Despite our frequent use of the English word “pastor” to describe primary spiritual leaders within Evangelical churches, the only New Testament context where the Greek noun poimēn (shepherd) occurs and explicitly describes local church leaders is Ephesians 4:11. The cognate verb poimainein is found more often (John 21:16; Acts 20:28; 1 Cor. 9:7; 1 Peter 5:2; Jude 12), usually with a positive sense, but sometimes with negative connotations. The verb is used primarily with reference to some expression of Christian leadership. And then there are several contexts in which the people of God are compared to a flock (poimnē (John 10:16) or poimnion (Lu. 12:32; Acts 20:28, 29; 1 Pe. 5:2-3)).
The metaphor of shepherding defines political and divine leadership in Greek and Israelite literature (as well as Assyrian, Babylonian and Egyptian literature). In the Homeric epics the human ruler is “shepherd of peoples (ποιμὴν λαῶν).” Plato also described the rulers in his ideal “republic” as those who shepherd the city (Respublica IV, 440d). Within Assyrian and Babylonian inscriptions to shepherd people is to rule them (TDNT VI, 486). The deceased Egyptian Pharaoh in the guise of Osiris tends the flock, i.e. his people (TDNT VI, 486). So we are not surprised to read in the Hebrew scriptures that Yahweh shepherds Israel (Isaiah 40:11), leading, feeding, protecting (Psalm 23). A primary Israelite confession is that “we are his (Yahweh’s) people, the sheep of his pasture” (Psalm 100:3). However, as Jeremias notes the Israelite king as ruler is never designated the “shepherd of Israel,” even though occasionally the Hebrew scriptures describe David as “tending” Israel (2 Samuel 5:2; Psalm 78:71f) and Israel is his flock (2 Samuel 24:17).
Jeremiah’s invective against the political and religious rulers of Israel accuses them of being “shepherds [who] rebelled against me [Yahweh]” (2:8); “shepherds [who] are senseless and do not inquire of the Lord; so they do not prosper and all their flock is scattered” (10:21); Yahweh announces “Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture!” (23:1). But conversely Yahweh promised through Jeremiah that he “would give you shepherds after my own heart who will lead you with knowledge and understanding” (3:15). Ezekiel picks up this motif and in an extended prophecy (chapter 34) Yahweh promises to gather his scattered flock (because of the exile) and “place over them one shepherd, my servant David and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd” (34:23). Jesus’ discourse in John 10 about “the good shepherd” undoubtedly reflects the fulfillment of these diving promises.
Jesus was not the first one to link the role of Messiah with the shepherding motif. Members of the Qumran community regarded their leader as the one who “shall have pity on them like a father on his sons, and will heal all the strays (?) like a shepherd his flock” (CD XIII.9). The Psalms of Solomon (c. 50 B.C.) compares the Messiah to one who “shepherds the flock of the Lord in faithfulness and righteousness” (17:40).
Philo in some of his commentaries describes human reason as a shepherd who rules over the bodily passions (De Sacrificiis 45-51). Similarly he argues that “when the protector, or governor, or father, or whatever we like to call him, of our complex being, namely right reason, has gone off leaving to itself the flock within us, the flock itself being left unheeded perishes, and great loss is entailed upon its owner” (De Posteritate 67-69). Philo distinguishes between the term “cattle-rearer” and “shepherd” by arguing that when human reason “this ruler of the flock is called a ‘cattle-rearer’…he is a bad ruler, but, when a good and sterling one, he receives the name of shepherd” (De Agricultura 27-29). Shepherds are those who supply sheep with the necessities of life, exercise forethought for the good of the flock, keep the flock from scattering, acting in beneficial ways (De Agricultura 39-40). He devotes considerable attention to Moses’ prayer in Numbers 27:16) that “the congregation of the Lord shall not be as sheep that have no shepherd.” Finally, Philo compares God’s care of his creation to shepherding: “this hallowed flock He leads in accordance with right and law, setting over it His true Word and Firstborn Son Who shall take upon Him its government like some viceroy of a great king….Let therefore even the whole universe, that greatest and most perfect flock of the God who IS, say, ‘The Lord shepherds me, and nothing shall fail me'”(De Agricultura 51-52).
Josephus generally used this terminology when recounting biblical narratives that described Israelite heroes who were real shepherds, e.g. Jacob, Moses, and David, before they became leaders within Israel. Occasionally he refers to prophetic oracles that describe Israel as “sheep scattered on the hillsides.” In one context, again referencing a Greek form of material in 2 Samuel 24:17, Josephus describes David’s repentance at ordering the census of Israel which resulted in severe judgment. David pleads that “it was he, the shepherd, who was rightly to be punished, but the flock which had committed no sin, should be saved” (Antiquities VII, 328). However, Josephus does not use this language generally to describe the political and religious leadership within Israel. Within Contra Apionem I, 80ff, Josephus offers an extended argument in which he seeks to identify the Hyksos invaders of Egypt with the Israelites in Egypt. In I.103 Josephus wrote: “Such is Manetho’s account; and if the years which he enumerates are summed up, it is clear that the so-called shepherds, our ancestors, left Egypt and settled in our country….” Lastly, in one context Josephus scoffs at the Greeks who portray their gods and goddesses in various human guises, one of which is as shepherd (Contra Apionem II, 247).
The New Testament writers undoubtedly were familiar with shepherding functions, given the ubiquity of this industry in antiquity. As well, they would be aware of the metaphorical application of this language to Israel’s political and religious leaders in the Jewish scriptures. How aware they were of the Essenes’ application of this language to describe their primary community leaders or applications by intertestamental writers to Messianic descriptions cannot be determined. However, they certainly knew that Jesus had applied this terminology to his role, both as fulfillment of prophecy (e.g. Zechariah 13:7 cited in Mark 14:27) and general description of the Messiah’s mode of leadership (e.g. John 10) in contrast to contemporary political leaders (e.g. Mark 6, where Jesus is compared to Herod Antipas).
Peter used shepherding language to describe the Lord Jesus, calling him “chief shepherd” (archipoimenos) (1 Peter 5:4). When human beings repent and accept Jesus as Saviour, they “have turned to the shepherd (poimena) and overseer of their souls” (1 Peter 2:25). This is another instance in which Peter took language applied in the Jewish Scriptures to Israel and applied it to those who followed Jesus. Peter also applied this shepherding language to those entrusted with care and leadership of “the saints” (1 Peter 5:1-4). The elders are to “shepherd the flock (poimanate to en humin poimnion) of God among you” (1 Peter 5:2). It is clear, however, that this “shepherding” is a delegation from the “chief shepherd” for the care of his flock, i.e. the people of God, with specific accountability. This language covers the entirety of the leadership responsibilities undertaken by the elders within the house churches.
Paul employed the same metaphorical language in Acts 20:28-30 in his address to the “elders of the church” at Ephesus. They are to exercise watchful care for themselves “and all the flock (poimniōi)” and to “shepherd (poimainein) the church of God” (20:28). Here as in 1 Peter 5 this injunction is closely linked with the terms episkopos and episkopein.
I think that our contemporary interpretation of this language looks to the application of this leadership metaphor to God in the Gospels (e.g Matthew 18:10-14). Jesus used several parables in which God is compared to the shepherd who searches sacrificially for the lost sheep, finds it and returns rejoicing. We tend then to perceive “shepherding” primarily in terms of spiritual care, i.e. counseling, admonition, preaching.One example of this are the comments by Stephen Maachia (Becoming A Healthy Team, 150). He first defines how Jesus functioned as the Good Shepherd, which included his willingness to sacrifice himself so that his disciples, the sheep, might “flourish under his loving care.” He then concludes that “the shepherd leader’s number one priority is the flourishing nature of each sheep” (150). He quotes from another author who says that a shepherd is concerned that the sheep “are contented, well fed, safe, and flourishing.” When you think through what these outcomes entail, the administrative and organizational roles they entail become apparent. However, when we hear the words “loving care” defining the work of a spiritual shepherd, the administrative and organizational components that support such ministry rarely get recognized.
When Jesus tells Peter to “feed (boske) my lambs” (John 21:15) and immediately follows it by the injunctions “tend (poimaine) my sheep” (20:16) and “feed (boske) my sheep” (20:17), the action implied seems to focus on caring for the flock, i.e. providing spiritual nurture, protection and guidance. Don Carson in his commentary on John’s Gospel notes, however, that this language invokes the tension between the appropriate exercise of pastoral authority and its application with a spirit of exemplary meekness.
When we come then to Ephesians 4:11 which speaks about the “shepherds and teachers (tous de poimenas kai didaskalous),” in what sense in this term “shepherd” being employed? That it occurs in a list of people gifted by God to enable the church to grow (apostles, prophets, evangelists) indicates that it includes a communication function related to the revelation of God in the Jewish Scriptures and the Messiah. The use of a single article in reference to both nouns indicates that Paul was thinking of shepherd and teacher in some integrated way, not two separate roles. The suggestion that “shepherd/teacher” implies a kind of chaplaincy or merely sustaining ministry focus, rather than a dynamic exercise of kingdom leadership seems misguided. There is no implied contrast in this list among these roles, as if the first are missional and kingdom-expanding and the latter merely “tend the flock.” Rather the role of Jesus himself, I would suggest, is being recalled, the one who functioned in exemplary fashion as shepherd/teacher, forming the initial Messianic assembly in his work with the Twelve and others who followed him. This work included direction, management oversight (e.g. providing food, directing the ministry itinerary, discerning and training emerging leaders, organizing the Twelve, etc.), teaching, interpretation of Scripture in the light of the Messianic mission, protecting the group from false teaching, etc.
Almost all of the terms used in the New Testament to describe leaders within the emerging church were also used in secular contexts and included managerial functions, as well as guiding and protecting responsibilities. The term “shepherd” is no exception. To be a “pastor” or “shepherd/teacher” in New Testament terms requires such leaders to embrace organizational responsibilities, as well as caring and teaching roles, because it all involves tending the flock of God.
i. if you are a “pastor/teacher” in a local church, does your understanding of this role reflect its several, varied dimensions as expressed in the canonical context?
ii. the work of “restoring the saints” or “equipping” as it often is rendered, cannot be restricted simply to a preaching or teaching function. It is the total work of enabling a faith community grow and develop as Christ intended.