As I’ve been reading through 1 Peter recently, I can’t help but notice the dramatic transformation that took place in Peter’s life. In the Gospel narratives, Peter is portrayed as a bit rough-and-tumble, opinionated, brash and aggressive, and quick to speak. When he was baptized in the Holy Spirit in Acts 2, though, the dynamic energy of the Holy Spirit’s power completely rewired him. By the time he became the leader of the movement to reach the Jews in the days of the early Church, he was still assertive but gentle, still strong but humble.
Peter records, under the unction of the Holy Spirit, a list of qualities important for those called to spiritual leadership. Perhaps before his Spirit baptism, he would have listed attributes such as decisiveness or the ability to deal swiftly with sin (both of which are important!), but instead we see an overflow of the transformation Peter underwent. He writes:
“To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away” (1 Peter 5:1-4).
Let’s dissect this a bit.
First, throughout the New Testament epistles, “elders” is never used in relation to a person’s age. Instead it always refers to those who have been installed into some capacity of spiritual leadership, be it serving as a pastor or on a leadership team or as an influential spiritual father or mother or even as one of the other four spiritual gifts to the Church (apostle, prophet, evangelist, or teacher). So an elder could be a 66-year-old teacher of God’s Word or a 27-year-old worship leader. But while age is irrelevant, a depth of spiritual maturity is a must, as 1 Timothy 3:6 teaches us (among numerous other passages).
But I don’t believe Peter is outlining requirements for eldership in the Scripture at hand. In fact, he is clear that he is addressing those who are already established as elders (verse 1). So the rest of my writing in this piece will not deal with requirements for eldership, but will rather explore what Peter taught to those who were specifically called to spiritual leadership.
1. We are to shepherd those God trusted to us.
Regardless of your particular spiritual gift set, Peter encourages us to thoughtfully guide, fiercely protect, prayerfully nurture, and oversee the sheep under our care. What always gets me is that God is trusting people to me—not necessarily anyone else—and that strikes the fear of God in me! If I don’t teach those precious sheep a certain subject, who will? If I don’t offer pastoral guidance, who will? If I am not on my knees in constant prayer for them, who will be? Yes, in today’s age, most of our people are probably reading Christian books and listening to sermon podcasts, but even so, God didn’t entrust your local churchgoers to big-time authors and famous preachers. You are the one who will give an account to Jesus one day for how you shepherded them. And the same for me, too. Shepherd well.
2. We are co-shepherds with Jesus.
I just want to point out this subtle encouragement that Peter includes. He exhorts spiritual leaders to function as shepherds in verse 2, and then in verse 4, he regards Jesus as the Chief Shepherd. In one sense, the top Shepherd is leading other shepherds, and those shepherds are leading the sheep. (That sentence, by the way, deserves your prayerful attention and meditation. It reveals an awful lot about submission to authority and the need to honor those in authority.) All believers are co-laborers with God (1 Corinthians 3:9) but not all are co-shepherds. Pastors and other ministry leaders, be encouraged by that special honor of serving as a shepherd alongside Jesus!
3. We ought not view ministry as a chore.
Peter points out that the best way to approach ministry is as a “get to” and not a “have to.” He says, “[Serve] as overseers, not because you must but because you are willing, as God wants you to be;” he also says to be “eager to serve” (verse 2, emphasis mine). Now, to shoot straight with you, there are moments that we do what we do out of sheer discipline, but that must never last for an extended season. Instead, we must cultivate within ourselves the ability to serve the Lord and His people with enthusiasm, vigor, positivity, and hope.
4. We must not be greedy for money.
Yes, we are responsible for teaching our people the power of generosity and the principle of giving financially to the local church, but we need to steward over that responsibility carefully, with no ulterior agendas.
5. We are never to operate as harsh masters.
Peter challenges us elders to “not lord our leadership over others,” or, in other words, to not become difficult taskmasters or tyrant dictators. God forbid that any of His appointed shepherds abuses his or her authority! We must be committed to being a fountain and never a drain, to be approachable and full of mercy. A difficult but necessary question I ask myself from time to time is, “Am I a joy to submit to?” Do my word choices, the tone in my voice, the way I give directions, the expectations I have of my team, and my communication style make me a delight to be followed? Paul carries on a similar theme when he says, “Fathers” (and in this case, spiritual fathers), “do not irritate and provoke your children to anger, but rear them tenderly in the training and discipline of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). Certainly spiritual leaders must have tough conversations from time to time, and we must never be passive “people-pleasers,” but may our ways be seasoned with grace, always.
6. We are to set the example in maturity, faith, and conduct.
Peter tells us that we are to be “examples to the flock,” and that is something we ought to take rather seriously. Let us be the first to rush the altars! Let us be the first to lift our hands in worship! Let’s show our people what it looks like to memorize Scripture! Let’s show our people what a healthy and happy marriage looks like! Let’s show our people how to raise godly children! Let us practice healthy boundaries! Let our lives carry the fruit of God’s Spirit being active within us! Let us win against temptation and conquer sin! Let us heal the sick and raise the dead! Yes, in Jesus’ Name!
Now, dear friends, perhaps you are a spiritual leader of some sort, be it a senior pastor, a ministry department leader, a church musician, a kids ministry volunteer, a spiritual momma or dad to the next generation, or whatever… and perhaps in reading through Peter’s list, you actually feel more discouraged than edified. Maybe you are feeling the death sentence of burnout, or maybe your personality is aggressive and impatient, or maybe you feel generally unqualified. May I remind you again about the author of this passage? Peter used to be a very unlikely candidate for spiritual leadership, in full honesty! But God transformed his being: He plucked out the ugliness of Peter’s brashness, uprooted Peter’s proud stubbornness, and challenged Peter’s emotional immaturity. God replaced those things with a supernatural kindness, a pastoral spirit, a humble bravery, and the attitude of a loving father. Before long, Peter could write this powerful letter from a place of understanding and experience. Praise God!
And He can do the same thing for you. Actually—scratch that!—He will do the same thing for you, if you will submit to His refining process. Be filled with the Spirit! You can do what He’s called you to do.