In the last chapter of First Peter, Peter spends some time writing to the elders in his audience. The first word in the chapter is missed in some translations including the NIV< NRSV and NKJV – “Therefore.” This reminds us that what Peter is about to write is connected with what he was just talking about. 1 Peter 4 ended on a note of the reality of the final judgment of humanity. Therefore, elders have a very important job to do that has eternal consequence. Elders are shepherding people who are going to one day be judged. What an awesome, insane responsibility! How can one do such a thing with any degree of effectiveness?
First Peter speaks to them as a fellow elder (5:1). Next, Peter reminds them that they have the perfect example, not himself, rather Jesus who is the Chief Shepherd (5:4). When he appears is the same as when he comes to judge the world from the end of chapter four. Next, we see it is God who has placed the congregation under the care of the elders. God expects the elders not to rule over the flock but to care for the flock. They don’t serve begrudgingly but willingly and lovingly. Peter says “eagerly.” Next, we see the elders need to keep an eye on what is going on as they “watch over” the flock. I almost wrote “their flock” but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate. The flock belongs to Jesus and the elders have been entrusted to care for the flock until Jesus comes back. Last, we see that the elders are not to domineer the flock (lord it over, become master of). This word is used four times in the Greek New Testament: Matt 20:25/Mark 10:42 (rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them but not so with you), Acts 19:16 where a demon possessed man overpowers people and here in 1 Peter 5.
What is the result of elders behaving in a way in line with Christ and the words of Peter here in chapter 5? The result is eternal reward when Jesus, the Chief Shepherd appears.
Peter then gives instructions specifically to the younger men that they are to submit to the leadership of their elders. Keep in mind these are elders who are not lording it over anyone but are watching over instead and are doing so willingly and lovingly. These are the kind of leaders that make it easy to submit to their leadership. There are no perfect elders but elders can make it easy or hard for people to follow them based largely on how well they embody what Peter teaches in this chapter.
Next they are to show humility not only to each other (5:5) but also to God (5:6). When you do that God will lift you up (5:6), receive your anxiety (5:7) and bring you glory and restoration (5:10).
The elders should lead through all of these things by example. It is important that we treat our elders with love and respect and that they do so toward the congregation as well. This is why mutual humility is necessary because we all make mistakes and we are all working toward the same goal in Christ.
I believe that the elders had the same responsibility towards the saints as the elders did towards the Jews…acting as their spiritual guides. If thepostles were the template for the elders in Acts, they walked away from their physical oversight so they could have spiritual oversight and fundtion. They weren’t to make them food, but make sure they got the food. This means scripture. They didn’t even have a duty to regurgitate the food, but rather show them the food to eat.
We need to change the way we understand the flock. We locally see the elders over the local flock, but Jesus never alludes to this. Jesus was the lead shepherd, over the flock, the saints, so when he left, he had other shepherds to take over the flock…the saints. The flock of Jesus and the flock of the elders are the same flock. They are not a specific flock at a specific place, but rather those saints that are among the elders and the elders are over those who are among them, which can be different elders at different times and different people at different times.
The elders didn’t rule over a church within the confines of a church building, but the saints within the confines of being a Christian. Their power was the power of the scriptures and their limitations were the limitations of the scriptures. They were not to supply the food or reprocess it, but rather lead the people to the food…the words of God.
If we see the apostles taking on the role of what the elders would be doing in Acts 6, as many believe, they left the deacons to serve others physically, while they went to pray and serve spiritually.
Too often in the cofC the elders function as board of trustees taking care of the property, money, policies, and personnel issues of one particular congregation.