The orthodox Christian theology of Hadley Robinson

True Shepherding

by Hadley Robinson

What is shepherding according to the Bible? What are elders/overseers/pastors/bishops to be doing in the Church? Here are a few highlights from Scripture which speak of true shepherds and their characteristics. Following this, nine qualities of a true shepherd of Christ are given according to the Word of God.

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
he makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he restores my soul.
He guides me in paths of righteousness
for his name's sake.
Even though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows. – Psalm 23:1-5

It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers. – Eph. 4:11

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. – John 10:11-13

For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God. Keep watch over yourselves and 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. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears. Acts 20:27-31

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. – Eph. 4:2

Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. – Heb. 12:14-16

 Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, serving as overseers–not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away. – 1Pet. 5:2-4

Under-shepherds & Servants

All earthly shepherds of God’s flock are under-shepherds of Christ. They serve just as He does, in so far as it is possible, and are subject to His authority, not their own or any other man’s. They can require obedience from the sheep because they are obedient. They point men to the Chief Shepherd (1Pet. 5:2,4). They do not point men to other men. They are disciples of Jesus, not of men. They are not shepherds for any sort of personal gain or recognition – no true shepherd is governed by selfish ambition (Acts 20:28). Service is their passion and goal because their Master, the Lord Jesus, was a servant – the highest example of all time of a true servant (Matt. 20:28; 2Cor. 11:8, 13:4; Gal. 5:13; 1Pet. 4:10, 5:2; Rev. 1:6, 7:15). Those who want to lord it over others should run for political office….

Appointed by Christ

All true shepherds are appointed by Him. True shepherds are not made by some vote of the sheep. What do the sheep know? They are sheep. More than not, the flock affirms false/bad/poor shepherds (3John; Num. 16). Other Spirit filled brothers can only affirm what Christ has already done (1Tim. 4:4; 5:22; 2Tim. 1:6; Heb. 6:2). Affirmation by the Church is still an important task but does not guarantee that wolves will not inhabit the highest offices of the Church. The early leaders of Princeton Theological Seminary, for example, had well-constructed creeds and doctrine in place but their institution was stolen from right under their noses by the wolves and seeds of the Devil. Sometimes, the LORD removes or kills these anti-shepherds outright (Jer. 28:15ff.; Acts 5:5) or He may allow them to ravage the Sheep (3John). We must pray for godly shepherds as they are critical to the health of the Body.

Loving of the Flock

They love the flock and are devoted to them, regardless of how the flock behaves or whether the flock loves them back (1Cor. 8:1, 13:1ff., 16:14; Gal. 5:6; Eph. 4:2; 1John 3:16ff.)

Men of Peace

They keep the spiritual peace of the people – they are not the authors of turmoil but of peace. Shepherds who cannot be at peace with all men should not be shepherds. False or bad shepherds scatter God’s flock and cause the sheep to be bitter (Heb. 12:14).

Godly Examples

As examples, they spiritually grow the flock by encouraging and requiring them, as necessary, to be faithful and obedient to Christ (1Cor. 11:1; Php. 3:17; 1Tim. 1:16; Tit. 2:7; 1Pet. 2:21). In particular, not to be godless or immoral but walk by faith with pure love for their brothers in Christ. They demonstrate what the Christian life is. They are doctrinally steady (Eph. 4:14) – not blown about by every “wind of teaching”. They are not charismatic salesmen with gimmicky plans, notions, and “save-the-world-from-itself” crusades. They are also experienced and tested (1Tim. 3:10). The must know how to manage their families (1Tim. 3:4-5).  If they are unable to discipline their children, they will never be able to exercise discipline in the Church.

They are men who have or have had only one wife.  This does not mean they are not polygynists in the modern sense, that is, they have had multiple wives but only one at a time.  It means that they have had only one wife -- ever.  The Apostle in 1 Tim. 3:2 was not thinking of just men who had multiple wives at the same time because such arrangements were both unlawful and scorned during the Greco-Roman period.  He was forbidding men to serve in Church leadership who engaged in the very thing modern Americans do: serial polygyny.  A man who has broken his sacred oath to the bride of his youth is neither a good example nor can he be trusted.  He certainly cannot be relied upon to teach others about godly marriage, keeping covenants, enduring suffering, or loving his bride as Christ loved the Church.

Completely Gentle and Humble

They do not pick fights nor insult nor drive away the flock (Eph. 4:2). They do not promote themselves or their own authority, e.g., “I’m bishop/elder/pastor so-and-so, who are you?” Jesus did not promote Himself but became a servant (Php. 2:5-7). They are confident that the God they serve can act in areas where only He can (e.g. changing people’s hearts). Why is it that so many in our church culture flock after those who promote themselves and their ear-tickling doctrines rather than the pure Gospel of Christ? As one prominent eastern Church leader quipped concerning American evangelicals, "What doctrine are we going to believe today?"

Guardians of the Church

They protect the sheep from the bad/false/poor shepherds. They evaluate others who claim to be shepherds – and even name names, if necessary (3John 9 “Diotrephes”; 2Tim 4:14 “Alexander the metalworker”). They are not afraid to properly judge, when necessary, the so-called ministries of the bad/false shepherds. They have courage for the sake of the flock even when sacrifice is required.


They stick with the flock and don’t abandon them, even when things become desperate, as when wolves appear. They do not hop from church to church in order to find “better pastures” for themselves as do the hired hands mentioned in John 10:12-13.

Men Only

God’s shepherds cannot be women (Gen. 2:20, 3:16; 1Cor. 11:3; Tit. 1:6; 1Tim. 2:12, 3:2). While women can teach and disciple other women, they are not shepherds. The feminization of our culture, including the Church, is one of the great catastrophes of our time. It has nothing to do with culture because a woman’s role was established at the creation and that role precedes and trumps every other institution, including the civil order, the giving of the Law, the establishment of the Church, and the Reformation.

Since the beginning, women have been usurping the role of men. She is not his partner but a critical helper who needs his covering of authority. Many men are all too ready to acquiesce their role rather than to look to Christ for courage and inspiration on how to be a godly men and leaders. Who said it was to be easy? For leadership, Jeremiah was thrown in a mud-hole to die (Jer. 38:6). Elijah was almost driven to suicide (1Kings 19:3). The vast majority of cultures in the world recognize this truth to their credit but to our shame.

Here is a description of the false shepherds according to Jude – those who are only interested in themselves.

These men are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm–shepherds who feed only themselves. They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted–twice dead. They are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever. –Jude 1:12-13