Overseers of the Church
'Guard ... all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood' (Acts 20:28). Here is the pastor's commission which at one and the same time gives him authority and humbles him with the reminder that he is never anything more than a servant of the Lord of the church. This means that the glory of the Lord and the wellbeing of the flock are to be his prime considerations. His own personal interests are secondary. A minister may speak in personal terms of 'my congregation' or 'my people'. The phrases may stand if they point to the solemn responsibility of the task of oversight. They must not however contain any implication of the rights of the proprietor of a business. The servant of the church is there, by definition, to serve! The flock is Christ's flock. The church is the Lord's church.
It is his by sovereign choice. As Paul reminds the Ephesians of their exalted status — 'blessed in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ' — he goes beyond this to locate the source of all these blessings in the electing grace of God — 'he chose us in him before the creation of the world' (Ephesians 1:4). When the Lord Jesus described his role as the good shepherd he had the same truth in view as he spoke of, 'My Father who has given them to me' (John 10:29). It is no wonder that he speaks with such confidence of the ultimate outcome of his redemptive work: 'All that the Father gives me will come to me' (John 6:37).
The confidence of the great shepherd must never be perverted by the under-shepherds to become an excuse for slackness in the work of the gospel. The fact that the elect will assuredly be gathered in is no prescription for complacency. Rather it is an incentive to evangelism. The Lord who purposes the ultimate end, which is the salvation of his elect, has also in view the means which he will employ, namely, the preaching of the gospel. He summons his servants to fervency in evangelism and at the same time assures them of the ultimate fruitfulness of their endeavours.
The flock is not only the elect people but the purchased people. It is the church of God 'which he bought with his own blood' (Acts 20:28). The Son's response to the Father's gift to him of the chosen people was the glad obedience which took him to the cross to purchase their redemption and so to make them his own. Given to him in the covenant of redemption he has fulfilled the terms of the covenant by his atoning death. So they are his, both by his Father's promise and by his own purchase. Peter recalls us to this truth!
You know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.1 Peter 1:18-19
In similar vein Paul writes to the Corinthians: 'You are not your own; you were bought at a price' (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). We must recognize Christ's unassailable title to ownership and the cost by which he acquired that title. It is that which makes the flock so precious to him and must make it precious to those whom he appoints as overseers.
Christ is ultimately the Pastor of the congregation. The man who is designated as pastor is only there to do his bidding, to minister in his name and to make his work known to his people. This is the consistent testimony of Scripture. 'He brought his people out like a flock; he led them like sheep through the desert' (Psalm 78:52); 'He tends his flock like a shepherd: he gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart' (Isaiah 40:11); 'He will watch over his flock like a shepherd' (Jeremiah 31:10); 'He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord' (Micah 5:4); 'He will be the shepherd of my people Israel' (Matthew 2:6); 'I am the good shepherd' (John 10:14).
In his work in the congregation the minister is caring for the Lord's flock and is under instructions how to conduct his ministry. He must see the congregation from a heavenly perspective. This is not merely an assembly of individuals some of whom are responsive, others apathetic, some encouraging while others are trying to the patience. Rather they are the Lord's precious possession and his special delight. They are the people the Lord blesses with his favour. His grace and gentleness are seen in his dealings with them. The aim of the minister must be not only to view them as the costly treasure entrusted to his care but to mediate to them the loving tenderness and the gentle firmness of the chief shepherd.
The Gifted People
It is one of the unhappy products of current controversies that the term 'charismatic' has been appended to a movement. The church itself is the true charismatic community. The charismata have been given by the Lord to his people in order that the body of Christ may be built up to be worthy of their high calling as the children of the Almighty. It is important, however, that we should not confine our attention to the exposition of the gifts in Romans 12 or 1 Corinthians 12-14, important though these passages are. There is also Ephesians 4 with its reminder that the ministry of the Word in its various forms is the gift of the ascended Lord to his church. It is this ministry of the Word which equips the saints to fulfil their individual ministries and so to edify the whole body. As Paul reminded Timothy, gifts may be given and yet remain dormant. The Christian must stir up his gifts and use them. It is here that the ministry of the Word plays a key role, teaching Christians how to recognize the gifts of the Spirit, how to avoid wrong emphases and fleshly self-advertisement and how to use every gift for the glory of the Lord and the edifying of God's people.
The pastor is also a bishop. The word is rooted in the verb skopeō, meaning to keep your eyes on. With the prefix epi it speaks of watching over, of careful supervision with a view to the welfare of those being supervised. Lest we should succumb to any tendency to prelatical arrogance the firm reminder comes that the Lord is the shepherd and bishop of our souls (1Peter 2:25). He is not only the chief shepherd but the one and only archbishop of the church!
The episcopacy exercised within the congregation is to be a reflection of the oversight of the Lord himself. The Psalms have frequent mention of the care of the God who oversees his people:
The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their cry. Psalm 34:15
As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him.Psalm 103:13
To reflect such care is the task of the bishop of the flock. He must watch over them with a sensitivity to their needs. A congregation is not an amorphous mass of humanity but an assembly of individuals with their own distinctive personalities, their own temperaments, their own failures, their struggles, their problems, and their needs. To watch over such a varied fellowship demands a loving concern for each one.
Such a concern for the flock involves an awareness of the dangers which they face and a readiness not only to warn them but to stand with them in times of testing. In Jesus' picture of the true shepherd it is this readiness which marks the latter off from the hireling who is not prepared to face those who attack the flock. There is the thief who comes to steal and destroy, and the wolf who is on the prowl to tear the flock apart. The hireling cannot face it and flies for his life. The true shepherd, however, stands his ground not only to warn the flock but to face with them the brunt of the attack.
The devil is unceasingly ready to attack. Thief that he is, he comes to rob us of the blessings which God gives us — our peace, our joy, even our assurance of salvation. He comes with the ruthless greed of a ravening wolf or, to change to Peter's analogy, 'like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour' (1 Peter 5:8). When sickness strikes or major disappointments or sorrow, then Satan is ready with alacrity to question God's love and goodness, to plant doubt in the mind of the Christian, and to try to destroy the believer's faith. He comes in times of sinful failure to question whether God could really forgive, and to induce a condition of backward looking depression. On the other hand when prosperity comes he tries to lull us into complacency. He uses the lure of the world and the pull of the flesh, to try to seduce the people of God.
The overseer of the flock must be keenly aware of Satan's devices. He must not only recognize the subtle attacks of the devil on himself but the persistence of his assaults on the flock. So he must warn the congregation of the wiles of the Evil One. He must expose Satan as the slanderer of God and the accuser of God's people. He must unmask him so that the angel of light is seen in all his hideous ugliness. He must point the way to victory, 'by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony'. Such a ministry will not be conducted from the remote comfort of the reserve trenches. It must be involved in the heat of the battle. Indeed if a man's ministry throws down a gauntlet to Satan there will be a demonic counter-attack. The apostle Paul knew what it meant to bear the brunt of Satan's fury. So he could speak of his thorn in the flesh as, 'a messenger of Satan to torment me' (2 Corinthians 12:7). The response to such assaults is not, however, the flight of the hireling but the resolute determination to lead the church militant in battle with the powers of hell.
The ministry of the overseer is not only in terms of comfort and challenge but also of discipline. He is called to rule the flock in the name of the Lord and to apply with authority the Word of God. Thus his preaching cannot be confined to consolation and encouragement but must also embrace censure and rebuke. It is much more difficult to engage in the latter, for people obviously relish encouragement and do not readily welcome rebuke. Yet if the minister sees worldliness or division or error and fails to speak out in case it causes offence he is guilty of a grave dereliction of duty. After all he stands in the tradition of the Old Testament prophet whose call was to declare the whole counsel of God, 'whether they listen or fail to listen' (Ezekiel 2:5).
Of course he must never emulate the Pharisee when he censures what is wrong. He does not speak from some eminence of spiritual perfection but as a fellow sinner sadly aware of his own failures, yet aware also of the forgiving grace of God and the inward power of the Holy Spirit. Nor must he be censorious with a nit-picking scrutiny which is constantly being exercised to detect some wrongdoing to castigate. It is fatally easy to let biblical censure degenerate into scolding. There must be no hint that the preacher is enjoying acting the role of the censor. While rebuke is a vital part of any ministry it must never become an unduly prominent part. It is always a painful necessity rather than a special pleasure. When Paul spoke with severity he spoke with tears (Philippians 3:18).
This area of his ministry will demand from the minister a very high standard of personal holiness. It will demand a very close walk with God. It will require a spirit of gentleness if the hurt inflicted is not to be unduly severe. It calls for deep humility if the minister is to avoid giving the impression that he is a paragon of virtue rather than a sinner saved by grace who himself has to struggle in face of the power of indwelling sin, the pressures of the world and the unremitting attacks of the Devil.
It is important to see not only what the task of the pastor involves but the reasons which would impel him to embark on the work of the ministry. If a man sent by God and filled with the Spirit is a powerful instrument in the hands of the Almighty, then, on the other hand, a minister who is not truly called and who is moved by lesser or unworthy aims is one of the most potent weapons in the armoury of Satan.
The apostle Peter deals with this issue of motivation both negatively and positively in his first letter (1 Peter 5:2-3). Those who are called to be pastors must not exercise this oversight as a mere duty but as a willing service — 'not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be'. The Lord of the church is looking not for reluctant drudges but for willing workers. The response to the call of God is not to be a foot-dragging exercise in grudging capitulation but the glad response of Christ with his fulfilment of Psalm 40:6-8:
Here I am. I have come to do your will, O God.Hebrews 10:7
The second pair of contrasting motives touches on a sensitive issue 'not greedy for money but eager to serve'. Paul insists on the same repudiation of covetousness when he lays down the qualifications for an elder who must not be 'a lover of money' (1 Timothy 3:3). He himself had given an illustration of the point in his own attitude to money. 'I have learned', he wrote to the Philippians, 'to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation' (Philippians 4:11-12).
The minister is peculiarly susceptible to this temptation to be covetous and often the congregation carries a measure of guilt as well. If he is paid at a rate below that of the average member, and even more if the discrepancy is very marked, it is all too easy for him to develop an unhealthy concern with money.
Peter's third contrast deals with the abuse of the authority which God gives to the overseer of the congregation — 'not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.' There is certainly an authority vested in the minister of the Word and that authority has been given by the Lord. To use Paul's metaphor, the minister is God's ambassador, 'as though God were making his appeal through us' (2 Corinthians 5:20). To turn to another picture, he is a watchman with a responsibility to see that discipline is exercised in the church. Our forebears aptly coined the phrase, 'sitting under the ministry', of this or that preacher. They recognized that the man in the pulpit had an authority granted by God to which they should submit.
But authority can be abused. It has been well said that some men grow under responsibility while others only swell! When the preacher is subservient to the Word and open to the direction of the Holy Spirit, when he cares nothing for his own position or comfort but cares deeply for his people, then he has a divinely given authority. If, however, he is more concerned with his own status and acceptability, if he is insensitive to the needs of others and rides roughshod over their susceptibilities with a tactless disregard for their feelings, then he is lording it over them rather than pastoring. At that point he forfeits the authority which he has abused.
Then again, since the pastor's aim is to develop among the members of the congregation a concern for one another, he must show such a caring attitude himself. If they are to be taught to minister in love to others then he must exemplify that love in his own ministry to them. He must not only teach them how to live within the congregation, but he must also — and how much more difficult this is — show them how to do it. The instinctive reaction is the cry from the heart of the apostle, 'Who is equal to such a task?' The immediate answer is 'No one'! The further and more satisfying answer, however, comes also from Paul: 'Our competence comes from God' (2 Corinthians 3:5).
Another set of negatives as far as motivation is concerned is given in 1 Thessalonians (2:1-12). Once again the negatives are balanced by positives. The pastor must avoid doctrinal error and also at the same time impure motives. He must resolutely refuse to play to the gallery. Pleasing men is no motive for a gospel ministry. So too, flattery of any kind is anathema. It is dishonest in that it fails to expose the sinfulness which needs to be laid bare, and as a result it muffles the necessary call to repentance. The warning against being lovers of money is reflected in Paul's disavowal of playing a part — this is implied in the mention of putting on a mask — in order to cover up greed. The plaudits of men, even of Christian men must have no place in the preacher's reckoning, for the glory of God is his ultimate concern.
The corresponding positives also come in this passage. There is the appeal to his commission to preach. Even though the preacher may not make explicit reference to his call to the ministry, implicit in all his preaching is the realization that he speaks as a man, 'approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel'. Nor is this approval linked only to his initial call, it must be constantly in view throughout his ministry. While he avoids any tendency to please men he must make every effort to please God, and this is intensified by the realization that God does not assess him like a superficial hearer but 'tests our hearts'.
A cluster of positive aims embraces the general desire to care for the flock. Paul speaks of being gentle like a mother with her small children. His readiness to share the gospel with them was matched by his willingness to share himself. For the apostle the ministry of the Word was not a job which occupied the working hours of each day but a total commitment which called for passionate devotion.
The call to present God's call to holy living demanded from Paul, and still demands, a corresponding holiness of life. So he appeals to his own life — 'how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you'. Nor was this righteousness the aloof and austere legalism of a Pharisee. It was rather the disciplined righteousness of a father who wants to set a pattern for his own children, and who aims at 'encouraging, comforting and urging' them. This is the pastor's goal as he ministers to his people. It is that they might 'live lives worthy of God'.
Paul has two further aims in view as he writes to the Corinthians. They are not really additional ones but are rather the basic motives which lie behind all the others. On the one side he speaks of the fear of the Lord, and on the other of the love of Christ. Here are the twin compelling factors which like converging forces impel him in one ultimate direction which is the glory of God.
The fear of the Lord has nothing of a servile or cringing character about it. The emancipation of the sinner who was under the bondage of sin and Satan has brought him into the glorious liberty of the sons of God. His freedom, however, is no excuse for licence. Yet he is constantly aware that indwelling sin tempts him to make that invalid transition. It is his reverence and awe before a holy God, coupled with a son's desire to obey his heavenly Father, which constitute the fear of the Lord. This fear is the relentless enemy of sinful self-indulgence. It is the stern critic of complacency and idleness. It scrutinizes and exposes every false motive. It produces service which is neither mere duty nor minimal performance, but rather wholehearted and responsible obedience.
Closely linked to this fear of the Lord is the allied driving force, the love of Christ. Standing before the blazing holiness of the Almighty the redeemed sinner bows in adoration and godly fear. Yet like the seer on Patmos he sees the emerald rainbow of mercy encircling the throne. The God of terrible holiness is the God of infinite grace and mercy who gave his only Son to the death of the cross. Such a glimpse of a dying Saviour stirs the heart of the pardoned rebel. God has had mercy on him. Christ has died for him. The love of Christ has summoned him to receive forgiveness, cleansing, justification. To such love there can be only one answer, total capitulation.
A former China missionary used an illustration which I have never forgotten. He spoke of the great River Yangtze meandering across the vast plains of central China until it comes to the gorge. Then, hemmed in by the towering cliffs on either side, the broad and slowly moving river becomes a surging torrent pouring with seemingly irresistible power towards the sea. The word which Paul uses when he speaks of the love of Christ compelling him (2 Corinthians 5:14) carries in it the thought of shutting someone in to a course of action. In face of the possibility of aimless drift or of a comfortable meander through life, the love of Christ shuts a man in and impels him with a constant urgency to fulfil his ministry to the glory of God. The sluggish performance of his pastoral work is transformed by the love of Christ into a surging torrent of blessing which in turn stirs and moves others to the depths of their souls and turns them Godwards and heavenwards.
All the Flock
The true pastor must give himself to all the flock (Acts 20:28). The average congregation will represent a wide spectrum of ages, classes, and types. There will be the small children, docile or fidgeting, dull or lively. There will also be the old people with the pressures of loneliness and sometimes a tinge of bitterness because of neglect by others. Teenagers will be there with the conflicting turmoil of passions and ambitions which beset that age group. Here too are young married couples with the burden of mortgages and the expense of growing children. Alongside them are the unmarried and the widows. There are both educated and simple, both sophisticated and ordinary. It is the preacher's impossible task, judged from a human standpoint, to minister to this cross-section of humanity. Yet he must keep in mind that he is responsible to all the flock and not just to those sections which appeal to him.
When the Lord re-commissioned Peter after his great denial it was to feed both the sheep and the lambs. When Paul wrote his letters he had in view masters and slaves, husbands and wives, parents and children, and for each group he had an appropriate word. It is good to notice how Paul preached in all kinds of varying situations — to the philosophers on Mars hill, to the Jewish listeners in a synagogue, to the country folk in Lycaonia. In each situation he aimed to convey his message in such a way that each particular group would understand and receive the Word.
The congregation is never an undifferentiated mass. It is composed of individuals with their own particular problems, their fears, their anxieties, their joys, their hopes, their failures, their sorrows. But if they are members of the flock which Christ has purchased with his own blood they have one important thing in common — the Holy Spirit dwells in their hearts. It is this which makes the utterly impossible task capable of realization, for the pastor's guide and strength is this same Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit who appoints men as overseers. But his appointment is no mere thrusting a man into a situation where he is dependent on his own resources. The Spirit who appoints is the one who gives the wisdom and the power which are necessary. Christ does not leave his disciples like orphans, but sends the Spirit who takes very imperfect instruments and yet moulds and fashions them to become his tools to accomplish his plans.