God uniquely calls church leaders to do the work of biblical counseling as a part of their pastoral responsibilities. Hebrews 13:17 is not only instructive to the church member, but also to the church officer.

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you. (emphasis added)

What does it mean to “keep watch” over the souls of the saints? The Greek construction of this word (ἀγρυπνέω), which means to be watchful (attentive), is present and active, indicating continuous action on the part of the shepherd. This connotes an almost hypervigilant mind-set on the part of the shepherd. In other words, it’s not a matter of waiting around until some problem in the flock materializes, but rather of proactively looking for signs of a problem before it develops. A good shepherd will regularly examine his sheep. He will keep his eyes peeled for indications of sickness. He will notice any unusual smells or sounds emanating from the sheep’s bodies. He will check their fleeces, running his hands under the wool to check for scabs, unusual lumps, or insects. He will notice things that don’t look normal—not to find problems where none exist, but to deal with any real issues before they become serious ones. The point is that shepherding involves a level of intimacy with the sheep that too few church leaders are willing to achieve. Shepherding can be dirty work. All of this necessitates counseling.

Paul’s example of an elder who is intimately involved with his flock can be seen in Acts 20:18–21.

And when they had come to him, he said to them, “You yourselves know, from the first day that I set foot in Asia, how I was with you the whole time, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials which came upon me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you publicly and from house to house, solemnly testifying to both Jews and Greeks of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Paul was not the kind of shepherd who locked himself in the study for thirty-five hours per week, only to come out to publicly preach on the Lord’s day. Rather, he would minister publicly and from house to house. That is, he would minister the Word to entire congregations, and he would minister the Word to smaller groups and individuals as well.

Like a skilled marksman, the man of God knows how to wield his Bible as a shotgun (when, from the pulpit he sprays a wide pattern of bird shot, hoping to hit as many consciences as possible) or to utilize it as a 7mm ought 08 rifle (when, in the counseling office, he carefully places the crosshairs of his $1,200 Austrian-made scope on the exact spot where it will have the greatest impact).

Few people have made this point as boldly as John Calvin in his commentary on the book of Acts.

Publicly, and throughout every house. This is the second point, that he [the Apostle Paul] did not only teach all men in the congregation, but also every one privately, as every man’s necessity did require. For Christ hath not appointed pastors upon this condition, that they only teach the church in general in the open pulpit; but that they may take charge of every particular sheep, that they may bring back to the sheepfold those who wonder and go astray, that they may strengthen those who are discouraged and weak, that they may cure the sick, that they may lift up and set on foot the feeble (Ezek. 34:4) for common doctrine will oftentimes wax cold, unless it be holpen [helped] with private admonition.

Wherefore, the negligence of those men is inexcusable, who, having made one sermon, as if they had done their task, live all the rest of their time idly; as if their voice were shut up within the church walls, seeing that so soon as they departed thence, they be dumb.[1]

What was it that characterized the false shepherds of Israel? They were primarily concerned with their own needs, not those of the flock. The false shepherds of Ezekiel’s day were so concerned about their own advancement and enrichment that they neglected the sheep. They wouldn’t invest the time and effort necessary to care for the weak, sickly and diseased, or to seek after those who were scattered and lost. Their lack of attention to the individual needs of the sheep resulted in some of the flock becoming “food for every beast of the field” (C.F., Ezekiel 34:1-6).

Our churches are filled with spiritually weak, sick, and diseased sheep. Many of these flocks have shepherds who possess, in the Word of God, the cure for all such spiritual maladies, but who, because they are only interested in “feeding” the sheep, will not care for their wounds.

So, while all Christians are “competent to counsel,” all shepherds are “called to counsel.” And if you are called, you should be equipped. But are you? If you aren’t, let me urge you to consider availing yourself to some the fine training courses offered by reputable certified training centers across the country. Some of them, such as the The Institute for Nouthetic Studies http:/www.nouthetic.org even offer video courses that may be taken in the comfort of your own home or office.

Never forget, that you have all that you need in the Word of God (and through the Holy Spirit) to not only feed God’s flock but also to cure its spiritually sick.


[1] Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 2, (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminister John Knox Press, 1960), IV.i.4, p. 1016.

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