Take Heed to the Flock

The following is the manuscript from a message on Acts 20:17-35 which I delivered on Sunday, June 5, 2022 as part of sermon series on the book of Acts. In light of (1) the crisis of pastoral credibility, (2) reports of churches’ and denominations horrific mishandling of and complicity in sexual abuse, and (3) the downsizing of ministerial training institutions, I’m especially burdened that pastors and churches alike are clear on what pastors are supposed to be doing, and what their character qualifications are to be. This passage (Acts 20:17-35) along with 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, and 1 Peter 5 provide unmistakably clear answers. I wonder what the contemporary scene would look like if these passages were faithfully heeded.

The Barna Research Group tells us that America’s pastors are facing a credibility crisis. From a 2020 survey of Christians and non-Christians, the researchers concluded that “overall, U.S. adults are unsure whether pastors in their local community can be trusted, are in touch with their community’s needs and are reliable sources of wisdom and leadership.”[1]

Even more seriously, a report was released in the past few weeks that revealed horrifying details about the largest Protestant denomination in the U. S. According to this report, hundreds of allegations of sexual abuse—abuse committed by pastors in the denomination—were ignored and even covered up. Instead of protecting the flock, these pastors were preying on the most vulnerable in the flock.

These things weighed on my heart and mind as I prepared to preach on Acts chapter 20:17-35, a classic passage dealing with the topic of pastoring. It is brimming with personality and pathos, shimmering with love and affection, yet rooted in the soil of suffering and frailty. We can enter into this passage—like a garden at harvest time—and come out with a wagonload overflowing with goods. But in order to narrow our focus, we will put one question to this passage: What must pastors do?

This question has immediate and urgent relevance, not only for pastors but also for the churches they lead. To begin with, it gives churches a visible standard by which to evaluate the character and tasks of their pastors. This is a matter of common sense. Any child who wants to ride a rollercoaster at the state fair must first be measured by a sign that says, “You must be this tall to go on this ride.” The reason for this public standard is the safety of the child. How much more important is it that there be a publicly-known standard for pastors—whose words and conduct so deeply affects the well-being of many besides themselves! The standards for pastors’ character and competencies are publicly available in Scripture so that anyone who cares to find out can tell whether that pastor is operating according to those standards and duties.

From this passage we discover three basic duties of every pastor. There may be a variety of ways of arranging these, just as you can choose different arrangements for a bouquet of flowers, but it is helpful to see them in the following sequence: pastors must (1) teach, (2) model, and (3) nurture.

1. Pastors must teach.

To start a fire, you need fuel. Granted, fuel is not the only thing you need. Oxygen and heat are necessary as well. But you won’t get anywhere unless you have fuel. So it is with teaching. It’s not the only thing a pastor does, but if a pastor is not teaching, he’s not pastoring.

The fact that pastors must teach is abundantly evident from this text. Notice the verbs Paul uses: “declaring,” “teaching,” and “testifying” (20:20-21). We can find evidence from other places in the New Testament. For example, in his first letter to his protégé Timothy, Paul lays down one of the essential skills required of a pastor: that he be “able to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2). And in his final charge to Timothy, Paul urges him to “preach the Word” (2 Timothy 4:2). In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul tells them that God gave to the church “pastors and teachers.” The very metaphor of pastoring (Acts 20:28), which literally means “shepherding,” implies that pastors are to feed their people. What is the food? The food is God’s Word. And how does the pastor feed them God’s Word? By teaching them.

We should press in further by asking why pastors must teach. Isn’t it sufficient for a pastor to be present with his people or to organize community events? The reason pastors must teach is that at the heart of any real, lasting change in peoples’ lives is the Christian message, the gospel. This gospel is “God’s power for saving people” (Acts 1:16), and this is not something that can be merely absorbed through personal contact, or soaked up through one’s participation in religious events. Neither is it something that can be supernaturally transmitted by drinking wine and eating wafers. Rather, the gospel has real content that must be understood and believed. Lasting, root-deep life change takes place as the mind grasps it and the heart rests in it. This is why pastors must teach.

But this also tells us what pastors must teach, namely, the gospel. There are various expressions of this gospel content given throughout the passage. For example, Paul speaks of “repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (21), “to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (24), “proclaiming the kingdom” (25), and “the whole counsel of God” (27). This does not mean that Paul had exegeted every passage of Scripture from Genesis to Malachi. Rather, in the time available to him, he had imparted to them, as completely as possible, an exposition of God’s plan to rescue human beings, and bring them into his kingdom. From this, we cannot fail to see that pastors must be occupied with telling people that Jesus of Nazareth is God’s Son who died to rescue people from their sin; that through his death and resurrection he defeated sin and death; that he is the King who deserves all our adoration and worship because he alone can rescue us from our greatest enemy; that, as the King, he will one day return to put everything right so we can live with him forever.

It is impossible for such a message to be reported off-handedly or impersonally. This, moreover, leads us to consider how pastors must teach. In our text we read that Paul not only imparted the facts of the gospel, but that he did so with the urgency and emotional energy that such good news evokes: “For three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears” (20:31). Pastors are not content merely to deliver information, but to urge upon people what they must do with that information.

When I was learning to drive, my instructor would not only tell me facts, but urge upon me the application of those facts. She was not content to say, “In America, we drive on the right side of the road. A double yellow line means drivers will be approaching quickly on the left.” She would say, “You’re in the wrong lane. Pull over!” In a similar way, pastoral teaching must turn into pastoral exhortation. Pastors must extol the goodness, truth, and beauty of Jesus Christ and urge people to trust and follow him. They must cause their people to feel, for example, the disconnect between their self-centered anger and Jesus’ loving; between their lust and the freedom Jesus offers. Pastors must warn their people of the danger of racial, national, and political idolatry. All this springs from the nature of the gospel, which is, at its heart, not merely facts, but a Person who the Lord of all. Thus, Paul writes in Colossians 1:27-28, “We proclaim [Christ], admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28).

2. Pastors must model what they teach.

But what if a pastor is saying all the right things, but contradicting it with his life? Unspeakable damage has been done—to churches and to the reputation of Jesus—by pastors who denied with their conduct what they professed was their creed.

The duty of pastors to model what they teach is arguably the most striking feature of Paul’s speech to the Ephesian elders. He is eager to set himself forward as an example of pastoral integrity. His eagerness on this point, in fact, might initially make us feel a bit comfortable. Who would have the audacity to say to a group of people, as Paul did: “You know that during the three years I was with you, I have been humble and diligent. I’ve worked hard, and done right by you”?

Upon closer examination, we may discover that we are the proud ones, not Paul. His example, in fact, gives us an important insight into the nature of humility and the importance of role-modeling in an deeply unselfconscious way. I’ll put it this way: it takes humility to shut up about your own accomplishments and qualities. But it takes an even deeper humility to talk about your accomplishments and qualities without caring whether anyone thinks you’re being proud. Much of what poses as “humility” is a double self-consciousness in which we try to avoid giving the impression that we’re proud. This doesn’t enter Paul’s mind. He’s moved beyond all that. For him, all that matters is the well-being of the flock and the glory of God, so he is free to talk about his personal credentials without pride or embarrassment.

The amount of material here devoted to Paul’s personal example provides ample evidence for that fact that pastors must model what they teach. But we find this also in other places in the New Testament. In 1 Timothy 3:1-7, for example, when Paul lists the criteria for pastors (“overseers”), most of the criteria pertain to the pastor’s character. Later in that same letter, he tells Timothy to “set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (4:12). The Apostle Peter as well puts a premium on pastoral modeling, warning pastors not to domineer over those in their charge, but to lead by “being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3; see also Titus 2:7).

Why must pastors model what they teach? First, personal integrity makes one’s message credible. Aristotle identified three essential components of persuasion: logos (what you say), pathos (how you say it), and ethos (who you are, your character). Of these three, he said, ethos is by far the most determinative in whether people will be convinced by what you say. The power of personal example is a leader’s most potent weapon, for good or for evil. Charles Spurgeon tells of a pastor who, when he preached, people wished he would never leave the pulpit; but when he was out of the pulpit, they wished he would never enter it.

But there is a deeper reason pastors must model what they teach, and it is this: what they teach is not mere information to be learned, but a person to be followed. “We preach,” Paul writes, but what does he preach? A philosophy? A five-step process of recovery? No, at the very heart of the gospel is a person: Jesus the Messiah. “We preach Christ” (Colossians 1:28). And Christ cannot be preached rightly unless the preacher is following him. The good news cannot be embraced with the mind alone but with the entire person—mind, will, and emotions.

When I was in college I worked in an assisted living facility for elderly people. There was a man there who would come to his wife’s room and walk with her down the hallway to the room with the big TV so that they could watch an old movie together. He would give her a kiss, and hold her hand like they were on their first date, and off they would go shuffling down the hall together. And sometimes she would ask, “Who are you?” As I thought recently about that example of faithful love, I thought, “It’s one thing to read in the Bible, ‘Husbands, love your wives.’ But it’s quite another thing to see that command lived out in flesh and bones.” So it is with other aspects of Christian living. We need to see the word of God in flesh and bones, living and breathing. The 19th-century Scottish pastor Robert Murray M’Cheyne once wrote to a fellow pastor: “Remember you are God’s sword—his instrument,—I trust a chosen vessel unto him to bear his name. In great measure, according to the purity . . . of the instrument, will be the success. It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.”

There are many soul-searching applications of this truth for pastors, but this also has relevance for churches as well: churches must hold a high bar for pastoral character. A man’s magnetic personality, dazzling gifts of communication, or administrative genius can easily awe people, but distract them from defects in his character. Churches must insist that their pastors be men of humility, integrity, and godliness. Ask your pastor about his prayer life, his family life, or his time in the Word; if he is a man of integrity, he will welcome the question. If he is struggling in that area, it will be a wake-up call for him to improve. If he is unworthy, he will resent you or fear you and make you feel wrong for asking. But there is a reason that pastoral qualifications are available for everyone to read. Too many churches have been harmed by tolerating poor character in their pastors. Anger, bullying, quarrelsomeness, laziness, lust, stubbornness, dishonesty—none of these may go unchecked or unconfronted in the people who shepherd’s God’s flock.

3. Pastors must nurture people in what they teach.

To nurture is to provide what is necessary for someone’s growth and development, and this is the sense of Paul’s words, “to care for the church of God” (20:28). It’s easy to think that the product of a pastor’s labor is to be measured in a building program or an outreach initiative. These things may be part of a pastor’s work, but the real work is not the shape of a building, but the shape of people’s lives. The question a pastor must constantly ask himself (and others) is this: “Are the people I am responsible to care for becoming more and more like Jesus?”

When the apostle Paul was pressured to produce a “reference letter” to authenticate his calling as an apostle, instead he offered the changed lives of those whom he had pastored: “You yourselves are our letter of recommendation. . . . You show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Cor. 3:2-3). He was saying, in effect: “God’s Spirit is etching into your hearts proof that you have God’s life within you—and that is the goal of our ministry.” When looking for a pastor, you may ask for sermons preached, for a list of academic degrees, for programs engineered and executed. But do not fail to ask about the people whose lives have become more like Jesus through that pastor’s nurturing influence.

Some people love to be matchmakers. They like to identify a single person in search of their soulmate, look for that perfect match, and put the two together. They may talk with the person and say, “You know what? I know the perfect match for you.”

As a pastor, Paul viewed himself as a matchmaker: “I betrothed you to one husband, Jesus Christ,” he writes in 2 Corinthians 11:2. He had sparked a romance between Jesus and the Corinthians, and led them to the marriage altar. That’s what every pastor should be trying to do with his people—to woo them, not to himself, but to Jesus. He sees their shame, despair, frustration, and emptiness, and says, “You know what? I know the perfect match for you!” This is the true aim of pastoral ministry, and the true aim of life: to find in Jesus our perfect satisfaction.

If understood correctly, the requirements and duties of pastoral ministry in particular and Christian leadership in general will make us feel overwhelmed and insufficient. It is important to point out that the three terms for a pastor—elder, shepherd, and overseer—are applied to Jesus as well.

Jesus is not only an elder: he is the Elder, the one who existed from eternity past (John 1:1; Revelation 1:12-18). He is not only an overseer: he is the Overseer of our souls (1 Peter 2:25). And he is not only a shepherd: he is the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for us (John 10:11). By ourselves, we are insufficient. Only as we continually find in Christ our greatest good and treasure will we have the ability to faithfully teach, model, and nurture God’s flock, until “the Chief Shepherd appears” (1 Peter 5:4).


[1] “Pastors’ Credibility Is in Question—Even Among Pastors,” Barna Group, accessed June 3, 2022, https://www.barna.com/research/pastors-trustworthy-reliable/.

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