To the elders among you
Peter’s letter has been addressed to all Christians despite their location or walk of life and, as we’ve seen, across the ages. At times, he has addressed slaves and masters directly and he has addressed husbands and wives directly. But the bulk of his letter has been to all who have been called by God to be part of his royal and priestly house of God. Now he turns to people he calls elders.
The definition of an elder is one of those subjects in the churches which creates peaceful division. It is most helpful in areas like this to do some word studies in the bible to compare and contrast what the bible says about elders, deacons, shepherds, overseers, pastors and bishops.
A brief overview of church titles used in the New Testament
|Titles for our search||Bible references||Comments|
|Elders||The gospels and the book of Acts frequently refer to ‘elders of the people’ who confronted or questioned Jesus. Acts 20:17-38; 1 Tim 4:14; 5:1-20; Titus 1:5-6; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1, 5. Revelation frequently refer to the elders around the throne.||This is clearly a title to describe those who have some authority in the church. They are not always teachers or preachers (1 Tim 5:17) but have the responsibility of leading the people under their care. An Elder is what you are. It is distinct from a Deacon.|
|Deacons||Romans 16:1; Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:8-12; Acts 6:1-7||May be male or female. Distinct from overseers. To be above reproach. The word means servant and the description in Acts 6 matches this title. They were to serve in the church and distribute goods among the needy in the church.|
|Shepherds||Acts 20:17-38; 1 Peter 5:2; Jude 12||A shepherd is an elder. This is implied in the Acts passage and explicit in the 1 Peter passage. An Elder is what you are but a Shepherd, overseer and pastor is what the elder does. He shepherds/pastors and over-sees.|
|Overseers||Acts 20:17-38; Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:1-2; Titus 1:7||Manages the household of God.|
|Pastors||Ephesians 4:11||Distinct from apostle, prophet, evangelist and teachers.|
|Bishops||NA||Although there is no use of this word in the Scriptures, it has been applied to overseers of churches rather than overseers of people in one church.|
|Priests||Romans 15:16; Hebrews 3:1;||While Jesus is our Great High Priest and we have no need for any other mediator between us and God, Paul can describe his duty of proclaiming the gospel as a priestly role. Note that the priests of the Old Covenant were also require to instruct the people (Leviticus 10:11)|
|CONCLUSIONS||There remains 3 major word groups that cover all of these titles:
Priest (used almost never of the Christian church but applied to teaching and preaching the gospel);
Elder (describes those who manage the household of God, caring for the people of God under their care – ‘elder’ is what you are but a shepherd, pastor and overseer is what you do.)
and Deacon (refer to those who serve in the church to free up elders for preaching and teaching and prayer).
- 5:1-2a The appeal
- 5:2b-3 The guidelines
- 5:4 The real blessing
5:1-2a – The appeal
“To the elders among you…” Acts 20:17ff describes elders as synonymous with overseers and shepherds (and therefore pastors as that is a shepherding term) and their duty is to care (like shepherds over a flock) for the people under their care. The implication in that passage is that they be sure to teach and encourage the church of God about the whole will of God, his kingdom and his grace. The church of Christ is to be lead by local leaders whose responsibility is to teach these things (either personally or ensure that teachers are teaching correctly). As Peter writes to the scattered people of God, he knows that where there are Christians, there will be elders.
“I appeal as a fellow elder…” Although Peter is The Rock and pillar of the early church, he is no more than a fellow elder. His duty is to oversee the spreading of the gospel as left in his charge by Christ (Acts 1:8). Although the word Bishop is not used in the New Testament, the Anglican church would apply Bishop to both Peter and Paul who oversee the overseers of the churches. Peter addresses the elders as one elder to another. He doesn’t flex his muscles like there is any other hierarchy. Christ gave the gospel to the church and all overseers are charged to preach that gospel and no other.
“…and a witness of Christ’s sufferings…” Now Peter distinguishes himself from his readers in that he was there when Christ suffered. He saw it first hand. He’s not like an overseer who has been told historically what went down in and around Jerusalem in the first century. He saw it and was right in the middle of it. The sufferings of Christ had a great testing on Peter himself as the gospels tell us.
“…who also will share in the glory to be revealed.” Peter returns to neutral ground where he can’t claim anything higher than any other Christian.
“…be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care.” This is the duty and simple rule of the elder – to take care of people who need to know and be reminded and encouraged and corrected by the gospel of God. They are God’s sheep – church leaders must remember that! They are like hired hands charged to watch that no sheep goes astray or is damaged or killed by wild animals. The term ‘shepherds’ is a well-worn description of those who are in charge of God’s people. In the Old Testament, it was the Shepherds of the people of God who were charged of being very bad at their jobs. Instead of directing them to the grace and true worship of God, they lead people to idolatry and took money from them to increase their power. A shepherd does not seek power but seeks to save and protect the sheep under their care. Since they are God’s sheep, how bad will it be if the elders do their jobs poorly.
5:2b-3 – The guidelines
“…watching over them…” Again, the job of an elder is not to manipulate or command or lead brutally but to watch over. Paul teaches Timothy to do this by teaching the word of God faithfully – 2 Timothy 4:2. A shepherd of sheep will lead them in the right direction and will pull them back when they wander off the path and into danger. Pastors do this precisely by directing people to the word of God and instructing people in the truth.
“…not because you must but because you are willing, as God wants you to be…” No person is forced into being an elder of a church. And why should a church want to be lead by someone who doesn’t want to be there? But it is God’s desire for elders to be in and over the church. This is his pattern for planting, growing and sustaining churches.
“…not pursuing dishonest gain…” Again, in Acts 20:17ff, Paul describes his approach to being an elder and stated that he never coveted anybodies silver or gold or clothing and recalled Jesus’ words himself that ‘it is more blessed to give than to receive.” A church ought to put money aside to fund their elders if they can so that the elders can be devoted to ministering in the church but the elder is not to be there for financial reasons and definitely not do pursue selfish gains. Anyone who enters the ministry for financial reasons ought to back out now and find another job.
“…but eager to serve.” In contrast to dishonest gain is the desire to serve others. In what ways ought they serve? That is a broader question than this passage but we have already seen that the primary purpose of the overseer is to point people to Christ and his kingdom through the teaching and preaching of God’s word.
“…not lording it over…but being examples…” I recall that this is Peter writing. Some have declared him to be the first Pope of a certain church. It is baffling to see how the hierarchy of Popes and bishops can be seen as an example to the flock. The Anglican Church must be careful in this area also. An elder is to demonstrate what it looks like to be a Christian – bearing the name of Christ and always ready to give a reason for the hope while living in a world of persecution and suffering. They are to demonstrate what it looks like to turn the other cheek, to love their wives, to pursue doing good and all of that out of reverence to God. If their position is not out of reverence for God, they are disqualified from their job.
5:4 – The real blessing
“And when the Chief Shepherd appears…” This is Christ and Peter again refers to the assured return of the Messiah. If elders in the churches are like shepherds over God’s flock, Jesus is the head of all Shepherds – the ultimate example and the owner of the sheep.
“…you will receive the crown of glory…” Overseers are not to think that their work of service and caring is to go unrewarded. Though they do not seek financial riches in this age, they are promised a prize in the next. The crown of glory is offered, not just to elders, but to all who persevere in the faith till the end (Rev 2:10). Paul declares that his own crown of glory will be those he has lead in the faith (1 Thess 2:19-20). Whatever the metaphor points to, it is a moment of joy and gladness and reward for good and faithful service under God.
“…that will never fade away.” As opposed to the dishonest gain received by bad shepherds.
Wherever there are Christians gathered around the world there will be elders who have the responsibility and the joy of taking care of God’s people as we wait for Christ’s return and endure suffering while we wait. The elders are to be like shepherds who protect the sheep in their care. Church leaders must serve at the pleasure of the Chief Shepherd, for eternal rewards and joys and not for dishonest gains found in this world.
- Topic A – Who should become elders in the church? Peter has outlined motives and responsibilities of elders in the church. Have you wondered if this is something you are gifted for? Who can you identify as elders?
- Topic B – Do you serve because you want to? All ‘servants’ in the church ought to follow the same drive as ministers – to serve God because he/she wants to. It is a true blessing to a church when people step up to share their gifts for the benefit of others – to grow the church – and do it because they want to. There are plenty of jobs that can be rostered but there are so many jobs that only those who are gifted in that area should step into and do. What are your gifts and how can you use those talents for the household of God?
- Topic C – Working for the church or working for God? Similar to topic B, do you see your participation in the church as helping the church organisation or as working for God. Just because a church exists, doesn’t mean that it is God’s household – if they teach something other than the gospel of the kingdom of God. Once you find a local church (of whatever denomination) that is preaching the gospel and teaching the truth through God’s word, attach yourself to that church and ask how you can work for God in the company of that body of Christ. Is that what you are doing?
Prayer of the Week
Protect us we pray, Jesus Christ, Shepherd of our souls, and bless those ministers who serve under you. May they find joy in their service. May they grow in the own maturity and good examples of following you. Protect them from the evil one and the desires of their own flesh. May they pursue godliness and teach those under their care well. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.