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An Appeal to Elders (5:1-4)

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Good leadership will often make the difference whether a group will survive or not during times of crisis. The followers of Christ to whom the Apostle Peter was writing in his first inspired letter were facing persecution. After encouraging the people and giving instructions about how they should conduct themselves in these circumstances, Peter specifically addresses their spiritual leaders. In chapter 5, verses 1 through 4 he writes, “I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and who will also share in the glory that will be revealed. Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion, but voluntarily, not for dishonest gain, but willingly; neither as lording it over those entrusted to you, but making yourselves examples to the flock. When the chief Shepherd is revealed, you will receive the crown of glory that doesn’t fade away.”

When Peter uses the word ‘elder’ to describe the ones to whom he is writing, he is not merely speaking about their physical age. He is referring specifically to an office in the church leadership. It should be noted that several different terms are used to describe these leaders. In addition to the title which is translated as ‘presbyter’ or ‘elder,’ Peter says that they are also to act as a ‘shepherd’ or ‘pastor.’ He also says that they exercise ‘oversight.’ The word ‘overseer’ is sometimes translated ‘bishop.’ From this we can see that in the Holy Scriptures these titles are not used to describe different ranks of leaders in the church, but rather to describe different aspects of an elder’s role. It was only after the time of the Apostles that men began to wrongly divide the leadership of the church into higher and lower positions and to apply these different titles to the positions that they had created.

Peter bases his appeal to the church leadership on three things. The first is that he is a fellow elder. He does not command them using his authority as an Apostle, but appeals to them as one who shares the same burdens and responsibilities as they do. On the basis of what is written in chapter 5, verse 13 it would seem that in addition to being an Apostle Peter served as an elder in the church at Babylon. What he is saying is that he is not asking the other leaders of the church to do anything that he is not willing to do himself. The second basis for making his appeal is that he was an eyewitness of Christ’s suffering. He is able to instruct the church leaders about how they should conduct themselves in the face of persecution because he has personal knowledge of how Christ conducted Himself. The third basis for making his appeal is that he will share in the glory that will be revealed. In his second inspired letter Peter writes, “For we did not follow cunningly devised fables, when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” (2 Peter1:16) It is because Peter has seen a glimpse of Christ’s glory that he urges his fellow leaders to act in such a way that they too may share in it.

Peter says that a leader in the church should serve voluntarily and not because they feel compelled to do so. Christ wants a person’s heart, not just his actions. The man who regards the role of pastoring God’s flock as an irksome duty will do as little as he can to get by. On the other hand, the man who serves from the heart will have the interests of the flock in mind instead of his own.

In addition to willingness, another qualification for leadership in the church is to have the right motives. There are many who seek leadership in the church because they imagine that they will receive a good salary or that they will be able to use their position to their own financial advantage. But Peter says an elder must not be like this. The apostle Paul also gives two different lists of the qualifications of elders. (See I Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9) In both of these lists he says that an elder must not be motivated by the desire to get money. In another place, Paul describes some of the characteristics of false teachers as those, “...who suppose that godliness is a means of gain... those who are determined to be rich fall into a temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful lusts, such as drown men in ruin and destruction... Some have been led astray from the faith in their greed, and have pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” (1 Timothy 6:5-10) Both Peter and Paul are saying that those who serve with the motive to get money have no business being in the leadership of the church.

Every position of authority also carries with it the potential for abuse. One temptation that elders face is to “lord it over” the people entrusted to their care. Those who do lord it over the flock have forgotten what it means to be a leader in Christ’s church. The people are not there to serve the leader, instead a leader is there to serve the people. Jesus told his disciples, “...The kings of the nations lord it over them, and those who have authority over them are called ‘benefactors.’ But not so with you. But one who is the greater among you, let him become as the younger, and one who is governing, as one who serves. ...I am in the midst of you as one who serves.” (Luke 22:25-27) Every elder should set an example to the flock under him, just as Jesus set the example for the Apostles. The leaders of the church should not seek glory or honor in this life, but should await the glory that the Chief Shepherd will give them when He appears. It is very important to notice that Peter calls Jesus the ‘Chief Shepherd.’ There are many who try to put Peter in this role as the archbishop of the church. But Peter himself refutes this. Both here and in chapter 2, verse 25 he makes it clear that Jesus is the Shepherd who has authority over the church. Peter does not command, but appeals to his fellow elders as his equals.

All leaders in the church should examine their reasons for being in leadership. Do they truly wish to serve, or do they look upon their position as a job or an unpleasant duty? Do they really wish to help people, or do they consider their position a good way to acquire money? Do they give orders to those in their authority, or do they motivate people to do what is right by their own good example? If a person cannot meet these criteria that Peter has given, and is not willing to change, then he should not be a leader in the church.