There is much talk nowadays about pastors as simply great communicators and vision casting leaders who inspire us to “get on board” with what their own churches are doing. We live in a day and age where anyone can podcast their favorite preachers and teachers, follow them on social media, watch them online, and read their books. And the “best part” is that you can do all this without them ever knowing you, holding you accountable, providing reproof and correction, or giving you any specific direction for your life whatsoever. If they say something convicting you don’t agree with, you can just move on to another more palatable teacher. You might be thinking, “how cool is that?” You can learn from them while remaining anonymous to them. Like your phone, music, and food, you can customize the teaching and the leadership in your life exactly the way you want.
Problems with the “Internet Pastor”
Some Christians, especially in our anti-institutional age, can be guilty of thinking this way. We think we can grow spiritually while avoiding the uncomfortable aspects accountability and discipleship commanded in Scripture. In other words, we don’t see the need to be committed to, and under the leadership of, a specific pastor (or pastors) in a local church, and all that entails.
But I would ask the question: how biblical is that?
Don’t get me wrong, we can (and should!) learn from men of God who have an amazing platform with their ministry to reach out to the masses with excellent biblical teaching. There is definitely a place for learning from other godly believers who are part of the global church of Jesus Christ. Yet, there are some HUGE problems with the “internet pastor” being your only, or primary, source for instruction and care. First, you can’t submit to their leadership (Heb 13:17), and second, they can’t hold someone they don’t know accountable (Acts 20:28). Even worse, there are many false teachers today all over the internet who appear successful and popular but teach questionable theology at best and heresy at worst!
So what is the solution? I would submit to you the solution is to have a shepherd (or shepherds) that you are exclusively submitted and committed to. Someone who, as Timothy Witmer helpfully summarizes, is committed to knowing you, feeding you, leading you, and most importantly, protecting you.
But again, I would ask is this biblical? The answer from Scripture is YES. In fact I would submit to you that this is God’s designed plan for the New Testament church that he established.
Shepherds Shepherd the Flock
So, what is a shepherd? A shepherd is simply someone who shepherds, or cares for, God’s flock. In our churches today we typically call them pastors. However, our English word “pastor” is not actually found in Scripture, but comes from the Latin word pastor, which means “shepherd.” In other words, your pastors are your shepherds. The Bible also has several other names for the men in our churches we call pastors: “shepherd-teachers” (Eph. 4:11), “elders,” and “overseers (Titus 1:5-9 & 1 Tim. 3:1-7). In fact, these are synonymous and overlapping names for the same office in several places in the New Testament:
- Ephesians 4:11 “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers“
- Acts 20:28 “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for [shepherd] the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.”
- 1 Peter 5:1-2a “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”
These shepherds are to be men who will know you, feed you, lead you, and protect you as their sheep. This is who a shepherd is and how a shepherd shepherds.
A Brief Biblical Picture of Shepherds and Sheep
Since the Bible calls these men in leadership shepherds, this means that we are the sheep. The picture of shepherds and sheep is all throughout the Old and New Testaments. In the OT we see God as the Shepherd of his people (Psalm 23; 77:20; Ezek 34:11-16), promising to one day set his “servant David” over his people under a new covenant (Ezek 34:23; Isa 40:11), and also promising to raise up many shepherds to care for his people (Jer 3:15; Jer 23:1-4). Then in the NT we see the Lord Jesus Christ as the true servant David taking on the same role as God of Chief Shepherd (John 10:11-18; Heb 13:20; Rev 7:16-17), and commissioning his disciples to feed his sheep (Matt 10:6; John 21:15-17).
The Bible teaches us that God, through Christ Jesus, is truly our great Shepherd and we are his sheep (Ezek 34:16; Luke 15:8). But this shepherding picture goes further, as we saw with the previous passages about elders/overseers. In addition, Jesus commissioned his disciples, who then commanded the early church, to carry on the task of shepherding God’s flock (John 20:15-17; 1 Peter 5:1-2a; Acts 20:28). These portions of Scripture, along with many others, provide all that we need to know for a faithful and biblical model of leadership for the Church today.
John Piper puts it this way: “This is the picture that God has ordained: that flocks exist, and shepherds exist, and that the shepherds have accountability for a particular flock; and that the flock should submit joyfully to its particular shepherd. This is a structure that no podcasting pastor can replace.”
Sheep Need Shepherds
While you may be subscribed to preaching podcasts, and follow many pastors on social media, do you have a shepherd? Do you know him and does he know you? Is there a formal way of identifying yourself as a sheep and knowing the pastor as your shepherd? In many churches, including ours, we call this membership; and while you can’t find the word membership in the canon of Scripture (just like the word “Trinity”), we would argue that it is a biblical concept. In other words, you cannot fully realize your function and role as a believer in this sheep/shepherd relationship without true commitment to a local church, and that membership is our best biblical attempt to see make that happen.
As Christians, we must conform our lives, and our churches, to what Scripture says. We don’t have the option to write off biblical commands from our Lord and Shepherd as unnecessary or unimportant. If you’re reading this and not currently a member of a local church, submitted to the shepherds of that flock, or part of a church led by biblically qualified elders (1 Tim 3:1-7; Titus 1:6-8), I would encourage you to explore this matter further and seek to be obedient to what Scripture says.