I have noticed in the past few years, especially in the tradition I am a part of, a reemergence of the idea of elders in the Church today. While I am going to address this issue, my goal is going to address this in a way that is not as common. Most of this is rooted in a book a read a couple of years ago, Shepherds After My Own Heart.
In the Hebrew tradition, there has always been a shepherding idea. The entire history of Israel is built on a shepherding tradition. Abraham was a shepherd, as was his son, Isaac, and his grandson, Jacob. When Joseph’s family (the Israelites) came into Egypt Pharaoh asks them what their profession is. They responded, “Your servants are shepherds, as our fathers were” (Exodus 47.3). The nation of Israel was known throughout the Ancient Near East as shepherding culture. Therefore, when considering the idea of leadership in that culture, God would use shepherding language to reinforce His desires for leadership among them.
Shepherds were not perfect men in that culture by any means and were known for being a little rough around the edges. They spent a great deal of time around animals, but the values they were known for were taking care of those who had a tough time taking care of themselves. Shepherds were known for protecting the flock against bandits, robbers, and predators; they cared deeply for their flocks.
The problem is, the leaders God placed over the Israelites did not always live out those values. When the sheep are without good shepherds, they have a tendency go their own way. For instance, in the book of Judges, Israel is having a tough time finding a good, quality leader. They used to have Moses, then Joshua, but after those two, not so much. The book ends with this statement, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21.25).
As the history of the nation continues, the quality of leaders doesn’t get much better. There are good leaders who will rise at times, but they are not very common. Ezekiel 34.2-5 says, “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel...Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds 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. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts.” But the grace of God will not stand for this type of leadership; therefore He will do something about it. In that, I am so thankful we have a God who does not sit passive on the sidelines but sees a problem and desires to do something about it. Ezekiel 34 goes onto say, “Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered.” (Ezek 34.11-12) Not only will God seek us out as The Shepherd, but He will raise up good shepherds among us—“And I will give you shepherds after my own heart.” (Jer 3.15) How encouraging is that? WOW!
Now, in light of all of that, we can think about God’s desire for elders/pastors in the life of the Church—among His people. The shepherds (little “s”) among the church are to be what the leaders of Israel were not. This brings me to my last illustration, which is found in Luke 15. I will admit the majority of this part of my argument is grounded in Tim Keller’s book The Prodigal God. Luke 15.1 tells all the scattered outcast of Israel were coming to The Good Shepherd, Jesus (John 10). Then in Luke 15.2, “...the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’” So Jesus decides to give three illustrations, or parables, of how the religious should view these people. The last parable talks about two brothers. The youngest brother essentially says to his father, “I wish you were dead, so I could get what you owe me.” The father loves him so much he gives him his inheritance. Keller and the NT scholars agree that once the younger left, and was lost, it was the older brothers responsibility to pursue the younger brother—to track him down, bring him back home. Elders are supposed to be the good older brothers. When they see their siblings heading down paths that will take them away from the joy of the Father’s home, they are to go seek them out and plead with them to return home. I believe this is the responsibility of every Christians, but the elders have recruited by Christ to be exemplary in this. They are called to lead in this type of Christian living. I pray I will be this type of elder, and I pray for more pastors/elders who live out these desires God has for His leaders.