By Mike Willis
Ezekiel 34 denounces the “shepherds of Israel” because of their failures in leading God’s people. The shepherds were the tyrannical civil rulers over the nation of Judah who were more interested in “feathering their own nest” than in caring for God’s people. The shepherds of Israel failed to do what God commanded shepherds to do and then compounded their sin by using their position over the nation to their own financial advantage.
This passage is instructive to us for many reasons, not the least of which is understanding the proper work of a shepherd. Inasmuch as the elders in the New Testament are compared to shepherds (1 Pet. 5:1-3), we can learn from this passage the primary thrust of an elder’s work. Using Ezekiel 34 as our guide, let us consider the work of godly elders.
1. Feed the flock. Ezekiel said, “Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the Rocks? Ye eat the fat, and ye clothe you with the wool, ye kill them that are fed: but ye feed not the flock” (Ezek. 34:2-3). Peter charged elders over the church to do this work saying, “Feed the flock of God which is among you” (1 Pet. 5:2).
As one reads Ezekiel’s description of the tyrannical rulers over Judah who used the flock for their own financial benefit, he cannot resist comparing them to modern denominational “pastors” who are continually begging for money. Television evangelists are perpetual beggars who persuade those who can little afford to be separated from their money to send them a donation. Meanwhile the “pastors” own luxurious condominiums in resort areas of the country, drive luxury cars, and display their expensive jewelry. “Ye eat the fat, and ye clothe you with wool, ye kill them that are fed: but ye feed not the flock.”
One of the qualifications of an elder is that he be “apt to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2); he should be qualified “both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers” (Tit. 1:10). This qualification of an elder places on him a burden to learn the word of God and how best to teach it.
In some congregations, the elders seldom participate in the teaching program. Some do not teach because they cannot teach and others do not teach because they do not want to teach. Although part of the work of an elder is to oversee the teaching program to be sure that qualified teachers are faithfully teaching God’s word, the elder who never participates in teaching the flock will soon lose the respect of the flock.
2. Strengthen the diseased, heal the sick, and bind up that which is broken. Ezekiel continued his rebuke of the elders of Israel saying, “The diseased have ye not strengthened, neither have ye healed that which was sick, neither have ye bound up that which was broken. . . ” (Ezek. 34:4). The work of a literal shepherd would involve carefully nurturing those sheep which were diseased, sick, or with broken bones.
The shepherd of the church is to watch for the souls of men (Heb. 13:17). He should notice when someone in the congregation becomes sick or broken. His responsibility as a shepherd is to work with the sin-sick soul to bring him back to health. When a member of the congregation begins to miss worship services, the elders should be among the first to call and/or visit the Christian to see what spiritual problem is endangering his soul. An elder who never checks on those who are becoming weak and are about to die will not be able to lead the congregation.
3. Retrieve those who are driven away or lost. Ezekiel added: “. . neither have ye brought again that which was driven away, neither have ye sought that which was lost” (Ezek. 34:4). The work of an elder was demonstrated in the parable of the lost sheep in Luke 15:3-7.
And he spake the parable unto them, saying, What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lost one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbors, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.
The good shepherd of this parable went out looking for the lost sheep. Should this describe the work of godly shepherds today?
When a member of the church wanders into sin, the elders should go after him. There should not be an attitude of indifference, self-righteousness, or condescension displayed toward a sheep which has wandered away and become lost. Rather, there should be a concern for the lost soul of man, a desire to see that person saved in the day of judgment, which motivates the shepherd to go after him.
Some among us see shepherds who are neglecting this portion of their work. They are writing that elders have no authority over the flock of God. God has given elders “rule” (“Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves” – Heb. 13:17); they are “over us” in the Lord (“And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labor among you, and are over you in the Lord. . . ” 1 Thess. 5:12). They have the responsibility to lead the congregation in the realm of decisions of a judgmental nature. They have no legislative or executive authority. God has granted to them the work of leading the congregation in obeying the commands revealed from heaven.
Apparently, some men view the work of elders much like a business. They make decisions regarding the spending of money; they make decisions regarding which subjects will be studied in which classes and who will serve as the teacher; they lead the congregation in securing a preacher (and dismissing him). All of these works are within the legitimate sphere of labor given to an elder. They oversee the treasury (a legitimate part of their work), but neglect the sheep.
Far too many elders are leaving any work which demands personal involvement with the sheep for others to do. Some elders rarely, if ever, practice hospitality, although this is a specific qualification given to elders (1 Tim. 3:2) and required of Christians generally (Heb. 13:2; 1 Pet. 4:9). They very seldom visit the members who are beginning to miss services, who have a spiritual problem, or otherwise need spiritual help. They act like the responsibility lies solely on the member who is going astray to contact them if they have a spiritual need. Inasmuch as they are not actively involved in working among the flock, they make very poor leaders of any program aimed at restoring the erring and seeking the lost. Some elders never meet with the congregation to inform the congregation of work which is planned and to receive input from the congregation about perceived needs. Soon they lose contact with the flock altogether. When they make a decision on some matter of judgment which does not reflect the desires of the flock, they wonder why the members of the church are upset and do not trust their leadership abilities!
Someone has said, “The preacher does the work of the elders; the elders do the work of the deacons; and the deacons do nothing.” I suppose that is an exaggeration. However, sometimes there is not a little truth in the observation. The preacher generally is actively working to save the lost, to restore the erring, and the keep others faithful. Some who are elders are busy at work mowing yards, painting classrooms, cleaning the baptistry, and other works which need to be done around the building. These jobs could be given to deacons or other members who lack the spiritual qualifications to do the work which elders should be doing. The result is that some elders, even many conscientious ones, are not doing the work which God assigned for them to do.
Some elderships seem more concerned about the upkeep of the physical facilities than they do in the saving of the lost souls. They are constantly looking for things which need to be done to the building but generally are negligent of the needs of the sheep and the expanding of the borders of the kingdom of God. More time is spent in the business meetings discussing the maintenance of the church building than in how to reach the lost.
God has placed a heavy responsibility on the shoulders of elders. Those with whom I have been associated have been honorable men whose faith I have sought to emulate. I do not write as one who has been disgruntled working with elders whom I could not respect. Rather, I write to call the attention of all God-fearing elders to the great work to take up the task before us with zeal, working among the flock of God to meet the spiritual needs of God’s people.
Guardian of Truth XXX: 6, pp. 162, 184
March 20, 1986