I’ve been thinking a lot about Peter’s exhortation to church leaders in his first letter. Partly because I taught on the passage (1 Peter 5:1-4) almost exactly two years ago and partly because I’ve used it several times since as a passage to help teach young leaders how to study and preach through the scriptures. These four verses hold simple (albeit deep) exhortation for Christian leaders. Exhortations that are still as important and needed as they were nearly 2,000 years ago when they were written.
One of the values of the Calvary Chapel (the family of churches I grew up in) for the last five decades has been that of ‘servant leadership.’ This passage drills down into the topic in a great way and brings to the surface helpful points on how to lead well. Contained in this short paragraph are potentially dozens of helpful observations and correlations, but there are seven that I keep coming back to. None of them is earth-shattering or new. Each of them you may think, “Yeah, I knew that.” But if you meditate on them, and aim at putting them into practice, I think you’ll find them to be personally challenging.
Leaders Are Not Lords
“The elders who are among you I exhort“
Both the words “among” and “exhort” are a simple and important reminder of this key value for leadership. Jesus said, “You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you” (Mark 10:42-43). For decades the well known former pastor and leadership guru, John Maxwell has taught that “Leadership is influence.” In many ways that may be true. But one of the problems is that the word “influence” can be defined in several different ways. When I read “influence” I often think of an influential example. But I do so because I filter the word through the concept of servant leadership, as revealed in the scriptures. I define it in light of Peter’s later exhortation in this same passage to shepherd the flock of God, not “as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples.” The problem is that the top synonyms of “influence” in my computer’s dictionary and thesaurus are the following: “impact; control, sway, hold, power, authority, mastery, domination, supremacy; guidance, direction; pressure.” Yes, those who are considered leaders in this world do use influence in that way. But it shall not be so among you.
In Peter’s mind, the Christian leader is to be among the people they are serving. And they are not lords, but examples. Peter himself exercises this concept of leadership by saying to the church elders, “I exhort you.” The word “exhort” is the Greek word παρακαλέω (parakaleō). It’s a compound of the Greek preposition “para” and verb “kaleō.” Para means to be “by, beside or near,” and kaleō is the verb “to call.” So the concept is that of a coach or even a trainer. The trainer comes alongside the one they’re training and calls them to press on, follow or move ahead. This is not a power play, but an influential example. And looking at the landscape of the current cultural moment in the West, I’d say that this point alone could be really helpful. We’re living in a time at which almost weekly a new leader, be it in the political, academic, the arts, business or even the church sphere, is being brought down because of their inordinate use domination, pressure, and control over those that are under their authority. There’s entirely too much influence as lords, and it’s sadly evident in the church. How can the climate change? I suggest we learn the next important value from the text.
Leaders Must Maintain Humility
“The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder“
Peter was “a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed.” He spent more than three years with Jesus. He walked on water (Matthew 14:29). He saw Jesus glorified (Matthew 17:1-2). He witnessed the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. He was appointed as an apostle and commissioned to carry the Gospel to the uttermost parts. Be that as it may, he self-identified as a “fellow elder.” In Jesus’ exhortation to leaders quoted above, He went on to teach, whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all” (Mark 10:43-44). The culmination of the teaching would come one verse later when He would say, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” That all requires humility.
Humility seems to be a lost concept in our 21st-century American climate. It is certainly not highly valued in our day. The current leader of our own nation is a lot of things; humble does not appear to be one of them. In fact, I would say that a lot of his appeal, among his supporters during the 2016 campaign, was his pomposity. The way up in American culture over the last half-century (and probably much longer) has been to be the loudest, self-promoter in the crowd. The way up in the Kingdom of Christ is down. Jesus not only taught this, He lived it. Paul highlights this truth when he writes:
“Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name.”
– Philippians 2:5-9
Paul gave this example to illustrate his own exhortation, “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests but also for the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4). The early apostles all agreed; the way up is down. James wrote, “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up” (James 4:10). Therefore would Jesus say, “whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant;” which leads to the next important value from 1 Peter 5.
The Greatest Leaders are Great Servants
“Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers”
As if this weren’t already clear from the previously quoted exhortation and example of Jesus in Mark 10, Peter picks up the theme again. Here we are given three important keys of service in these twelve words.
First, we serve in this work as overseers. The New International Version (NIV) speaks of taking care of this ministry, by “watching over” it.
Second, we serve as stewards. This ministry we are given to care for by oversight is entrusted to us as stewards. We are watching over a work and ministry that is not ultimately ours. Leaders (especially Christian leaders within a church context) must take care not to be ensnared by the trap of thinking that the work entrusted to them is their own personal possession. Those snared in this trap quickly find themselves in danger of seeking dishonest gains from the work under their care.
Third, our service is to steward and watch over God’s flock, as shepherds. The word “shepherds” here is the verb form of the noun translated “pastors” in Ephesians 4:11. This is why so many Christian leaders have opted to use the title Pastor in the work they are appointed to. But where did Peter come up with such an idea or concept of service as shepherds over God’s flock? That’s exactly what Christ commissioned him to.
Even a hurried reading of the Gospels makes clear that Peter was all but overcome by shame after his three-time denial of Christ on the night of His arrest. But after His resurrection, Jesus sought Peter out to restore and commission him for service. In John 21 we are invited to witness the restoration and reappointment. Three times Jesus asks, “Peter, do you love me?” To which Peter responds, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” Following Peter’s three responses Jesus says, “Feed My lambs,” “Tend My sheep,” and “Feed My sheep.”
Now though there is disagreement among some scholars and commentators, I think the dialog in the original (Greek) text is truly enlightening. The first two times Jesus asks Peter “do you love me with a self-sacrificing devotion” (Greek agapaō)? Peter basically responds, “Yes Lord, I love you like a brother” (Greek phileō). The third time Jesus seems to come down to Peter’s level asking him, “Do you love me like a brother” (Greek phileō)? Peter is grieved by the third inquiry. I may be reading into the passage, but it is almost as if Jesus says, “Do you really phileō Me? And it’s the third time! Previously Peter had denied Jesus in response to three different inquiries. But the nuance of the language isn’t what is actually interesting to me about the passage.
What is striking to me is that the level of your devotion—total self-sacrificing devotion verses strong affection—it doesn’t matter where the call and commission of Jesus is concerned. Perhaps you’re not completely ready to give up all to follow and serve Christ, but you are a committed follower. The assignment is the same: Feed and tend My lambs! This leads to a very simple conclusion.
The greatest leadership qualification and quality is love
Of course, Jesus’ ideal, as revealed by His inquisition of Peter, is that agapē love would be at the heart of a leader. This is the love described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13. It is a love that is patient, kind, humble, honoring of others, selfless, mild and forgiving. I don’t care if you’re a leader in business, government, a classroom, the church or just your home. If your leadership is characterized by this kind of love, then you will grow in influence and stature as a leader. And I think it is absolutely true, if you are a loving leader, you will be a loved leader. Moreover, if you this important quality is at the heart of your leadership then the next important point in this text.
Leaders are compelled by love to serve willingly
“not by compulsion but willingly”
We are not drafted or forced into this service. Though some of the apostles referred to themselves as “slaves of Christ,” they were actually bondservants. That is, they were servants by choice, not by force. In one of his letters, Paul writes, “For the love of Christ compels us.” His love is that which was demonstrated by His death on the cross. And that love, when properly understood, should increase our love for Him, which in turn should compel our love for others in very practical and Christlike ways.
In 1 Peter 5, the apostle goes on to say, “not for dishonest gain.” Another English translation says, “not for filthy lucre.” The Christian leader does not occupy the role for what they can get out of it. Though sadly it is clear that some have. The Christian leader is compelled by love to serve willingly. And those that fill the office of leader should do so recognizing the next truth in the passage.
Leadership is a stewardship
“nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock”
Jesus said “Feed My lambs,” “Tend My sheep,” and “Feed My sheep.” The “flock” is God’s flock; the sheep of His pasture. Any role of oversight and leadership that the Christian leader holds is as a manager and steward of another’s possession. We quickly find ourselves drifting into dangerous territory when we begin to see the position as our possession. As stated previously, leaders are not lords. Those who rule as barons over their plot have forgotten the exhortation to shepherd the flock of God which is among them as servants. But those who recognize the importance of leadership as a stewardship will be good examples to the flock, and they will realize the final point of the passage.
Faithful stewards will be rewarded
“when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away.”
Though we’re exhorted to serve willingly and not for dishonest gain, there is no problem with serving to obtain the honest gain of the eternal crown of glory. Paul wrote, “Run in such a way that you may obtain the prize.” And this text makes very clear that we should lead in such a way that we receive the reward in glory.
As I said previously, none of these things is earth-shatteringly new. Each is rather clearly presented in the Scripture. But when applied as a whole, they produce leaders and organizations that are