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Preachers and Leaders 2: The speech of shepherd-leaders in the New Testament

preachers-and-leaders-310-190Background: This post is part 2 of an essay called “Preachers and Leaders”. I am seeking to demonstrate that preaching sermons should be understood as an act of responsible congregational shepherd-leadership. I argue that preaching is the public component of the speech of a congregational shepherd-leader to the congregation under his care, by which he ensures that the truth handed down in the Scriptures is learned and obeyed by that congregation, in light of the congregation’s particular circumstances.

WSB-cover-thumbnailIn this essay, I am responding to a recent trend to separate preaching from congregational leadership, which I believe is biblically and historically unwarranted. One example of this trend appears in recent debates among “complementarians” about women and preaching–hence the essay has been published in the book Women, Sermons and the Bible: Essays Interacting with John Dickson’s Hearing Her Voice (Peter G. Bolt and Tony Payne, eds., Sydney: Matthias Media, 2014). However, the issues addressed in the essay are broader than the particular debate about gender. My essay appears here with the kind permission of the publisher.

Here are the sections of the essay which appear on the site so far:

The speech of shepherd-leaders in the New Testament

In a number of places across the New Testament, we see a certain pattern of congregational leadership:

  1. Christian congregations often include certain people who have a leadership role, and who are described as carrying a weighty responsibility. This responsibility of the leaders is often linked to the predicted and inevitable rise of new, false teachings that must be dealt with afresh.
  2. This leadership role is based on and derived from the word of the apostles, which in turn is grounded in the Old Testament Scriptures.
  3. The congregational leaders discharge their responsibility primarily through speaking this word to the congregation, in a variety of ways.

We may observe this pattern in the reference to “leaders” in Hebrews 13:

Remember your leaders [Gr. hēgoumenōn], those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith…

Obey your leaders [Gr. hēgoumenois] and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Heb 13:7, 17)

In light of the danger posed by “diverse and strange teachings” (v. 9; Gr. didachais), the author of Hebrews urges his readers to remember their (perhaps former) “leaders” who “spoke to [them] the word of God” (v. 7). This “word” is, at the very least, the message they heard from those who, in turn, heard the Lord himself (cf. Heb 2:3)—that is, it is apostolic. The speech of the leaders is clearly linked to this apostolic word. Furthermore, in verse 17, we read of present “leaders”, who carry on the work of leadership in their midst. The readers are to “obey” and “submit to” these leaders, because the weighty responsibility of these present leaders is being exercised (it is reasonable to assume) by doing what the leaders of verse 7 also did: by speaking the word of God to them. The leaders are issuing directives that require obedience and submission, not only in matters of church organization but also in matters of deep spiritual significance which have to do with the “souls” of the hearers. There is a clear connection here between responsible leadership and particularly weighty speech that is linked with the apostolic word.

We find another example in Paul’s injunction to the church in Thessalonica:

We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labour (Gr. kopiōntas) among you and are over you (Gr. proistamenous) in the Lord and admonish you (Gr. nouthetountas), and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. (1 Thess 5:12-13)

Many features of the pattern noted above are also evident here. There are people among the Thessalonians who carry a special authority: they “labour” and “work” among them, and are “over” them in the Lord, and therefore they should be esteemed highly. One way in which they ‘rule’ here is through their speech, which is doubtless linked to the words and traditions that the apostle Paul himself has given them (cf. 1 Thess 4:1-2, 15). On the basis of these words and traditions, the job of the leaders is to “admonish” the people. While there are presumably some similarities between rulers’ ‘admonishing’ (1 Thess 5:12) and the kind of mutual ‘admonishing’ that Paul urges all the brothers to engage in (1 Thess 5:14), the rulers’ admonishing appears to be of a special character by virtue of the particular relationship of authority involved.


In a number of places, the speech of Christian leaders is associated with a particularly striking and apt image: that of a shepherd caring for his sheep.1 This image picks up on the common picture of a shepherd as a ruler in the Old Testament (e.g. 2 Sam 5:2, 7:7; Ps 78:70-71; Isa 40:11, 44:28; Ezekiel 34; Mic 5:4) and in the Greco-Roman world more generally.2 The role and activity of the shepherd toward the sheep involves responsibility, leadership and care—all of which, in the New Testament, are exercised primarily through speaking the word of God to the sheep. Interestingly, shepherd imagery is used both in relation to those who follow on from Paul’s apostolic ministry and those who follow on from Peter’s apostolic ministry.

Paul in Acts

In Acts 20:17-35, Paul presents himself as an example to the Ephesian elders in order to prepare them for his departure. Paul’s own speaking ministry was thorough and wide-ranging. He declared many different things (v. 20a), taught both publicly and by household (v. 20b), testified to different kinds of people (v. 21), and admonished everyone ceaselessly (v. 31), in a way that ultimately comprised the “whole counsel of God” (v. 27). Paul here exhorts the elders to care for the church of God like shepherds care for a flock of sheep (v. 28). It soon becomes evident that this responsibility will be discharged through a speaking ministry that takes Paul’s ministry as its source and exemplar. In light of the inevitable advent of “fierce wolves” (v. 29) who will speak “twisted things”(v. 30), the elders are commended to the “word of his [God’s] grace” (v. 32). The speaking ministry of the elders carries a heavy responsibility and thus a particular authority—they are “overseers” after all (v. 28). The strong implication of the passage is that the elders’ speaking ministry is to imitate the breadth and depth of Paul’s own speaking ministry, preserving the “whole counsel of God” in a variety of ways.


In 1 Peter 5:1-5, Peter urges the elders of the congregation to “shepherd the flock of God”. This metaphor needs to be understood in light of the entire letter. A foundational truth in 1 Peter is that the preached apostolic word, grounded in the Scriptures, is fundamental to the spiritual life of the readers: the word has brought them to life, and it will save and preserve them into the future (1 Pet 1:8-12, 20-25). Christ himself, the “Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Pet 2:25), leads his people through this word.3 There is, nevertheless, still a need for other human shepherds/overseers who work under the chief shepherd/overseer (5:1-4). Both the apostle himself,4 and also elders in the congregation who listen to his word, perform this role of under-shepherds. They have a solemn responsibility (5:1-4), which goes along with their authority (5:5). The logic of the letter drives us to expect that the way in which the shepherds/overseers exercise their responsibility is by bringing the word of Christ to people, preaching to them afresh, reminding them, and ensuring that the Word remains in them.

Paul in the Pastorals

Those letters of Paul commonly designated the ‘Pastoral Epistles’ (or, to use an equivalent phrase, the ‘shepherding letters’) explore in depth the importance of Christian leaders and their speech. The pattern we have observed above comes out particularly clearly in 1 and 2 Timothy—that is, an apostle passes on the responsibility for guarding the apostolic word by raising up future leaders who will be able to speak the word into the lives of their congregation(s) in a variety of ways in light of false teachings. Paul, as a “preacher” and “teacher” (Gr. kērux/didaskalos;1 Tim 2:7; 2 Tim 1:11), exercises his weighty apostolic ministry through speaking the gospel message with which he has been entrusted (1 Tim 1:11; 2 Tim 1:12). He urges Timothy to follow his example in this. In the light of certain false teachings (1 Tim 1:19-20), Paul commands Timothy to “wage the good warfare” (1 Tim 1:18), just as he himself has “fought the good fight” (2 Tim 4:7), through speaking the word of the gospel to his hearers (cf. 2 Tim 4:1-5). Furthermore, Paul urges Timothy to do unto others as Paul has done unto him: to pass the ministry on to other leaders, who can in turn teach future generations (2 Tim 2:2). In this way, Paul is laying down the pattern for leadership in the generations to come. Thus Timothy’s leadership, in imitation of Paul’s leadership, is exercised through speaking and teaching and preaching the word, in a variety of ways, especially in the face of false teaching and alternatives (see especially 1 Timothy 4 and 2 Timothy 3-4). This is the ministry that he has seen from Paul, and that he is in turn to pass on to others.

So 1 Timothy 5:17, for example, refers to elders who “labour in preaching and teaching”. They have the weightiest responsibility and so should especially receive “double honour”.5 There is also the “overseer” in Titus 1:7-9. The overseer is “God’s steward” and, along with his role as a moral exemplar for the community, he must:

…hold firm to the trustworthy word in accordance with the teaching [Gr. kata tēn didachēn], so that he may be able to exhort [Gr. parakalein] in sound doctrine [Gr. en tē didaskalia tē hugiainousē] and also to rebuke those who contradict it. (Titus 1:9, my translation)

The “word” that the overseer must hold on to and enforce is the apostolic word with which Paul had been entrusted (Titus 1:3). The congregational leader must do a number of things with the apostolic deposit: live it out, hold on to it, exhort people on the basis of it, and rebuke those who are against it. There is no hint in this verse that the activity of holding on to the teaching carries a higher level of authority than the activity of exhorting people on the basis of the teaching, as Dickson claims.6 The overseer’s task is to do all of these things, and as God’s steward (v. 7) he carries a weighty responsibility in discharging all of his duties.

It is, of course, this general pattern that gives rise to a straightforward and quite natural reading of the verb ‘teach’ (Gr. didaskō) in the Pastoral Epistles: the general authoritative speech of congregational leaders within the early Christian communities, employing a variety of means to ensure that the apostolic teaching is learned and obeyed within those communities.7

Indeed, understanding the word ‘teach’ in this way explains the prohibition on ‘teaching’ by women to men in 1 Timothy 2:12, along with its connection to the verb ‘exercise authority’. 1 Timothy 2:11-15 cannot be understood merely as an arbitrary prohibition on women speaking at all.8 Rather, the issue being addressed is the rupture in relational dynamics in the “household of God” (cf. 1 Tim 3:15) that occurs when a woman assumes this particular kind of responsible/authoritative shepherding-speech towards men, especially in the context of the gathered congregation (cf. 1 Tim 2:8).

This post is part 2 of a series:


  1. Technically the term ‘shepherd’ is synonymous with ‘pastor’. However, in many contemporary Christian circles the term ‘pastor’/‘pastoral’ carries different connotations to that of ‘shepherd’. Hence in this essay I will favour the term ‘shepherd’.
  2. See, for example, Liddell, HG, R Scott, HS Jones and R McKenzie (eds), A Greek-English Lexicon (9th edn, Clarendon, Oxford, 1940, first ed. 1843), poimēn.
  3. See also John 10:3-5, 8, which describes Jesus as the “good shepherd” (cf. 10:11) who leads his sheep through his “voice”.
  4. See also John 21:15-17, in which Jesus gives Peter the charge: “Feed my sheep”.
  5. They are thus ‘teaching elders’ (P Adam, Speaking God’s Words: A Practical Theology of Preaching, IVP, Leicester, 1996, 55).
  6. J Dickson, Hearing Her Voice: A Case for Women Giving Sermons (2nd edn, Dickson Publishing, Sydney, 2013, first ed. 2012). When discussing Titus 1:9 itself, Dickson does not seem to notice or comment on the fact that the term ‘exhort’ (Gr. parakaleō) actually appears in the verse as one of the elder’s key activities (3.2). However, Dickson’s general argument is that ‘teaching’ (i.e. passing on the apostolic deposit) and ‘exhorting’ (roughly equivalent to modern preaching) are two different activities (1.4), with two very different levels of authority (4.2). For a more detailed critique of Dickson’s claims on the meaning of individual terms, see Claire Smith’s essay ‘Is the modern sermon an “exhortation”?’ in Women, Sermons and the Bible: Essays Interacting with John Dickson’s Hearing Her Voice (Peter G. Bolt and Tony Payne, eds., Sydney: Matthias Media, 2014).
  7. See, for example, Mounce, WD, Pastoral Epistles (WBC, vol. 46, Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 2000), 125-6; Saucy, RL, ‘Women’s Prohibition to Teach Men: An Investigation into its Meaning and Contemporary Application’ (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, vol. 37, no. 1, March 1994, 79-97), especially 81-91; Smith, CS, Pauline Communities as ‘Scholastic Communities’: A Study of the Vocabulary of ‘Teaching’ in 1 Corinthians, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus (WUNT 2.335, Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen, 2012), 54-84.
  8. Neither does it make sense to regard it (as Dickson does) as an equally arbitrary prohibition on women rehearsing and passing on the words of Jesus and the apostles (Dickson, Hearing Her Voice, 2.4). Why can’t women be entrusted with the task of transmitting oral tradition—especially since Jesus himself entrusts women with the tasks of transmitting a key instruction about where to meet him after his resurrection (Matt 28:9-10)?
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