In Part 1, I showed how three Biblical terms, elder, overseer, and shepherd, are to emphasise three different facets of the one calling. This is because:

(i) ‘Elder’ refers to the spiritual maturity of the man.

The plain and usual meaning of the word refers to his age and experience, and a Christian leader must have had time and experience in the natural and spiritual realms, again remembering Paul’s admonition not to recognise a ‘new convert’ (literally ‘new planting’) as an elder.1

(ii) ‘Overseer’ refers to his work, bearing with the other overseers overall responsibility for the church.

‘If a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?’2 This implies that just as a man should ensure that all members of his household are well provided for, in food, clothing, health, housing, education in their daily living and protection from various dangers, overseers should together do the same for the household of God.

(iii) ‘Shepherd’ refers to the care he should have for God’s people.

The metaphor is not only leading the flock to good pasture and rest3 but also strengthening the weak, healing the sick, binding up the broken, bringing back the scattered, and seeking for the lost.4 He is also to be on guard against dangers such as thieves and wolves.5

To reiterate, elders are to be overseers and to shepherd God’s people, each individual functioning in thee ways.

At this point, may I again make it clear that the purpose of this study is not to denigrate or pass lofty judgment on the attitudes or intentions of those who are called ‘pastors’ in our churches. Paul requested of us:

that you appreciate those who diligently labour among you, and lead you in the Lord and give you instruction, and that you esteem them very  highly in love because of their work6

I never want to undermine that appreciation, very high esteem, and love we should have for those labouring amongst us. All I’m suggesting we do is change the labels back around so that the Biblical names are applied correctly. In this way the Biblical concepts can be properly understood, the Biblical boundaries adhered to, and the safeguards can then be operational.

Here’s the problem: if we allow ourselves to think of a ‘pastor’ as the one person ‘in charge of the church’ as the word has come to mean, we are not only out of step with the Bible, since elders were only ever appointed in the plural, but we are also ignoring and heading for the very dangers of which Paul and Peter warned. Let’s consider those dangers and the action of the Holy Spirit in setting up the church to counter them.

(i)  Dangers to the solo shepherd

When Jesus sent out the twelve apostles, He did not send them out alone but rather in pairs.7 Again, with the seventy evangelists it was two by two.8 Why?  Because He knew the frailty of man and the reality of the Scriptures:

“Keep watching and praying, that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”9

Two are better than one… for if either of them falls, the one will  lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not a second to lift him up… And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart.10

Are these warnings not true of church leaders or shepherds? Yet our structuring of the local church or assembly often completely ignores them; in most churches today when a pastor falls, someone has to come in from outside the church, or even the area, in order to restore him since he has no ‘companion’ or ‘peer’ inside the church. What folly is this! And it only emphasises that the one from outside wasn’t there to help him from being overpowered in the first place.

Our structures are at fault: solo shepherds are not receiving the protection from temptation that God requires them to have and it is obvious in the light of the numerous examples of godly pastors falling both here in New Zealand and overseas. Every shepherd needs ‘a second to lift him up’ if he is falling, not only his wife but a second co-worker, someone else functioning in the same gifting, to ‘resist’ with him the pressures, temptations, and attacks particularly faced by shepherds. Solo shepherd burn out because no one is called to bear the responsibilities of church leadership alone. If ‘two are better than one’ and ‘three’ is even better, then one-man leadership is necessarily second-rate!

There is also the danger of being overpowered by ‘thieves’ and ‘wolves’, false apostles, false prophets, false teachers, false ministries of all kinds who claim a superior understanding of the will and word of God. Zechariah’s prophecy about Jesus, ‘Strike the shepherd that the sheep may be scattered’ 11, shows that the Shepherd was the first target so that the sheep could be picked off, one by one.  Happily, the great Shepherd can’t be struck again, but what of the lesser shepherds?  Surely they will still be prime targets for the enemy, to get them out of the will and word of God.  We’ll look at this more closely in the next section.

(ii) Dangers of the solo shepherd

Not only is the solo shepherd not himself sufficiently protected in the assembly but also he cannot provide the protection that God requires for the sheep. Just as some dangers are more for shepherds than for other solo workers in the kingdom of God, the effects on the ‘sheep’ of the man alone being overcome are often enormously more destructive, as all can attest who have been either in the many good churches or in the cults where the pastor or leader has fallen into pride and sin. And leaving sin aside, what of the effects of a pastor believing and teaching error instead of the words of God?

But, some will say, how can a church have more than one leader? ‘Only one person CAN have the ultimate say in decision making, so that one must always become dominant’. Well, in Biblical days, when the Holy Spirit always appointed more than one overseer in every church, did He just not realise what we now understand? Didn’t He know then, as we are sometimes taught today, that ‘any animal with two heads is a freak of nature and can never survive’ and that accordingly any church with more than one overall leader must always self-destruct?

In the church of God, God Himself is to be the dominant One, to have the ultimate say in decision-making and He has designated Jesus Christ to actually be…:

the head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything12

This is not to be theoretical, as it often has been throughout church history, but actual and experiential. It’s His kingdom that must come, His will that’s to be done, and to find His will, we are supposed to listen to the testimony of two or three witnesses before we can properly judge it to be His will. In judging issues of life and death such as idolatry the judges of Israel were forbidden to accept the testimony of one person:

A single witness shall not rise up against a man on account of any iniquity or any sin which he has committed; on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed13

This very important principle of Old Testament justice was actively applied in the early church, being quoted a further six times in the New Testament,14 Jesus Himself going so far as to say:

“If I alone bear witness of Myself, My testimony is not true”15

Surely if anyone on earth had the right to have their testimony accepted as valid and beyond all question, He did, yet He explicitly acknowledged the need for more than one witness to the truth of what He was saying.

This way of establishing the truth and the will of God is applied in some very important areas:

  (i) Defining what is and what isn’t sin

Jesus taught us:

“If your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother, but if he does not listen to you, take one or more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed”16

To help a brother improve his judgement, to judge himself rightly, we are to present him with ‘two or three witnesses” so that he can judge properly. See: Blessed are the Peacmakers

(ii) To find what we should pray

John assures us that:

…if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us; and if we  know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him”17

This is why Jesus called for us to pray by “two or three”:

“And if two of you shall agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall bedone by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered in My name, there I am in their midst”18

The two or three praying are to be separate witnesses of the will of God so we can pray according to that and so be assured of successful prayer.

(iii) What God is saying through prophecy

Paul wrote to the Corinthians:

Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgement19

Two or three are to be separate witnesses of the word of God, before all of the listeners each judge what GOD is saying. Two or three are essential.

Why then can’t we learn this wisdom and apply it to other leaders? How can we insist that a shepherd, alone of all the giftings, must stand alone in charge of the church?

Some may respond to this by dismissing it as simply impractical and suggesting that it is ‘leadership by committee’. God forbid! As we all know, a camel is simply a horse that was put together by a committee! The goal of this teaching is NOT to replace church autocracy (government by one person) or democracy (government by all the people) with gerontocracy (government by old men). Rather, it is to promote a theocratic understanding and organising of the church, where God can rule His own people by His Spirit and according to the Scriptures.

The weakness of autocracy is that no one is perfect and since the one person governing can be wrong in part or in whole, the whole church based on autocracy goes wrong in part or in whole.20 On the other hand, the weakness of democracy is that all the people can be wrong in part or in whole. After all, when Moses came down off Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments, he didn’t exactly find God’s own people in a state of revival! What they needed was someone who knew the will of God to not succumb to their democracy21. The weakness of gerontocracy is that old men can get too set in their ways and rely too much on their own experience and understanding instead of walking in revelation, as did Job’s counsellors.22

So how do we overcome the inherent weaknesses of all human systems? By aiming for a theocracy, acknowledging God’s government and looking to see WHAT is the will of God rather than WHO found it first. Since God used ‘a dumb donkey… to restrain the madness of the prophet’ Balaam,23 we need to be willing to listen to anyone, yet we should also allow people to function in their special callings as leaders.

The perfect example of this kind of leadership is seen in Acts 15:1-32, when the Early Church met together to try to resolve the very fractious dispute over circumcision. We mustn’t underestimate the potential damage of this controversy since it could have split the church in two. There had to be a decision reached but HOW did they reach it and HOW did the leaders lead?

We see firstly that ‘there was much debate’ (v. 7). This was because proponents of both sides of the issue were allowed to speak freely (vv 2, 4-5). Then we see Peter taking a lead, speaking from his unique and widely acknowledged position as the first preacher to face the issue, describing how he was led by the Holy Spirit to deal with it (v 7). His testimony impressed ‘all the multitude’ so that they ‘kept silent’ (v 12) and then they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they added their own personal testimonies (v 12). The full weight of hearing these three witnesses to the truth, no doubt added to by the inner witness of the Holy Spirit, so persuaded James that he changed his mind and added his now corrected judgement to further affirm that truth (v 19). This was no small thing because James had been the main propagator of the opposing view.  So strongly had he done so that even Peter and Barnabas had earlier been swayed by his stance.24 The end result was that ‘the apostles and the elders, with the whole church’ (v 22), ‘having become of one mind’ (v 25), sent out ‘leading men among the brethren’ with a letter stating their newly unanimous understanding of the leading of God Himself (v 28).

So we see that there was no fear of debate; all were honoured and listened to by everybody. Peter, Barnabas and Paul took unashamed leading roles, not by decree nor by arguing over who held the senior position in the church, but by describing how they functioned in their specialist areas, that is, in evangelism and teaching. James as the leader who had previously been wrong in his teaching publicly stated his new understanding, having been persuaded of the truth by what he had heard, and without forfeiting his leadership. The voice of God was in this way at last recognised by all, having been argued for by three witnesses, and judged by all, whether apostle, elder, or saint.  Those who had been wrong were not dishonoured and, with the exception of James, were not even named.

Pastors – Part 3 >>

New Testament leadership is examined more closely in  “Leaders Parts 1-8“.

  1. 1 Tim 3:6
  2. 1 Tim 3:5
  3. Psalm 23:1
  4. Ezek 34: 2-4
  5. John 10:8-13, Acts 20:28-30
  6. 1 Thess 5:12-13
  7. Mark 6:7
  8. Luke 10:1
  9. Matt 26:41
  10. Eccles 4:9-12
  11. Zech 13:7, Matt 26:31
  12. Col 1:18
  13. Deut 19:15. Also Deut 17:6 and Num 35:30
  14. Matt 18:16, John 5:31, 8:17, 2 Cor 13:1, 1 Tim 5:19, Heb 10:28
  15. John 5:31
  16. Matt 18:15-16
  17. 1 John 5:27-28
  18. Matt 18:19-20
  19. 1 Cor 14:29
  20. Acts 5:36-37, 20:30
  21. Ex 32:1-8
  22. Job 32:7-10, 38:2, 42:7-9
  23. 2 Peter 2:16
  24. Gal 2:11-13