Ordinary Elders, Part 1

Working for the Joy of Others

Eglise Espoir de Longueuil | Longueuil, Quebec

Tom Carson died thirty years ago this month. He was an ordinary pastor.

He grew up in Ottawa a century ago, attended seminary in Toronto, did evangelism in Montreal for a decade in the 1930s and ’40s. Then from 1948 to 1963, he was a paid pastor in Drummondville, which I understand to be about seventy minutes from here.

In 1963, at age 52, he returned to Ottawa as a translator for the Canadian government and began serving as an unpaid pastor. He died quietly and without fanfare on October 26, 1992. He was not well-known or celebrated in his day. He was an ordinary pastor and elder.

In fact, his son, Don, as you may know, wrote a short book about him called Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor. Today some of us remember Tom because of Don, and because of the book, but we remember Tom Carson for his blessed ordinariness. So, in his honor, I’ve entitled these two sessions tonight “Ordinary Elders.”

In this first session, I would like for us to linger together in perhaps my favorite eldership passage of Scripture: 1 Peter 5:1–5. But before I read those verses and pray for our time together, note the “So” at the beginning of verse 1, which links this passage to chapter 4 and therefore to the hard times Peter and the elders knew.

First Peter 4:12 mentions “fiery trials.” Verse 13, “sufferings.” Verse 14, “insults.” Verses 15, 16, 19: “suffer,” “suffers,” “suffer.” This is a word for elders who know hard times, like the last two years perhaps for some.

God-Given Under-Shepherds

Now to 1 Peter 5:1–5:

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

One of the most precious promises in all the Bible for pastors in particular is Jesus’s words in Matthew 16:18: “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Jesus is the chief shepherd, and the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls (1 Peter 2:25; 5:4), “the great shepherd of the sheep” (Hebrews 13:20). He builds his church. And his work will not fail. He will prevail. Over hell, and sin, and death, and disease, and division.

And one of the ways Christ builds and governs his church, and blesses her, is by giving her the gift of leaders under him: “He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11–12).

Faithful pastors and elders are a gift from Christ to guide and keep his church. This is a truth that may not be healthy to regularly preach to ourselves personally, but it can be good to have someone else preach to you from time to time. Brother pastors and elders, you are a gift from the risen Christ to your flock.

No matter what that recent email said. No matter how flat it seems your last sermon fell. No matter what you hear whispered about leaders in society, not to mention the cynicism that isn’t whispered. No matter what that person posted online about your church — and you didn’t see it, but your wife saw it and said, “Did you see this?” No matter what has been said explicitly or implied, to the contrary, you, dear brother, as you lean on Christ and remain faithful to his word, you are a gift from him to your church.

Are we pastors and elders flawed? Of course. Sinful? Regrettably. Have some who carry the name “pastor” made terrible mistakes, sinned grievously, fleeced their flocks, and harmed the very ones they were commissioned to protect? Sadly, yes, some have. But such failures were not the fulfilling of the vision of what true Christian leadership is. Such failures fell short of God’s vision, or departed from it altogether. In fact, such failures show — by contrast — what real leadership in the church should be.

That’s our focus this evening: what Christ calls leaders in his church to be — especially the “lead office” or “teaching office” in the church, that of “pastor” or “elder” or “overseer,” three terms in the New Testament for the same lead office.

Preliminary Observations

Now, I want us to give most of our focus to the three not-but pairs in verses 2–3, but first let me make three preliminary observations on the passage.

1. Elders are plural.

Elders is plural in 1 Peter 5:1. One of the most important truths to rehearse about Christian ministry is that Christ means for it to be teamwork. As in 1 Peter 5, so in every context in which local-church pastor-elders are mentioned in the New Testament, the title is plural.

“One of the most important truths to rehearse about Christian ministry is that Christ means for it to be teamwork.”

Christ alone reigns as Lord of the church. He is head (Ephesians 1:22; 5:23; Colossians 1:18), and he alone. The glory of singular leadership in the church is his alone. And he means for his under-shepherds to labor, and thrive, not alone but as a team.

The kind of pastors we long for in this age are good men with good friends — friends who love them enough to challenge their instincts, tell them when they’re mistaken, hold them to the fire of accountability, and make life both harder and better, both more uncomfortable and more fruitful.

2. Elders are pastors.

Second, observe the main verb in 1 Peter 5:1–5, which is Peter’s charge to the elders: “shepherd the flock of God.” Shepherd, as a verb, is a rich image. Consider all that shepherds do: they feed, water, tend, herd, protect, guide, lead to pasture, govern, care for, nurture. To shepherd is an image of what we might call “benign rule” (the opposite of “domineering,” as we’ll see), in which the good of the shepherd is bound up with the good of the sheep.

The concept of shepherding also has a rich Old Testament background, not just in the Patriarchs and the nation of Israel in Egypt and in the wilderness, but also in King David, the shepherd boy who became the nation’s greatest king, the anointed one, who anticipated the great Anointed One to come. So, with David, shepherding takes on messianic meaning. David, of course, had his own grave failures in shepherding the nation, but after David, the trend of the nation’s kings became worse and worse.

Five centuries later, the prophet Ezekiel condemned the nation’s leaders for “feeding themselves” rather than feeding the sheep:

Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. (Ezekiel 34:2–4)

The leaders of Israel should have fed the people, not fed on them. They should have strengthened the people, and healed them, bound them up, brought them back, and sought them, but instead they have governed them “with force and harshness” — not benign rule but malignant rule.

The people long for a shepherd, a king, who will rule them with gentle strength, with persuasion and kindness, with patience and grace, even as he protects them from their enemies. And God says in response, again and again, “I will rescue my flock,” but also, “I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd” (Ezekiel 34:22–23). Note the prominence of feeding in shepherding.

Good Shepherd and His Help

The prophet Micah foretold that from Bethlehem, the city of David, will “come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel” (Micah 5:2; Mark 2:6). During his life, Jesus himself says he is the good shepherd (John 10:11), who, rather than taking from his sheep, comes to give, to give them life, and even to give his own life for them. He is the long-promised Shepherd.

Then amazingly, at the end of the Gospel of John, when Jesus asked Peter three times — this same Peter who wrote 1 Peter — if he loved him, Peter said yes, and then Jesus said three times to Peter, “Feed my lambs,” “Tend my sheep,” and “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15–17).

Here “feeding” and “pastoring” are synonymous. Jesus is the good shepherd, but he is leaving, and he will now pastor his sheep through Peter and other under-shepherds — not just apostles, but local church elders, overseers, pastors, as Paul says in Acts 20:28 to the elders in Ephesus: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock [!], in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” The elders are also overseers, and they are to “care for” — or literally, “pastor the church of God” (elders = overseers = pastors).

Finally, in the book of Revelation, we have two images of Jesus as shepherd. The Lamb, as shepherd, “will guide them to springs of living water” (Revelation 7:17), and in three texts, he will rule “with a rod of iron” (Revelation 2:27; 12:5; 19:15), which doesn’t mean he is forceful or harsh with his people, but that he protects them from their enemies (with his rod). The shepherd’s rod and staff are for protecting and guiding his flock: “your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4).

Elders shepherd. So there’s just a taste of the richness in this shepherding image: centrally, feeding and watering (“green pastures” and “still waters,” Psalm 23:2), but also protecting. Shepherding means caring for the sheep, and leading with gentleness and kindness, with persuasion and patience, and wielding the rod of protection toward various threats to the flock.

3. Elders exercise oversight.

A third and final preliminary observation, more briefly: the verb that augments “shepherd” is “exercising oversight.” It’s a form of the noun “overseer” used in Acts 20:28, as well as four other New Testament texts (Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:7; 1 Peter 2:25). “Oversee” in this context doesn’t mean only to watch and observe, but also to “see to it” that important observations about the flock, and any threats to it, also become tangible initiatives and actions in the church.

Which brings us to the heart of this passage where Peter gives us three “not-buts” — not this but that. Verses 2–3: “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight . . .

  • not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you;
  • not for shameful gain, but eagerly;
  • not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.”

Let’s take them in reverse order.

1. Not Domineering, but Exemplifying

We saw God’s condemnation for the leaders of Israel who ruled “with force and harshness.” Peter says “not domineering” — which is the same language we see elsewhere translated “not lording it over.” It’s built on a strong verb (katakurieuo) that can refer in other contexts to Jesus’s lordship (Romans 14:9; 1 Timothy 6:15); or the kind of lordship sin once had, and should no longer have, over us (Romans 6:9, 14; 7:1); or the kind of lordship Christian leaders do not have over those in their charge (Luke 22:25).

The intensified form of the verb here in 1 Peter 5 is the same one Jesus uses in Mark 10:42:

Those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you.

Then, what will be so among us? Verse 43: “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” So the opposite of “not lording it over” others is serving them, their good, their joy. Like Christ himself, not coming to be served but to serve.

And so Paul says to the Corinthians, about his labors as an apostle: “Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy” (2 Corinthians 1:24).

As in Mark 10, “lord it over” implies the exercise of privilege, the seeking and obtaining of personal/private benefit; benefit from them (versus through or with them). Rather, Paul’s vision of the opposite in leadership is “working with you for your joy.” The “we” here is Paul with his assistants Timothy and Silas (2 Corinthians 1:19). He says “we work”: we give effort, expend energy; it is not just “overflow” but work, labor (as Jesus says in Matthew 9:37–38: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest”). It might begin almost effortlessly, as “overflow,” but then takes effort (sometimes great effort) to complete. Spiritual leadership, pastoral ministry is work, requiring a work ethic. And Paul, of all people, was not one to suffer laziness, and especially among pastor-elders.

But this work isn’t alone. Not only is there a “we” in the company of the leaders but it’s also “with you” — with the people. Pastors equip the saints to engage, expend effort, and invest energy — to work with us (which is vital to keep in mind in our discipling and counseling; we work with them, not instead of them).

And that work, Paul says, is “for your joy.” Not thin, fleeting sugar highs. He’s talking real, deep, lasting, long-term, durable joy in Christ. Joy that tastes of the next age even in this painful, evil one. In Christian joy, our promised, blissful future in Christ is brought into the painful present — which means the frictions and sufferings of our present times do not preclude real joy but make us all the more desperate for real joy.

So, Christian leaders, as workers for the joy of their people, are not to be controlling and domineering, lording over them. Rather, they are to serve (in the words of Jesus), as workers for their people’s joy (in the words of Paul) and examples to the flock (in the words of Peter): “not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.”

Pastors Are Examples

Examples. You might hear that as terrifying, if you don’t want your life observed and imitated. Or, you might hear “examples” as humbling. “Examples? That’s all? Nothing about great oratory, or thoroughly entertaining, or gifted communicator, or local hero?” Examples might sound so normal. And it is. Ordinary elders. What was Tom Carson? He was an example.

Twice Peter says the elders are “among” the flock: “I exhort the elders among you . . . : shepherd the flock of God that is among you” (1 Peter 5:1–2). Not above, or off to the side, or far away — not remote — but among.

“Good pastors are first and foremost sheep. They know it and embrace it.”

Good pastors are first and foremost sheep. They know it and embrace it. Pastors do not comprise a fundamentally different category of Christian. They need not be world-class in their intellect, oratory, or executive skills. They are average, ordinary, healthy Christians, thinking for the flock, praying for the flock, and serving as examples for the flock, while among the flock, as they lead and feed the flock through teaching God’s word, accompanied with wise collective governance. The hearts of good pastors swell to Jesus’s charge in Luke 10:20: “Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” Their first and most fundamental joy is not what God does through them as pastors but what Christ has done (and does) for them as Christians.

Against Celebrity

On this note, and consonant with our remembering Tom Carson as an ordinary pastor-elder, I can’t help but share quickly Bonhoeffer’s lightning strike against “celebrity” instincts in the church, as he saw it in the 1930s German church. This is at the end of chapter 4 in Life Together:

Jesus made authority in the fellowship dependent upon brotherly service. . . . Every cult of personality that emphasizes the distinguished qualities, virtues, and talents of another person, even though these be of an altogether spiritual nature, is worldly and has no place in the Christian community. . . . One finds there [in the elder qualifications in 1 Timothy 3] nothing whatsoever with respect to worldly charm and the brilliant attributes of a spiritual personality. The [elder] is the simple, faithful man [ordinary!], sound in faith and life, who rightly discharges his duties to the Church. . .

The Church does not need brilliant personalities but faithful servants of Jesus and the brethren. . . . The question of [the church’s] trust . . . is determined by the faithfulness with which a man serves Jesus Christ, never by the extraordinary talents which he possesses. Pastoral authority can be attained only by the servant of Jesus who seeks no power of his own, who himself is a brother among brothers submitted to the authority of the Word. (84–85)

Such is Bonhoeffer’s call for ordinary elders: “a brother among brothers,” present in the life of the church and accessible. They invite, welcome, and receive input from the flock. They don’t presume to shepherd God’s flock in all the world through the Internet, but focus on the flock “that is among you” (verse 2) — those particular names and faces assigned to their charge — and they delight to be among those people, not removed or distant.

2. Not for Shameful Gain, but Eagerly

“Shameful gain” would be some benefit not commensurate with the work, or some gain that is against the gain of the flock, and the glory of Christ — whether money as the driving motivation, or power, or respect, or comfort, or the chance to perform, enjoying being on the platform. In terms of “eagerness,” the epistle to the Hebrews gives this important glimpse into the dynamic of Christian leadership as workers for the joy of the flock:

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews 13:17)

Here is a beautiful, marriage-like vision of the complementary relationship between the church and its leaders. The leaders, for their part, labor (they work hard, as we’ve seen; it is costly work) for the advantage — the profit, the gain — of the church. And the church, for its part, wants its leaders to work not only hard but happily, without groaning, because the pastors’ joy in leading will lead to the church’s own benefit. The people want their leaders to labor with joy because they know their leaders are working for theirs.

“Pastors are glad workers for the gladness of their people in God.”

Christ gives leaders to his people for their joy. Pastors are glad workers for the gladness of their people in God.

For Your Advantage

How eager, then, might the people be to submit to such a leader? The prospect of submitting to a leader drastically changes when you know he isn’t pursuing his own private advantage but genuinely seeking yours: what is best for you, what will give you the deepest and most enduring joy — when he finds his joy in yours, rather than apart from or instead of yours.

The word “submission” has negative connotations today in many circles. But how might the charge to “submit” in Hebrews 13:17 and “be subject” in 1 Peter 5:5 change when we see it in the context of this vision of shepherding and oversight and pastoring as working for the joy of our people? There’s no charge to submit in verse 5 until verses 2–4 establish a context of “workers for your joy” who are willing, eager, and exemplary: they feed the flock, not themselves; they attend to the flock’s needs, not their own; they gain as the flock gains, not as the flock loses.

It’s amazing to consider what actions and initiatives and care are presupposed (and commanded) in the New Testament, from husbands and fathers and governors and pastor-elders, before the charge is given to submit:

  • husbands, love and be kind, not harsh (Colossians 3:18);
  • fathers, do not provoke your children to anger but joy (Ephesians 6:3);
  • civil governors, be God’s servants for society’s good, avenging wrongdoing (Romans 13:1; 1 Peter 2:13);
  • pastors, feed the flock through public teaching (1 Corinthians 14:34) and paying careful attention to (Acts 20:28) and keeping watch over (1 Timothy 4:16) the flock.

Pastor-elders are to give of themselves, their time, their energy, their attention, to work for the joy of the flock. Therefore, church, submit to your leaders. In Hebrews 13:17, negatively, God will hold the pastors accountable, and positively, it will be to your advantage, church, to your benefit, to your joy, if you let them labor with joy, for your joy, and not with groaning.

When leaders in the church show ourselves to be workers for their joy, we walk in the steps of the great shepherd — the great worker for joy — the one who bore the greatest cost for others’ good, and not to the exclusion of his own joy. He found his joy in the joy of his Beloved. “For the joy that was set before him [he] endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2). Or, as I just recently have been struck by in Isaiah 53:11, “Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied.”

As workers for the church’s joy, we pastor-elders emphatically pursue gain — not shameful gain but the shameless gain that is our joy in the joy of the church, to the glory of Christ. Joy now, and joy in the coming shameless reward: “When the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:4).

3. Not Under Compulsion, but Willingly

Churches want happy pastors. Not dutiful clergy. Not groaning ministers. The kind of pastors our people want are pastors who want to do the work, and labor with joy for their joy. They want pastors who serve “not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have them” (1 Peter 5:2).

That is, God himself wants pastors who labor willingly, from the heart, not under compulsion. He wants us to aspire to the work (1 Timothy 3:1), and do it with joy (Hebrews 13:17). Not dutifully, or under obligation, but willingly, eagerly, and happily. And not just “as God would have you” because he’s requiring something of us that is different than his own character and actions. But “as God would have you” meaning “as God himself is” and does — literally “according to God” (Greek: kata theon).

It says something about our God that he would have it this way. He is the infinitely happy “blessed God” (1 Timothy 1:11) who acts from the boundless, immeasurable bliss of the eternal Godhead. He wants pastors to work with joy because he works this way. He acts from fullness of joy. He is a God most glorified not by heartless duty, but by our eagerness and enjoyment, and he himself cares for his people willingly, eagerly, and happily.

Happy pastors and elders, not groaning pastors and elders, make for happy churches, and a glorified Savior. Pastors who enjoy the work, and work with joy, are a benefit and an advantage, to their people (Hebrews 13:17).

Two Ways Toward Joy

Let me close with just two practical manifestations of this vision for what it might mean for you, as a pastor-elder (or aspiring pastor-elder), to be a worker with your people for their joy in Christ. One private, early morning one. One corporate, late-night one (at least late-night for us, as we do our pastors’ meetings every other Thursday night after our kids’ bedtimes). There are countless implications of this vision, whether for discipling, or counseling, or your scheduling and calendar, or sermon prep, or husbanding and fathering, or sleep and exercise, on and on. But let me start with just two.

What does it look like for me to pursue my joy in the joy of our people (to the glory of God)?

Alone Each Morning

In the words of George Mueller, my “first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day” is “to have my soul happy in the Lord.” Don’t hear this as an obligation but an opportunity — not first and foremost a “have to” but a “get to.” To feed on God, get our souls happy in him, not with the accent on us but on him. He gives, we receive. He speaks, we listen. We come hungry, and he says I am the bread of life. We come thirsty, and he says, Ho, everyone who thirsts come to the waters. Mueller says, “The first thing to be concerned about [is] not how much I might serve the Lord [what I might do for others’ joy] . . . but how I might get my soul into a happy state, and how my inner man might be nourished.”

How did he pursue this? Mueller’s focus, in his words, was “the reading of the word of God and . . . meditation on it” — oh the joys of unhurried, even leisurely, meditation on the words of God himself — “that thus my heart might be comforted, encouraged, warned, reproved, instructed; and that thus, while meditating, my heart might be brought into experiential communion with the Lord.”

How did he go about approaching God’s word? He would meditate, he said, “searching as it were into every verse to get blessing out of it; not for the sake of public ministry of the word; not for the sake of preaching on what I had meditated upon; but for the sake of obtaining food for my soul.”

He asks, “Now what is the food for the inner man?” He answers “the word of God,” and adds, “here again, not the simple reading of the word of God, so that it only passes through our minds, just as water runs through a pipe, but considering what we read, pondering over it, and applying it to our hearts” — in other words, meditation. He says at the end, “How different when the soul is refreshed and made happy early in the morning.”

So apprenticing yourself to God’s own joy, through his word, feeding on him, enjoying him, letting him satisfy your soul, and warm your heart — not for sermon prep, but food for your own soul — is the well from which we draw in pastoring from joy, for their joy.

Together as Pastors

How often in our call to govern, to lead through prayer and collective wisdom and decision-making for the church, do we find two (or more) options lying before us? This is a good moment to check ourselves. What is our framework for the decisions of leadership? It can be easy to slip into a selfish mindset: what is easiest, what’s most convenient for those of us sitting around the table. Without saying it, or thinking it explicitly, how might our preferences and comforts shape this church? How might church life be more convenient for us? Rather than asking, Which path, so far as we can tell, will be best for our people’s true joy in Christ?

But beware: when you ask a question like this, and answer in light of it, you find that it’s often the path that is more costly to the pastors and elders. But this is the work to which we are called, as workers for their joy. If our team of pastors and elders trends toward the personal preferences and conveniences of the pastors and elders, then we are not loving our people well. We are not working with them for their joy. We are using them for ours.

But when we are “workers for their joy” — knowing that Christ is most glorified in his church, when his church is most satisfied in him — then, from joy, we set aside our own convenience and personal preferences and together we labor for the joy of our people in Jesus.