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Guardians of the Flock: A Biblical Perspective on Pastoral Ministry

  • T.M. Moore BreakPoint
  • 2009 23 Apr
Guardians of the Flock: A Biblical Perspective on Pastoral Ministry

And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Bring the tribe of Levi near, and set them before Aaron the priest, that they may minister to him. They shall keep guard over him and over the whole congregation before the tent of meeting, as they minister at the tabernacle.” (Numbers 3:5-7)

A number of sources inform the New Testament calling of “pastor/teacher,” to use Paul’s designation from Ephesians 4:12, some of which are to be found in the Old Testament. Throughout the centuries, ministers have drawn inspiration and instruction from the offices of prophet and king, as they have provided instruction and exercised oversight of the people in their care. They have also looked to the work of the priests, an office that combined teaching and ruling with leading in worship. The priest more than any other Old Testament office provides the most footing for the New Testament idea of “minister,” which explains why in some communions the pastor is still referred to by that title.

So we’re on good ground in looking at the Lord’s purpose for priests in the Old Testament in order to see what we can learn there for the work of pastors today. And where we find the New Testament drawing upon that office, and ideas related to it, we may be certain that we have solid footing for determining just what the work of the local pastor should be.

Images of Pastoral Ministry
That’s a good thing, because in our day the work of ministers has become, well, confused. Pastors today are just as likely to find their inspiration from leaders whose success has come in the secular realm, in such areas as business, politics, social movements, or entertainment, as in any biblical exemplars. Today’s pastors value the ability to cast a compelling vision, manage a multi-faceted ministry enterprise, create a national following, or keep ‘em laughing and coming back for more as the skills most necessary for effective ministry leadership.

Over the years I’ve seen this reflected in many, many ways: books and publications that focus on the importance of vision-casting; protocols and procedures for ministry management that reflect a business orientation to growing the church; the use of drama, video, stories, and humor as the primary substance of preaching; stress on image and positioning in presenting the church to the community; multiplication of programming and upgrading of facilities to attract as many people as possible; and big investments in technology — lights, sound, Internet — as critical to success in ministry. Not that these things are inherently evil. They aren’t; indeed, the Scriptures encourage ministry leaders to look to every possible source for the best guidance in how to accomplish the mission of the Church (cf. Exodus 18).

The problem comes when these extra-biblical sources and resources begin to loom so large in our understanding of the work of pastoral leadership that they blind us to the more enduring and, therefore, more important biblical principles and practices that must inform our work. So it can be useful, in the midst of our present quest to give sharper definition to the work of the minister, to return to some of those ancient models, such as the Old Testament priest, just to make sure we’re still on course with what God has revealed in His Word.

The Priest as Guardian
From Numbers 3 it seems clear that first in the mind of God was the idea that the priests of Israel should function as guardians. The Hebrew of verse 7 is telling: the Levitical priests were to attend to Aaron, to guard him as he was exercising guardianship over everything that the assembly was to be guarding. Three times in one verse the work of guardianship is associated with the work of the priests. They were to attend to Aaron, the high priest, as he was conducting his own particular ministry of guardianship. They were to guard him, and they were to guard that which the people, gathered as an assembly, were to be guarding as well.

One gets the idea from this passage that the work of priests and the ways of the assembly of Israel might be prone to, shall we say, drifting from God’s original intentions (cf. Hebrews 2:1). The subsequent history of Israel is proof positive that drift is the normal tendency of a sinful people; hence the emphasis laid on the priests for guarding the work of the priest and the assembly.

But what were they to guard? Four things.

First, they were to guard the practices and vessels assigned them by the Lord (vv. 21-37). The Lord had given Israel the pattern for where and how they should worship Him. Three times on Mt. Sinai God instructed Moses to make certain that the people followed His exact instructions for building the tabernacle, ordaining the priests, and conducting the business of worship. God knows what He demands of His people, and when He shows them what they must do, He expects them to do it, without compromise or complaint.

So Aaron, the high priest, had a certain work of guarding entrusted to him, and the priests who attended him were also appointed to guard the various vessels and components of the tabernacle as they moved from one place to the next. These items were to be carefully packed, moved, and assembled, just as the practices — sacrifices, offerings, incense, washing, and so forth — that went with the various furnishings of the Tabernacle were also to be scrupulously observed. It fell to the priests of Israel to guard what God had clearly entrusted to them, lest they grow slack in any aspect of their worship and thus show contempt for the holiness of God.

Second, the priests were to guard the worship duties of the assembly — what the text refers to as the assembly’s own “guarding.” The people were instructed as to when they should assemble before the Lord, what their assembling should consist of, and how they should comport themselves (humbly, in fear, and out of love for the Lord). Worship in ancient Israel was hard work, involving precise understandings, careful coordination, diligent attendance, and heartfelt zeal. None of this came naturally; the people had to be instructed, and they had to be guarded to ensure, generation after generation, that their comportment before the Lord, and their practice of worship, which they were to guard, were in accord with His expectations of them. It was the duty of the priests to make sure this was the case.

Third, the priests were to guard one another, that is, to exercise accountability with one another for the proper performance of their assigned duties. Even Aaron had to be “guarded” to make sure he did what was assigned to him. We can imagine as well that the various families of priests—those descended from Gershon, Kohath, and Merari — kept watch over one another, to make sure that each carried out his appointed tasks just so.

Finally, the priests were charged with guarding against the inroads of foreign influence (vv. 10, 38). God strictly forbade any “outsiders” from entering His worship or having anything to do with leading His people in worship. Means were provided, of course, for foreigners and sojourners to participate in the fellowship and covenant of Israel. But “outsiders” were those whose unsanctified, pagan ways were not welcome in the presence of God. It was the duty of priests to guard the assembly and all the protocols of worship against any “outside” infringements.

Guarding in the New Testament
The idea of pastors — and elders — as guardians of the flock of God is clearly present in the New Testament. The word Paul uses in Acts 20:28, which is typically translated “watch over” or “pay careful attention to,” can also just as faithfully be translated as “guard.” Flocks of the Lord’s sheep have been trusted to pastors and elders, and it is their duty to guard them. We hear Paul urging this on Titus in chapter 1 of that epistle; we hear the Lord Jesus defining the work of a shepherd as one who does not flee in the face of danger but stays on to guard the flock (John 10:12-13). Peter’s words to the shepherds of those churches in Asia Minor also carry the implication of guardianship over the flocks of the Lord.

Can we assume that similar guardianship duties are in view as those entrusted to Old Testament priests? To keep the worship of God pure, and according to what is pleasing to Him? To instruct the people in approaching the Lord, and to lead them faithfully in worship, according to the pattern revealed in God’s Word? To watch over one another, lest we begin to drift from what God has revealed and fall into practices of ministry and life more characteristic of the surrounding culture than the revelation of God’s Word? To guard the flock against false teaching? The ravages of the devil? The ways of temptation and sin? The practices of paganism, worldliness, and unbelief?

I don’t see why we should not take these ideas as central to the work of pastoral ministry, more important than casting vision, running a smooth operation, or being entertaining in the pulpit. Pastors are called to guard the flocks of God entrusted to them. No amount of anything else can substitute for this most foundational aspect of our calling.

To Guard the Flock of God
In Acts 20:28 Paul mentions that, if they are going to be effective guardians of God’s flock, pastors and elders must first be careful guardians of themselves, and of one another. They cannot protect the people of God from the subtle allure and the traps and snares of ungodly living if they are not careful above all else to guard themselves.

Ministers need much time for prayerful introspection, waiting on the Lord in prayer for Him to reveal the motives of their hearts and to shape His priorities in their souls. They need long hours meditating in God’s Word, letting the Scriptures wash back and forth over them under the cleansing and renewing impulse of the Spirit. They need to establish means of self-evaluation, and to practice accountability with other ministers and elders, lest they should, wittingly or otherwise, lower their guard against the suave, sophisticated, and slippery temptations of our secular, sensual age.

The potential of drifting away from the things of the Lord under the powerful influence of the spirit of the age is very real (Hebrews 2:1). Ministers who fail to take up a guardianship attitude toward themselves and their churches will not be able to fulfill the Lord’s calling for them, and may well become a source of their congregation’s drifting into unbiblical practices and ways. We must not be naïve about the importance of this matter. The work of guarding themselves, and guarding the flocks entrusted to their care, must be of first importance on the minds of today’s pastors.

For Reflection
How does your pastor exercise the role of guardian in your congregation? Who is guarding your pastor, so that he may faithfully exercise his calling?

T. M. Moore is dean of the Centurions Program of the Wilberforce Forum and principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He is the author or editor of seventeen books, and has contributed chapters to four others. His essays, reviews, articles, papers, and poetry have appeared in dozens of national and international journals, and on a wide range of websites. His most recent books are The Ailbe Psalter and The Ground for Christian Ethics, (Waxed Tablet). He and his wife and editor, Susie, make their home in Concord, Tenn.