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Last week Peter introduced us to the concept of elders. We saw that elders act as shepherds in the church. We learned that he feeds the sheep and provides protection for the flock. This week we’ll see additional aspects of elders.
1 Peter 5:1-4 tells us, “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, 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; 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.”
The first thing we’ll look at is the elder as overseer. Overseer comes from the Greek word episkopeo. It means to exercise oversight or to be a guardian. Back in 2:25, Peter said, “For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd [poimen] and Guardian [episkopos] of your souls.” The word episkopos is also translated bishop in the N. T. Peter is thinking of the shepherd in terms of watchful care over his sheep. The idea of a bishop being an office set over presbyters (elders) and deacons does not appear in the N. T. Peter describes the work of elders as that of a guardian. In addressing the presbyters at Ephesus, Paul said, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” (Acts 20:28) Clement I was pope from 88-97. In his writings, he used the terms presbyter and bishop interchangeably. Later these terms would take on a new meaning in a class of clergy that was above deacons. It is very interesting to see how some denominations establish a hierarchy of clergy offices. We don’t see this in Scripture.
The elder is a shepherd and he is an overseer. The real issue is not necessarily the organization of the office, but the nature of the elder. In Heb. 13:17a we are reminded to, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account.” Authority is given to the elders of the church. The exercise of that authority is supposed to be in service to the Lord. It is ministerial, not imperial. The New Testament picture of an elder is that of the shepherd, watching over and guarding his flock which is modeled after the good Shepherd who gave His life for His sheep. The elder does not rule under compulsion. No one should force him. He rules, “Voluntarily according to the will of God.” 1 Tim. 3:1 says, “It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do.” This is a general statement that the office is an honorable one. In the past, a minister was a man to be respected, a man that had high standards of character, a man of integrity. Only recently has the office of pastor or minister taken on a new meaning in society. In the early church, they appointed elders only after they had prayed and fasted. The idea is that the Lord would show them whom to appoint because the elder serves according to the will of God. The elder does not serve for “sordid gain.” He is not in the ministry for the sake of money. He should not seek bigger and bigger pastorates because of the lure of bigger and bigger salaries. The elder serves with “eagerness.” Remember that in the context of Peter’s letter, persecution was the norm, trials for Christians abounded, and more fiery ordeals were on the way. There is every reason to believe that some might be hesitant about taking on the responsibility of overseeing the well being of the flock. Even today, in many parts of the world, giving yourself in the service of the Lord can come with a high price. Remember Christians are severely persecuted in: Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Egypt, Nigeria, Iran, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Pakistan, Belarus, Nepal, Yemen, and Jordan. There are many others. The idea of serving with eagerness and willingness takes on a whole new meaning.
The elder exercises pastoral oversight, not “Lording it over those allotted to your charge.” He is not a dictator. Lording it means exercising dominion over. You younger folks probably don’t remember Jim Jones. He was head of the People’s Temple. He was most famous for leading 914 people to commit suicide in Jonestown, Guyana. You might be thinking, “That was a cult.” A dictatorship begins when anyone ascends a religious throne and draws obedience to himself rather than the Lord. That’s not the way the elder is to be. The elder is to, “Be [an] example(s) to the flock.” He is not the lord and master; he leads by example. He doesn’t talk about obedience; he demonstrates obedience in his life. He is not a, “Do as I say, not as I do” kind of guy. Remember that the elder is a servant to the Lord. He serves Jesus by serving the people. Yes, he loves the people and cares for the people and is the guardian of the people just like the shepherd. But the elder is looking forward to the day, “When the Chief Shepherd appears, [to] receive the unfading crown of glory.”
The office of elder is more than meets the eye. He’s not just the preacher. He feeds and nurtures the body of Christ, he provides oversight, and he is an example for all.