RPM, Volume 16, Number 20, May 11 to May 17, 2014

A Leader's Life

1 Peter 5:1-4

By D. Marion Clark


This passage gives us insight into the life of church leaders. Having instructed the churches on how to respond to persecution, Peter now addresses the church leaders. He first establishes the basis by which he instructs the elders. He then exhorts them to be shepherds with a three-fold admonition. Finally, he encourages them with reward.

Peter's Basis

To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder. Though Peter is actually an apostle, as he introduced himself at the beginning of his letter, it is not difficult to understand why he uses the term elder. He is doing what good leaders do, identifying himself with those under him. It is a simple way of communicating that "we are in this together."

What Peter held in common with the elders was the responsibility entrusted to them by God to watch over his church. Together they provided oversight. Though the apostles did have a greater sense of authority, it seemed to be shared as much as possible with the elders. The first great decision made regarding what was appropriate church practice was made by a council of apostles and elders (see Acts 15). Indeed, the primary distinction between apostles and elders was not over authority, but that the apostles traveled about as ambassadors for Christ, while the elders watched over their respective churches.

Peter further identifies himself as a witness of Christ's sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed. Being a witness is what distinguishes Peter as an apostle. Before his ascension, Jesus had told the disciples, You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses (Acts 1:8). Each time Peter has opportunity to speak from Pentecost on, he refers to himself and the apostles as witnesses of Christ's sufferings and/or his resurrection. The Apostle John states in the opening of his first epistle, That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched…(1 John 1:1).

Interestingly enough, most of the times when Peter refers to the apostles as being witnesses, he specifically refers to witnessing Christ's resurrection. Here, he refers to his sufferings. The context makes evident why. He has been writing about the sufferings of the Christians, including how they are participating in the sufferings of Christ (13). He is impressing upon the leaders that he is not some young minister giving second hand information. He is one of the Twelve.

But he is also one who like them will share in the glory to be revealed. Suffering is not the last word of the gospel. Glory is the last word. They share the same hope of which he will speak more in a moment.

The Three-Fold Admonition

Peter next gives a charge to the elders, including a three-fold admonition on how to carry it out. 2 Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, serving as overseers.

The picture of shepherds is an apt image for elders. Just as shepherds watch over their flock of sheep, so elders are to watch over the their flock of people. The phrase serving as overseers reinforces Peter's intention.

What are the elders to oversee? For one, they are to oversee the provisions for the flock. In Ezekiel 34:14, God says regarding his flock of Israel, I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. The elders are to see that their people are feeding well. Thus, they oversee the teaching of the Word of God from which their people are being fed. They are to assure that the Word is being taught faithfully in the church, and that it is wholesome teaching, which builds up each individual and the whole body.

They are to see that their flock is feeding in rich pastures of prayer and fellowship. The church is to be a place where people are strengthened in the faith and growing in maturity. Thus, along with good teaching, there is to be prayer and fellowship that encourage the people who gather.

The elders are to oversee the needs of the flock. In Ezekiel 34:16, God goes on to say, I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak. When someone is grieving, when someone is facing troubles, the elders see that care is provided. Most often they will directly minister to the person in need; they may also arrange for others to minister, particularly the deacons. But whatever the case, they are responsible to see care given within the church.

The elders are to oversee the behavior of the flock, so that individuals do not bring harm to themselves or others. As David says in Psalm 23, He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, 3 …He guides me in paths of righteousness… The shepherd must be proactive in leading and guiding his sheep. Sheep are notorious for causing their own harm. They will wander away, getting lost and wandering into dangerous territory. They will graze until they have turned their pastures into barren land and pollute the ground until it is corrupt with disease and parasites. Lying down can even be dangerous, should they lie down on a slight depression in the ground and end up rolling on their backs. They cannot get up and will die in a few hours.

So it is with Christians. We can stray from the church unaware even that we are straying. We can become susceptible to false doctrine that leads us astray. We can neglect prayer, fellowship, and the Word of God. We can engage in activities and behavior that are harmful to us. And worse, we can lead others astray through our behavior. The elders are to admonish, correct, and even censure such behavior as necessary.

Finally, the elders are to oversee potential danger. Paul gave this charge to the elders of the church in Ephesus (Acts 20:28-31):

Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. 29 I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. 31 So be on your guard!

Just as shepherds must protect the flock from predators and other danger, so must the elders protect their church flock. They have to see false teachers do not come into the church; such were the savage wolves Paul was concerned about. They have to protect the church from secular influences that turn the people away from God's commandments. They have to protect the church from people and ideas that come in and create division.

This is what it means to shepherd God's flock. And Peter, by the way, intentionally refers to the flock as belong to God. The elders are accountable before God. The church does not belong to them, but to him. God has entrusted the care of his people to them.

Peter then speaks of the manner in which the elders are to carry out their work. First, they should oversee the flock, not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be. Elders are to serve out of the joy of serving. And we see the wisdom of such an admonition. To serve merely out of a sense of duty pleases no one. It does not please God, since he is then portrayed as a harsh taskmaster forcing men to take on responsibility that they disdain. It does not please the people under the elders' care, who are made to feel guilty for troubling the elders. And it eventually burns out and embitters the elders themselves, who feel overburdened and defeated. A church with joyless elders is a joyless church, the antithesis of what God intended for his flock.

Second, the elders are to be not greedy for money, but eager to serve. How can an elder be greedy for money in an unpaid position? Teaching elders are paid as ministers of the Word. And though ministers like to boast that they could be earning more money in another job, the fact is one can earn a rather comfortable and secure living. And, salary aside, there is a great temptation by both elders and ministers to take advantage of the services of church members, knowing that they will feel obliged to help out the preacher or the elder.

The Greek, by the way, reads more literally "unjust gain," which can apply to more than money. As church leaders, elders are just as vulnerable as other leaders to use their positions for their own advantage. Peter reminds his elders that they are in their position for the purpose of serving, which, again, they should be eager to do. They should approach their position not thinking, "Here is what I can gain," but rather, "Here is what I am now able to do for others."

And being an elder does open up wonderful opportunities for service. Most of what elders do, any Christian can do. Everyone can share God's Word with others and pray with others. Everyone can inquire into the welfare of others. And yet, speaking as an elder, I have seen people greatly encouraged and comforted, precisely because they were ministered to by an elder. I have seen people reconciled, because of the intervention of elders. Indeed, one of the great hallmarks of the Presbyterian system of government is the responsibility of the elders to remove the burden of decisions from the congregation that would have led to division. And time after time, I have seen elders blessed because of the roles they were able to play in bringing peace and healing.

Third, Peter adds, 3 not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. How many times did Peter hear this same admonition from Jesus? One time was when he and the other disciples got ticked off with James and John's request to have top seating with Jesus. Matthew 20:25-28 records Jesus' remarks:

Jesus called them together and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."

Peter recognizes how easy it is for elders, as leaders of the church, to misuse their power as a means to lord it over their flock, rather than faithfully use it to serve. It is an easy fault to fall into especially because of being a Christian leader responsible to God. For one thing, it is so very easy for us elders to take ourselves too seriously. We are called by God to be elders, are we not? Therefore we must be special in some way. No less than the Word of God says that elders are worthy of double honor, especially, I might add, those whose work is preaching and teaching (1 Timothy 5:17). I'm shirking my responsibility if I let you get away with not showing me honor. And, again, I'm entrusted by God to watch over you. That's a big responsibility, especially considering how difficult you can be. See how easy it is under "good intention" for me to "lord it over"? All it takes is a good dose of "good intention" mixed with a good dose of pride to turn a position of service into a position of bossiness.

But elders are to be examples. Examples of what? Of what Jesus told Peter. "Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." They are to model the servanthood of Jesus, so that their people will be enticed to also be servants.

Their Reward

Peter closes with two great motivations. 4 And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.

Note how he identifies Jesus: the Chief Shepherd. Back in 2:25 he referred to Jesus as the Shepherd and overseer of your souls. If regarding the Apostle Peter as a fellow elder wasn't enough of a booster for the elders, hearing Jesus given their title certainly should be. There is a scene in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe where the Great Lion Aslan has freed the Narnian creatures from their captivity in stone. He then calls them to join him in a battle. Let's pick up near the end of his speech.

"Those who are good with their noses must come in the front with us lions to smell out where the battle is. Look lively and sort yourselves."

And with a great deal of bustle and cheering they did. The most pleased of the lot was the other lion, who kept running about everywhere pretending to be very busy but really in order to say to everyone he met, "Did you hear what he said? Us lions. That means him and me. Us lions."

If we elders do seem too full of ourselves, sometimes it's just out of excitement. And yet, I suppose what means even more to us is to know that we also have a shepherd watching over us. More often we feel humbled rather than exalted as we make our attempts at shepherding. And it means a lot to know that our Great Shepherd feeds us; that he is guiding us and protecting us from danger and our mistakes.

But then, to be told that the Chief Shepherd will give the crown of glory that will never fade away…what else can we do but serve willingly and eagerly. It is not the thought that we will get what we have earned that spurs us on, but what we really know to be true - that we will receive infinitely more than we could ever deserve.

Crown of glory? Every elder knows that what he really deserves is to be disqualified altogether. But then, that's the God of grace for you. Grace upon grace he pours out on his people, be they elders or deacons or grounds keepers or sound operators: for whomever belongs to him and serves him in his capacity, God pours out his grace. The crown of glory is for us all, how ever high or low our position may seem. What matters is that we run the race set out before us; that we serve faithfully in the task given to us.

What? You haven't been as faithful as you ought? You mean you have stumbled? I know you have, because you are like me. But I can speak confidently of the crown of glory you will receive for the same reason that Paul was confident for the Philippian believers:

I thank my God every time I remember you. 4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:3-6).


Those of you considering the office of elder or deacon, or nominating someone to such office, will hopefully appreciate the responsibility to which elders and deacons are called. Deacons do not have the same oversight as the elders, but they are also entrusted by God to serve his flock. They also are to serve willingly and eagerly, and to model the servanthood of Jesus.

This responsibility is the reason why the primary qualifications for service involve character traits. Before you nominate anyone, read 1 Timothy 3:1-13 and Titus 1:5-9 to know the qualifications. Be sure to bathe your considerations with prayer. Even nominations are not to be taken lightly for offices of such great responsibility. We do not nominate men whom we think will represent us well, as we do for political office. We nominate men whom we think will represent Jesus Christ well, men whom we think God is calling to entrust with the care of his flock.

To you men, let me encourage you. I've said enough that all of you should feel inadequate. If not, then I haven't said enough! In 1 Timothy 3:1, Paul writes, Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task. Being an elder or a deacon may be a difficult job, but it is a noble one. You know that what makes a job good is not how easy it may be, but how worthwhile. To serve as elder or deacon is to serve the flock of God. It is no mean task to serve in the same manner as our Lord Jesus Christ. It is no slight honor to be entrusted by God to care for his people.

Will the work be difficult? Yes. Will you feel overwhelmed at times? Yes. But more often you will feel over blessed by what you are able to do for Christ's church and his people. You will be inspired by the work you thought you could not do. You will learn more than ever the power of God that is manifested in our weakness.

Should you be nominated, you should not dismiss it lightly, but you also should read the scriptures and consider the matter in prayer. You should listen to the counsel of your elders and deacons who know well what is required of them.

And let us all remember that we all are under the oversight of the Chief Shepherd, our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us entrust ourselves to him who has more than enough proven his faithfulness and goodness and power. Let us entrust ourselves to the God of grace who is more than able to complete his good work in us.

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