The Congregation Under Shepherds

The Congregation Under Shepherds

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable to you (Heb. 13:17). 

But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work (1 Thess. 5:12-13). 

When God tells one to lead, He tells another to obey. This is true of elders over a congregation. Since elders are “overseers” (Acts 20:18) who “exercise oversight” (1 Pet. 5:2) they will make decisions from time to time.

For example, when the shepherds decide to support new foreign preachers, the members of the congregation add them to their prayer list and consider increasing their contribution. When the shepherds tweak the order of the worship service, the members of the congregation focus on the advantages rather than grumble about change. When the shepherds fire one popular preacher and hire a different one, rather than threaten to divide the congregation, they assume there is a good reason and rally behind the new preacher in his work.

Obviously, good shepherds are not despots, and will communicate the reasoning for their decisions, and seek input from the congregation for making beneficial decisions. Good shepherds will stop short of micromanagement, and will entrust most of the mundane decisions to the deacons, so that they can focus on the real work of shepherding souls. As Peter said, “it is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables … select from among you seven men … whom we may put in charge of this task. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:2-4). Good shepherds will realize that the focus of leadership is being a good example, and will stop short of “lording it over” the members of the congregation (1 Pet. 5:3, Matt. 20:26-28) or intruding in areas not theirs to oversee. Jesus, “the Chief Shepherd,” is the perfect model of leadership both uncompromising and loving. A leadership style that encourages cooperation rather than generates friction will get a lot more done. I’m always amazed at how Nehemiah managed to motivate the people of God to complete the wall of Jerusalem (Neh. 6:15).

In 1 Thess. 5:12, Paul describes those who “diligently labor among you” and “give you instruction” and “have charge over you in the Lord” (Gk. hegoumenois, from which we get our English word hegemony). Part of the shepherd’s job is a form of rulership. It’s the same word “rule” used in 1 Tim. 3:4 for “managing” a family. An elder cannot make optional what God has made mandatory, nor make mandatory what God has made optional. An elder rules his own congregation, not another. But, a congregation would do well to submit to its elders in matters pertaining to the Lord. Their job is to guide souls to heaven. If an elder asks for greater care in modest dress in church, the members of the congregation should take this seriously. If an elder asks for no cell phones in worship, the members of the congregation should readily comply. If the elders are called to strengthen a married couple, their advice should be heard. Remember, confronting someone—even making a pleasant suggestion—can be nerve-wracking, so assume that the shepherds give thought to finding a balance. “As those who will give an account” (Heb. 13:17) of their leadership of souls, they must be careful not to be too harsh and drive saved people away, and not be too lax and give the wayward false hope, or let sin take root (Josh 7:11-12, 1 Cor. 5:2).

They bear a lot of weight, so the congregation should “let them [lead] with joy and not with grief” (Heb. 13:17), receiving God’s intended spiritual benefit. Furthermore, Paul says that the members of the congregation should “appreciate” them and “esteem them very highly in love” (1 Thess. 5:12-13). Say thank you often. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Pray for them. Throw your full weight behind the work of the church.

John Guzzetta