Have you heard of Rick Rescorla? Rick Rescorla worked as the VP of security for Morgan Stanley, the prestigious investment firm. Prior to his employment at Morgan Stanley, Rick had been a British military paratrooper as well as a Vietnam veteran.
On the dreaded day of September 11th, after the North Tower of World Trade Center had been struck by a hijacked commercial airliner, Rick started the immediate evacuation of his employees from the nearby South Tower. Morgan Stanley occupied more than a dozen floors in that tower. This timely evacuation, despite contrary announcements that employees could stay at their desks, proved to be lifesaving. Just seventeen minutes after the North Tower was hit, a plane struck the South Tower as well. As it happened, only eleven of the 2700 employees of Morgan Stanley working in the South Tower lost their lives. This narrow escape was possible because of the extensive training and evacuation drills set up by Rick and others in anticipation of potential threats. That day, however, Rescorla himself would be counted among the dead. He died while working to ensure the safety of his employees.
Now take a moment to think about the shepherds of the church and the manner in which Christ desires them to serve Him. A lot has been heard and said about the qualifications of elders, but I am afraid a great deal less has been mentioned about one of the most important functions of the shepherds, that is the protection of the sheep.
The Apostle Paul called for the elders of the Ephesian church and exhorted them:
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 NKJ)
The verb used for shepherding in the Greek text is poimaino, meaning to protect, to guide, or to care for. The church and its elders are historically known for caring for the poor and physically needy particularly among their own. Though most shepherds of the churches are faithful in regard to physically caring for their members, shepherding responsibilities are more extensive than that.
To what degree are church shepherds prepared and committed to protecting the flock from diverse threats? Rick Rescorla was able to save hundreds of his employees from death because he was trained and prepared. What are the threats a shepherd should prepare for?
Troubles within and without
Paul warned the shepherds that savage wolves would attack the sheep. These wolves would bring false and deceptive teachings. From the earliest days of its history, the church has faced teachings and doctrines contrary to the Scripture. Does this strike us as unexpected? It shouldn’t. Even as the Almighty God was giving Moses the laws on Mount Sinai, the children of Israel were already violating those laws by making a new god—a golden calf.
Wolves come in many forms to deceive the people of God. They could be in the shape of new philosophies, popular movements, novel teachings etc. which are contrary to the clearly stated laws of the Lord. And these deceptive teachings often come in an attractive package. Regardless of how appealing their presentation may be, shepherds must protect the sheep from them.
Neither do the threats necessarily always come from without. The apostle Paul warns, “Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves” (Apostle 20:30). Rebellion to God’s word and its teachings can begin with an insider. There have been shocking reports in recent years of notable Christians who have left the Christian faith and who have embraced heresies.
More common are the daily struggles and challenges of living in a sinful world. Society is filled with individuals suffering from serious physical and emotional sickness. Others are experiencing difficulty in marriage and/or are struggling with rebellious children and teenagers, not to mention issues such as abuse, serious financial troubles, and those struggling with addictions. What about individuals wrestling with end-of-life decisions? What about the shocking death of a dear family member? These are just a few snapshots of problems in which an elder is needed to support a church member. It is not an easy job.
Sadly, many elders are negligent in their responsibility of protecting the sheep. Worse there are some who actually behave more like a wolf resulting in harm to those under their care.
In the following section, we will examine two specific tasks a shepherd can do to serve the members of the church.
Exhort, and Convict
In his letter to Titus, the apostle Paul declares that a bishop must be characterized by “holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict.” (Tit. 1:9 NKJ)
Here elders are needed to convict, meaning to refute those who bring teachings contrary to those found in the divinely-revealed Scriptures. One such challenge confronting the church in every generation is the establishment of mere traditions which oftentimes develop into burdensome rituals. The Lord Jesus used some of His strongest languages to oppose the legalistic practices of the religious leaders of His time.
Shepherds are not meant to be creators and preservers of traditions that God didn’t intend in the first place. Rather they should facilitate a culture for God’s Word to flourish and for God’s Spirit to move powerfully.
The apostle Paul also reminds the elders to exhort, a word used in many different contexts. Exhorting is used to comfort the weak lest they become even more debilitated and become an easy target for the enemy. Concerning this, there are many Christians who are emotionally exhausted and suffering. Undoubtedly, these need a word of encouragement from the Scripture. Exhortation needs to be given to obey God’s word and to abstain from sin.
To face the troubles within and without, therefore, it is essential to both exhort and teach as per the Scriptures. In the words of William McDonald “The true elder is deeply and vitally involved in the spiritual life of the church by his instruction, exhortation, encouragement, rebuke, and correction.”
Tools of the Trade
Shepherding is a difficult job. No one individual is so extraordinarily qualified so as to meet all the demands of such a job alone. Nevertheless, God has provided us with guidelines to help the individual be the shepherd God wants.
Without any doubt, if a shepherd does not have sound knowledge of the Scripture, he cannot effectively apply it to the myriad of challenging situations that confront the believer. As we have already seen a shepherd needs to exhort and convict based on God’s Word to prepare those under him to grow and to protect them from dangers. If a shepherd himself is spiritually malnourished, how will he feed the sheep who look to him? Thus, sound knowledge of Scripture guided by the Holy Spirit is the foremost requirement to be a shepherd.
Plurality of Elders
The shepherding model for the Church in the Scripture is a plurality of elders. This is in contrast with many institutionalized churches and denominations. This existence of a plurality of God-ordained overseers in a church offers several advantages.
Firstly, it assures a multiplicity of perspectives and strengths. After all, each individual differs in his personality, giftings, abilities, and communication styles. This means that an elder who may be more equipped in a particular area can focus on supporting or responding to the needs in that area. For instance, if an elder is especially gifted in biblical counseling, he would be the indicated person to sit down with an individual who needs advice and godly wisdom.
A church led by a plurality of shepherds is less affected by a failing or the absence of any one of them. Should an elder become infirm or pass away the continuity of church leadership is still assured.
Further, plurality of eldership means no one person has to perform all the leadership roles, thus avoiding burnout. With several shepherds pastoral responsibilities can be distributed between them thus allowing enough time to rest and engage in other functions. The Bible states that wisdom is to be found in a multitude of counselors. Inherent in a plurality of leadership is a system of checks and balances.
In numerous ways, then, God’s plan of a plurality of elders who are united in mission for the spiritual well-being of the church is best for both the church and its elders.
A good shepherd will be a proactive shepherd. That means he needs to be well-prepared. Here is some helpful guidance.
Devour the Word: Make it a continual practice to study Word through all available means. A person lacking in the knowledge and wisdom of Scripture will be of little value to the church members.
Develop the Network: As with most jobs, it is important to establish close contacts with elders of other like-minded churches. In this way, opportunity is provided to learn what issues others face and how to respond effectively. This is an important way for the leaders to discuss and develop strategy for dealing with complex shepherding issues.
Devotion to Resources: In the case of Morgan Stanley, the organization invested heavily on evacuation equipment because of a past attack on the World Trade Center. These resources proved vital in saving lives when the actual attack happened. Likewise, there are many useful resources on the topic of shepherding for those in the church leadership and those who desire to do be.
Let me conclude this article by encouraging the use of the materials offered by a ministry focused entirely on equipping shepherds for fruitful service to the Lord: Biblical Eldership Resources. This website contains a mine of information for elders including articles, booklets, videos, courses and recommendations on helpful resources.
Being an elder is at the same time one of the most difficult of jobs. Among those vital functions of eldership, Christ and church need them to be protecting the sheep.
The events about Rick Rescorla is based on the book ‘The Only Plane in the Sky’ by Garrett Graff.