When it comes to shepherding the church, elders do well to realize that their calling is a practical, Trinitarian work.
The Apostle Paul made this clear to the elders of Ephesus. His final instructions to the leaders of that congregation were: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). Looking carefully at this directive, we see that elders can properly care for the church only by honoring their triune God as they do so. In essence, Paul gave the elders a Trinitarian formulation for their work.
Shepherd the church that God the Father owns. Set apart by the Father to receive His adoptive love before the world was made (Eph. 1:3–7), the church belongs solely to Him. Paul called it the “church of God.” One of my spiritual mentors used to regularly remind me of this truth. Whenever I said “my church” in reference to the congregation I pastored, he would raise his eyebrows and ask, “Whose church?” His point was clear. The church belongs to God, not me.
Elders in a congregation must never act as if the church belongs to them, is there for their own benefit, or is under their lordship (1 Peter 5:1–3). Rather, they are to treat people in the church as children of God. How? By showing them the Father’s tender love. By protecting them from evil influences. By helping them grow up to be like their heavenly Father.
Shepherd the church that God the Son obtained. Paul told the Ephesian elders that Christ obtained, or purchased, the church with His own blood. As he urged them to “pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock,” they had to make sure that everyone in the congregation—leader and layperson alike—remained in the gospel.
As Richard Baxter said about this verse, “It is a fearful thing to be an unsanctified professor, but much more to be an unsanctified preacher.” Pastors and elders must live the holy lives expected of those blood-bought by Jesus. In turn, they have the sacred duty to shepherd God’s flock to believe and obey the gospel of His Son.
Shepherd the church that God the Spirit oversees. The Spirit of God formed the church through His regenerating power (Titus 3:5), dwells in the church with His baptizing presence (1 Cor. 12:13), and blesses the church with His generous gifts (vv. 4–6). Elders are gifts to the church to fulfill the Spirit’s work of oversight.
Elders, then, are to bear the Spirit’s fruit in their character as they shepherd. They are to preach the Spirit’s truth to God’s people. They should guide the church in the Spirit’s wisdom. The church father Gregory of Nazianzus taught that spiritual leaders are to prepare their congregation to spend eternity with the triune God.
Shepherding God’s flock is indeed a Trinitarian work.