The apostle Peter tells the elders of the churches in Asia Minor, “shepherd the flock of God that is among you” (1 Pet 5:2). The task of the pastor-elder, the very nature of pastoring, should be understood as shepherding the church. This should change how we see our assignment from the Chief Shepherd. We do not domineer our sheep or compel them by force; we guide and direct gently.
David, reflecting on how the Lord had shepherded him, remembers that when he walked through the valley of the shadow of death he was not afraid. The presence of his Shepherd dispelled fear. Further explaining what he means by this, he comments, “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Ps 23:4). Part of the equipment is the rod, an instrument similar to a club to fend off wolves and other such predators, and the staff, that familiar crooked wooden pole used to direct and rescue sheep. This means that if we see pastoral ministry as shepherding, two aspects of our assignment is to use the rod and the staff, to protect and to guide.
I am of the persuasion that the primary task of the pastor is to preach. It is his first responsibility. This does not mean this is all he does, but it to be job number one and the primary way he shepherds. If this is the case, how can the pastor use his preaching as a rod and staff? How might preaching be used to protect and to guide?
I believe that Titus 1:9 can offer some clarity for us in this regard. In writing to the pastor of the church in Crete, Paul lists some qualifications that Titus will need to know in order to appoint additional pastor-elders in the churches on the island. Notably, all the qualifications are character-based—all but one. Paul instructs Titus in verse 9, “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.”
The overarching theme of the book of Titus is a “knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness” (Titus 1:2). All throughout the letter, Paul has a repeated refrain: truth leads to godliness. Again and again, we are reminded that the reception of truth moves us to sanctification and integrity. The truth that Paul has in mind here is the “hope of eternal life” that was “manifested in his word through the preaching with which I have been entrusted” (1:2, 3). In short, it is the gospel of Jesus Christ, the message of his death, burial, and resurrection that breathes new life in the repentant sinner.
So, when we come across the charge for the pastor-elder to teach sound doctrine and rebuke those who contradict it, I believe Paul is speaking of this same idea. In short, the gospel. The sound doctrine that we are to impart to our churches is the life-changing gospel, the truth which leads to godliness. How do we guide our sheep? What is the staff of our preaching? It is the gospel. We guide and instruct them in the good news of Christ.
But the pastor-elder is also to rebuke those who contradict sound doctrine that they are also to teach. If the sound doctrine we are to teach is the gospel, this means we rebuke those who contradict the gospel. This is not to say that doctrinal matters like the end times, polity, or soteriology are unimportant. But it does mean that we only pull the rod out on those who contradict the primary doctrine of the gospel. If a church member disagrees with us on our views of the end times, nuances of polity, or details of soteriology, we don’t use pointed words and firm rebuke. We save that for those who deny the bodily resurrection, the deity and humanity of Christ, or salvation by grace through faith.
Preaching acts as a rod when we rebuke those who contradict the cardinal doctrines of the gospel. Preaching acts as a staff as we guide and instruct those in our charge in that same gospel. Our sermons become a rod and a staff when we give instruction in sound doctrine and rebuke those who contradict it.
Aaron S. Halstead serves as the Administrative Assistant for Professional Doctoral Studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, the Editorial and Content Manager for Preaching Source, and is currently a Ph.D. student in Southwestern’s School of Preaching. He is also a small group leader, Bible study teacher, and elder at Hulen Street Church.