Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. – Acts 20:28, NAS
The Apostle Paul gathered together the “elders” from around Ephesus, that he might address them. Who or what are these elders? They are the pastors. The word “elder” is used in the New Testament epistles almost exclusively to reference men who hold the office of the Holy Ministry. Thus Saint Paul told Pastor Titus, This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you (1:5). Paul immediately goes on to describe these “elders” as those who hold the office of the Holy Ministry in a given congregation.
Though today’s pastors are not Apostles, yet the Apostles would recognize the fact that the “elder” of a congregation is an extension of the apostolic office. Thus Saint Peter in his first epistle would address such elders: So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder…(5:1,2). A pastor is a “fellow elder” of the Apostles. Why employ the word “elder” to describe a pastor? An obvious implication is in the fact that an elder is by definition a mature individual. A pastor should be a mature Christian, not necessarily in years but in actions and attitudes. This spiritual maturity of a pastor is summarized well in the mature actions/attitudes often described as the “fruits of the Spirit”: But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…(Gal 5:25). An “elder” will not only demonstrate these fruits of the Spirit, but he will also be mature in view of the Ten Commandments. This mature behavior observed in a congregation’s “elder” flows from his connection to Christ, for apart from Christ he can do nothing (Jn 15:5b). Such behavior in an “elder” is the behavior of Christ Himself. This behavior is also created and encouraged in the members of an elder’s congregation through his faithful proclamation of the Gospel, which centers in God’s purchase of the Church with His blood.
When the Apostle Paul then addressed the “elders” in Acts 20:28, he informed such elders that they must guard themselves and the flock in which the Holy Spirit has made them overseers. Observe the divine nature of the Office of the Holy Ministry identified in this verse. It is the Holy Spirit who calls a man to be an elder in a given congregation. The Spirit certainly uses the agency of men to prayerfully extend this Spirit-breathed call to a man to lead a congregation (Note again Titus 1:5 quoted above, how Titus was called upon to appoint elders in the various congregations. The Spirit was working through Titus.). We Lutherans recognize this Spirit-inspired call as usually coming from a congregation to and for a man to serve as their pastor. The Holy Spirit uses people (in the LCMS usually a voters’ assembly) to prayerfully extend this divine, Spirit-directed call to a man.
In speaking of a pastor’s Spirit-inspired call, Saint Paul presents another descriptive term for a pastor. The Holy Spirit calls him to be an “overseer” of a congregation. This Greek word literally means “overseer” or “supervisor”. In his realm of supervision a pastor is to be obeyed. Thus Scripture informs church members, Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account (Heb 13:17). This verse actually describes the primary supervisory work performed by a pastor: He is to keep watch over the souls of his church members. He does this by supervising doctrine expressed in practice and teaching. In relation to this doctrinal oversight the overseer is to be obeyed. Outside of this doctrinal supervision a pastor usually has little authority.
A final description of a pastor’s God-given work is that of “shepherd”. In the headline verse above, note how Paul directs him to keep watch over the “flock”; this is a flock of sheep, his congregation. Though some translate the final command of the verse with “feed” or “care for” the church of God, literally the Greek is the verb “shepherd.” A pastor is to shepherd the church of God. This shepherding occurs primarily in feeding Christ’s sheep. A pastor thus is to feed his congregation through preaching, teaching and administering the sacraments. As the “pastor” (which is Latin for “shepherd”) faithfully feeds Christ’s sheep, they are guarded against the allurements of the devil, the world and the flesh.