Friday, August 16, 2013

1st Peter 5 - To the elders

"Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed" (1 Peter 5:1)
As Peter begins to wrap up his letter, he turns his attention to the elders who govern the flock of God. The Greek word for "elder" is the same word that is often translated as "presbyter" and is used by some churches today. There are several things of interest in his addressing those elders. First, the church structure of those early churches were quite simple: there were believers who made up the church and there were elders who oversaw the church. Why is it that we have made church structure so complicated? It seems we have fallen in love with our organizational charts and like to assign people to each box in the diagram, each with someone above them (with the possible exception of the head pastor) and each with someone below them (except the lowly congregant). How refreshing it would be if we could return to just believers and elders; saints and presbyters?

Secondly, Peter writes, not as their superior, not as their Pope, but as their fellow elder; as one who serves in equal rank with them all. No where in the writings of the apostles, nor those who followed them for the first few hundred of years, do we see any one of the apostles holding a superior position above the rest, as if they were to be their chief. Peter writes as one who had governed well as an elder and was writing to others whom he was exhorting to also govern well. However, there was one mark of distinction that all the apostles shared, they had personally witnessed the suffering and resurrection of Christ. While this did not give them superiority in rank and authority, it did give them superiority in revelation and teaching.
"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: (1 Peter 5:2)
So what does a shepherd do? He leads his flock to where they can find food, he protects his flock from outside dangers, he searches out lost and wayward sheep to restore them to the flock, and he walks among them to ensure that they are healthy and well. This is what it is meant by exercising oversight. The Greek word that is translated "taking oversight" is the same word we get our word "episcopate" from and also lends itself to another word that would be used for overseers: bishop. It is important to note that the elders are to be in and among the flock; they do not stand aloof or over the flock, they are in the flock since they are a sheep just like everyone else. They are no different from any other believer except for the measure of authority and responsibility that has been given them by God. They should also exercise their responsibilities with readiness and with a willing heart, not begrudging their authority and talking it out on the sheep, but willingly, seeing their role and responsibility as a privilege not a burden. Finally, Peter calls them to voluntarily accept and embrace their service to the flock. There is no evidence from the writings of the apostles or the early church that any of the elders were paid. They acted as overseers freely and voluntarily, and understanding the great privilege and responsibility that was theirs by the will and grace of God.
"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." (1 Peter 5:3-4)
All earthly shepherds must remember that there is a Chief Shepherd in heaven and that the flocks they tend are really His flocks not their own. They are given under their care for a short while that the flock may be benefited, not for the benefit of the shepherd. It's not a "me shepherd, you sheep" relationship but one of equality in worth while there is a difference in function. Peter further exhorts the elders not to be seen to "lord it over" the flock, or to "exercise dominion" over the flock, but rather to primarily lead by example. This is not to say that there is never a time when an elder must use his authority for the sake of the flock, but these times should be the exception, not the rule. Other should be able to see the character of an elders life expressed through their pious behavior and choose to follow them voluntarily. When someone must force others to follow them then maybe they need to examine their lives to see if there is anything worth following.
"You younger men, likewise, be subject to your elders; and all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble." (1 Peter 5:5)
It is interesting that, while encouraging all to put on humility towards one another, Peter specifically singles out young men and exhorts them to be submissive to their elders. There is a natural youthful pride that attaches itself to young men and, to a lesser extent, young women. They reach an age where they desire to be independent and free from the care-taking nature of their parents and other adults. However, at this time it is important for young men and women to remember the wisdom and knowledge of those who are more advanced in years than themselves. There is a danger in casting off all authority and seeking wisdom and guidance among those of your own age. When Rehoboam, the son of Solomon, became king, the people asked him to relax the king's controls over their lives. Rehoboam counseled with his father's advisers who advised him to accept the people's request. "But he forsook the counsel of the elders which they had given him, and consulted with the young men who grew up with him and served him." (1 Kings 12:8) However, the counsel of the young men who grew up with Rehoboam failed him and the people of Israel left him and the nation of Israel was divided in two. Young men, listen to your elders, there you will find knowledge and wisdom to guide and protect your life. Don't turn to your fellows, for they know only what you know, seek the wisdom of those who have knowledge of years, years spent walking with God and with His Christ.

David Robison

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