The Sheep and the Shepherds

A pastor is just a staff elder. An elder is just a non-staff pastor.

Chris Hutchison on November 11, 2019

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 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.”

1 Peter 5:1-3, ESV

This passage reinforces two connected truths about church leadership.


1) Church Leaders Are a Team

Notice how Peter speaks to the elders, plural. They, not one single person, is responsible to “shepherd [pastor] the flock of God.” It’s also hard to miss that Peter includes himself among this group: “So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder.” Peter was an apostle who had been with Jesus, and yet here he refers to himself as just a fellow elder. 

This reinforces the Biblical pattern which describes the church as being led by a team of elders/overseers/pastors, none of whom have any more inherent authority than another.

One or more of those elders/overseers/pastors may be paid staff, a situation that 1 Timothy 5:17-18 anticipates. As paid staff, they are freed up (and expected) to carry more responsibilities than the non-staff elders. They will probably be the ones to preach more often, do more visitation and counselling, and so on. 

Some elders may also have particularly pronounced giftings, and may be delegated by the rest of the team to function in a leadership capacity—kind of like a team captain. Timothy, for example, may have had this role while in Ephesus. But these staff- or lead-elders still have the same basic office as the rest of the team, and hold no more inherent authority.

We can think of it this way: a pastor is just a staff elder. An elder is just a non-staff pastor.

This can be a tough idea for us to wrap our heads around, especially if we have gotten used used to the “pastor-as-CEO” or “pastor-as-priest” model that pervades many North American churches. But it is the Biblical pattern.


2) Pastors/Elders/Overseers Are Still Just a Part of the Church

To glimpse the second truth, notice Peter’s use of “among” in verse 1: “So I exhort the elders among you.” Peter’s letter (like most of the New Testament letters) was not written to the elders who then read it to the church. No, it was written to the church, and the elders were there among the church, receiving it from Peter. 

The elders were a part of the church, among the church—not above them. 

Notice also how verse 2 tells them to “shepherd [pastor] the flock of God that is among you.” Not underneath you, but among you. The shepherds were among the sheep, and the sheep were among the shepherds, and they were all a part of the church together.

Perhaps we struggle with the first truth—that pastors are just a part of the team—because we don’t understand the second. We’ve subtly come to believe that pastors are a special class of people who exist on a higher spiritual plane above everybody else.

The Roman Catholic Church teaches this kind of thing. Ordinary people are a part of the “laity” who do “secular” work, whereas the priests are a part of the “clergy” who do “sacred” work. Their prayers are seen to be more special than everybody else’s, and they are viewed as the ones through whom the people draw near to God.

The Bible, on the other hand, teaches that all Christians are priests (1 Peter 2:4-5) who each approach God through our one high priest, Jesus (Hebrews 10:19-22). Pastors/overseers/elders don’t exist on a higher spiritual plane than everybody else. Their prayers don’t have more inherent power than anybody else’s. In one sense, they are still sheep themselves. They lead the church as a part of the church.

This is God’s good design, and we will find great blessing and freedom as we follow it.

Chris Hutchison
Chris Hutchison is the lead pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Nipawin, SK. Have any feedback or questions about what you've read here? Send him an email at chris@ebcnipawin.ca

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