Regaining Pastoral Purpose

(If TV stations can show reruns, this column can repeat articles printed some time ago. This article, on the Biblical understanding of the nature and spirit of the office of elder, was first printed about 5 years ago. It is reprinted here without apology to those who read it the first time. Fact is, many new elders need to understand these Biblical truths, and many who have served in office for a long time already need to be reminded. Next month, we’ll reprise a similar article on the office of deacon. -JRS.)

I live in Texas. When I crossed the Red River some years ago when moving from the Midwest with my family, I had to learn many new things and learn them quickly. I had to learn a new language that folks here actually call “Texas friendly”: what I had known as “baptists” were actually “babdists”; where I had “done business” before, I would now be “doin’ bidness”; and where previously I had referred to a group standing before me as “you,” I would have to learn to say “y’all” instead. (Actually, “y’all” is an all-purpose pronoun serving as both singular and plural, though local linguistic “purists” insist that the plural of “yall” is “yalls.”) I had to master the difference between “tote,” “fetch” and “carry”; I had to learn that soft drink is not “pop” but that all varieties are called “cokes” (“What kind of coke do you want? Orange?”). I had to learn the strange Texas lilt that raises the end of each sentence a note or so, so that, to my Midwestern ears, every indicative sounded more like a interrogative. I learned to say “fixin’” a lot (as in “I’m fixin’ to fetch a six-pack of cokes”).

I also learned an important lesson in Texas-style home maintenance: to “water my foundation.” Since most of you don’t know what that means, a brief lesson is in order. (Y’all listen up, I’m fixin’ to make a point here.) The soil in Texas, especially in the Dallas region, is of such a kind that it expands and contracts rapidly-almost violently-with the increase or decrease of moisture. This soil volatility is so pronounced that there are few if any basements; homes are constructed on specially prepared slabs. Now, I’d seen cracked and parched earth before in Midwestern droughts, but I’d never seen half inch cracks fracture a lawn only days after a 5 inch rain! Unless the soil around one’s foundation is kept moist, the expansion and contraction cracks the slab, and wall damage results. Repairs can be very costly, so wise homeowners all water their foundations faithfully.

The church of the Lord has a foundation too. God’s Word says in Eph. 2:20: “You are…members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the chief cornerstone.” This book is written to train and equip elders because to them is assigned the important task of caring for the foundation. They must keep the church firmly fixed on the Word—as the inspired apostles and prophets transmitted it—and see to it that no cracks weaken the walls and damage the holy temple in which God dwells on earth. Their task is an urgent one, not only to preserve what God has already given us, but also because the church is always under construction: “…in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (Eph. 2:22). The church is our Lord’s; she is precious in His eyes. He paid a high price for her redemption-His own blood.


You may wonder why this column places so much emphasis on the word “shepherd.” More than just a convenient handle, it defines what the office of elder really is, a shepherding—that is, pastoring-duty. The work of elders properly understood is nothing other than the pastoral care of the flock of God. That Biblical imagery is one that is repeated from Genesis through the New Testament. It describes both God’s description of His care and the needs of His people; it is dominant in both Jesus’ description of Himself and His work, and in His assignment to the Apostles of His Church.



“Wait a minute,” you may say. “Pastoral care is the minister’s job, isn’t it? After all, he is the one called ‘Pastor.’ He has the training and the experience, and he receives a salary for his work. Elders are busy laymen who have full-time jobs and many other responsibilities. Their term of office is only for a few years (in most churches). They simply can’t do the job like ‘the pastor’ can. We shouldn’t expect them to try!”

There is no doubt that a preacher ought to be busy pastoring the flock, tending to their feeding and their care as a representative of the Good Shepherd. But is it just he (or, in the case of multiple-staff ministries, “they”)—the paid “professional”—who is to do the work of pastoring the flock?

The Bible won’t allow it! Scripturally, the elders are the pastors of the church just as much as any paid, seminary-trained preacher. The elders themselves must understand that, the people of God must understand that, and the church must shape its life and ministry accordingly. In fact, it is a central thesis of this article that the raging spiritual infection within the fevered body of Christ that has left so many churches weak, flaccid, and ineffective can be traced directly to the loss of the Biblical understanding and practice of the office of elder. As we shall see, the Bible assigns to the elders in each local church the awesome duty to protect and secure the health of the flock. It also speaks some of its most frightful judgments to the shepherds who fail in this assignment. If the local church fails to insist upon obedience to the Scriptural teaching simply because its elders aren’t paid “professionals,” that church will wither under the Evil One’s assault.

Why have churches in our time lost the pastoral office of elder in exchange for the paid religious professional? The problem runs deep. Cultural analysts of our age have observed the radical transformation of our society from a rural agrarian base to an information base, from a “hands on” style of work involvement to a “managerial” style of involvement, from face to face and person to person communication to that of phone, fax, modem, voicemail and e-mail. And the changes are coming faster than ever. Two hundred years ago, 95% of the US work force was involved in farming, compared to less than 4 % today. But the greatest impulse for such radical change has been in the last 50 years, and the majority of that change has been in the last 15, tied directly to the development and explosive growth of the personal computer. Make no mistake: these changes are not only changes about how we make our money and communicate with one another. These changes affect how we view ourselves as people, how we understand our purpose on earth, our way of living before the face of God and our fellow man. These changes also affect the way we view the church, and within the church the way we interact with each other and care for one another in Christian love.

We’ve become profoundly individualistic as a society, and that individualism has penetrated the church to her very marrow. American religion has become private, and, sadly, irrelevant as a shaping influence for public life. It is fascinating—and grievous—that during the decade of the 80s the pollsters report that “religion is up” but “morality is down.” (You can read all you can handle on the subject by picking up a book by Chuck Colson, for example, or one of the research reports by George Barna, or the thorough and excellent study of American religious beliefs and practices entitled Habits of the Heart, written by Sociologist Robert Bellah.)

With such profound societal and cultural transformation going on all around us, it ought not to surprise us that many within the church have begun to think more as the world does than as Scripture would have us think. Not without reason does Paul implore us not to “conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is…” (Rom. 12:2). Such penetration of worldly ideas into the church’s way of thinking is especially evident in the way modem churches have begun to think about the role of elders in the life of the church. Simply put, elders are viewed today in an administrative role, as the corporate officers of the business known as “church such and such.” In fact, many churches have even adopted names that reflect their new “insights”: they call their elders “board members” or “trustees.” And, of course, along with the shift in emphasis and the change of name comes a corresponding change of qualifying prerequisites for the job. Gone the way of the Do-Do bird are the spiritual qualifications for the office of elder that are explicitly set forth in I Timothy 3 and in Titus 1. They have been replaced instead with the technical “skill set” necessary to be an efficient corporate officer.


Recall, will, my thesis. Elders are pastors, not administrators. They are to care for the flock of the Good Shepherd, not merely to “manage the affairs” of a corporate entity. Let’s look at Scripture, specifically at Acts 20:17–38. In this passage, we read Paul’s well-known farewell to the Ephesian elders whom he had summoned so as to give them his final instructions (v. 13ff.) In this important passage, Paul uses several words to describe the men to whom he speaks:

• in v. 17 he refers to them as “elders” (using the Greek word “presbuteros,” from which comes the English words “presbyter” and “presbyterian”)

• in v. 28 he calls them “overseers” (from the Greek word “episkopos;” in English “bishop” the root word for “episcopalian”)

• also in v. 28 he charges them to be “shepherds” (the Greek word is “poimein,” the word for “shepherd” or “sheep-herder”).

Must we speak of elders, bishops, or pastors, or should we speak of elders, bishops and pastors? Are there 3 distinct offices, or is there only one with three names? What is important to note is the relation of each of these Biblical words to the others. Read the passage carefully. The office (commission, authoritative assignment) is that of elder (v. 17). The passage simply but significantly calls these men “the elders of the church.” A few chapters earlier, in Acts 14:23, we were told that “Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church.” (Also see Titus 1:5.) The point is clear: the apostles and members of the early church viewed these men as “elders.” The work or duty of that office and of those elders holding it is described in v. 28 as the “oversight” of self and of flock (“episcopos,” from “epi” meaning “on” or “over,” plus “scopos,” referring to “vision” or “sight” [like “microscope” means “small vision”] ). Finally, the spirit, the character or, if you will, the heart with which the elders are to do the work of oversight is that of “shepherd” (an English equivalent is pastor”).

What may we conclude? The elders who oversee the flock are the pastors of the church! The Lord’s church is a flock that faces savage wolves who would tear the sheep and devour the lambs with the bloody fangs of false doctrine and worldly lifestyle (vv. 29–30). Caring for that flock requires diligent oversight and alert watchfulness. Yet the oversight and watchfulness assigned to the elders of the church is a waste of time if it does not arise from a genuine and hearty caring for the flock. Pastoral care—shepherding—is never content with mere management of livestock resources. It demands genuine concern and love. Look at Paul’s own example in v. 31. (For further insights, read the delightful little volume by Phillip Keller, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23.) Pastoral care demands the involvement of the elder’s total being in careful attention to the well-being of each individual of the flock. It requires heart—a shepherd’s heart, one quite different from the reluctant spirit and diffidence of the hired hand. (Read John 10:11–13 to refresh your memory of the profound and important difference between the two.)

In contrast, what we see in many churches today are administrators. The senior pastor functions like a CEO who “markets the vision”; the deacons (usually by committee) fulfill the corporate role of the CFO (Chief Financial Officer); and in such a modern corporate or business model for the church, the elders become the Board of Directors. To them falls the administrative responsibility of setting direction for the life of the corporation. They commission or develop a “marketing plan” for church growth, and hold the CEO accountable for the implementation and success of that growth plan. They oversee and direct professionally-run fund raising programs for building or operations budgets. They delegate any and all pastoral duties to the professionals trained to handle such contingencies.

All genuine followers of Jesus will agree that the church must preach and teach the Word of God so as to evangelize the nations, incorporate them through baptism into the body of believers by way of repentance, conversion and faith, and disciple them thoroughly unto disciplined Christian living. That’s the mandate of the Great Commission in Matthew 28. When trying to fulfill the Great Commission in our rapidly changing age, the church meets new ideas, embracing some of them. Not all are bad, either. The corporate business model, for all the criticism I level against it, often arises out of a desire for an efficient use of the church’s resources and a visionary and purposeful approach to reaching Biblically-assigned goals. But efficient or not, goal-oriented or not, it has come at a high price; the transferal of her “pastors” to the new department of “administration.” And the flock suffers for it.


The pastoral character of the eldership is a theme not only found in Acts 20. It is perhaps put even more forcefully in I Peter 5:1–4. “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be.” Here the radical difference between administering and pastoring is most clearly seen. Administration is a managerial function, applying resources to reach carefully articulated goals. It is preeminently organizational and intellectual. Pastoring, however, is a nurturing function, involving care, demanding both strength and tenderness, arising out of a passionate love for the well-being of the flock. While good shepherding will involve the shepherd’s calloused feet (today bald tires?), his skill with both rod and staff (both the ability to discern, and the communication skills necessary to challenge, rebuke and call people to repentance), and courage as he faces the predators of the flock (willingness to make the tough calls that generate “cotton mouth” fear?), good shepherding is preeminently a work of the heart, and depends greatly upon the intimate bond between the flock and the shepherd as they hear and follow His Voice. “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me” John 10:27). Pastoring focuses the flock on the voice of Jesus the Bible as it shapes understanding and faith, and directs the flock to follow—to live in faith as the people of God.

Before I close, I leave the reader with the following questions. I challenge you to wrestle with them personally; let them stimulate you to self-examination and church-examination in your local congregational setting.

If you are currently an elder, what occupies most of the time you spend in your official duties: administration (meetings, committees, organizational details) or pastoring (meeting with God’s people, praying with and for them, admonishing them and instructing them)? Discuss with others how those time demands might be adapted so as to reflect a more Biblical view of office.

If you are not an elder in your local church, think about the visible work of the elders who hold office. Are they involved in pastoral care, or is their visibility only that of “meeting attender” or “committee member”?

On paper, make a list, based on Acts 20:28–31 and I Peter 5:1–4, of specific duties that arise from an understanding of the eldership as a pastoral office. Discuss this list with others, comparing your findings with your perceptions of the practice of elders in your congregation.

Ask yourself whether you genuinely love the people of God in your local church? (Yes, warts and all, lovable and unlovable alike! Be honest, and admit it if you view them more as porcupines or skunks than as precious lambs.) If you can’t state that you do, allow me to challenge you today to pray that God will forgive your sin, and thatGod will grant you the grace to enable such love!

When I entered the ministry twenty-some years ago, the most sage advice I received was from an old elder who counseled me to “Make sure you love the people of God. You might become a great preacher, you may become an astute theologian, you may have the skills to be an effective administrator or church program manager, but if you don’t love God’s people, they’ll know it, and your ministry will suffer.” Sounds like he took it right out of I Corinthians 13, doesn’t it?

Dr. Sittema, contributing editor of this magazine, is pastor of the Bethel Christian Reformed Church in Dallas, TX, and author of the book, With a Shepherd’s Heart.