It is heartwarming to note that the chief writers of the NT epistles, Paul, James, Peter and John all have something to say about elders. Paul writes to help us identify them; James, the practical man, pictures them standing ready to help at a moment’s notice; John, the beloved apostle, addresses problems in the church introducing himself as “the elder.” But it is Peter, the apostle commissioned by the Lord Jesus to feed His sheep, who pens words of encouragement to fellow shepherds everywhere.
A Classic Passage for Elders
In a brief passage occupying only 4 verses (1 Peter 5:1-4 KJV), Peter begins with an exhortation and ends with a promise. And what a promise! The Shepherd over all shepherds will come and reward His faithful servants with a glorious eternal crown and His own approval. In light of what we know about New Testament churches and their struggles in that day, we can hardly imagine what joy a letter from the very apostle Peter himself would bring to disheartened elders in churches through- out the empire. In this world, shepherds don’t normally wear crowns……..
Elder Rule; the Norm for Church Leadership
Consider how Peter might have introduced himself to church leaders. He might have reminded them of his years with the Lord and consequent spiritual authority. But in addition to the statement at the beginning of the letter that he was an “apostle of Jesus Christ,” (1:1) he now describes himself simply as an elder among elders (literally a “co-elder”). There is nothing here of superiority such as the “presiding bishop” of modern usage. One thinks of his reply to Cornelius in earlier years when that Roman dignitary attempted to fall before him in worship: “Stand up, I myself am also a man.” (Acts 10:26). Dr. Wilbur M. Smith used to say with a twinkle in his eye “What words are these from the first Pope?”
If there was anything extraordinary by way of credentials to which Peter might appeal, it was that he witnessed the sufferings of One greater than any to whom he wrote, and also that he would share in the coming glory (cp. II Pet. 1:16). Many were facing hard times of rejection and loss, and wherever a company of believers gathered, they were like the harmless and vulnerable sheep of a flock, living in a world filled with dangers. But God would always ensure that some of the brothers would quietly rise to the challenge and work together to care for the sheep. As a team, they too must be men of compassion for suffering, and men of hope looking forward to the glory awaiting. Peter addresses elders as men who would be working simply “among you.”
The first charge Peter gives to elders is to feed or shepherd God’s people. This entails not only the supply of spiritual food, but the balancing counterpart of “taking the oversight” – a work that both implies and requires spiritual authority. Elders are not self-appointed, but serve with the backing of Him Who “made” them elders, as Acts 20:28 declares.
Two other points should be noted. Peter did not call them “shepherds,” but used the verb form meaning “to feed” or “to do shepherding work.” This is important, though often misstated as we sometimes hear of “elders,” “overseers,” and “shepherds” being three synonymous descriptions of church leaders. Actually, the only individual called a “shepherd” in connection with the church, is Christ Himself as in vs. 4, “the Chief Shepherd.” Peter had spoken earlier of Him as “the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”(2:25NKJV).
Scripture carefully avoids making any spiritual gift an essential requirement for eldership. In Eph. 4:11, we do read of gifted men, “the evangelist,” “the pastor,” and “the teacher.” But in relating these gifts to spiritual leadership in the church, the Spirit of God has required only that they be “apt to teach,” (I Tim. 3:2), willing to “shepherd the flock” (as in this passage), and willing to “do the work of an evangelist.” (II Tim. 4:5), thereby emphasizing the work and not the gift.
The second point is that the actual work of feeding, tending or shepherding sheep is a broad work with much more involved than simply offering food, as any shepherd would know. Attention to a healthy diet requires making sure that the flock is getting an adequate supply of spiritual nourishment, exercise, rest, sunshine, protection and so forth. This in turn suggests the many labors required to build and maintain a local assembly. Shepherding work is about people, but it is also very much about attention to their environment.
Accordingly, this work among the sheep must be done in the right spirit, as under the watchful eye of the Chief Shepherd Who, although unseen, is always present whenever the flock gathers. Three pairs of words bring out the heart motive for all shepherding work. Note the emphasis on the heart, the mind, and the example.
First, while pressure (“constraint” KJV) may arise from influential people, serving the Lord must not come from some external compulsion, but from a willing heart within. Second, elders must not be motivated in their work by the desire for material or financial gain, (“The hireling…….does not care about the sheep” John 10:13) but rather, they must serve from a ready (lit. “eager”) mind.
Third, there can be no grasping for power or the control of others; something clearly forbidden by the Lord: “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them…..But you shall not be so.” (Luke 22:25). It helps to remember that they are not our sheep, but God’s sheep, and they have been “allotted” (NASB) as to stewards. And so people are to be led toward Christ- likeness with the gentleness of a patient, godly example. All this is but to imitate the willing heart, eager mind and gracious example of the Chief Shepherd.
Later (vss. 5-8) Peter will speak of how this example becomes a life pattern for others to imitate. He exhorts those younger in the faith to display the graces of submission and self humbling in their relationships, of controlling anxiety personally by casting all care upon the Lord, and by constant vigilance to spiritual warfare brought on by the enemy of souls. Every elder must remind himself that his attitude and conduct are essential mentoring tools for younger disciples looking on.
In NT times – and ever since – elders have been ordinary men, often with families, homes to care for, and vocations to work at. How can any man find time in such a demanding world to “take care of the church of God?” (I Tim. 3:5). It is only possible through love. One of life’s lessons is that love will find the time and the way to accomplish what nothing else could. There is something about the “love of God shed abroad in our hearts” that energizes elders to visit the saints, labor in the word and doctrine and sit through lengthy planning meetings, despite it being sometimes a thankless job. In the words of one old writer: “He says not to Peter, Art thou wise or learned or eloquent? But lovest thou me? Then feed my sheep.”
Elders may not have all the material possessions or pleasures of the man in the world; they may not move here and there at their own pleasure, but they do know one very important promise: the Chief Shepherd is about to return, and He brings with Him rewards that unlike earthly attractions DO NOT FADE AWAY!
In that regard, the timeless words of missionary Jim Elliot are perfectly suited here: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” The epistle had begun with an inheritance that does not fade (1:4). Now it closes with a crown that does not fade.