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Biblical Models Of Christian Leadership, Part 1 - The Shepherd Model

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The Shepherd Model Of Christian Leadership

Generally, I think it is true to say that the biblical model of Christian leadership is embraced in two terms – (1) shepherd; and (2) servant. In this article we will examine the “shepherd-leader” model, which seems to be the predominant biblical model of church leadership.

This paradigm is all-embracing in that it represents all aspects of leadership:

a) interpersonal relationships (i.e. sacrifice, care, intimacy, knowledge of those you lead, companionship)

b) decision-making

c) forward-planning

d) disciplining

e) teaching / training

f) support

g) provision

h) protection

A. The Principle Of Shepherd Leadership

1. Shepherds In The Old Testament

God considered prophets, priests, and kings as “shepherds”. Spiritual, political, and military leaders who were considered shepherds were Moses and David. David’s experience as an actual shepherd of sheep is transferred over to his role as a metaphorical shepherd of God’s people. As the shepherd of God’s people, David’s role was: (1) king (ruler); (2) guide; (3) protector; (4) provider.

Shepherds of God’s people were strong leaders – not passive or weak. For example, Nehemiah was just as much a shepherd as Ezra even though their roles were distinct (Ezra was a preacher; Nehemiah was a builder). Nehemiah led the people, cared for them, nourished them spiritually just as much as Ezra.

Shepherds in the O.T. led the people in all areas of life – commerce, education, foreign affairs, and spiritual life. It was holistic and multidimensional.

In the O.T. we find many prophetic references to Jesus as the good Shepherd:

  1. Ps. 23, 79:13, 80:1, 95:7. Jesus is the shepherd of Israel and of individual believers who are his sheep.
  2. Isa. 40:11. Jehovah is the good shepherd.
  3. Ezek. 34:23; Jer. 23:5. David’s greater Son will be the shepherd of the reunited remnant.
  4. Jer. 3:4; 23:3; Amos 3:2; 5:15; Mic. 2:12; 5:3,7,8; 7:18-20; Hab. 2:4; Zeph. 3:12, 13; Hag. 1:12, 14; Zech. 8:6,12; 13:8,9. Jesus, the good Shepherd, will separate the true Israel from the national Israel and lead his own out of “the fold”.

2. Shepherds In The New Testament

Obviously, in the context of church leadership “shepherding” refers to leading God’s people.

Shepherds in the N.T. are called “pastors” (Eph. 4:11) – i.e. one who feeds, protects, leads, cares and tends his sheep. The term “pastor” is used synonymously in the N.T. with the terms “elder” and “bishop / overseer” (e.g. Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:1-2).

Elders (πρεσβυτερος) are the men who are responsible for the overall care of the church (Acts 14:23). This is a Jewish term carried over from the synagogue and, therefore, readily understood by the Jewish believers. It connotes experience, wisdom, maturity, counsel, knowledge, instruction – those characteristics associated with “age” (hence, “elder”).

Their moral and spiritual character and qualifications are outlined in 1 Tim. 3:1-7 and Tit. 1:5-9. Their importance is evident in 1 Thess. 5:12; 1 Tim. 5:17; Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:1-3.

Bishop (επισκοπος) is the function of elders to give oversight and leadership to the church ( 1Tim. 3:1). The term “bishop” is synonymous with overseer. This is a Gentile term carried over from commercial usage, and, therefore, readily understood by the Gentile believers. It connotes management, accountability, supervision.

Pastor (ποιμεν) is the function of elders who shepherd the church, feeding the flock by teaching the Word, protecting the church from various enemies both from inside and outside the church (1 Pet. 5:1; Acts 20:28; Eph. 4:11), and caring for the flock in general. In our culture today we make more of a sharp distinction between “pastor” and “elder” than the N.T. does (although Eph. 4:11 seems to identify pastors separately).

B. The Paradigm Of Shepherd Leadership

Some Biblical Examples

Yahweh is spoken of as the shepherd of Israel (Isa. 40:11). Indeed, probably the most loved verses of Scripture begin, “The LORD is my Shepherd...”.

Jesus was a shepherd. Jesus is spoken of as the good shepherd (Jn. 10); the great shepherd (Heb. 13:20); and the chief shepherd (1 Pet. 5:4) – i.e. the Shepherd of shepherds (the Shepherd of pastors).

Jesus modelled and taught shepherding as his leadership style. He said, “I am the good Shepherd, the good shepherd gives his life for the sheep ... I am the good shepherd and I know my sheep and am known by my own ... My sheep hear my voice and I know them, and they follow me” (cf. Jn. 10:11, 14, 27). He saw the people as sheep “without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36). He sent his disciples to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:6). In addition to these sheep (Jews), he had “other sheep” (Gentiles) “who are not of this fold (i.e. Jewish fold); them also I must bring, and they will hear my voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd” (Jn. 10:16). He acted toward people as a shepherd acts toward his sheep:

  • Caring – “When he saw the multitude, he was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd” (Matt. 9:36)
  • Feeding (e.g. Mk. 6:30-44; 8:1-10)
  • Healing and nursing
  • Teaching and training
  • Protecting
  • Leading

In the shepherd’s leadership there is intimacy, relationship, security, sacrifice, warmth, tenderness. That’s why Jesus invites those to come to him who “labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:28-29).

Jacob, Moses, and David (cf. Ps. 78:70-72; 2 Sam. 5:2) were all shepherds by profession and by calling as leaders of God's people.

Ezekiel goes to great lengths to condemn the “false” (selfish) shepherds in Ezek. 34:1-16 (cf. also Zech. 11:4-14).1 Here’s what Ezekiel says about them and to them:

1. The characteristic of false shepherds (vv. 2-4):

a) They feed themselves (2) and horde riches instead of feeding the sheep. A shepherd’s responsibility is to feed the flock. That is your first and foremost responsibility – not feeding yourself.

What does it mean to feed yourself? It means to look out for yourself first; to make sure your needs are met first; to “eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool; you slaughter the fatlings, but you do not feed the flock” (3).

b) They do not provide pastoral care (4). The weak sheep are not strengthened. The sick sheep are not healed, nursed. The broken sheep are not bound up. The offended sheep are not brought back but “driven away”. The lost sheep are not searched for until they are found.

c) They “rule” over the sheep oppressively (4). They lead with “force” (like task masters; lording it over the flock) and with “cruelty” (like tyrants).

2. The consequences of this false leadership (vv. 5-8)

1. The sheep are scattered. Why? Because they have no shepherd. False shepherds are not shepherds at all. Rather than gather together, they scatter and divide

2. The sheep are preyed upon by wild beasts, attacked and devoured. When sheep are scattered and left alone w/o a shepherd, they can’t discern between friend and foe and they can’t defend themselves.

3. The sheep wander in the mountains and every high place, over the whole face of the earth, because no one is looking out for them, searching for them, or caring for them.

3. God’s indictment against false shepherds (vv. 9-16)

1. He is “against” such shepherds

2. He will “require his flock at their hand” – hold them responsible for their irresponsibility and self-centredness

3. The shepherds will lose their positions – “I will cause them to cease feeding the sheep”.

4. The shepherds will lose what they had gained – “They shall feed themselves no more”.

5. God will deliver his flock from them – “I will deliver my flock from their mouths that they may no longer be food for them” (10). False shepherds actually feed on the sheep. But God will remove the sheep from them. He will search for his sheep himself and gather them back from where they have been scattered, and feed them in good pasture (11-16). The implication is that the false shepherds will starve, lose their livelihood and God himself will be the true shepherd of Israel.


The condemnation of Ezek. 34 is directed against the false rulers. They didn’t strengthen the weak “sheep” nor heal the sick nor seek out the lost. Instead of gentleness and love they lead with force and cruelty (4). Instead of gathering sheep together they scattered them (5).

In contrast, God is the true shepherd of Israel (11). He will seek them out, gather them together, feed them and protect them in the fold, and give them rest (11-16ff).

Paul was a shepherd, not by profession and experience, but by practice among God’s people. It was this shepherd style of leadership that Paul insisted the Ephesian elders practise: “Therefore, take heed to yourselves and to all the flock of God, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which he purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).

His own leadership style was marked by the characteristics of a shepherd. Look at 1 Thess. 2:7-12:

Gentleness (7- 8). The gentleness of a nursing mother (providing love, protection, nourishment): 7We were gentle among you just as a nursing mother cherishes her own children. 8So, affectionately longing for you, we were well pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God, but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us.

Sacrifice (8-9). He was willing to impart his own life to them; laboured among them night and day so that he would not be a financial burden to them: 8...we were well pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God, but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us. 9For you remember, brethren, our labour and toil; for labouring night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, we preached to you the gospel of God.

Spirituality (10). Notice the qualities of the “elder” here – devout, just, blameless. 10You are witnesses and God also how devoutly and justly and blamelessly we behaved ourselves among you who believe.

Care (11-12). He exhorted, comforted, and charged them: 11 you know how we exhorted and comforted and charged every one of you as a father does his own children, 12 that you would walk worthy of God who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.

Peter was a shepherd, again, not by profession but by Jesus’ commission: 15 So when they had eaten breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me more than these?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Feed My lambs.” 16 He said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Tend My sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love Me?” And he said to Him, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said to him, “Feed My sheep. 18 Most assuredly, I say to you, when you were younger, you girded yourself and walked where you wished; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish.” 19 This He spoke, signifying by what death he would glorify God. And when He had spoken this, He said to him, “Follow Me.” (Jn. 21:15-17)

Jesus’ commission of Peter undoubtedly formed the basis for Peter’s exhortation to other church leaders as to their attitude to and motivation for leadership: “1 The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: 2 Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; 3 nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; 4 and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away (1 Pet. 5:1-4).

A Caution

Unfortunately, what we see being practised today in many churches is not the shepherd model of leadership but the corporate management model. If you read some of the church advertisements for pastors, you would think it was a corporation advertising for senior executive.

The emphasis is on visionary leadership, growth, management and motivation skills. It isn’t that shepherds don’t have these skills. It’s that churches now are emphasizing management skills rather than the heart attitude of the person.

You can be a leader and not be a shepherd, but if you are a shepherd, you will also be a leader by definition. Shepherds are leaders whose leadership style reflects God’s heart for his people. As Glenn Wagner puts it: “If our goal is faithful shepherdship, the result will be effective leadership” (E. Glenn Wagner, Escape from Church Inc., Zondervan, 1999, 142). Wagner also points out that although the Bible addresses the issue of church leadership and the church’s need for, and relationship to, leaders, nowhere does the Bible address any church official by the title “leader” (Wagner, 141). So Wagner asks the question: “If none of these leadership or authoritative or ruler titles are used to describe pastors in the New Testament, why are we using them? Why are we building a model of ministry around the concept of leader, when the Bible itself largely avoids it?” (Wagner, 141).

I think we would do well to use the biblical terminology, “shepherd” or “pastor” because in that term the emphasis is on God’s people, not goals, programs, or budgets. The designation “leader” connotes drive, structure, hierarchy, domination, plans, human wisdom and ambition, and power, but the term “shepherd” connotes an assembly of people moving and working together as a community.

1 Jeremiah also condemns Israel’s false shepherds (10:21ff; see also 25:34-36).

Related Topics: Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Pastors

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