Puritan William Perkins is said to have referred to the family and the Christian household as a “little church.” In somewhat of a similar vein, Lewis Bayly taught, “what the preacher is in the pulpit, the same the Christian householder is in his house.” The idea of fathers as the pastors of their homes is not one constructed artificially; rather, it arises from the testimony of Scripture. The word “pastor” is an anglicized form that comes from the Latin word meaning “shepherd.” Sheep are mentioned in the Bible more than any other animal and shepherds are referred to over one hundred times.
Any examination of pastoring, or shepherding, must begin with the Lord who revealed himself as a shepherd, the one who Jacob described as “the God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day” (Gen 48:15), the one of whom David declares, “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want” (Ps 23:1). God is also the shepherd of his people corporately, a people who are described as his “flock” (1 Kgs 22:17; Jer 13:17, 50:6; Ps 28:9, 68:7, 74:1, 79:13, 80:1, 121:4).
When many contemporary American evangelicals think about what it means to be a shepherd, thoughts are conjured up of pictures of an effeminate looking Jesus gazing longingly at a sheep as he strokes its wool—and other, similar images. In the Ancient Near East, however, sheep and shepherds were a part of everyday life, and shepherds in particular were rugged warriors who bore marks in their flesh from defending, protecting, and guiding the sheep over whom they exercised oversight and care.
In the Bible, God as shepherd means he is the authoritative head of his people, the one who leads, guides, directs, teaches, disciplines, and fights for his own. For instance, Psalm 77:20 describes the Lord’s redemption of his people from bondage in Egypt by the awe-inspiring parting of the Red Sea, declaring, “You led your people like a flock.” The people’s response to this expression of God’s shepherding care was to sing, “The Lord is a man of war, the Lord is his name” (Exod 15:3). The kings and rulers of Israel were called to reflect God by leading and protecting the people—and thus they were called “shepherds of Israel” (Jer 23:2; Ezek 34:2, 37:24).
The shepherd boy, the secretly anointed king David, made the case to Saul that he was prepared to meet the challenge of Goliath by averring,
Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him. Your servant has struck down both lions and bears, and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them. (1 Sam 17:34-36a)
The compassionate care offered by the Bible’s good shepherds was costly and sacrificial. Every good shepherd bore the marks in his flesh of what it meant to care for the flock, and his rod was often stained in blood. Alternately, the mark of an unfaithful shepherd was that he serves himself and does not sacrifice himself for the sheep in his care (Jer 23; Ezek 34). The imagery of the shepherd comes into clearest focus in Jesus the Messiah, the one who proclaims, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Leon Morris is correct to note the uniqueness of Jesus’ role as shepherd in that his death for the sheep did not mean disaster for them, but rather life through his resurrection. (The Gospel According to John, New International Commentary [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995], 454).
He is the fulfillment of the ancient promise of the one who would come from Bethlehem as “a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel” (Matt 2:6). This shepherd-king terrifies Herod the king precisely because he understands the promise that this shepherd will lead and protect his people, defeating all who threaten them (Matt 2:3; see also Ps 2 and Rev 12). As the perfect shepherd, Jesus declares that “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28). In the end, the good shepherd will defeat Satan and all of the enemies of God’s people, wiping away his flock’s every tear because he is “their shepherd” (Rev 7:17).
When Jesus, the triumphant shepherd-king, ascended to the Father, he extended his care to his people as “the chief Shepherd” by providing the gift of under-shepherds (elders/overseers) as an office of the church (Eph 4:11; 1 Tim 3:1-7). These church leaders are commanded by the apostle Peter, who refers to himself as “a fellow elder,” to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight” (1 Pet 5:1-2). This exhortation is given by Peter, the same one who vehemently denied Jesus three times during his arrest and crucifixion (Matt 26:71-75; Mark 14:66-68; John 18:15-18). When Peter was being graciously restored to leadership by Jesus he offered a three-fold declaration of his love and loyalty and each declaration was met with a shepherding charge from Jesus: “Feed my lambs,” “Tend my sheep,” and “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17).
Peter warns elders about those who abandon the sheep rather than self-sacrificially leading and protecting them, just as Jesus before him had warned about those who were “a hired hand and not a shepherd” while establishing the fact that he was “the good shepherd” (John 10:12-14). Instead, Peter writes that elders are to honor the good shepherd by “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” (1 Pet 5:2b-3).
The apostle Paul recounts his shepherding in the church at Ephesus, a church that he refers to as “the flock,” by asserting that he ministered night and day with tears, declaring the whole counsel of God, and counting not his own life more dear to himself than his ministry among them (Acts 20:17-38). His intent was that the Ephesian elders—and, by extension, that all pastors—would follow his example. Pastors, then, have the weighty responsibility to reflect Jesus, the good shepherd, in the world by leading, guiding, directing, teaching, disciplining, and fighting for the flock of God gathered in local churches.
But the application of the shepherding imagery does not end with the call for elders to reflect in the local church the ministry of the good shepherd, the one who purchased the church with his own blood. There are also consistent parallels drawn between the responsibility of called men to pastor (shepherd) the local church and the responsibility of all Christian fathers to pastor their families.1 In the context of listing pastoral qualifications, the apostle Paul writes of an elder, “He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” (1 Tim 3:5). It is clear that pastoral leaders must be good shepherds of their little flocks at home before they are qualified to serve as shepherds of God’s flock, the church.
This pastoral qualification not only serves as a warning to pastors, but also as an exhortation to fathers of their responsibility to lead their families as the pastor God has placed in their home. Every man in a local church should be able to look to their pastor’s ministry as a model of faithful shepherding to be emulated on a smaller scale in their own home. If the congregation’s pastor is shepherding the church, but not his family, then his influence is muted and his model is one of tragic hypocrisy.
A family is not a church, and every Christian believer, as an individual, is under the authority of the congregation. But the principles of management—that is, of ruling and caring for—both the church and the family are the same. Paul calls local churches “the household of God” (1 Tim 3:15) and uses family imagery to exhort them (speaking of a father, a mother, brothers, and sisters in 1 Tim 5:1-2), drawing attention to the close relationship between the family and the church.
Elsewhere Paul exhorts the church, “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me” (1 Cor 4:15-16). As a pastor—a spiritual father—Paul wanted the Corinthian Christians to pattern their lives after his, and this call undoubtedly had unique applicability to the fathers who were members of the church. To the Thessalonians, Paul’s appeal to the church was “like a father with his children” (1 Thess 2:11). The interplay in the Scripture between the household of God and familial households, as well as the interplay between pastors and fathers, should arrest the reader’s attention.
It is common today for families to have the mentality that the church exists to serve the family. In reality, such a view needs to be turned on its head. Our households exist to picture to the world the church, the household of God. The congregation, then, is to be conformed to the Word of God and be determined to know nothing but Christ and him crucified—and to call families to do the same. The Scripture makes an unequivocal and vital link between pastoring a local church and a man’s responsibility to pastor his family. Pastors serve and reflect Jesus in the church by leading, guiding, directing, teaching, disciplining, and fighting for the flock of God, and fathers do likewise with the little flock God has entrusted to them. Pastor, do not mock your role as a shepherd of the church by neglecting your little flock at home.
- For an excellent lecture on the parallels between pastoring the local church and pastoring a family, see D.A. Carson, The Pastor as Father to His Family and Flock (Desiring God Conference for Pastors, 2008) [on-line], accessed 15 March 2010, http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/MediaPlayer/2595/Audio/; Internet.