The Apostle Peter knew what it was to get things wrong, to assume what the Lord had not promised, to claim what He was not guaranteeing, to go where He never sent. His early years as a disciple are a case study in presumption.
By the time he wrote this First Epistle that bears his name, Peter was a veteran who had learned the hardest lessons of discipleship and bore the scars to prove it.
Therefore, when He wrote to the people entrusted with the care and governance of the Lord’s churches, He did not mince words.
“The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed.
“Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly, nor as being lords 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 does not fade away.”
There are three sets of three in this brief passage: 3 terms for the churches’ leaders, 3 ways Peter describes himself and establishes the authority by which he spoke, and 3 cautions to the leaders of the churches.
The church’s leaders are elders, shepherds, and overseers. They are all the same group.
Peter is a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings, and one who will share in His future glory.
Here are three bad ways–disastrous ways–to look at the ministry of the pastor: as a job, as a paycheck, as an ego thing.
Let’s take these apart and consider them more closely.
The church’s leaders are variously called in the New Testament by three terms: elders, pastors, overseers.
Elders were not necessarily older than the other disciples. But they were veterans. They had the maturity a rookie still lacked. The term “elder” can, of course, simply mean the seniors in the church, but it clearly refers to those mature saints who give leadership and direction to the congregation.
Pastors (literally “shepherds”) did what shepherds did with a flock: fed them, led them, and protected them.
Overseers (the Greek “episcopos” gives us the word Episcopalian) have the responsibility for leadership and supervision (another word meaning “oversight”) of the congregation.
It’s critical that we note in the New Testament these three are the same group. We see this in Acts 20 where the Apostle Paul meets with the leaders of the Ephesian church at Miletus for last-minute instruction and inspiration as he heads toward Jerusalem and an uncertain fate. The leaders are called elders in 20:17, and in 20:28 both shepherds and overseers.
Peter refers to himself in three ways.
Regarding his present situation, he is a fellow elder. “I’m one of you.” he was not lording it over anyone, an important point since he was about to remind the pastors to do likewise.
Regarding his past situation, he was a witness of Christ’s sufferings. “I’m one of them (the 12 Apostles!).” We can only imagine the standing this must have given him in the early church. The work of Jesus on the cross is not hearsay, not second-hand information. He was there. As the Apostle John wrote, “That which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled,” we declare to you. (I John 1:1-2)
Regarding the future, Peter is confident he has a share in the glory that will be revealed at the return of Jesus. “I will be in that number.”
The leaders are to shepherd the Lord’s flock. However, we are to be careful how we look upon our ministry.
1) We are not to look upon this pastoral work as a job but an opportunity.
“Not by compulsion, but willingly.” (5:2)
The ministry is not something we HAVE to do but we GET to do.
After pastoring a small church in the evenings and on weekends for a couple of years, I moved to seminary with my young family. Before our first year was out, we were called to a church not far from the campus. Because the church paid a living wage, I was able to give up my afternoon job and focus on the ministry full-time. That was over 40 years ago, but I still recall the delight I felt in being free to do this kind of work and get paid for it. The privilege provided a thrill that lingers with me today.
2) We are not to look upon this pastoral work as a paycheck but a privilege.
“Not for dishonest gain, but eagerly.”
It will come as a surprise to no one that some people enter the ministry for the money. Last week, a judge in my city of New Orleans sentenced a pastor of a church to 22 years in prison for a money-making scheme. As a member of the local Sewage and Water Treatment Board for several decades, the pastor had seniority over the other board members and staffers. He knew the ins and outs, and used his position to an unfair advantage.
The man took over the leadership of a small church and proceeded to handle the finances himself. When a contractor began to show interest in a business arrangement with the S&WB, the good reverend would visit him privately and suggest money to be donated to his church “for scholarships.” Then, with that money the pastor supported an expensive lifestyle of luxury automobiles and vacations.
In announcing the heavy sentence of 22 years, the judge called the so-called minister the vermin that he is. That man hindered the work of rebuilding our flood-damaged city and brought great shame upon the church of the Lord Jesus Christ.
If we are in the ministry because of the paycheck, we should get out immediately. Honoring God by serving His people is a great opportunity, a precious privilege, and a massive responsibility for which the pastor will someday give account before God (Hebrews 13:17). No one in his right mind should volunteer for this assignment.
3) We are not to look upon pastoral work as an ego trip, but an opportunity to set an example.
“Nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.”
There’s an interesting pattern at work here. In the Christian home, the wife is told to submit to the husband’s leadership, however he is not told to dominate her. He is to love and serve her as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her. (Ephesians 5)
In the same way, church members are told to “obey those who have the rule over you, and be submissive” (Hebrews 13:17). However, at no point are the elders/pastors/overseers told to exercise strong, bold leadership over the congregation. Instead, they are to set the example before the flock.
To our lasting shame and the discredit of the ministry, some of our brethren have grown too attached to having their name on the sign in front of the church. They quit seeing it as the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ and view it as an extension of their own identity. The temptation is particularly strong when the leader has served a church for decades and outlasted the lay leadership who were there when he arrived. He finds himself dictating how things will be done without consideration to the rest of the leadership or the congregation as a whole.
Even when he grows old and needs to turn over leadership to others, such a pastor may find himself unable to let go. In many cases, he ends up destroying what the Lord used him to build over many years.
Often when I speak to a group of pastors, I find myself reminding them that “it’s the Lord’s church. He died for it; you didn’t. He wants it back!”
Pastors would be amazed to discover how liberating it is to give the church and his ministry back to the Lord Jesus.
Then, each morning, let the servant of the Lord rise with a hearty, “This is the day the Lord has made. I will rejoice and be glad in it!”
Following that, let him offer the prayer of all prayers for his ministry:
“My Lord, it’s your church. I thank You for the privilege of serving you. What would you have me to do today?”