not to bless others but to bless ourselves, get our way. And understandably, we become reluctant to grant anyone else that authority over us.
Led by God — Through Others
Into such confusion, the Christian faith speaks a different message. You need leadership. It is for your good. You were designed to be led. First and foremost by God himself — through the God-man, Jesus, who now wields all authority in heaven and on earth at the Father’s right hand. God made us to be led, every one of us. He designed our minds and hearts and bodies not to thrive in autonomy but to flourish under the wisdom and provision and care of worthy leaders — and most of all, under Christ himself. But there is more.
The risen Christ has appointed human leaders, in submission to him, in local congregations. Precious as the priesthood of all believers is — a remarkable truth that was radically counter-cultural from the first century until the Reformation — today we have need to articulate afresh the nature, and goodness, of leadership in the local church. We have an important kind of gracious inequality within our equality in Christ.
One of the ways Christ governs his church, and blesses her, is by giving her the gift of leaders under him: “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” (Ephesians 4:11–12). The mention of “shepherds and teachers” is of special significance because it is intensely personal to you as a Christian. It includes the pastors of your particular local church (and note that pastors is plural). You’ve never met one of Jesus’s apostles (even as their writings remain precious to us beyond words!), but chances are you know a pastor. Faithful pastors are a gift from Christ to guide and keep his church today.
Are they flawed? Of course. Sinful? Regrettably. Have some pastors made terrible mistakes, sinned grievously, fleeced their flocks, and harmed the very ones they were commissioned to protect? Sadly, yes, some have. But such failures were not the fulfilling of the vision of what true Christian leadership is. Such failures fell short of God’s vision, or departed from it altogether. In fact, such failures show — by contrast — what real leadership in the church should be.
That’s our focus this morning: what Christ calls leaders in his church to be — especially the “lead office” or “teaching office” in the church, that of “pastor” or “elder” or “overseer,” three terms in the New Testament for the same lead office. My prayer is that these minutes will be useful to congregants and leaders alike in considering Christ’s call and what vision he himself has cast for leadership in the local church.
Teamwork: Good Men with Good Friends
I mentioned that pastors is plural. One of the most important truths to rehearse about pastoral ministry is that Christ means for it to be teamwork. As in 1 Peter 5, so in every context in which local-church pastor-elders are mentioned in the New Testament, the title is plural. Christ alone reigns as Lord of the church. He is head (Ephesians 1:22; 5:23; Colossians 1:18), and he alone. The glory of singular leadership is his. And he means for his undershepherds to labor, and thrive, not alone but as a team.
The kind of pastors we long for in this age are good men with good friends — friends who love them enough to challenge their instincts, tell them when they’re mistaken, hold them to the fire of accountability, and make life both harder and better, both more uncomfortable and more fruitful.
Shepherds Old and New
Let’s start with the main verb in 1 Peter 5:1–5, which is Peter’s charge to the elders: “shepherd the flock of God.” Shepherd, as a verb, is a rich image. Consider all that shepherds do: they feed, water, tend, herd, protect, guide, lead to pasture, govern, care for, nurture. To shepherd is an image of what we might call “benign rule” (the opposite of “domineering”), in which the good of the shepherd is bound up with the good of the sheep.
Preparing the Way
The concept of shepherding also has a rich Old Testament background, not just in the Patriarchs, and Israel in Egypt and in the wilderness, but also in King David, the shepherd boy who became the nation’s greatest king, the anointed one, who anticipated the great Anointed One to come. So, with David, shepherding takes on messianic meaning. David, of course, had his own grave failures in shepherding the nation, but after David the trend of the nation’s kings became worse and worse.
Five centuries later, the prophet Ezekiel condemned the nation’s leaders for “feeding themselves” rather than feeding the sheep:
Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. (Ezekiel 34:2–4)
The leaders of Israel should have fed the people, not fed on them. They should have strengthened the people, and healed them, bound them, brought them back, and sought them, but instead they have ruled them “with force and harshness” — not benign rule but malignant rule. The people long for a shepherd, a king, who will rule them with gentle strength, with persuasion and kindness, with patience and grace, even as he protects them from their enemies. And God says, in response, again and again, “I will rescue my flock,” but also, “I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd” (Ezekiel 34:22–23). Note the prominence of feeding in shepherding.
Good Shepherd and His Help
Micah prophesied that from Bethlehem, the city of David, will “come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel” (Micah 5:2; Mark 2:6). During his life, Jesus himself says he is the good shepherd (John 10:11), who, rather than taking from his sheep, comes to give them life, and even give his own life for them.
Then, amazingly, at the end of the Gospel of John, when Jesus asked Peter three times — this same Peter — if he loved him, Peter said yes, and then Jesus said, “Feed my lambs,” “Tend my sheep,” and “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15, 16, 17). Here “feeding” and “pastoring” are synonymous. Jesus is the good shepherd, but he is leaving, and he will now pastor his sheep through Peter and other undershepherds — not just apostles, but local church elders, overseers, pastors, as Paul says in Acts 20:28 to the elders in Ephesus: “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.” The elders are also overseers, and they are to “care for” — or literally, “pastor the church of God” (elders = overseers = pastors).
Finally, in the book of Revelation, we have two images of Jesus as shepherd. The Lamb, as shepherd, “will guide them to springs of living water” (Revelation 7:17), and in three texts, he will rule “with a rod of iron” (Revelation 2:27; 12:5; 19:15), which doesn’t mean he is forceful or harsh with his people, but that he protects them from their enemies with his iron rod. The shepherd’s rod is for protecting his flock: “your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4).
So there’s just a taste of the richness in this shepherding image and action as a verb: centrally, feeding and watering (“green pastures” and “still waters,” Psalm 23:2), but also protecting. Shepherding means caring for the sheep, and leading with gentleness and kindness, with persuasion and patience, but wielding a rod of protection toward various threats to the flock.
Three Ways to Exercise Oversight
Back to 1 Peter 5, the verb that then augments “shepherd” is “exercising oversight.” It’s the verb form of the noun “overseer” used in Acts 20:28, as well as four other New Testament texts (Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:7; 1 Peter 2:25). “Oversee” in this context doesn’t mean only to watch and observe, but also to “see to it” that important observations about the flock, and any threats to it, also become tangible initiatives and actions in the church. In other words, as one of my fellow pastors, Joe Rigney, recently wrote about oversight, “Having seen clearly what they need to see about their flock, the pastors [need to] have the courage and compassion to act together with wisdom to do what is best for the sheep, especially through their teaching.”
Now, at the heart of this passage, Peter gives us three “not-buts” — not this but that. Verses 2–3: “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight,  not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you;  not for shameful gain, but eagerly;  not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” Let’s take them in reverse order.
1. Not domineering but exemplifying.
We saw God’s condemnation for the leaders of Israel who ruled “with force and harshness.” Peter says “not domineering” — which is the same language we see elsewhere translated “not lording it over.” It’s built on a strong verb that can refer in other contexts to Jesus’s lordship (Romans 14:9; 1 Timothy 6:15); or the kind of lordship sin once had, and should no longer have, over us (Romans 6:9, 14; 7:1); the kind of lordship Christian leaders should not have over those in their charge (Luke 22:25).
First and Foremost Sheep
This prohibition against domineering applies even for an apostle, as Paul says to the Corinthians: “Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith” (2 Corinthians 1:24). The intensified form of the verb here in 1 Peter 5 is the same one Jesus uses in Mark 10:42:
Those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you.
Christian leaders, as workers for the joy of their people, should not be controlling and domineering and lording over them. Rather, they are examples to the flock. Twice Peter says they are “among” the flock: “I exhort the elders among you . . . : shepherd the flock of God that is among you” (1 Peter 5:1–2). Not above, or off to the side, or far away — not remote — but among.
“Good pastors are secure in soul and not blown left and right by the need to impress or to prove themselves.”
Good pastors are first and foremost sheep. They know it and embrace it. Pastors do not comprise a fundamentally different category of Christian. They need not be world-class in their intellect, oratory, or executive skills. They are average, normal, healthy Christians, serving as examples for the flock, while among the flock, as they lead and feed the flock through teaching God’s word, accompanied with wise collective governance. The hearts of good pastors swell to Jesus’s charge in Luke 10:20: “Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” Their first and most fundamental joy is not what God does through them as pastors but what Christ has done (and does) for them as Christians.
Good pastors, therefore, are secure in soul and not blown left and right by the need to impress or to prove themselves. They are happy to be seen as normal Christians — not a cut above the congregation, but reliable models of mature, healthy, normal Christianity.
Humbled and Happy
Another way to say it is that such pastors are humble, or humbled. After all, Peter charges “all of you” — elders and congregants — “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another” (1 Peter 5:5). Healthy churches are eager to clothe themselves in humility toward their pastors who have led the way in dressing with humility for the church.
Such pastors, humble in practice, not just theory, are present in the life of the church and accessible. They invite, welcome, and receive input from the flock. They don’t presume to shepherd God’s flock in all the world through the Internet, but focus on the flock “that is among you” (verse 2) — those particular names and faces assigned to their charge — and they delight to be among those people, not removed or distant.
2. Not for shameful gain but eagerly.
Shameful gain would be some other benefit than the gain of the flock — whether money as the driving motivation, or power, or respect, or comfort, or the chance to perform, enjoying being on the platform. In terms of “eagerness,” the epistle to the Hebrews gives this important glimpse into the dynamic of Christian leadership as workers for the joy of the flock:
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews 13:17)
“Christ gives leaders to his people for their joy. Pastors are glad workers for the gladness of their people in God.”
Here is a beautiful, marriage-like vision of the complementary relationship between the church and its leaders. The leaders, for their part, labor (they work hard; it is costly work) for the advantage — the profit, the gain — of the church. And the church, for its part, wants its leaders to work not only hard but happily, without groaning, because the pastors’ joy in leading will lead to the church’s own benefit. The people want their leaders to labor with joy because they know their leaders are working for theirs.
Christ gives leaders to his people for their joy. Which turns the world’s paradigm and suspicions about leadership upside down. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1:24, “Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy.” Pastors are glad workers for the gladness of their people in God.
For Your Advantage
How eager, then, would the people have been to submit to such a leader? The prospect of submitting to a leader drastically changes when you know he isn’t pursuing his own private advantage but genuinely seeking yours: what is best for you, what will give you the deepest and most enduring joy — when he finds his joy in yours, rather than apart from or instead of yours.
The word “submission” has negative connotations today in many circles. But how might the charge to “submit” in verse 5, to “be subject to the elders,” change when we see it in the context of this vision of shepherding and oversight and pastoring that Peter lays out? There’s no charge to submit in verse 5 until verses 2–4 establish a context of “workers for your joy” who are willing, eager, and exemplary: they feed the flock, not themselves; they attend to the flock’s needs, not their own; they gain as the flock gains, not as the flock loses.
It’s amazing to consider what actions and initiatives and care are presupposed in the New Testament, from husbands and fathers and governors and pastors, before the command is given to submit:
- husbands, love and be kind (not harsh) (Colossians 3:18);
- fathers, do not provoke your children to anger (Ephesians 6:3);
- civil governors are God’s servants for your good, avenging wrongdoing (Romans 13:1; 1 Peter 2:13);
- pastors feed through public teaching (1 Corinthians 14:34) and pay careful attention (Acts 20:28) and keep watch over the flock (1 Timothy 4:16).
Pastors give of themselves, their time, their energy, their attention, to work for the joy of the flock. Therefore, church, submit to your leaders. In Hebrews 13:17, negatively, God will hold the pastors accountable, and positively, it will be to your advantage, to your benefit, to your joy, if you let them labor with joy, for your joy, and not with groaning.
For those who are skeptical of leaders in general, what if you knew that “those who are . . . over you in the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 5:12) were not in it to stroke their ego, or secure selfish privilege, or indulge desires to control others, but actively were laying aside their personal rights and private comforts to take inconvenient initiative, and expend their limited energy, to work for your joy?
For those who are formal leaders in the church, or in the home, or in the marketplace, what if those under your care were convinced — deeply convinced — that your place of relative authority (under Christ) was not for self-aggrandizement or self-promotion, but a sobering call to self-sacrifice, and that you were genuinely working for their joy? That your joy in leadership was not a selfish pursuit, not for shameful gain, but a holy satisfaction you were finding in the joy of those whom you lead?
When leaders in the church show themselves to be workers for your joy, they walk in the steps of the great shepherd — the great worker for joy — the one who bore the greatest cost for others’ good, and not to the exclusion of his own joy. He found his joy in the joy of his Beloved. “For the joy that was set before him [he] endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2).
As workers for the church’s joy, pastors emphatically pursue gain — not shameful gain but shameless gain — their joy in the good of the church to the glory of Christ. Joy now, and joy in the coming shame*less* reward: “When the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:4).
3. Not under compulsion but willingly.
Churches want happy pastors. Not dutiful clergy. Not groaning ministers. The kind of pastors we all want are the ones who want to do the work, and labor with joy for our joy. We want pastors who serve “not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you” (1 Peter 5:2).
God himself wants pastors who labor from the heart. He wants them to aspire to the work (1 Timothy 3:1), and do it with joy (Hebrews 13:17). Not dutifully, or under obligation, but willingly, eagerly, happily. And not just “as God would have you” but “as God himself does” — literally “according to God” (Greek: kata theon).
“God wants pastors to labor with joy because he is this way. He acts from fullness of joy.”
It says something about our God that he would have it this way. He is the infinitely happy “blessed God” (1 Timothy 1:11) who acts from joy. He wants pastors to labor with joy because he works this way. He acts from fullness of joy. He is a God most glorified not by raw duty, but by eagerness and enjoyment, and he himself cares for his people willingly, eagerly, happily.
Churches know this deep down: that happy pastors, not groaning elders, make for happy churches, and a glorified Savior. Pastors who enjoy the work, and work with joy, are a benefit and an advantage, to their people (Hebrews 13:17).
Chief We All Want
Such are the pastors we all want. Of course, no man, and no team of men, will embody these dreams perfectly, but men of God learn to press through their temptations to paralysis and resignation because of their imperfections. They happily lean on Christ as the perfect and great shepherd of the sheep, gladly roll their burdens onto his broad shoulders (1 Peter 5:7), remember that his Spirit lives and works in them, and then learn to take the next courageous, humble step — ready to repent and retry if it was the wrong one.
As pastors learn to live up to these realistic dreams — albeit not perfectly, but making real progress by the Spirit — some aspects of our broken leadership culture will find healing. At least our churches, if not our world, will learn to lay down suspicions and enjoy God’s gift of good pastor-teachers.