Undershepherds and Male Agency

Church elders display a Christ-signifying instrumentality. They do this as they exercise the agency of undershepherds over their congregations as they were and are exhorted by the Apostles Peter and Paul in 1 Peter 5 and Acts 20 respectively.

I exhort the elders who are in you—I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of the Anointed One and a partaker of the glory to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God in you—exercising oversight—not reluctantly but resolutely, not for shameful profit but ferociously, not as those lording over their portion of the inheritance but being exemplary specimens to the flock. And at the appearing of the Chief Shepherd, you will receive the imperishable victor’s laurels of glory.

– 1 Peter 5:1-4 (my translation)

The Apostle Peter is writing to the elders who are in the congregations. The Apostle asserts that he is a fellow elder with them, a witness of the sufferings of the Anointed One (Christ or Messiah), and a partaker in the glory to be revealed at the Second Coming of our Lord to consummate his kingdom in its fullness.

As an apostle (a “sent one” or authorized ambassador) of Christ the King, Peter issues this kingdom directive or summons (exhortation) to the elders of the churches. The office of the apostle is another case of representing or signifying the person and office of Christ. In this function, it is the authoritative capacity of speaking for Christ to the nations. This office draws on the image of political ambassadors of state sent to embassies in foreign nations. This is essentially the same concept and office applied to the Kingdom of Christ.

This passage is thick with the language of sheepherding. For instance, there are several occurrences of terms in the Greek word family [poim–]. The precise noun for shepherd [poimēn] is not used in this passage, but it clearly implies elders are synonymous with pastors or shepherds, which is literally the same office. Pastor (herdsman) and pasture (grassy field) are related words from the Latin verb for grazing [pascere]. Elders are to feed and tend or shepherd [poimainō] the congregation or flock [poimnion] of God. The word for flock is a variation of the word for a flock of sheep [poimnē] and appears to have been coined to refer to a group of people with purposefully sheep-like connotations. At the close of the exhortation, Jesus is alluded to as the Chief Shepherd or Arch-Shepherd [archipoimēn] using a compound term with the root for a shepherd [poimēn]. Yet again, this implicates the elders in these churches as assistant shepherds or undershepherds.

Peter knows this role of shepherding well. After his resurrection from the dead, the Lord told his apostle, “If you love me, shepherd my sheep.” The Apostle John translated and recorded the words of our Lord using the same Greek verb [poimainō] used by Peter. The Lord’s Ambassador, as a church elder, extends the calling to shepherding out of a love for Christ on these men who are his fellow elders over the congregation of God.

The work of shepherding God’s people has deep roots in the time of the Old Covenant. It was an easily accessible metaphor for the Israelites as an agrarian nation settled in the Promised Land and as the descendants of the Patriarchs who were sojourning shepherds. After forty years as a prince in Pharaoh’s court and another forty years as a shepherd in Jethro’s camp, Moses was prepared to lead the congregation of liberated Hebrew slaves—so prone to wander! The young shepherd boy was anointed king over God’s people, and the nation of Israel confessed David to be the one of whom Yahweh had declared: “You will shepherd my people Israel and will be ruler over Israel.” And shepherding language was a standard metaphor in the writings of the prophets for the priests and the judges in Israel, often regarding their unfaithfulness to tend God’s people and their selfish devouring of the flock for their own gain. This shepherding legacy serves as the background to Peter’s exhortation to the elders. Conversely, elders as leaders of the people also has an extensive background under the Old Covenant reaching back just as far and wide. The key element in the analogy of the shepherd is rulership.

The passage from 1 Peter also uses the verb for watching like watchmen. This notion also has strong connotations with shepherding in ancient Israel due to its associations with the responsibilities of the priests and the judges as the rulers and guides of God’s people. Prophets are likewise called watchmen in Israel—perhaps the most famous being Ezekiel—on account of their responsibility to be attentive, discern impending trouble, and sound the alarm. According to the Apostle Peter, church elders are to exercise oversight or watch over [episkopeō] their congregations. This verb belongs to the same Greek word family as the noun for the office of the overseer or bishop [episkopos]. Elders are the watchmen of the church under their care. Such watching or oversight involves diligent and competent contemplation and thorough inspection to mark out the kinds or qualities of persons, things, or actions under observation.

In 1 Peter 5, elders (old men), pastors (shepherds), and bishops (overseers) all appear to occupy the same functional office within the churches, at least with respect to their rule over congregations and care of congregants. Earlier in 1 Peter 2:25, the Apostle refers to Jesus as Shepherd and Overseer. If there is any firm distinction or difference between the three named offices, it is not apparent in the biblical text.

The Apostle Paul exhorted the church elders at Ephesus to the labor of shepherding in a similar manner to the Apostle Peter. That exhortation is a second witness to establish the truth of this matter:

Take heed for yourselves and all the congregation [poimnion] of God in which the Holy Spirit has set you as overseers [episkopos] to shepherd [poimainō] the assembly [ekklesia, i.e. church] of God which he obtained (1) through his own blood (2).

(1) or preserved
(2) or through the blood of his Own, i.e. Christ

– Acts 20:28 (my translation)

Without belaboring the point, the Apostle Paul exhorts the Ephesian church elders to labor as shepherds and watchmen over the congregation, mirroring the Apostle Peter’s exhortation to the church elders elsewhere in Asia Minor. These two Ambassadors of Christ demonstrate consistent policy directives for all churches as embassies of the Kingdom of Heaven.

All of this imagery should evoke the thought of John 10 and Jesus as the Good Shepherd, which preceded the exhortations of the Apostles and which culminated the shepherding legacy of the people of God under the Old Covenant. Elders are being distinguished as undershepherds over the flock of God. When the sheep (congregants) in the flock look at the elders, they see undershepherds rather than oversheep. Elders typify or represent the Chief Shepherd. They serve the Chief Shepherd, and they are authorized and appointed to do their shepherding under the authority of the Arch-Shepherd. Elders are distinguished from the flock and associated with the Shepherd by their function (office) in the eyes of the flock. This establishes elders as functioning representations of Christ as they labor with him shepherding and overseeing congregations. Even if elders are sheep in their own right in Christ’s eyes and likewise in need of Christ’s shepherding, our Lord has set up these men in such a way so the flock does not look on their office as that of a fellow sheep but as an undershepherd who authoritatively models the Chief Shepherd.

The domain or union language employed by the Apostle Peter is also provocative. Elders are verbally distinguished and said to be “in” their flocks, and the flocks are said to be “in” their elders. That echoes the language of all the believing ones being in Christ and Christ being in all those who believe. It’s also like Jesus saying his disciples are in him, and he is in them, as he is in the Father, and the Father is in him, and so forth. To speak of elders and their flocks in this way puts them in a juxtaposed relationship, which once again distinguishes them in their office from the congregation and lends itself to Christ-like functional representation.

There are a number of descriptions used by Peter to illustrate the agency of elders in their shepherding. The elders must not shepherd reluctantly [anagkastōs]. The word indicates constraint or compulsion by external agents pressing hard upon the will of the elders. It connotes characteristic hesitation or passive submission. It is not the elders who should seemingly be ruled by congregants who lead them around like sheep nor be goaded into compliance. By contrast, elders should conduct their shepherding resolutely [hekousiōs]. The word indicates firm assertiveness and strength of will, even presumptuousness or defiance.

The elders must not shepherd for shameful profit [aischrokerdōs]. The word indicates any sort of dishonorable or disreputable advantage or gain from the position. Occupying the office of an elder should not elevate or empower a man into a lifestyle of comfortable ease and lavish privilege. By contrast, elders must shepherd the flock ferociously [prothymōs]. The word indicates an eager readiness arising from a focused indignation or harnessed fury. There is a masterfully honed spiritedness or fieriness in the elder serving as a well-regulated furnace at the heart of his work to withstand and carry him through the rigors of the calling.

Elders must not shepherd by lording over [katakyrieuō] their portion of the inheritance [klēros], which appears to refer to the local congregations they oversee. Elders are not to exercise the sort of lordship used by earthly lords who oppress their subjects for the sake of their own privilege or advancement. Instead, elders are to shepherd as exemplary specimens [typos]. The undershepherds stand out as types, examples, patterns, models, or representations. They are to exemplify and represent the dutiful and humble servant-lordship of Christ rather than the lordship of earthly rulers. Elders exhort the flock in word and deed like the Apostle Paul did: “Become imitators of me according to the way I imitate Christ.” Elders are to exercise true lordship over the flock in suffering and self-effacing servitude in their rule which fosters security and loyalty in the congregants who submits to them.

At the glorious appearing, Christ will come again on the Last Day to judge the world in righteousness. At that time, an elder who has shepherded his flock faithfully will receive his champion’s crown or his victor’s laurels [stephanos] of glory. A crown of glory which will be imperishable or indefectible. Peter uses the imagery of a champion runner who outperforms his competition, wins the contest, and receives the garland (wreath crown). But the glorious crown of the faithful elder is made of branches and flowers which do not wither but proclaim his faithful efforts forever. Peter also draws on the imagery of the glorious laurels crowning the victorious commanders of armies as they parade through the city streets, returning triumphant from battle. Elders will receive glorious everlasting recognition from Christ for labors well done.

The elders of the church must contend in their work in the service of Christ, because it is contentious work to shepherd the flock of God, to keep the wolves of the world at bay, and to oppose the thief who comes to steal, kill, and destroy. As undershepherds, they cannot act as mere hired hands with questionable commitment to the integrity of the flock, who withdraw and distance themselves at the first sign of trouble. Elders must lay down their lives for the life of the church. Such is the way of good shepherds as representations of the Good Shepherd.

In my translation and examination of 1 Peter 5:1-4 and Acts 20:28, I employed appropriate word choices to accentuate the prominently and distinctly male character of the agency of church elders who shepherd a whole community. This isn’t mere generically male agency but the highly conspicuous agency of virtuous alpha-males who have the most competence-dominance in the whole community.

No single English word exists to encapsulate this idea of competence-dominance (as I’ve borrowed the term from Jordan Peterson). It’s conceived as the skill to ascend the social hierarchy to the place of greatest influential prominence and to maintain that position through well-functioning relationships with those in the group. It’s the path to being the man which all women desire and all men desire to be and to befriend. He who plays fair and enables others to play. He who takes up the cause of the widow and the fatherless. He who seeks true justice for all. He who embraces responsibility for himself and those with whom he stands by bearing up and carrying his cross and the cross of his whole world. In truth, he is the man who, however imperfectly, most approximates Christlikeness.

Our present circumstances under the cultural sway have brought a radically egalitarian influence to bear upon all sectors of society including the church. Much of the efficacy to this comes not so much from any conscious effort on the part of ideologically possessed individuals or interest groups—though there is that—but from systemically deforming tendencies inherent in our culture for a variety of reasons. These have a propensity to neutralize or obscure the significance of constitutive differences between males and females as demographic groups.

It would be grievous negligence, a failure to faithfully shepherd and oversee the flock, if elders were to refrain from declaring the whole counsel of God. Special attention should be given to this point. The watchmen ought to possess the competence to see the threat unambiguously and the courage to blow the trumpet resoundingly.

The combative connotations of rulership language emphasize the spiritually militaristic character of the office. The heavenly culture of the church collides at her peripheries (the frontlines) with diverse hostile cultures that rise and fall in the present world. The elders must lead the charge on these spiritual battlefronts, and elders must hold the walls and defend the gates from worldly and demonic onslaughts.

It is the tribal imagery of the warrior men encircling the camp with their spears aimed outward at the prowling menace. Women holding the center with children huddled and reassured. The work of shepherding the community by guarding its borders requires a form of militaristic agency for which men are designed and are morally responsible to exert. Our Maker has made it so.

“A woman shall not take up a man’s gear.” In Deuteronomy 22:5, the Hebrew word refers to the tools, implements, or combat gear of a man. The text is not so much a prohibition on cross-dressing as a denunciation of cross-functioning in naturally (creationistically) sex-segregated duties. We do not thrust women into combat in this manner, because it would be an “abomination” to our Lord to do so.

This isn’t to say pious women have no place in warfare, especially the spiritual-liturgical warfare of the church. It is to say women function in a different mode of warfare and have different weapons of war. A substantial argument can be made for a biblical motif where pious women are equipped by God with righteous deception as a powerful tool in the war against tyranny and oppression and receive honor and glory for it.

If the imagery of a tribal encampment facing a predator seems too crude, primitive, or distant from contemporary life, the cold reality of the present teaches the same lesson. The safety, security, comfort, and convenience of modern society was established and is maintained through the harrowing exertions of an overwhelmingly male workforce. In our world, the overwhelming majority of active military combatants, field personnel in law enforcement, firefighters and first-responders, coal miners, oilfield and pipeline workers, electric linesmen, construction and demolition workers, fisherman, farmers, and so on are men. One could dare say it would be an even more exclusively male labor force if not for the technological developments of this civilization that was sheltered by the prior exertions of men. Technologies that grant artificially flattened terrain and increased ability to women in these fields.

These men preserve the metaphorical fortifications that surround and protect us from every threat lurking beyond. They sustain our world by the sweat of their brows, the gashes on their hands, the fractures of their bones, the blood pouring from their open wounds, and the tempered steel of their nerves. And then they return to the dust from whence they came in a tragically swift fashion.

The work of shepherding the whole church community is no different. It demands the harsh labors of men to maintain the walls. This is not a matter of muscular physicality, even if that may come to bear on certain occasions. There is an accompanying psychology that is most characteristically prominent in the alpha-male which enables this work. The physicality and the psychology are not flatly and evenly present in all men. And they are not uniformly absent in all women. This is a partially overlapping bimodal distribution, and the extreme male end of the spectrum is in view.

Note carefully how none of these observations reveal men striving to get ahead of women and be the first to lay claim to these brutal forms of servitude. None of these observations argue for men having to strive to attain this role. These observations reveal men to simply possess this sort of agency. To take up the outwardmost positions in the male frontlines of defense is not something that men have to outperform women to achieve. It is simply the way in which men are designed and what they do.

And none of this is a denial of the place and need for women as elders and shepherdesses within the community. In his pastoral Epistle to Titus, the Apostle Paul calls older women (female elders) who possess a pious reputation to lead younger women into similar piety. There is much feeding, tending, and guiding involved in this calling. And it is a duty that men—elders or otherwise—are far less equipped to do for a variety of reasons.

To probe the metaphor of a shepherdess-elder by looking to literal shepherdesses, the Old Testament contains several insightful narratives about women tending to sheep and other livestock. Two highly illustrative cases are Rachel in Genesis 29:1-12 and the daughters of Jethro in Exodus 2:16-20. In both cases, these women led the sheep of their father’s flock to wells and gave them water. To even cite these women and their shepherding is to cite their dependence on men to enable them. In Rachel’s case, she waited each day for a man to remove the heavy cover stone from the mouth of the well. And one fateful day, it was Jacob who removed the cover stone for her. In the case of Jethro’s daughters, they were harassed and driven away from the well by cruel shepherds. But it was Moses who “arose and saved them” and who “delivered [them] out of the hand” of the shepherds. It signified the very same thing in the very same language which Yahweh would accomplish through Moses in delivering his people Israel from Egypt. These women labored faithfully in their particular capacities as those who tended flocks. But their labors depended on men first digging wells, men routinely rolling away heavy cover stones, and men rising up to save and deliver the women from other tyrannical men.

Once more, the point is not to deny the place and the need for godly women as elders and shepherdesses within the community. Nor is it an assertion of comprehensive inferiority in the agency of women. It is a refutation of the place, the propriety, and the plausibility of women as elders over the whole community. They cannot encompass the community as a whole society in a function that is readily interchangeable with men and fundamentally indifferent to gendered agency. Women cannot effectively accomplish the totality of the work of shepherding every segment of the community, because women lack the capacity to shepherd the one critical segment of a comprehensive community that possesses the capacity to shepherd its own: men atop the competence-dominance hierarchy.

The only sort of person that every sort of person in the community of a local church will follow is competent-dominant men. If any other sort of individual is appointed to the most prominent eldership, the compositional breadth of a congregation will assuredly shrink from the slow attrition of such men. They become disinterested and disillusioned. And it’s readily apparent this has, in fact, already occurred in the contemporary Western Church. We can scarcely recognize a virtuous alpha-male as possessing characteristically masculine godliness rather than faulting him for nonconformity to a standard of gender-neutralized or distinctly feminine piety. The lack of strong male leadership is a frequent and growing problem not only in the Western home but in the Western church.

The simple fact that the elders of whole congregations (functioning at the highest levels of prominence in the community) are, must, and will be males is no more coincidental than the simple fact that the Second Person of the Trinity became incarnate as a man. He is the unique Son of God. He is the Head and Savior of the Body. He is the Husband who seeks, saves, and weds the Bride. Jesus Christ is a man. And he is not a man inconsequentially, neither are his representative undershepherds.

Perhaps what this essay has really demonstrated is that the office and function of elder as it is commonly conceived in many local churches and the contemporary Western Church at large is something quite different than what has been envisioned and explained here. And if so, take heed! That is a significant lesson to learn.

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