Strangers And Aliens (22a): Serving The Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:1–5)

1So 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: 2shepherd 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; 3not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. 4And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. 5Likewise, 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.” (1 Peter 5:1–5; ESV) 1Πρεσβυτέρους οὖν ἐν ὑμῖν παρακαλῶ ὁ συμπρεσβύτερος καὶ μάρτυς τῶν τοῦ Χριστοῦ παθημάτων, ὁ καὶ τῆς μελλούσης ἀποκαλύπτεσθαι δόξης κοινωνός· 2ποιμάνατε τὸ ἐν ὑμῖν ποίμνιον τοῦ θεοῦ [ἐπισκοποῦντες] μὴ ἀναγκαστῶς ἀλλὰ ἑκουσίως κατὰ θεόν, μηδὲ αἰσχροκερδῶς ἀλλὰ προθύμως, 3μηδ᾿ ὡς κατακυριεύοντες τῶν κλήρων ἀλλὰ τύποι γινόμενοι τοῦ ποιμνίου· 4καὶ φανερωθέντος τοῦ ἀρχιποίμενος κομιεῖσθε τὸν ἀμαράντινον τῆς δόξης στέφανον. 5Ὁμοίως, νεώτεροι, ὑποτάγητε πρεσβυτέροις· πάντες δὲ ἀλλήλοις τὴν ταπεινοφροσύνην ἐγκομβώσασθε, ὅτι [ὁ] θεὸς ὑπερηφάνοις ἀντιτάσσεται, ταπεινοῖς δὲ δίδωσιν χάριν.

v.1: Peter As Suffering, Participating, Presbyter
One of the most remarkable aspects of the Roman claims about an alleged Petrine papacy, apart from the utter lack of historical evidence for any such thing, is that Peter did use two different nouns to characterize his offices and ministry, apostle (ἀπόστολος) and presbyter (πρεσβύτερος). As a matter of fact, the papacy per se did not really come to exist until well the 4th century and even then its occasional claims to authority were rebuffed. As late as the 7th century Gregory I (c. 540–604), who was arguably the first Roman bishop to begin to exercise anything like the authority attributed to later popes, rejected the idea of a universal episcopal see.

So, it would seem to be essential to pay attention to what the Apostle Peter himself taught about the nature and life of the visible, institutional church. Further, the very fact that was obviously and vitally interested in the institutional church works against the hypothesis that apostolic era Christianity was dominated by an apocalyptic expectation and against the notion that the apostolic church was primarily (0r entirely) a spontaneous, kerygmatic, unstructured, pneumatic series of ad hoc gatherings. Peter here describes an office in the visible church instituted by Christ (see Matt 1613–20; 18:15–35, 28:18–20). Of course we see similar sorts of instruction from the Apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 4 and 5 where he gives instruction to pastor Timothy about elders and deacons. Whatever the Spirit was doing in the church in Corinth, he was operating in the midst of a sanctioned (if not always orderly) public worship service. In other words, in the New Testament, the Spirit is considered to act in and through institutions and offices.

We may be confident that Peter is not teaching any sort of apocalyptic theology if only because the entire expectation of this passage (as with the rest of 1 Peter) is that Christians are living in the interim between the ascension and return of Christ. The institutional church was not a pro tempore nor ad hoc response to the failure of Jesus to return. It was established by Christ even before his crucifixion (ergo, he was no failed apocalyptic preacher either).

As Peter writes to the churches in Asia Minor there are already elders among them. By this epistle he was in instituting them. There were elders in Israel (Ex 18:12; Josh 7:6; 1 Chr 11:3). We see elders active in the church in Acts (Acts 15:6, 23; 21:18). He writes here not to institute but to instruct the elders in the conduct of their ministry and he writes to them here not as a “bishop” but as a fellow elder (συμπρεσβύτερος). Further, when we see the English word “Bishop,” we should not assume that it meant in the first century AD or in the early post-apostolic church (i.e., 2nd and 3rd centuries AD) what it came to mean later. We should not import the later sense of “bishop” into the earlier uses. In second-century usage (e.g., Ignatius of Antioch) it typically means something like “senior pastor.” These were preaching ministers of the word. It seems to have this sense in Acts 20:28.

Another way in which Rome has corrupted the apostolic theology and practice is to suggest that ecclesiastical authority comes from God, through bishops, to presbyters etc. Peter knows nothing of such a monepiscopal hierarchy. Certainly ecclesiastical authority comes from God but all the biblical evidence is that it is mediated to the church through assemblies. In that sense the medieval conciliarists were correct. Peter does not speak to the church from on high but with the authority granted to him as a witness (μάρτυς) to Christ’s sufferings and as a partaker (κοινωνός) in the glory to come. Rome (and all who imitate her, whether health and wealth preachers or Anglo-Catholics) has it quite reversed. She has pomp and glory now. She has a theology of glory now. Peter’s order is just the opposite: cross now, glory later. The glory of which he is a sharer is “to be revealed” (μελλούσης ἀποκαλύπτεσθαι). The suffering Christ is our pattern. Jesus had promised Peter that he too would suffer (“This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God,” John 21:19) a martyr’s death. The testimony of the early church is that he died at the hands of the Roman pagans, crucified upside down.

v. 2: Shepherding Willingly
He does not exhort the elders here “to rule” but to “shepherd” (ποιμάνατε). Paul’s participle in 1 Timothy 5:17 (προεστῶτες) is translated “rule” by the ESV (and several other English versions) may be taken to mean “to lead” or “to manage.”  The imperative  here is metaphorical. People are not literally sheep but the congregation is to be regarded as a metaphorical flock of God (ποίμνιον τοῦ θεοῦ) and the elders and pastors are metaphorical shepherds. A literal shepherd uses a literal crook or staff. God’s Word is rod or staff used by the elders and ministers by which the people are protected and guided. Assuming that “overseeing,” (ἐπισκοποῦντες), which both the UBS and NA28 place in brackets is the correct reading, it is elders who exercise spiritual oversight. In other words, Peter does not envision a hierarchical office of “bishop” but rather a ministry shared by ministers and elders (which, again fits the pattern we see later in Ignatius). This care for Christ’s people is to be carried out not out of sense of mere duty (μὴ ἀναγκαστῶς) but willingly (ἑκουσίως), “according to God” (κατὰ θεόν). This construction is similar to the way he wrote in 4:6 “according to men in the flesh” (κατὰ ἀνθρώπους σαρκὶ) and “according to God in the Spirit” (κατὰ θεὸν πνεύματι). Presbyters are to exercise their office “according to God.”  The parallel antithesis is “not greedily (αἰσχροκερδῶς) but (προθύμως) willingly. Peter is concerned that some might serve not out of love for Christ and those for whom he died but out of desire for financial gain. Of course, we have seen this very corruption in the church over the centuries. It is an evil much to be avoided and eliminated when it is found.

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  1. I enjoyed your OPs on Gregory and the papacy, but I’m uncertain what you see as being at stake in them. Is there anything in them that you would consider to be an advance over past polemic about the man in white? Or are you addressing some Reformed crisis that I have not noticed– presbyteries submitting to a universal papal jurisdiction, or breaking up into independent congregations?

    The premises of the antiRoman-Roman positions were framed to be mutually preemptive, and so of course they are. Their neverending deadlock is a monument to the polemical skill of early modern controversialists, as satisfying in its way as good parade drill or a fife and drum corps. Like costumed reenactments of famous battles, they do no harm, but the stakes do not seem to be what they were when exiles returned from Geneva to England.

    And those who see in the NT a box chart, either Roman or Presbyterian or Congregational, to be followed until the end of time are unlikely to agree with those who instead see a seed that exfoliated, broke paganism, continues to grow, and occasionally gets tangled. Most ecclesiologists who suppose the historic episcopate today seem to be working from a position more supple and less Romanophile than that of the Anglo-Catholics of the century before last. It has a decidedly Eastern inspiration and takes seriously such documents as conciliar canons (esp 1 Nicaea 2) and the Apostolic Constitutions (esp 32). They are not unaware of arguments for the various Western box charts, but they feel consistent in accepting the basic order of the Church that recognized the canon of the NT.

    Karl Barth did not complete the ecclesiology of his Church Dogmatics, and some serious questions hang over what we have. But like him, I sense that criticism of the self-understanding and occasional claims of Rome is not a Protestant ecclesiology in itself, but is rather a promissory note that someday a good one will be written.

  2. Shared on Twitter – wonderful material. One note – your sentence “We should import the later sense of “bishop” into the earlier uses.” – should that have a “not” in it?

    Thanks doc.

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