What is an Elder? (John 21:15-19)

My grandfather in New Zealand was a sheep farmer, and so was my uncle. And once upon a time, when I was 8 years old, we visited my uncle’s farm. And it was very exciting, of course, to put on a pair of my cousin’s black rubber boots and go stomping around after my uncle and all the other big, rough farm workers.

And at one point the men were driving a herd of ewes and their half-grown lambs into a paddock. And suddenly my uncle pointed at one of the lambs as it ran past and he shouted, “Blimey! Missed one!”

— actually, he probably said something stronger than “blimey”, but…there are children here.

And he pointed out one lamb that still had its tail.

— and I’d better explain that lambs are actually born with long, floppy tails. But when they are about a week old, the farmers “dock” them: they remove their tails.

Why? Well, because, just underneath that tail is…well, there are children here, so I’ll just say that sheep do not actually know how to clean their tails properly after they go to the toilet. And so that long tail can become a center for infection that can actually kill the sheep.

The simplest and safest solution is simply to remove the tail when the lamb is young. And these days that is usually done with a rubber band wrapped around the base of the tail. This cuts off the circulation, and the tails just drop off by themselves. That way the lambs grow up healthy, the sheep dogs get a little snack…it’s the circle of life.

But sometimes a tail does not drop off by itself. So, in order to save the animal, the farmer has to physically remove it.

So my uncle said, “Hey, Ian, why don’t you climb in there! Grab its tail, it’ll just come off in your hand.”

I was very excited to help, of course, so I climbed in and worked my way over to where this lamb was standing beside its mother. And then I discovered that this lamb practiced very poor personal hygiene. Its tail was all brown, and green, and black, and it was literally stuck — glued — to its backside and to one of its legs. And right then I decided that what this lamb really needed was an expert who wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. So I figured I would carry the lamb over to my uncle and let him do the job.

So I bent over to pick it up around the middle. And the lamb misunderstood me completely. For some reason it screamed — and bolted. With me clinging desperately to its back. And I guess I must have looked like a wolf or something, because the rest of the sheep also freaked out: in an instant the entire herd was stampeding in a circle, screaming in terror while my uncle shouted a series of strongly worded questions at me.

It was a very “Lion King” sort of moment. And it ended as you might expect: eventually I fell off, into the very dark, very moist earth of the paddock, where I was run over by a hundred panicked sheep, none of which knew how to clean their feet. So my effort to keep from getting my hand dirty ended with me having to go back to the house to change all my clothes.

The good news is that, in all the excitement, the lamb’s tail fell off by itself.

And that, friends, is what it means to be an elder in a church.

If you have been a Christian for a short time you have probably heard this term “elder”, and you might have wondered what an elder is, and what he is supposed to do. For instance: are elders supposed to be elderly?

And if you have been a Christian for a long time you might have even more questions about what it means to be an elder. Because in many churches today elders seem to be a bit like board members who direct the finances and the projects of a church. Which can leave us with the impression that only businessmen should be elders.

So it might surprise you to know that, in the bible, elders do not have to be elderly, nor do they have to be businessmen. And that is because elders, in the bible, are not actually called to direct projects and finances — that job primarily belongs to the deacons of a church, which is a different role.

Instead, in the bible, when the writers try to describe what an elder is, the image they use most often is that of the shepherd. And really there are too many passages about shepherding for us to look at in just one day. So this week we are just going to look at two passages: one from the John’s Gospel, and one from Peter’s First Letter to the churches. And we are going to see, as we go along, that these two passages are actually related to one another. And we’re going to see why.

But our main purpose today is to answer, very simply, from these two scriptures, what an elder is and what he is supposed to do.

Starting with John’s Gospel here, Chapter 21, we catch up with Jesus and his disciples during the weeks after his crucifixion and resurrection. And they are eating together, again. And then, verse 15: When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”

And this seems like a strange question for Jesus to ask, because this sentence is vague. Is Jesus asking if Peter loves Jesus more than the rest of the disciples love Jesus? — or is Jesus asking if Peter loves Jesus more than he loves the rest of the disciples?

But actually, even if this sentence was not vague, even if we knew which way to interpret this question, it would not matter, because both options are strange options: why is Jesus asking if Peter loves him?

But then we remember that, just a few days before this, during the Last Supper, Peter had made a big promise about how he was willing to fight and die for Jesus — and then, later that night, when Jesus was arrested, he pretended that he was not one of Jesus’ disciples. He denied that he belonged to Christ.

And once we remember this, Jesus’ question does not seem so strange: he is basically asking Peter if he is sorry that he betrayed Jesus. 

“Yes, Lord,” Peter says, “you know that I love you.”

And this is an unusually humble response from Peter. In the old days he might have said, “Oh, yes! I definitely love you better than any of these other guys!” But here he basically says, “Ummm…you know the answer to that better than I do.”

Peter has learned to mistrust his own heart. He has discovered that even the strongest and most passionate believer can fall.

So Jesus says, “Okay. In that case: Feed my lambs.”

Then, a little while later [16] again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”

Then [17] a third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?”

He was hurt, and a little worried. Because Peter is not so sure, himself, anymore. He knows that only Jesus really knows what goes on inside a man’s heart. And if Jesus has to ask the question three times, maybe this means that Jesus himself is not finding an appropriate level of love in Peter’s heart?

So Peter says, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you…right?”

Jesus said, “Then: feed my sheep. [18] Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”

Then John, the writer, breaks in to explain that [19] Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God.

Because the phrase, “You will stretch out your hands” was a polite way of talking about crucifixion in those days; and sure enough — according to ancient church records — Peter was crucified outside the city of Rome during the reign of the emperor Nero.

But this sudden change of subject also seems a bit strange, doesn’t it? One minute Jesus is asking if Peter really loves him; the next minute he is telling Peter that he is going to be crucified. How does that make sense? Is Jesus trying to punish Peter, or threaten him?

Well, no. Because, if we take the time to think about it, we begin to realize that this promise of future crucifixion is actually Good News for Peter.

Because — remember — last time Peter denied Christ in order to avoid being crucified. And now he is so full of doubt in himself that he is afraid to even say, “Yes, I love you, Jesus!” His great fear is that, when the time of testing comes again, he will betray Jesus again.

So for Jesus to say, “Don’t worry, Peter, you will be crucified in the end!” — this is really just another way of saying, “Yes, Peter, I do know all things. I do know that you love me. And I know you are not going to betray me again. You are going to fight and die for me, just like you promised at the Last Supper.”

Good News for Peter!

Then Jesus said to him, “Follow me!”

And Peter did. The Book of Acts tells us how he became one of the leaders of the Church in Jerusalem, how he was arrested and persecuted and threatened with death, and how he refused to betray Christ again.

And many years later he wrote this next passage we are going to look at. And when we read it, we can see that his writing here is deeply connected to that conversation he had with Jesus. It is clear, from what he says in his letter, that Jesus’ commands made a deep and lasting impression on him, and now he is trying to pass those commands on to the Church:

[1] To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed. Do this: [2] Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing hishonest gain, but eager to serve; [3] not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. [4] And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.

So what we are hearing is the voice of a man who is an apostle: a man who actually walked with Jesus, a man who actually watched Jesus get crucified. This man is the Original Pastor — the O.P. — of Christ’s Church: before Paul, before James, before John, before anybody, Peter was in charge!

Peter could have set himself up to be the King of Christianity, the Father of all Christianity — and some people think he did. But there is a problem with that idea: because what we are hearing here is the voice of a very humble man.

He could bring out all his great titles here — Disciple! Apostle! O.P.! — but instead he calls himself a fellow elder: just an ordinary pastor, just like every other pastor of every other church in the world.

He could load his readers down with a lot of complicated rules — like: elders need to be smart businessmen who know how to manage finances and run programs — but instead he keeps it very very simple: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them.

But this just brings us back around to the question we were asking at the beginning: what is an elder and what is he supposed to do?

So far we have learned that an elder is a shepherd of God’s flock.

But what does that mean, really?

Well, interestingly enough, Peter does not give us a detailed job description of what it means to be a shepherd. He does not really focus on what elders are supposed to do; instead, he focuses on how they are supposed to do it: willingly, eagerly, humbly; like servants, not like noblemen. Not using their position of authority to make money; not focused on building up some kind of personal kingdom — but being examples to the flock.

So what we are finding here is that, when it comes to elders, Peter is interested in humble character before he is interested in good performance. Good performance is important! — but good performance can be faked. A CV, a resume, can be faked. But humble character cannot be faked. So Peter is telling us that when Jesus, the Chief Shepherd, hires under-shepherds to help care for his flock, he is not really interested in a man’s professional CV, or what position he held at his last company or in his last church. During the interview process, all Jesus really wants to know is, “What kind of man are you? What is your character like? Can I trust you to care for my sheep properly even when I am not around to supervise you?”

See, Peter believes — based on what he learned from Jesus — that humble character is the foundation of good performance. It is possible for a proud man to be smart in business. It is possible for a proud politician to be a good strong leader. But it is impossible for a proud man to be a good shepherd.

And Peter knows this from personal experience. He was proud in the days leading up to Jesus’ death! He was Jesus’ right-hand man, he was the leader of the disciples. He is the guy who boasted about how he was going to fight and die to protect Jesus, and he did, too! He is the guy who brought out a sword and attacked the police when they came to arrest Jesus!

— and he is the guy who denied knowing Jesus.

Peter was a successful businessman when Jesus first met him. He was a strong leader among the disciples. His performance was excellent! He was the kind of man every church would want to run their programs and direct their finances — but when the moment of crisis came Peter turned out to be a bad shepherd, because he was a proud man who needed to save himself.

But as we have seen here today: the Good News about Peter is that he did not stay proud. His failure broke him, shattered him, left him so full of doubt that he could not even say for sure whether he actually loved Jesus or not. And it was out of those broken pieces that Jesus put together a new kind of man, a new kind of shepherd for his people: a shepherd who was humble, who did not think of himself too highly. A shepherd who lived the rest of his life under the shadow of a literal cross, knowing that in the end he would experience the most humbling, humiliating kind of death the Roman empire could devise.

This is why Peter has such a humble voice here, in his letter: he knows that he owes everything to Jesus’ mercy. He knows he does not deserve to be an elder, a pastor, an apostle. He knows that in the end there will be nothing left of his reputation in the eyes of the world: he is going to die as a criminal, a terrorist, an enemy of the state. So he knows there is no point in puffing himself up, in making himself seem greater than he is.

And so this is Peter’s command for his fellow elders: do not spend your time trying to build some kind of great CV of your accomplishments, because in the end your only KPI is this: how well did you lead by example? Did you lead God’s flock into pride, or into humility? See, if elders only serve out of guilt and obligation, then their church will soon learn to serve Christ out of guilt and obligation. If elders use their position to manipulate people into giving their money, then their church will soon learn that money is the most important thing in life. If elders use their authority to boss people around, then their church will soon be filled with harsh, unreasonable bosses; harsh, unreasonable husbands; harsh, unreasonable mothers; harsh, unreasonable children. But if an elder serves out of a humble dependence on Christ, then the flock will learn to serve out of a humble dependence.

Humility is the key. Humble character is the foundation of good shepherding.

So we are here asking “What is an elder?” and this is our answer: an elder is a man who knows that he owes everything to Jesus’ mercy, a man who knows that Jesus alone is the Chief Shepherd. Because a man who knows these things is much less likely to shepherd God’s flock harshly or over-confidently or selfishly.

And if a man who knows these things is working alongside a whole team of men who know these things, then the flock that is under their care is even more safe from being bullied or misled — because humble shepherds know that they themselves are often the greatest threat to the flock, and they know that they need to be watched and held accountable by other humble shepherds.

Okay. So an elder is a man who shepherds God’s flock humbly. But still we want to know: what does that look like, practically speaking? What is an elder supposed to do?

Well, we have already noticed that Peter does not provide a detailed job description — but he does provide a basic one. He reduces the working definition of elder down to three simple commands: elders watch over, serve, and be examples.

And when we go even further back to the Gospel of John, we find that Jesus also gave Peter three simple commands: care for my sheep, feed my sheep, and follow me.

And the relationship between these commands is quite clear: caring for Jesus’ sheep means watching over, feeding Jesus’ sheep means serving, and following Jesus is the example elders are supposed to provide.

In other words, elders in a church are called to protect, feed, and lead by example.

Protecting: real-life shepherds in those days had to protect their sheep from real-life predators like wolves, wild dogs, and even lions. They had to protect their weaker sheep from the bullying of stronger sheep. They had to watch out for infectious illness spreading through the flock.

In the same way, elders are called to protect Jesus’ flock from real-life predators like false teachers, false teachings, to protect Jesus’ flock from bullies, to watch out for the infection of sin that can spread through their church.

Feeding: real-life shepherds in those days had to feed their sheep, making sure to lead them into good pastures where the grass was rich, clean, not mixed in with poisoned plants that could make them sick.

In the same way, elders are called to feed Jesus’ flock, making sure to lead them into places where God’s Word is taught faithfully and clearly.

Now, this does not mean that every elder is called to preach sermons. But it does mean that every elder needs to know how to recognize good preaching, good teaching. And every elder is responsible to make sure Jesus’ flock has access to good food. Ancient shepherds were not responsible to hand-feed each sheep — unless a sheep was very ill or wounded and unable to feed itself for a while — but they were responsible to make sure each sheep was getting to a place where they had access to good food.

And leading: real-life shepherds in those days led their flocks out to pasture in the morning using their voices. If two flocks got mixed up in the same field, all the shepherds had to do was walk away in different directions, calling or singing, and the flocks would sort themselves out, each sheep following the voices of the shepherds that they knew. And at night, when the shepherds led their sheep home to the fenced-in paddock, they would count and visually inspect each one as they passed through the gateway, to see if any were missing — to see if any lambs had their tail stuck to their backside.

And that is how elders are called to lead Jesus’ flock. Leading in the church does not mean bossing people around. Elders do have authority over God’s flock that is under their care, but that authority only authorizes them to know if any sheep have gone missing, or if any lambs are developing a rotten tail that could make them sick.

And what this means on a very practical level is that elders can only really lead the church, feed the church, and protect the church if they know the members — and if the members know them.

And this is where the bible’s definition of Eldership connects up with the bible’s definition of Membership.

Last week we looked at what the bible says about membership, and in the end what it all boiled down to was this: the main reason for membership in a local church is so that we can love others and be loved in return. And if you also recall, one of the specific examples of what membership looks like was that — if a member gets really sick — they have the right to call upon the elders of the church to come and pray over them and reassure them of our Father’s eternal love.

And at that point we realized that, in order for this to happen, members need to know who their elders are, and elders need to know who their members are.

And so what this means is that the simplest, most basic answer to our question “What is an elder, and what does he do?” is this: an elder loves people.

…yep. That’s it. An elder loves God’s flock that is under his care.

In short: to be a member means being loved by your elders, even if you are unable to love them in return.

And to be an elder means loving your members…even if they do not love you in return.

And so: are you beginning to see how this works? Are you beginning to catch some of the implications? To be a member of a local church means that you get the chance to love others and be loved in return. Now, we know by experience that building healthy relationships is hard work! It is sometimes difficult to love some of the other sheep; it is sometimes difficult to be loved by some of the other sheep. Sometimes we are so sick, so broken, so weak that we are unable to love our brothers and sisters in any kind of healthy way.

But if we are members in a church that has elders who understand their calling, then guess what? You will be loved, no matter what!

Being a member in a church guided by humble elders means that you have older brothers alongside you in the flock, brothers who have been called and commanded by Christ to love you — to make sure you are fed, to make sure you are led, to make sure you are protected, to make sure you are known — brothers who are committed to being crucified and humiliated for your sake, even if you are the kind of lamb who has a sticky tail, even if you are the kind of lamb who finds it hard to love other lambs who have sticky tails.

And so, clearly, being an elder in a local church is a special kind of calling. It requires a special kind of man. A man with thick skin, but a soft heart. A man with strong hands, but gentle. A man who is not afraid to get dirty, a man who is not afraid to be shouted at and kicked and sometimes even trampled by the sheep. An elder is called to be the image of Christ to the local church. He should be able to say, like the apostle Paul did: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.”

And that is really a very weighty responsibility. Because we all know that no man is going to be the perfect example of Christ. Every elder is going to fail to love God’s flock properly. The best elders know they are going to fail — and this knowledge is what keeps them humble. This knowledge is what keeps them turning back to Christ, the Chief Shepherd, for mercy.

And ultimately, that is the example elders are supposed to set: the living example of what true repentance looks like. Elders are supposed to lead by loving the flock well: an elder’s performance is important. But when an elder fails to love the flock well, then he is called to lead by repenting and rejoicing in Christ’s forgiveness: and that is the point at which an elder’s true character is revealed. Because a man’s true character is only really revealed when things go wrong. And as the elders of a local church lead through repentance and rejoicing even when everything is going wrong…then the flock will learn to live in repentance and rejoicing even when everything is going wrong.

Being a shepherd can be a thankless task. Its a bit like being a parent. You go in there to help fix a sticky tail, but the offer to help is misunderstood, a stampede takes place, and in the end the Holy Spirit removes the sticky tail without your help.

— no, actually it’s worse than that: the Holy Spirit plans for you to cause the stampede that removes the tail. So you do help! but only by getting trampled and humiliated and completely filthy. And in the end you don’t get credit anyway!

So being an elder is a special calling. A noble calling! but a difficult one. An elder is called to follow the example of Christ by loving the unlovely, by loving God’s flock even when there is no guarantee of being loved back. Being an elder, like being a parent, means years of relational investment with no guarantee of return.

— but that’s not quite true. There is a guaranteed return on investment. Because, as Peter says, if an elder remains faithful, if an elder remains humble, if an elder continues to love God’s flock that is under his care, then when the Chief Shepherd appears, he will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away. Jesus has set aside a particular reward for those who have served as his under-shepherds in the Church. And that knowledge can be a source of strength. It can make the costs of being an elder a bit easier to bear.

But there is a part that we all, as ordinary members, can play in this as well: we can make up our minds to learn humility from our elders, to follow our elders into humility as they follow Christ.

That is what Peter says next: [5] In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.”

It is my prayer that every man who is called become an elder over this church in the years to come will be leaders in repentance above all. Because, look: things are going to go wrong, outside our church and inside it. There will be shouting and stampedes. And — fair or not — our elders are going to have to absorb a lot of the damage and take a lot of the blame. That’s what shepherds do! Now, it is hard to be wrong. It is even harder to be wrong publically. And it is even harder to have to admit wrong publically. But that are the kinds of men we want to be shepherded by, because shepherds like that will teach us humility. And the more we learn humility, the more God will show us his favour.

So, in closing, here: church elders do not have to be gifted administrators, or gifted businessmen, they do not have to be highly-trained theologians. They do not even have to be leaders in a modern sense.

And this is an important point. A large part of our global modern church has become obsessed with what it means to be a “Leader” in the church. We know this because thousands of books on church leadership have been published in the last 50 years.

Unfortunately, many of them rely on non-biblical concepts. And the reason why so many of these books are non-biblical is because the bible does not talk about leadership.

Now: isn’t that remarkable?

And the fact that so many church leaders today are obsessed with a concept that the bible itself is not obsessed with…means that a large proportion of our churches are taking their cues on leadership from the world and not from the bible. And that is why so many churches today look like corporations, where the pastor looks like a CEO and the elders look like board members.

Why do we do this? Because the world’s model of leadership works. It gets results. If the elders of a church want to accumulate people, power, and money, all they have to do is organize themselves like a corporation, start feeding all that money and power back into the corporation, and they will make a profit; they will be successful…in the eyes of the world.

Unfortunately, that is exactly the opposite of what Peter has commanded elders to do. The goal of the church is not success. The goal of the church is love.

Friends, alarm bells should be ringing all across the global modern church. Alarm bells are ringing. They are telling us to return to scripture, to return to following the example of Christ before it is too late.

Jesus is our Chief Shepherd. He led by humbling himself, even to humiliation and death on a cross. Peter led by following Jesus’ example exactly, right down to the crucifixion part. True Christian leadership reveals itself when things go wrong, it is born into humiliation and death, and it will only truly share in the glory to be revealed when that glory is finally revealed on the Last Day.

So what is an elder? An elder is shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, a man who loves and loves and loves and then receives the crown of glory that will never fade away.

And what are we to do, as members? We choose humble men from among our own number. We ask them to serve us in this way. And then we submit. We follow. We learn from their example what it looks like to love one another.

When real-life lambs are born, they don’t know anything. All they know is how to stay close to the source of life, the source of milk. So they very quickly learn to recognize the voice of their mother.

But all that time when lambs are nursing they are also hearing the voices of the rest of the flock, and they are hearing the voices of the shepherds. And that whole time they are growing up they are learning that these voices also are the source of life. When a lamb is small, its mother is the source of food, guidance, and protection. But when it is grown, the flock itself becomes the source of all these things; the flock, and the shepherds who lead that flock with their voices — leading by example, as Peter says.

May the Lord bless us with elders who speak with the voice of our Chief Shepherd. And may he bless us with listening ears and humble hearts toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.”


Scroll to top