Friday, October 15, 2010

Elders in I Peter 5:1-6

This post is part of an ongoing look at the role of elders/overseers/pastors in scripture. The previous posts:

In today's post, I want to look at one of the most important passages in the bible relating to this role. I Peter 5:1-6 is critical for at least a couple of reasons. First, Peter uses forms of all three Greek words for elder/overseer/pastor. Second, Peter tells us much about both the actions and motivations of those who would serve as elders/overseers/pastors. As with previous posts, for the sake of brevity I'm going to use the term "elder" unless there is a specific reason not to.

Peter writes:

"So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; 3 not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. 4 And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. 5 Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for 'God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.' 6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you..."

We can learn a tremendous amount from this passage. I'm going to point out what I see, but I'd love your feedback as well. Comments please.

We will see a few things that we have already discovered in the Acts passages.

So, what does Peter tell us?

1. Elders are multiple. N.T. churches always had more than one elder.

2. Elders are among the flock. Elders serve amongst people they know. They are not from the outside.

3. Elders are to shepherd the flock. This is a command. This seems to have a fairly wide range of meaning. We can at least say that shepherds care for the flock. This is where we get the word for "pastor." There are other aspects to shepherding such as feeding, guiding, leading, and protecting. We must be careful how far we go with these assumptions. To be safe, I think we must limit ourselves in this passage to the concept of caring for the flock.

4. The flock belongs to God. It is "of God." Jesus Christ is the head of His flock.

5. Elders exercise oversight. This seems to refer to caring for the spiritual well-being of the flock. This is where we get the word for "overseer." Let's be very careful not to allow our modern ideas of overseer (boss, ruler, master) intrude on how we understand this word.

6. Elders are to serve willingly and eagerly, not because of compulsion or for shameful gain. These words speak to the motivation to serve. The motivation must be one of sacrificial service. Our Lord came not to be served, but to serve. Let us follow this example.

7. Elders are not to domineer, but are to be examples to the flock. This is probably one of the most important statements about elders in the entire N.T. Peter expects that elders will not place themselves in positions where they can domineer over others. This is very important. Instead, elders are to be examples to the church. This may be the most important part of being an elder. In fact, elders are probably selected by the Holy Spirit and recognized by the church because they are already being godly examples.

8. Jesus Christ is the Chief Shepherd. The one true senior pastor of the church is Jesus Christ.

9. Christ will give the crown of glory. It is difficult to know who receives this crown and what it is. However, there is no doubt that it will be a good thing. This should motivate us all to serve diligently regardless of whether or not we are recognized as elders.

-Verses 5 and 6 are often left out of this equation. I believe that is a mistake. These two verses show us that the overall context is one of humility and mutual subjection.

10. Those who are younger are to be subject to the elders. We must understand this correctly. This is not the same as being subject to a king or even a boss. The idea is that those who are younger will listen to and follow the godly examples of elders who are caring for the flock. The elders lead by example more than by word. The younger follow this example, not because of the men who do it, but because they are following Christ.

11. All in the church are to show humility toward one another. We are all to think of others before ourselves. This includes elders.

12. All in the church are to humble themselves before God. We have no reason to be prideful since God has given us everything. Part of salvation itself is humility before the God who saves. Elders are to serve with this humility in mind.

We have seen a great deal in these few verses. We learn about what elders are to do and what their motivation should be. Elders should be, first and foremost, godly examples to the church who desire to care for the church. Their main duty is service. They do this together, not alone. They remember that the church belongs to Christ, and that He - the only real senior pastor - is returning one day for His church.


Alan Knox said...


I know I already mentioned this... but this is a good passage to think about it again. If Peter is talking about "elders" but not just "older people," then there are some people left out of his exhortations here. He talks to "elders" and to "younger men/people", but what about the older people who are not elders?

However, if Peter is simply talking to all older people, everything fits nicely together.

What do you think?


Alan Knox said...


By the way... good summary on this passage! I should have mentioned that before I asked my question.

I'm really enjoying your series.


Eric said...


Thanks. You've brought up a very interesting issue that I really don't have a good answer for. Here is a related question: Why would the writers of scripture use a word ("elder") to refer to two different things: older people and overseers/pastors? It seems that they would know that this would lead to confusion. Is it possible that "elders" always refers to older people, and that this term is not the same role as that of overseers/pastors?

Alan Knox said...


That's certainly possible. But there do seem to be at least a few passages (such as Acts 14:23) where "elders" does not refer to all older people.


Aussie John said...


Another top article! In the light of Alan's comment, I would suggest that the term 'elder' when taken in the context of the passage, would mean a recognized elder of the local body of believers, and therefore, not all older people.

I know there is a lot of disagreement regarding the age of elder (Arnold and Gingrich suggest over 50, I think closer to 30). As an aside, a Jewish fellow with whom one of my professors was acquainted said, "when thinking of elders, think gray hair". He said that the term "gray head" was a pseudonym for elder.

Mark said...


I guess I have always imagined that, when God's people are seeking Christ in spirit and in truth, that by the time a believer became an older believer he/she would have the maturity to be "elders" in the body, thus I would've interpreted more along the lines of all older believers being elders. Of course this doesn't hold true if a believer is saved later in life, and hasn't had the same period of time to mature. I have no specific scripture to back the above assumption, it is just what I have always thought.

I find the last phrase interesting: "so that at the proper time He may exalt you". Maybe this refers to a time in the future, like end-times or something. I believe, however, that this act of exalting applies more in the here and now, although we may have to redefine our idea of the word. I believe that God "raises up" people within the body to lead in specific times, not because they are so spiritual, but because they have the grace needed for the task at hand. From the outside this could look very similar to what we have come from, but, within the context of this passage, this person would've spent years humbling themselves, and thus would continue to work from a position of humility and service. This individual may be used for a period of time, to accomplish a specific task in the body/kingdom, and then that season would end and someone else may be "raised up". Especially in this time, when the Kingdom does not have an accurate expression in every location, I can see the Spirit raise up individuals to serve the body, and serve as plowmen, so to speak, to break dry ground and plant the kingdom in that location. I guess you could also call this a church planter or an apostle.

Anyway, I'm rambling, and I hope I expressed accurately what I am thinking. I, too, am finding your series very instructive, Eric.

Eric said...


Interesting. This is a difficult issue when trying to fully understand what the authors meant. One thing is for sure, what we see today in most churches looks a lot different from what we see described in scripture.

Eric said...


You may be right. I really don't know on the specifics of how this is supposed to function. I'm glad that it is clear that we are all to be humble servants toward one another. How far we have strayed from this in today's church!

reformedlostboy said...

If not for this: "Our Lord came not to serve, but to be served. Let us follow this example." I'd say it was a great post! Just kidding bro...honest mistake, still an insightful post.

One note that jumped at me is how Peter refers to himself as "a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed". He puts the emphasis and unifying "fellow"ship of the elders on Christ and the hope that we have in Him. Elders would do well to follow that example.

Eric said...


Ahhh! I can't believe I made that mistake. Thanks for pointing it out. I went back and changed it.

It's great how Peter, who had apostolic authority as one who was an eye-witness, instead seems to emphasize his unity with the other elders. Elders certainly should serve together for the good of the body.

Anonymous said...

These are excellent articles, however, although you have broken with tradition on some things you are still tied to appointing elders. Alan Knox is absolutely right in his first comment.

As in many other passages "elder" in 1pet5 is juxtaposed against younger, therefore excluding it from being an appointed office!

We must place all our biblical understanding of "elder" in the context of the age.
This was a patriarchal society. The heads of the households were ALL elders. If the fathers of the house were not elders, then how come Paul addresses women elders, young men and young women but not the fathers in1Tim5v1-2, and in Titus2v1-6?
A clear example of heads of house being elders is Ex12v21-
Then Moses called for ALL the elders of Israel, and said unto them, Draw out and take you a lamb according to YOUR families, and kill the passover.
In this verse, the elders MUST have also all been the heads of their families otherwise most of Israel would have been missed out of the passover. If these elders were appointed men only, then Moses would have had to tell these appointees to go out and tell the rest of the heads of the tribes "to draw out a lamb for the sacrifice". That he did not do this shows that the command had reached all those who would perform the sacrifice. ie. the heads of households, the elders.

You make a brilliant stand against the traditional role of the Pastor. However, your traditional belief in the necessity of appointing a special few men to be elders, steals from ALL the adult church their God given responsibility function. THIS IS WHY THE CONGREGATION ALWAYS WAITS ON THE LEADERSHIP TO TELL THEM WHAT TO DO.
The appointment of elders perpetuates immaturity.
The appointment of eldership perpetuates the clergy laity divide.

Eric said...


I see what you are saying, and I appreciate your input. I still have questions about a few verses, however. If you have already answered these questions, I apologize.

In Acts 14:23 Paul appoints elders. What do you think of this?

In I Peter 5, the elders are told to shepherd the flock. They are also mentioned to oversee the flock. These are the three words for elder, pastor, and overseer in the same place. If they do not refer to the same role, then why does Peter write it this way?


Anonymous said...

I appreciate your desire to get clarity in this critical area. You may never agree with me but I hope that we both get deeper.
I have been pursuing the Lord in this issue since the early 80s, but that does not make me right. And, as you have already acknowledged, a pastoral qualification doesn't make you right. God is the only one who really knows.

So, to Acts14v23. I will also throw in Titus as Paul says to appoint elders in Tit1.
It is all about correct and accepted use of language, but an example may help.

You are aware (whether you like it or not) that there is a constant flow of interest in the mainstream media about
in the institutional church.

All three bold phrases are similar, ordaining elders, ordaining homosexuals, ordaining women, but your method of language isolates the first as a special case!

Can you see the parallel?

If in the above, they are actually making some INTO women and some INTO homosexuals, then you are also right about Acts 14 (and Titus). If they are not doing that, then the bible IS NOT ORDAINING ANYONE TO BE ELDERS. It is just ordaining some of the elders into an overseeing role,

1Pet5v1 is interesting. Both of our interpretations of "elder" work here. However your view limits the caring role to the few special people who have been given such authority from above.
My view challenges EVERY MATURE BELIEVER to take the mantle according to their faith.
Nobody sits around waiting to be served by the "leaders".
Titus2 explains 1Pet5. The word "elder" (or elder man) in Titus2 is juxtaposed against elder women, younger men and women. The older ones being told to lead by example the younger ones, ie. feed the flock, just as it is their responsibility to feed their families.

The reason that this is crucial is that wrong understanding has locked the church into an institutional mode. Nobody can do anything unless he has been granted authority from someone higher up the food chain.

The fact that elder, pastor, overseer, appear in the same passage is an astonishingly weak argument for them meaning the same thing, given the abundant evidence elsewhere that they are not.
If I told my son to feed his little sister, that does not make him her mother.

Eric said...


Thank you for the explanation. I think I understand your position now. I'm going to have to give this more thought.

Anonymous said...

I believe that the church was never meant to be led by appointees, or hierarchy. It was, and is, meant to be a pioneering organism, leading people out of captivity and into promised land.

The word "leader" in normal language has two meanings.
1) The boss, the president, the chief, the CEO etc. You have covered much of this very well in theory, but in my view you still miss the main point.

2) The forerunner. The one who has been there before the others, as in pioneer. He is NOT the boss. He is not afraid to flee the safety of the camp.

It is item 2) that I believe is critical for a real understanding of leadership in the church.

Speaking as a Brit, you Americans of all people should see this easily. Leadership is all about pioneering. Instead, the church has become a settlers camp. Everybody believes they have arrived once they get there, and further pioneering is condemned, because it unsettles the rest, and certainly unsettles those who are the "Boss".

I kept sheep for a while. Sheep, despite being stupid, have an irritating ability to find the tiniest gap in the netting or hedge. If the field is becoming overgrazed, they will wander. Once one goes, it is not long before the adjacent road has the whole flock grazing the grass verge amidst the traffic. It always starts with one hungry sheep.

The one who makes the first move obviously IS THE LEADER, BUT HE IS NOT THE BOSS, he has just hungered for something better. He is the FORERUNNER at that time. Next time it might be another hungry sheep that leads.

1Cor11v3. But I would have you know that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is the man and the head of Christ is God.
v4. Every man praying or prophesying having his head covered dishonours his head.
This tells me that I have only one head over me, Christ, and Christ alone. Therefore, if I put myself under a pastor or any other leader, to have church authority over me, I have clearly displaced and dishonoured my true head, Christ.
This is why I refuse to "go" to church.
Having ANY other believer OVER MY HEAD is an act of idolatry.
Until we understand this we are blind to what the God is saying about church structure.