What’s an Exile to Do? Elders, Shepherd God’s Exiled Flock

Posted by R. Fowler White

For well over a year now, the congregations of Christ’s church in our nation and world have been dealing with fast-developing, stress-producing changes in public health, economics, politics, and culture. In more ways than we Christians may realize, this current season of testing has offered us a trial run for future times when our marginalization may worsen. If that’s the case, we elders ought to ask: how’s it gone for us and the sheep in our care? Constrained by recent providence, have we elders learned what’s required of us, particularly in seasons of harder trials? Do those in our care regard us as examples to emulate in times of difficult testing? It’s not too late to examine ourselves in light of the instruction Peter has for elders in 1 Pet 5:1-4.

As the Apostle has worked through his plan for “the perseverance of the exiled saints,” he reminded us in 4:12-19 that trials of suffering for righteousness are part of the process by which God removes sin and its impurities from His church and ultimately the world. Following the order of Ezekiel’s prophecy, Peter addresses the church’s elders first, commanding them to shepherd the flock of God in their care (cf. 5:1-4 with Ezek 9:6). As we read these words, let’s recall that the eldership is one of two special offices in God’s house (the other being deacons; cf. Phil 1:1). Pointedly, elders are not a board of directors among whom one is a paid chief executive officer accountable to the others. No, the context in 1 Peter shows us that the terms elder, overseer (bishop), and shepherd (pastor) are essentially interchangeable titles, referring to all those men who by their example and instruction distinguish themselves as those who live a life of faith and practice worthy for others to emulate and who are therefore set apart for the ministry of discipleship, whether they make their living in that ministry or not (1 Tim 3:1-7; 4:12, 16; 5:17-18; 2 Tim 2:2, 24-25; Titus 1:5-9; Eph 4:11; Heb 13:7, 17 with 1 Pet 5:1-3). Having been recognized by congregations for their qualifications, Peter presumes that the non-elder members will submit themselves to their elders’ care, holding them in high esteem because they keep watch over them, give them instruction, serve as judges on their behalf, and otherwise manage the flock’s affairs (1 Thess 5:12-13; 1 Tim 3:5; 5:17-18; 1 Cor 6:4, 5 with Exod 18:21-26; Num 11:16-17). Given their responsibilities, it’s easy to see why Peter addresses the elders first.

Interestingly, to start off his exhortation, the Apostle Peter (1:1) cites his own qualifications as a fellow elder (5:1). He acknowledges his official connection with the other elders in the Dispersion (1:1) and presumably elsewhere. He also reminds readers that he’s a witness of Christ’s sufferings. Though Peter did not see Jesus’ crucifixion, he did remain with Jesus during the trials of His ministry (Luke 22:28) and certainly did know about the crucifixion and proclaimed it to others (Acts 2:23; 5:30; 10:39). Faithful, then, as a witness of and to Christ’s sufferings, the Apostle is assured that eternal glory will be his reward (5:1, 10). With his own qualifications laid out, Peter has now let his fellow elders know that he’s not asking them to undertake a ministry that he himself hasn’t undertaken. The particular tasks he has in mind follow.

Knowing that sheep need shepherds to keep them from straying as they suffer unjustly, Peter exhorts us who are elders to give a shepherd’s care to God’s flock among us (5:2a NET). As shepherds, we’re obligated to know, feed (teach), guide, and guard the sheep under us. To clarify what he means by shepherding, Peter adds exercising oversight (5:2a), that is, watching over or supervising the sheep whom God has assigned to our care. As overseers, we’re stewards and guardians of the flock (cf. 2:25b), particularly as we defend them against any teaching, belief, or behavior that threatens to scatter or devour them (5:2a). But what attitude and approach are we to take in our work? Peter tells us, first negatively, then positively (5:2b-3). “Shepherd God’s flock,” he says, “not reluctantly or against your will, not because you’re coerced into doing it; but voluntarily, in keeping with God’s revealed character and will. Watch over His sheep, not to get money (like Judas) or influence, but to give care with a holy zeal. Exercise oversight, not by treating the sheep as your subjects or slaves, certainly not by bullying or intimidating them or by being abusive or harsh to them (2 Cor 1:23-24 with 11:20), but by setting an example for them to follow.” In sum, just as Peter framed husbands’ authority within limits defined by obedience to God and by Christ’s example, so he does the same with us who are elders. The Apostle emphatically forbids us shepherds from adopting ways that marginalize or otherwise injure the flock of God in our care.

Lastly, as if his qualifications weren’t enough to motivate us, Peter urges us elders to comply with his directions by pointing us to the future reward for faithful shepherds (5:4). It’s true, of course, that Paul requires elders who do their work well to receive a reward matching their labor now (1 Tim 5:17). Peter, however, looks to the future: if we elders do our work as undershepherds accountable to Jesus the Chief Shepherd, we who have shepherded as God would have us do it (5:2) will receive the unfading crown of glory. The Greco-Roman world rewarded athletes, soldiers, and politicians with crowns of unfading flowers. Peter, however, like Paul, sees God Himself granting that special reward on the last day (e.g., 1 Cor 9:25; 2 Tim 4:8). His point is clear: when Christ returns, God will openly acknowledge and honor faithful elders, even though the world may reject and vilify them now (2:4-8; 4:12-19).

According to Peter, God’s process of purifying the church and the world of sin and its impurities has begun with fiery trials at His house, and first in line for purification are the elders. And so our assignment is set before us: would we who are elders show others the lessons of perseverance that we have learned during recent providence? Would we prove ourselves worthy to be emulated by others moving forward? Then, following Peter’s example, we must devote ourselves, as the Chief Shepherd’s undershepherds, to knowing, feeding, guiding, and guarding the sheep in our care. Only then will we show that we’ve made good use of the current season of hardship and are worthy of emulation by others, particularly exiled (i.e., marginalized) saints.

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