I’ve been thinking about how our understanding of elders and their roles as shepherds relates to the big picture, the story the church has been brought into by Jesus. With elders, as with many other parts of church life, it’s too easy to think about them in isolation, as though we can simply turn to the proper chapters of scripture that address them and retrieve the list of rules that will tell us what to do. A much healthier approach is to start with the larger story in which we live, and let our understanding of the church’s shepherds grow out of that context, out of that story.
That larger story announces the reality of God’s reign in the world and his willingness to love and redeem the world. It is the story of how the creator God remains concerned with his creation, and is active within it. It is the story of how that God made for himself a people, by making covenant with Abraham, and with his rescued descendants at Sinai. It tells of God’s pursuit of Israel even when the covenant was broken. It tells how, in Jesus, God has made a new covenant with his people and opened the door for men and women of all nations to join Israel in becoming the covenant people of God. That story offers a way for humans to live within God’s reign, and warns of judgment for those who continue to live in rebellion against God’s reign. That story brings humans into participation in God’s plan to fight the darkness that has corrupted the world, and announces that his victory is certain, and what is wrong will be made right.
The church exists because of that story. It exists in that story. And it exists as an expression of that story.
When we talk about shepherds and elders, we can’t jump out of that story and imagine that we’re just dealing with a simple fact of ordering religious life. The shepherds actually function, like the rest of the church, within the context of that larger story.
As God’s announcement of his reign became known in the world through the ministry and resurrection of Jesus, it was made known concretely to a group of disciples who became apostles, carrying the word into new territories, establishing colonies of disciples who took on the story of God and began to live it out in community together, and in relation to their neighbors in the cities and towns where they lived. Those apostles and their coworkers were charged with delivering the story to the world around them, and were highly mobile. Because of that, as they founded new communities, it became clear early on that within each new community of disciples there would need to be people who could function as “stewards” of the story, who could take responsibility to oversee how the community of faith lived out that story as “church”. Those overseers (elders, bishops, pastors) became shepherds of the church, and bore several responsibilities in regard to the story that was driving the church. They still bear those responsibilities.
Shepherds tell the story. That means they should be able to share the gospel, be able to articulate the gospel story, and teach others what it means to live that story. Both 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 refer to the need that those who become elders should be able to teach. That doesn’t mean they’re required to have great class management skills, but that they understand the gospel and are capable of sharing that story. Shepherds are storytellers, because the story of God’s work isn’t something we hear once and are done with, but we hear it over and over again, the church has to be immersed in the story, understanding the big picture and learning over time the finer points of what it means to live with God.
One of the reasons the shepherds have to be continually telling the story is because the story is always vulnerable to distortion. People subvert the christian story for a lot of different reasons, replacing it with stories of gods who are legalistic, absent, only interested with the spiritual, spiteful, or apathetic to sin. Therefore, beyond being tellers of the story, shepherds guard the story. When scripture uses the language of guarding the flock, and defending the truth, it says the church needs people who can make sure that the alternative stories that threaten to draw people away from the one true gospel story are challenged and defeated. There is a definitive story that defines the church. That story can’t be changed at whim.
The relationship between the shepherds and the story goes much further than the types of things they might say about the story, though. Perhaps one of their most important roles as stewards of the story is being an example to the flock of what it means to live out the story—shepherds display the story. They extend the story by showing what it means to live in God’s kingdom in work and play, within family and within a neighborhood. To say they are stewards of the story doesn’t mean they hold an abstracted truth within their minds, but rather it means that the story has become enfleshed in them. they are committed to living faithfully in family life, to restraining themselves in terms of greed or argumentation, and living fully aware—refusing to drunkenly numb themselves or lose control of their lives to anything but the will of God. In all of this and more they put on display what it means to submit to the reign of God, and what it means to walk in God’s presence and grace.
Good shepherds understand as well that it’s not all about them. they play a part in the story, but they are also mindful of what it means for the rest of their community to find its place in God’s story. They are aware of doing the work God places in their hands, but also of helping the other disciples discern what it means for them to play a part in the story. Shepherds draw their flock into God’s story. They can do that in some surprising ways.
When shepherds encourage someone among us to find their ministry, equip them to do the ministry, and entrust them to do the work God has prepared for them, they help draw us into the story, into participation with God’s work.
When shepherds stand with us in crisis, they are a reminder that God is with us and active in our lives, they draw us out into the story, helping us interpret the crises and their places in our lives as part of God’s story.
When shepherds mourn with those who mourn, they help that mourning be placed in context and draw people into God’s story—in which death loses its power.
When shepherds celebrate with those who celebrate, they help interpret the moment as having holy significance, like all moments do. In so reminding us, they draw us into the story which is not yet finished, but ongoing.
Shepherds are storytellers. they guard and defend the story, and display the story by living in such a way that the story is enfleshed in them. But they also draw us out with them into the story, so that it might be enfleshed in us as well. May it ever be so, for the sake of God’s glory. Amen.