How Elder-Shepherds Prepare to Meet the Chief Shepherd

Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.

How to Shepherd a Suffering Church 

This is a text about how to shepherd a suffering church. Recall what the previous paragraph was about. It started in 4:12,

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you. But to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ keep on rejoicing.

Then in verse 17 this suffering is explained as the beginning of the judgment of God which starts with the church and then moves out to the unbelieving world:

For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome of those who do not obey the gospel of God?

Then Peter begins today's text in 1 Peter 5:1 with, "Therefore I exhort the elders among you." "Therefore"—in the light of this suffering in the church and in the light of the judgment of God that is purifying the church before it punishes the world—in the light of that, here's how to shepherd the suffering flock.

Keeping this in mind—that this is a short course in elder-shepherding for a suffering church—will help us get the gist of what follows.

Three Observations

Let's begin with some simple but important observations.

1. The Churches Had Elders

First, the churches had elders. This letter you remember (1:1) is written to churches in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bythinia. This is a huge and diverse area, and probably included dozens or hundreds of churches. And Peter, without hesitation or qualification, addresses the elders in these churches. We learn from this that elders were the normal way churches were led in the New Testament time.

2. The Elders Were Shepherds/Pastors

Second, the elders were shepherds, that is, they were pastors. The noun "pastor" or "shepherd" only occurs once in the New Testament in reference to the leaders of the church (Ephesians 4:11). But the verb "to shepherd" occurs several times. It occurs here in verse 2, "Shepherd the flock of God." Jesus uses it when he says to Peter, "Shepherd my sheep" (John 21:16). And Paul uses it when he says to the Ephesian elders, "Shepherd the church of God which he purchased with his own blood" (Acts 20:28). So elders were the shepherds of the flock, the pastors (just another word for shepherd).

3. Elder-Shepherds Are Charged with Oversight

Third, the elder-shepherds are charged with oversight. Verse 2: Peter says to the elders, "Shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight." Oversight is not the only duty of shepherding, but it is the one Peter mentions here in the situation of suffering. It's made up of two words in Greek just like it is in English: "over" and "sight." Elder-shepherds exercise oversight. They are "overseers" (as Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:1–2). They lookout over the flock. God holds them accountable for seeing the big picture and acting for the good of the whole flock.

In one sense the elder-shepherds are just sheep like every other Christian, with Christ as the Chief Shepherd (v. 4). But by virtue of their calling and their gifts and their affirmation by the church, they have a responsibility that is different than the rest of the sheep. Responsibility is the key word, or accountability. The Chief Shepherd will hold them responsible—he will call them to give an account someday for exercising oversight. The rest of the sheep will not be called to give an account for oversight. Only the elders, the shepherds. Did they see the big picture? Did they act accordingly? Did they "exercise oversight"?

Those are three simple, but very important observations:

  1. the churches had elders;
  2. the elders were shepherds; and
  3. the elder-shepherds were charged with the oversight of the flock.

Now as far as I can tell, all of that was universal in the early church. It didn't vary from church to church. It is not unique to a suffering congregation. But what follows has a special slant to it that I think comes from the situation of suffering these churches were in.

Three Ways Elders Are to Shepherd

As he addresses this situation of suffering, Peter tells us three things about the kind of oversight elder-shepherds should exercise: each of the three things has a negative and positive.

Verses 2b: exercise your oversight . . .

- not under compulsion,
+ but voluntarily, according to the will of God;

- and not for sordid gain,
+ but with eagerness;

Verse 3: exercise your oversight . . .

- nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge,
+ but proving to be examples to the flock.

1. Not Under Compulsion, but Voluntarily

Why does Peter begin by telling the elders to exercise their oversight "not under compulsion, but voluntarily"? What kind of situation might result in having elders who don't want to be elders? That seems to be the situation, doesn't it? There is a threat that elders in these churches are feeling like the work is not really something they want to do. They are feeling forced to do it, when they would really rather be doing something else.

My suggestion is that it's the suffering of the church that accounts for Peter's emphasis here. It's really very simple. Elder-shepherds have less desire to be elders and shepherds if it's dangerous and difficult. There are at least two reasons to think that it was dangerous to be the shepherds of suffering flocks.

Particularly Vulnerable to Persecution

One is that when persecution comes, the leaders of the flock are the most visible and sometimes the most vulnerable. If you are the shepherd of a suffering flock, you will be among the first to fall. That's the way it was with Richard Wurmbrand and his wife and Joseph Tson in Romania. That's the way it was with Stephen and the Peter and James in the early church. Stephen was probably the most eloquent spokesman of the Hellenistic wing. And James and Peter were the leaders of the whole church. Stephen was killed in Acts 7; and James was killed in Acts 12; and Peter barely escaped the sword of Herod by a miracle.

So it's dangerous to be a leader when the church is under persecution. These churches were about to go through a fiery ordeal (4:12) and it is understandable that the elder-shepherds might look for another job.

Particularly Vulnerable to God's Judgment

A second reason the elder-shepherds might shrink back from their duty is that not only are they vulnerable to man's normal antagonisms, but they are also vulnerable to God's judgment in a peculiar way. You recall that 1 Peter 4:17 says God's judgment had begun with the house of God. There is a scary reference here to Ezekiel 9 for the elders. Ezekiel 9 is a description of the way God brought judgment on his people once before. He not only began at the house of God; he began with the elders.

4 And the Lord said to him [an angel], "Go through the midst of the city, even through the midst of Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations which are being committed in its midst." 5 But to the others He said in my hearing, "Go through the city after him and strike; do not let your eye have pity, and do not spare. 6 Utterly slay old men, young men, maidens, little children, and women, but do not touch any man on whom is the mark; and you shall start from My sanctuary." So they started with the elders who were before the temple.

In other words, it has been God's way bring judgment on his own people beginning with the house of God (as 4:17 says), and in the house of God beginning with the elder-shepherds.

So it's not surprising that the elders in the churches of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bythinia might have been reluctant to exercise oversight. So Peter says exercise your oversight "not under compulsion, but voluntarily."

A Test of the True Elder-Shepherd

What this means is that danger and difficulty is one test of the true elder-shepherd. Just this week we have been reading in John 10 and I saw this with tremendous personal forcefulness and relevance. Jesus said in John 10: "He who is a hireling, and not a shepherd, who is not the owner of the sheep, beholds the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep, and flees, and the wolf snatches them, and scatters them. He flees because he is a hireling and is not concerned about the sheep." In other words the presence of danger and difficulty tend to separate the hirelings from the shepherds.

They tend to. But Peter warns that there are a couple strong worldly motives for being an elder-shepherd even when your heart is not in it. The two motives are money and power. A man might even risk danger for a while if it meant a comfort boost of financial gain, or an ego boost of power.

2. Not for Sordid Gain, but with Eagerness

Verse 2 at the end: exercise your oversight "not for sordid gain, but with eagerness." "Sordid gain" means making the ministry a means to get rich. It means being motivated by money in the ministry. It means thinking constantly about vacations and days off and retirement benefits instead of thinking about the value of the human soul and the preciousness of truth and the power of the Holy Spirit and the coming glory of the Chief Shepherd. A man might even hang on for a while in the face of great difficulty if he could make godliness a means of gain, as Paul said in 1 Timothy 6:5.

3. Not Lording It Over, but Proving to Be Examples

Then in verse 3 Peter warns against the other worldly motive that might keep an elder-shepherd in office when his heart for it is gone. He says that we should not exercise our oversight as "lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock."

"Lording it over" implies that the elder-shepherd is driven by the love of power. He gets an ego high from flaunting his authority and prestige and dominance. He needs to be up front. He likes the best seats in the synagogue, as Jesus said. He likes to be addressed with titles. He craves the praise and the dependence of men. He may be a boisterous domineering sort. Or he may manipulate with the feigned pain of a wounded hero. Or he may be a consummate politician who measures his words so as to curry the favor of the powerful and enhance his security in office.

Peter says: the test of such elder-shepherds is in their life—their whole life. Are they examples for the flock? Verse 3: Do not lord it over the flock, "but prove to be examples to the flock." Is their public oversight a show, or does their whole life prove their authenticity? Is there a public shepherd and a different private shepherd? What about his family and his finances and his hospitality and his discernment and reputation among spiritual people and those outside?

The Need to Be Discerning

Sometimes we think that seasons of suffering are automatically purifying for the church and its leaders; and in general they are. But Peter makes it plain here that it is not so simple. He was writing into a season of suffering. And instead of assuming that danger and difficulty would automatically cleanse the eldership, he warns that even when men have lost the heartfelt desire for the great work of shepherding the flock of God, and even when they may face danger and difficulty in it, some might hang on because of money and power.

O how discerning the church needs to be. O how we elder-shepherds need to "take heed to ourselves" as well as to all the flock (Acts 2:28)! And search ourselves and test ourselves and see if there be any wicked way in us. If we don't, God will.

What Sustains the Eager Love of Elder-Shepherds 

What then can sustain the love expressed in the words: Exercise oversight "with eagerness." Do you see that phrase at the end of verse 2? Shepherd the flock "with eagerness." That is, want to! Love to! Delight to! Here is real love for the flock—eagerness to shepherd, not motivated by money or power.

What can sustain that kind of love? Peter tells us in verse 4: "And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory."

I am in touch with a good number pastors around the country and a good number of elders. I don't know any today who would say that their job is easy. But the ones I know best (in this church and beyond) are good men. What keeps them going is not the love of money or the love of power. What keeps them going is that when the Chief Shepherd comes, he is going to call us to account and say, "Did you feed my sheep? Were you vigilant over the souls of my sheep? Did you seek my lost sheep? Did you guard the deposit of my truth? Did you stand watch against the wolves? Did you love my flock?"

And when the Chief Shepherd comes, with him will come his everlasting reward: the unfading crown of glory. And that will be enough for the elder-shepherd. God is building something wonderful at Bethlehem: elder-shepherds, deacons, ministers of mercy of all kinds. You are a part of it. Pray. Dream. Be ready. God is building and calling. Listen for him.

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