Continuing my series on 1 Peter, let us examine The Unique Role of Elders from 1 Peter 4:12-5:14.
Identifying with Elders
Peter ends his second epistle with final exhortations to elders (5:1-4), to younger men (5:5), and to the church as a whole (5:5-11). He explains that elders (5:1) have a unique role in the function of the church. Writing in the plural (elders), Peter indicated that it was usual to have a plurality of godly leaders who oversaw and fed the flock. Elders were the spiritual leaders of the early churches (cf. Acts 14:23; 20:17; 1 Tim 5:17-19; Titus 1:5; James 5:14). By calling himself a fellow elder, Peter identifies with them in their responsibilities and with the charge that he gives them, for he is able to give relevant exhortation to the spiritual leaders as ‘one of them.’
Furthermore, by noting that he had been an eyewitness of Christ’s suffering, Peter was affirming his apostleship and authority in giving this motivational exhortation (cf. Luke 24:48; Acts 1:21-22). The fact that Christian leaders will one day receive from the hand of Christ a reward for their service should be stimulant to faithful duty. The basis of this anticipation was Peter’s experience in observing the Transfiguration of Christ (cf. Matt 17:1-8; 2 Pet 1:16). For at that momentous event, he did partake of the Lord’s glory.
The Unique Role of Elders
In 1 Peter 5:2-3, Peter argues that elders (v. 1) are entrusted with the responsibility to care for and shepherd the flock (cf. John 21:16; Acts 20:28; Eph 4:11. The English word pastor comes from this New Testament imagery of a shepherd pasturing his flock). His emphases is on the spiritual maturity of such men. These elders also entrusted with “exercising oversight” over the church (ἐπισκοπέω, episkopeō—the verb form of the noun “overseer” ἐπίσκοπος, episkopos which is another title for those who serve as elders; cf. Acts 20:28). Since the primary objective of shepherding is feeding the flock, thus every elder must be able to teach (cf. John 21:15-17; 1 Tim 3:2; Titus 1:9) and consequently also protect the sheep (cf. Acts 20:28-30).
Title and Functions
The terms of “shepherd” and “exercising oversight” emphasize the function of elders (i.e., they are to feed and watch over “the flock”), while the title “elder” focuses on the office. We must remember that the flock belongs to God, and not the pastor. God entrusts some of his flock to the pastor of a church to lead, care for and feed (5:3).
Peter thus gives three exhortations to elders as to how they are to carry out the responsibilities entrusted to them by God:
Firstly, elders are to “shepherd” the church gladly or willingly, in accord with God’s will, instead of doing it out of a sense of compulsion (5:2). Peter may be warning the elders against a first danger: laziness. The divine calling (1 Cor 9:16), along with the urgency of the task (Rom 1:15) should prevent laziness and indifference (cf. 2 Cor 9:7).
Secondly, they are to do the work eagerly, and not out of greed or for shameful gain (5:2; αἰσχροκερδῶς, aischrokerdōs – “in fondness for dishonest gain, greedily”). False teachers are always motivated by a second danger, money, and subsequently the use of their power and position to rob people of their wealth. Understandably, churches should pay their shepherds well (cf. 1 Cor 9:7-14; 1 Tim 5:17), but a desire for undeserved money must never be a motive for ministers to serve (cf. 1 Tim 6:9-11; Titus 1:7; 2 Pet 2:3).
Thirdly, they are to serve as examples to the congregation, and not use their place of leadership as a means to be domineering (5:3) or dominating someone or some situation. True spiritual leadership is by example (cf. 1 Tim 4:12) and not manipulation or intimidation.
The Reward for Elders
Peter explains in 1 Peter 5:4 that there is a great gift for pastors who faithfully shepherd the flock: the “unfading crown of glory.” Our chief Shepherd is Jesus Christ (cf. Isa 40:11; John 10:2), and when he appears at his Second Coming, he will evaluate the ministry of pastors at the judgment seat of Christ (cf. 1 Cor 3:9-15) and reward with glory every pastor who has served faithfully. This crown is of eternal glory: since crowns were given as marks of victorious achievements in the New Testament era (cf. 1 Cor 9:24-25), so also believers are promised imperishable crowns of glory, life (James 1:12), and righteousness (2 Tim 4:8).
Having said that, 1 Peter 5:5 addresses adolescents in the church: those younger men in the church who are more likely to be headstrong and resistant to leadership. They are to subject themselves to the elders in humility. Likewise, Christians, as well as nonbelievers, are self-oriented by nature and therefore should relate toward each other in humility. Peter cites Prov 3:34 (cf. James 4:6) and reminds his us that God is against the proud but will lavish his favor upon those who are humble. Such is the reward for all who revere Christ as their Chief Shepherd and pastors as their spiritual shepherds while on earth.