When choosing men to serve as shepherds of a local congregation what is the criteria that should be used to select them? Often this is a difficult task made more difficult by our lack of understanding what characteristics the men should have. In the past, based on my experience working with elders as a minister, deacon, member and elder little thought was put into the selection other than the “qualifications” listed by Paul. These qualifications were used more as a check list than any real consideration to there intent.
The basic problem with that as I see it, is it misses the intent of the responsibility of the men who are being chosen. The scriptures are written in such a way as to guide us to an understanding of the job of “elders.” That is done by using three different and separate Greek terms to describe what their responsibility is. It would seem that the proper thing to do when selecting these men would be to look at the work they are to do and then find men who not only met the “qualifications” listed by Paul but who had the ability, desire, and wisdom to do the three jobs designated by the Greek terms.
Lets take a look at the three terms and see if we can get a picture of the proper criteria for each facet of the position.
First, “elder”. This one is easy because you can find so many references to them in the Old and New Testament. True, most of these have reference to elders in the Jewish community but the concept was borrowed by Paul when he chose that particular term. What did these men do? They made decisions and offered advice. The solved problems between people and offered judgments. They were not controllers, business men or necessarily successful business men over 55. Nothing in the scriptures suggest that their purpose was to direct every single part of the church’s life. In the not too distant past we chose “elders” because they were older successful men who could run the affairs of the church and we put them in charge of the material and physical. Wrong.
Second, “shepherd”. This one should be easy for the same reason as the first. Jesus even talked about the role of the shepherd and what’s more modeled it. There job was to nourish the sheep and protect them. Want a good picture of the shepherd, read Psalm 23. This is spiritual care not physical care. Church shepherds are responsible for taking care of the Lord’s sheep. They should not be burdened with building the shelters, and harvesting the grain or hauling the water. That is the physical part. Shepherds are spiritual guides. When shepherds are selected we should check and see if they are capable of providing “spiritual leadership.” Anyone can run the physical part of the church’s property. Not everyone can provide spiritual leadership.
Third, “overseer”. This is not used so frequently in the scriptures but where it is used the meaning seems obvious. To oversee means to watch out for. To be on the look out for the charges in your care. Paul says they manage God’s house. How did we get the idea that God’s house was a physical building and property. God’s house is not the building, nor the lands, nor the bank account. Peter says that Jesus is both shepherd and overseer of our souls. Each church is to have a resident shepherd/overseer for the purpose of watching out for the church (spiritual body of Christ).
Hebrews says we are to submit to our leaders (elders, shepherds, overseers) because they keep watch over us as those who will give an account. Is there anyway he means they must account for the building, the grounds, the money, the day by day physical operations. Is that why we are to submit? They will give an account for what they are responsible for and that is our souls.
Never should a man be appointed to the position of overseer who is not qualified and interested in looking out for the souls of the church where he serves.