Feed My Sheep… My Word

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, 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.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, 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 everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.” – John 21:17-17

What is a “Pastor?” In August of this year (2017) I will have been licensed to the gospel ministry for 21 years. It’s hard to believe I have been pursuing vocational ministry that long. In some ways, it seems like just yesterday when the Lord called me to this task, and in other ways… it seems like it’s been a loooong time 😉 but what does it really mean to be a “Pastor.”

We’ve all got our own picture of what a Pastor should be, and mostly it comes out of our own experience. If you grew up in church, and if you had a Pastor you really connected with, he likely is the model you measure other Pastors by. This can be good, but it can also lead to some misconceptions. It can be good to the extent they did what the Bible calls Pastors to do, just like Paul said, basically, follow me as I follow Jesus (1Cor 11:1). It can also lead to some misconceptions in that everyone has personal strengths. A Pastor is always going to do things beyond their role strictly as a Pastor, and that leads us to think “well, my Pastor was so good at… so why don’t you do that” whether or not that’s part of the core responsibility of a Pastor.

Our measure for what something should be, however, is not our own experience or even how we feel about something, it should be God’s Word. As a Southern Baptist, the Scriptures are for me “the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried” (BF&M Article I). It doesn’t matter what someone else does, and it doesn’t matter how I feel, it matters what the Bible says.

A Pastor is a shepherd. That’s literally what the word ποιμήν translated “Pastor” means. You can see in other passages in the New Testament that there are a couple of other terms which refer to this office.

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. -1Peter 5:1-3

Peter is giving some encouragement to the “elders” (πρεσβύτερος, i.e. “Presbyterian”) in the churches to “shepherd” (ποιμαίνω, the verb form “to shepherd” or “to pastor”) the flock as they exercise “oversight” (ἐπισκοπέω, the verb form “to oversee” relating to the office of “overseer” ἐπισκοπή i.e. “Episcopal” in such passages as 1Timothy 3:1-7). These three titles: Pastor, Elder, and Overseer are all used in relation to the role of “Pastor.” As is the case with 1Peter 5:1-3 (above), the “Pastor” is HOW they do their job (as a shepherd), the “Elder” is a description of WHO does that job (someone who is spiritually mature), and the title “Overseer” is WHAT they do (oversee the ministry of the church).

This is all very instructive as to what the Pastor should do. The Pastor does not “do the ministry” for the church, he is to oversee the ministry of the church. Far too often, especially in smaller rural churches, the members have the mindset that they hire the Pastor to do the work of the ministry on their behalf, because they all have jobs. The Bible actually paints the opposite picture, over and over again.

And he [God] gave… the Pastor-Teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ -Ephesians 4:11-12

The goal of ministry is to build up the body of Christ, and the workers of the ministry, those who do it hands-on, are “the saints” (the most common description of Christians in general in the New Testament). So the Pastor’s role is closer to that of a coach leading a team to play a sport. The ones who actually carry the ball are the players, and so it is meant to be with Pastors. They are not, however, exempted from being one of the saints, but there is no higher standard on them to do the work of the ministry than any other Christian as part of the flock.

See, ultimately, Pastors are sheep dogs. They’re not really the Shepherd, that’s Jesus, but they do the shepherding on behalf of THE Shepherd until He returns. The Pastor oversees all the ministries of the church, like a head coach, but he does so from a spiritual perspective. His job is to make sure the church is working together, as a team, towards a common biblical goal, the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20). We are to bring glory to God by making (more as well as better) disciples, baptizing them, and then teaching them. This is what builds up the church, and it’s our job… not the Pastor’s job, our job, the whole church’s. “when each part [of the church] is working properly, [that] makes the [church] body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:16)

Three times (in John 21 above), corresponding to Peter’s earlier denial, Jesus asked if Peter loved Him. Peter did, and Jesus knew that. The Lord’s command to Peter, then, was to “feed my lambs… tend my sheep… feed my sheep.” This is the job of the Pastor, to do the shepherding on behalf of Jesus. But how is the flock to be “fed” and “tended?” Is this a special call for “ministry” at a higher level than the general church member? Is this a charge for more hands-on care and increased physical presence specifically as a Pastor? No, it’s not.

Just as Ephesians 4 (above) grammatically describes the title as “Pastor-Teacher,” we see in the New Testament that one of the primary roles for the Pastor is to teach God’s Word. This is what the flock needs to be fed, this is how the Lord’s sheep are to be tended, with the exposition of the Bible. How else do we know this is true?

Peter did not let the Lord down again. At Pentecost he stood up and preached the Word and thousands of people became disciples, were baptized, and then the teaching began. There was a problem though, Peter was being drawn into more and more hands-on direct ministry. As the church was growing people wanted to be with Peter, but the Lord had given Peter the task to be a Shepherd. As more and more people wanted Peter to minister to them, he was actually able to pastor the people less and less.

“It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” – Acts 6:2-4

It is not right for those who have been called to preach the Word of God to διακονέω (“serve” transliterated “Deacon”) to the detriment of their ability to seek God and proclaim His Word. The primary job of the Pastor, the Shepherd who feeds and tends the sheep, is prayer and the ministry of the Word. Very often we hear things like hospital visits, counseling, meeting in homes, and other “hands-on ministry” described as “Pastoral ministry,” but that’s incorrect.

“Pastoral ministry” is what Peter describes his task in Acts 6 (above) as “the ministry of the Word.” Peter was called by the Lord (in John 21 above) to be a Pastor for His people, and in order to do that, Peter created a group of men who would “Deacon” the flock so Peter could Pastor by praying and preaching the Word.

The “hands-on” tasks of ministering one to another is the job of all of us, not the Pastor’s as a special calling. The whole church is called to do this kind of serving. That’s not “pastoral ministry” it’s simply “congregational care,” and that’s for us all to participate in.

Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve (διακονέω “deacon”) one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace -1Peter 4:8-10

About John Harris

I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.

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