Shepherding the church has the singular focus of feeding God’s people with His Word. Yet this work is not as easy as it may sound, for the church has a varied nature. Church leadership must recognize how vastly different are the people—and their needs—that make up a local congregation.
This point is at the heart of Martin Bucer’s classic pastoral work Concerning the True Care of Souls. Though Bucer develops the doctrine of Christ’s headship over the church as its true Shepherd, that teaching does not come until his second chapter. In the opening chapter, Bucer cites numerous Scriptures to establish the variety within Christ’s body. He taught that in addition to a pastor, congregations need other lay shepherds who are “entrusted with the whole of pastoral office.” In so doing, Bucer establishes the need for ruling elders.
Bucer bases this work of shepherding on Ezekiel 34:16, where the Lord says, “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy.” Bucer uses this verse to describe caring for the varied flock of God in five ways that church leaders do well to observe.
Searching for the lost. Until He finally returns, the Lord still has elect sheep to bring into the fold of God. Shepherding a congregation always involves evangelistic outreach. Churches that do not actively search for the lost demonstrate a lack of regard for the Shepherd whom they worship, for He “came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).
Bringing back the strays. A popular internet video shows a farmer in a muddy ditch hoisting a stuck sheep up onto solid ground, and then the sheep running and falling right back down into the same ditch. Sheep wander and fall into repeated trouble. The Lord promises to send true shepherds, those who provide leadership in local churches, to bring back His ever-wandering sheep.
Binding the wounded. People attending local churches come with injured souls. They are lonely. They have suffered. Their sin hurts them and others. As Ezekiel describes, they have experienced abuse by other spiritual authorities. True shepherds of Christ will care for souls tenderly, applying the balm of Gilead to them.
Strengthening the weak. Bucer reminds us that believers come with weak consciences, weak constitutions, and weak Christian walks. Local church shepherds then must strengthen them. They must apply the Word of God, like medicine, to the various beliefs, personalities, and needs of the people of God.
Guarding and feeding the healthy. Though Bucer takes some liberty with the last clause of his theme verse, believers in the church who are faithful also need to stay on the alert so as not to fall away. The elders of the church must offer continual encouragement to that end. Healthy sheep require a consistent diet to prosper.