What’s an Exile to Do? Submission and Humility in God’s Sheepfold

Posted by R. Fowler White

In Peter’s first letter—his “Survival Manual for Marginalized Christians”—he focuses our attention on the type of people we Christians need to be to assure our perseverance through the time of our present exile (1 Pet 1:17). He’s exhorted us to pursue moral excellence as we deal with both the world and the sinful passions that wage war against our souls (2:11-12). He’s told us our duties to civil authorities, to bosses, to spouses, to our fellow Christians, and to critics and other persecutors. Having turned again to discuss life in God’s sheepfold in 5:1-11, Peter has talked to us about the ministry of discipleship that elders must perform to assure our perseverance (5:1-4). Now, in 5:5-7, he begins his final appeal to those in the flock whom he calls younger (5:5a) and to all of the sheep (5:5b-7).

When we turn to 5:5a, Peter issues a call to be subject that we’ve heard before (2:13, 18; 3:1), but translators and commentators differ as to who the younger and the elders are. Do both terms refer to men? Do they differ in age, or in Christian maturity, or in office? The Apostle’s immediately preceding reference to the elders as shepherds of God’s flock and the specific duty he enjoins on the younger (be subject) tell us that he’s shifting his focus from what the elders owe the flock to what the flock, particularly those younger in the faith, owe those installed as their elders. Presuming, then, that the flock has recognized their shepherds, Peter instructs us how we non-elders must respond to their ministry. He tells the younger sheep, likewise, be subject to the elders (5:5a; cf. 2:13, 18; 3:1). Clearly, the Apostle doesn’t look on the younger as mere consumers shopping for a church that meets their every preference. No, for Peter, church life is about entering a sheepfold in which there are shepherds qualified to care for God’s sheep. It’s about submitting ourselves to those overseers, placing ourselves in their care, taking our place responsibly under them (cf. 1 Thess 5:12-13; Heb 13:17). Furthermore, as Peter showed in 5:1-3 and will show again in 5:5b-6, the relationship of God’s flock to the elders is not about us non-elders adopting servile, much less rebellious dispositions and behaviors toward our shepherds. On the contrary, flawed and finite as elders are, our submission to them is conditioned first by our obedient humility before God. As such, submission in the sheepfold is, as in every other human relationship, an act of faith: we who are non-elders keep entrusting ourselves to God as we subordinate ourselves to elders, knowing that the Chief Shepherd holds them accountable.

Having called us non-elders to take our place under our elders’ care, the Apostle moves promptly to call all of us to clothe ourselves with humility toward one another (5:5b). Interestingly, Peter’s command is for us all to put on one and the same garment, and not just any garment: he specifies that we put on humility. Perhaps Peter here is thinking of what Jesus did (John 13:4-15) when He girded Himself with a towel and taught the disciples—Peter in particular (John 13:6-11)—the lesson of humility (John 13:15). Why humility? Because, as Peter has already told us (3:8), in a colony of exiles, competition for privilege or power is toxic; commitment to the common good is essential (cf. Phil 1:27–2:5). In times of social marginalization or even persecution, then, mutual humility within the sheepfold is an indispensable virtue. We must mortify dispositions and behaviors that domineer, usurp, or withdraw, and instead find our places in honoring and serving others according to our gifts (4:10). But there’s something even more fundamental that lies behind Peter’s exhortation: God’s actions toward the proud and the humble. The former He resists; the latter He favors (cf. 2:19-20). Once again, Peter engages critically with the world’s expectations: he shows us how God deals with the proud and the humble and, in the process, he reforms how we should order our social relationships.

The truth that it is God’s prerogative to apportion honor leads Peter to reassert his call for humility in 5:6-7, but now he underscores that God’s actions toward the proud and the humble require our humility under His almighty hand. Peter has told us that suffering comes to faithful Christians and is part of God’s providence. He’s told us that painful trials are part of the normal Christian life and are the way God purifies us. It is for us, then, to bow ourselves low before Him and to entrust ourselves to Him. If we confess that He really does use even unjust suffering to accomplish His refining purpose in our lives, we must also confess that He has it under His control and us under His care. Our mighty God is more concerned about our welfare than we could possibly be: after all, both His glory and our good are at stake. What greater incentive could there be for us to cast all our anxieties on Him?

So, fellow exiles, do we wish to assure our endurance throughout this time of our present exile (1:17)? Then we must heed the pointed word that Peter has for us in 5:5-7. He would have us recognize what social marginalization and even persecution do to us: they tempt us, out of pride and its fruit anxiety, to compete for the privilege and power denied to us. But such carnal competition has neither efficacy nor place in God’s sheepfold. Why? Because God resists the proud and favors the humble. The Apostle, therefore, commands us to mortify all desire to domineer, usurp, or withdraw and to take our places in honoring and serving others according to our gifts, whether we’re elders or non-elders. He commands all of us in God’s flock to humble ourselves before Him, because His hand is mighty to bring down the proud and to raise up the humble at the proper time. These are our duties, says Peter, because God has made submission and humility twin means of our perseverance in this time of our exile.