So what about the Greek words in Heb. 13:7, 17 & 24? The Greek word used in each case is eegoumenoi. The KJV translates it “rule over you” each time. This usage is in keeping with the authoritarian thinking of the time inherited from the Catholic model.

But look at how Paul used that same word in I Timothy 3:4-5. The first word is proisteemi which he uses as he speaks about the family as “rule his family” KJV; but speaking of the church Paul uses the other less authoritative word eegoumenois which is used and translated “take care of the church of God”. It is instructive to note here that all the words in this passage are in the male form. God intended men to be the elders of His church. This in no way demeans women in any way because they have untold ways to minister in the church unique to them. Why should being an elder be something to be grasped? Even the Apostle Paul, being unqualified to serve as such did not pursue the office.

So in the three verses in Hebrews 13 the much less dictatorial word, eegoumenois, is used, and I believe should be translated as “your leaders” as the NIV, RSV & NEB translates it and not as “rulers over you” as found in the KJV and ASV. It should also be noted that the word ELDER is not used in these verses…So those of whom it speaks are outstanding leaders from among the group.

These verses may well refer to elders; but by urging the flock to be follower of them is not due to their orders, demands, etc. but due to their love, devotion, and caring for the flock. How can one refuse to follow one who is following the example of the Savior referred to in John 10:10 who is making every effort to do everything possible that the flock may have life abundantly.

What are things this leader, shepherd &/or elder is doing…

  1. guarding the flock from those who want only to steal, kill and destroy, [guarding the teaching the flock is receiving making sure it is not false and misleading]
  2. going before them and nourishing them, finding pasture, and life sustaining water for the flock [seeing that the teaching is absolutely true to Scripture].

Maybe there has been a time in your life when you had to be away from your children for a while. Didn’t you think long and hard about whom you ask to care for your children while you were away? You looked at them eye to eye letting them know they are your most precious possessions and you implore them to be diligent. A parent doesn’t want to leave his child with someone irresponsible and neither does God want His church in irresponsible hands.

I Thessalonians 5:12-13 addresses this leadership in the church. Paul makes no mention of ELDERS in the Thessalonians letters; but the Christ like spirit of leadership is addressed. The KJV reads “We beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; And to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake.” But the NIV states it thusly “Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work.”

Please note “submit” is not used here, but the much more gentle words “esteem” and “respect” words are used. This catches the true spirit of Scripture as to the attitude of the flock and their attitude toward elders. It is not that elders are to be demanding and ordering people around; but the way they live and act among the flock brings respectful response. Understanding the needs of the flock from personal contact with them brings the response from the congregation out of respect. It reminds us of the popular TV show “Undercover Boss”

The text (Hebrews 13:17) verse includes the same reasons as I Thessalonians 5:12-13 one should heed what the leaders say and highly esteem them for it says, “they watch in behalf of your souls” and certainly both the elders and the flock should know they will give an account. The giving of account is obviously before the Lord.

Notice the words most often used when referring to spiritual leaders—elders, pastors, bishops are not “office” or “authority” words. The words are descriptive. The Greek word for elder (presbuteroi) just means “older” or “leaders”. Poimaenoi simply means “shepherd” and episkipoi can be translated those “who watch out for”, “who are concerned on behalf of” or “who care for” the congregation.

Dr. Lynn Anderson in his book They Smell Like Sheep details the leaders functions in the following ways.

  • “Shepherd the flock
  1. Teach them
  2. Touch them
  3. Protect them
  4. Lead them
  • Teach the Word
  1. Feed them
  2. Encourage them
  3. Refute false teachings dangerous to them
  • Guard the flock (from spiritual dangers)
  • Care for the flock (maintain, oversee, be watchful on behalf of)
  • Serve the flock
  • Be examples to the flock
  • Preach the Word
  • Pray for the flock
  • Anoint the sick and pray for them
  • Direct the affairs of the flock
  • Take thought for the flock
  • Busy oneself with the flock
  • Lose sleep over the flock
  • Equip the flock for ministry”

Qualifications for leaders, shepherds, elders is often the thought. The way it is discussed in the New Testament is not qualifications but characteristics, traits or qualities of the person. Only as the appropriate qualities or traits are evident in someone are they then to be recognized as a shepherd.

These phrases show the leaders activity is among the flock i.e. being in the pen with them so that you ”smell like sheep”. The leader “elder” nurtures the congregation. They are touched by him. They have their wounds attended to by him. When weak they are picked up and carried by him. If they become lost from the flock he goes after them to bring them safely back. When they are hungry he sees to it that they have food. They are protected from some dangerous attack. He walks in their midst. I am confident there are times when the shepherd cleans up their mess. As Dr. Anderson suggests their association is so close they even smell like sheep and to some that may be offensive, but among the flock it is most comforting.

The burden of responsibility is not attributed to the leaders alone; but also to the flock. The flock is admonished to make the leaders work a joy, and the flock is not to cause them grief or be a burden. To cause the leaders grief or their effort a burden is not advantageous to the flock. So obviously they will also give an account of their behavior as part of the flock.

The shepherds work is taken seriously because he “shall give account” to the Chief Shepherd knowing that “the crown of glory that fades not away” (I Peter 5:4) awaits him. But also the flock has responsibility to assist his work in any possible way so as to contribute to his “joy” and not cause him “grief” so they too may realize gain when the time for rewards takes place according to I Corinthians 3:10-15. For contributing to the shepherds (elders) joy or grief is like building with gold, silver, costly stones or with wood, hay, stubble. Surely none of the flock wants their effort which is put forth in the church to be burned up and suffer such a loss.

So the Scriptures teach leadership and elders carry a heavy burden of responsibility before the Lord. All should heed the words of James 3:1 “Be not many of you teachers, my brethren, knowing that we shall receive heavier judgment.” This certainly carries the meaning of being a leader is serious and should be given the most thorough consideration and prayer. May God help all leaders and elders to be setting the example of “walkin and talkin” in the footsteps of Jesus with the sheep. None of us are promised every day to be ideal, filled only with only sunshine. Remember deserts are the places where there is always sunshine. There must be the hardships to appreciate the good times.

My father served the church for over 60 years as treasurer and some 30 years as an elder. This poem by Edgar A. Guest was his “watch word”.

I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day; I’d rather one should walk with me than merely tell the way

The eye’s a better pupil And more willing than the ear Fine counsel is confusing But example’s always clear;

And the best of all the preachersAre the men who live their creeds, For to see good put in action Is what everybody needs.

I soon can learn to do it If you’ll let me see it done; I can watch your hands in action, But your tongue too fast may run.

And the lecture you deliver May be very wise and true, But I’d rather get my lesson By observing what you do;

For I might misunderstand you And the high advice you give, But there’s no misunderstanding How you act and how you live.

May God’s special blessings be upon every leader in the flock to which you belong and may God bless the congregation as those that make their work a joy and not a burden.

In the words of Leroy Garrett…”Soldier On”.

-Dick Lewis lives in Johnson City, TN and is an Elder in the Locust Street Church of Christ