Pastors and deacons herd the flock

Even though I have logged several decades of ministering to the Lord’s people through His church, there’s still so much I have yet to figure out. One of them is the ideal working relationship of pastors and deacons.

What exactly does the Lord have in mind here?

Since gracious (or too-trusting) leaders keep inviting me to address their assemblies of pastors-and-deacons, it seems obvious that the Lord is giving me ample opportunity and motivation to figure it out.

I’ve even written a book on the subject, one which lots of churches are buying and recommending to their deacons.  Okay…

Here’s where I am at the moment.

The image of cowhands moving the herd from the ranch to the railhead is my favorite metaphor for the key roles in church leadership.

Often the trail-drive was an ordeal of several weeks duration. In the process of herding the animals, the ranch-hands illustrate the key roles of leadership of the Lord’s people.

Someone rides POINT.  Biblically that person is the pastor. The one riding point sets the direction for all who come behind him. Jesus said, “When the shepherd puts forth his sheep, he goes before them” (John 10:4). It’s impossible to direct the herd from a safe spot in the rear.

Someone rides FLANK. The other members of the ministerial staff and key lay leadership assist the point-rider, the pastor. Flank-riders keep the herd together, see that they do not stray too far to the right or left, and rescue any in trouble.

Someone rides DRAG. This may be the toughest job of all, bringing up the rear.

Riding drag becomes the chief role of the deacons. The drag-rider makes sure there are no stragglers, that no one is left behind. He rescues the animals in trouble and prods those that want to drop out. Since this worker eats the dust of the herd, the job usually goes to the youngest or newest member of the team or the poor guy who is in trouble with the ranch foreman. Sorry, deacons. You get the hardest assignment. And yes, there’s actually a scripture for saying the servant should be as the youngest.

These positions are all found in Scripture, in one way or the other.

Think of the accounts in Scripture of them moving God’s people across the Red Sea and later the Jordan River.

When God’s people crossed the Red Sea, the Lord Himself filled all the leadership roles.

Exodus 14 gives the account of Moses and the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. Since the Lord’s people are pretty much a bunch of pagans with almost no background in faithfulness to Him–think of them as just entering the kindergarten stage of spiritual development–the Lord filled all the roles of leadership Himself, with the single exception of what Moses did.

The Lord went before the people. The Lord remained with the people in the depths of their crossing. And then, the Lord brought up the rear.

And the angel of God, who went before the camp of Israel, moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud went from before them and stood behind them…. Thus it was a cloud and darkness to the one, and it gave light by night to the other, so that the one did not come near to the other all that night (Ex. 14:19-20).

Throughout their wilderness travels, Israel saw the leadership of the Lord in the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:21-22).

What was not so obvious to the people, however, is that the Lord was also protecting their rear.

For the Lord will go before you, and the God of Israel will be your rear guard (Isaiah 52:12). And again: The glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard (Isaiah 58:8).

Then, some forty years later, when God’s people crossed the Jordan River, the Lord had His leaders in place to shepherd the people.

By this time, the Lord was no longer leading Israel with the fiery pillar or the moving cloud. He had established the tabernacle with His ark and the priests were in place. So, when under Joshua’s leadership the people moved across the Jordan River–in a miracle every bit as dramatic and leadership-affirming as the Red Sea crossing–the Lord did it differently.

The priests went ahead of God’s people. When you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, and the priests, the Levites,bearing it, then you shall set out from your place and go after it. Yet there shall be a space between you and it, about two thousand cubits by measure (Joshua 3:3-4).

Why the distance between the priests and the congregation? Clearly, it was so everyone could see them. The Lord does not care for this image of one person following the guy in front of him. That’s how groups go astray and get farther and farther from the goal. With each person able to eye the leaders, the whole family stays in line.

A side note here: One of the best ideas the Lord ever had for His people was the Holy Scriptures. Every generation of believers is thus anchored to the First Century, and not required to emulate the trials and errors of those who went before them. Without the New Testament with its reliable accounting of the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus and the apostles’ teaching, we would be miles away from the pattern the Lord revealed from Heaven in Jesus.

Leaders must lead. They must stand out in front of the people and show them the way.

Likewise, the people must be faithful in following their leaders. You have not passed this way before, Joshua’s lieutenants (his ministerial staff?) reminded the people (Joshua 3:4). They must follow the God-appointed leaders if they expected to arrive safely.

Once the priests’ feet hit the water of the Jordan River, the waters separated and the ground before them was instantly dry (Joshua 3:13-17).

The priests did not do what we might have expected and walked all the way across the river bed, then looked behind to encourage those coming afterward. Instead, they paused in the middle (Joshua 4:10) and stood their ground until the last person had crossed. Even then, they did not immediately leave the dry riverbed. God had in mind that two kinds of stone memorials should be erected–one in the middle of the river to be seen only in times of drouth as a reminder of His faithfulness and the other a day’s walk away as a constant testimony–so priests carried boulders out of the river while their ark-carrying colleagues stood in place.

We find it interesting to note how this Jordan-crossing ended. All the people were out of the riverbed. Then, two things happened. First, the ark-bearing priests came out (Josh. 4:11). Then, another group brought up the rear. Over 40,000 fighting men of the tribes of Manasseh, Gad, and Reuben–those who had chosen to dwell on the east side of the Jordan and had left their families there for safety reasons–came last (Josh. 4:12-13).

The Lord’s priests led the way (God’s pointmen), the priests held their ground in the middle of the riverbed (riding flank? perhaps), and then when all were safe, the priests walked out. But throughout, they were protected by the Lord’s armed guard. Riding drag.

The warriors were riding drag. Don’t miss that.

In the New Testament, we see the church’s leaders in their various roles.

The pastors were clearly to be the point men for the Lord’s people. The Apostle Paul makes this clear. Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers; shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. (Acts 20:28)

In telling Timothy of the qualifications of a pastor, Paul asks, If he does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the house of God? (I Timothy 3:5)

The secondary tier of leadership makes up the flank-riders. They follow the leadership of the pastors who ride flank, but have their own distinctive roles and assignments. Throughout the New Testament epistles, we see these men–and women too, we might point out–who worked under the leadership of the key leaders in strategic assignments.

A few illustrations:

It pleased the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas, namely, Judas who was also named Barsabas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren.(Acts 15:22)

He sent into Macedonia two of those who ministered to him, Timothy and Erastus, but he himself stayed in Asia for a time.(Acts 19:22)

Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their own necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles.(Romans 16:3-4)

Many people say there is no scriptural precedent for church staff members. Clearly, there is no place where they are named that. But throughout the New Testament, godly men and women worked alongside and under the Lord’s “point-men” to amplify their message, magnify their ministry, and glorify their Lord.

And then we come to the drag-riders. The deacons. I could wish for more examples of New Testament deacons doing the kinds of things the church needed. But, what we have are of two kinds: the specific teachings of Acts 6:1-6 (we are aware that “deacon” is nowhere found in this text) and I Timothy 3:8-13; as well as the various references to God’s faithful being known as servants.

John MacArthur, in commenting on Acts 6:1-6, makes the point that these were not an established and permanent “order of deacons” but something done at that time for a particular need.

In the absence of a detailed plan of the responsibilities of deacons we conclude that they were free to do whatever the church needed at the time. Acts 6:3 establishes a good pattern: Seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. (The word “business” there means “a need” or “something lacking.”) Whatever the church felt was lacking and was needed by the pastoral leadership became the assignment of the deacons.

The Greek word for deacon is diakonos which breaks down into dia meaning “through” or “thoroughly” and konos meaning “dust.” The deacons were to be those who did the dirty work, who didn’t mind getting their hands dirty, as we would say.

First century houses, those wealthy enough to possess servants, were often built as rectangles with an open square in the middle. This allowed for ventilation. In the heat of the summer, moving from one part to the other, residents would stay in the shade of the house. Servants, however, cut across the courtyard–through the dust–and thus were given this as their name. (That is one theory. No one knows for certain. But it seems to work.)

A servant takes orders from someone else.

A servant is not independent, headstrong, or self-centered.

A servant works to make other people successful.

He who would be great among you must be your servant (Matthew 20:26).

I was the rather new and young pastor, while Bill was my right arm, a senior member of the ministerial staff. One day I went into his office with an assignment.

The staff-member who served as church hostess (and thus was responsible for the Wednesday meals at the church) had once again offended some guests, and I felt it was time to dismiss her.

The night before, we had had a family visiting at the church dinner. As they pushed their trays down the line in the kitchen, the man reached for a carton of chocolate milk. Our church hostess slapped his fingers and snapped, “Those are for the children!”

This was only the latest in a number of embarrassments she had caused. I said to my assistant, “Bill, she works under you. So, I need you to be the one to dismiss her. As the pastor, I will need to minister to the family. It’s an unpleasant job, but I need you to do this.”

Bill said, “Well, our personnel policies say that employees are to retire after they reach 65 and she’s well past that.”

Bill retired her, the church honored her, and we found an excellent replacement. However, the lady and her family never forgave Bill for what they perceived as a wrong. The pastor, however? She loved me to her dying day.

Pastors need someone who will take a bullet for them.

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