The NIV is missing a key word in verse 1: “Therefore.” It is time for judgment to begin with the house of God, suffering is coming to separate the wheat from the weeds—therefore, Peter says, I appeal to every elder in the church. What he’s going to say would be true and important regardless, but when times are peaceful, the church can survive, and sometimes grow, even under un-Christlike leaders. It may not be all that strong spiritually, but competence in worldly matters can at least keep it muddling along. When suffering and judgment loom on the horizon, that’s no longer the case, and the need becomes critical for those who lead the church to do so as Christ does.
Note how Peter frames his appeal to church leaders. He doesn’t say, “I appeal to you as an apostle,” putting himself above them and asserting his authority. He could have, as he established that in the very first line of the letter, but he doesn’t. Instead, he says, “I appeal to you as a fellow elder,” putting himself on the same level as them. What matters isn’t positional authority—I have this position or this office, so I have the right to instruct you or to give you orders. What matters is their common position under authority, as servants of Christ and his church. This is important: Peter is modeling for these elders the attitude he wants them to have toward their churches.
He’s calling them to turn away from their culture’s common understanding of leadership, which Jesus summarizes aptly. “Those whom the Gentiles regard as their rulers lord it over them, and their high officials make them feel the weight of their authority.” It was all about positional authority with them: my position gives me the right to get what I want, to have things my way, and to force you to comply. It’s the leadership approach we saw with the President five years ago when he met with Republican leaders to discuss his proposed economic stimulus plan. When they started pushing him to structure it differently, he responded, “I won.” I won, I’m the guy who has the desk with the red phone on it, so I get to do things my way. I don’t have to listen to you if I don’t want to.
Now, this is not to say that just because Republicans disagreed with him, the President should have given in. There will always be disagreement, and leaders have the responsibility to chart the best course they can according to their best judgment, not to try to make everyone happy. You can’t make everyone happy, and if you try, all you’ll manage to do is jam the rudder. The problem is the attitude: I won, you lost, so either go along with me or go fly a kite. There’s no humility in that, no respect for those who disagree, and thus no willingness to learn anything from them. Indeed, there’s no sense that there might be anything to learn from them. The assumption is, “I have the authority, therefore I have the right, therefore I amright.”
Peter tells us that in Christ, we need to lead very differently: we need to lead as shepherds. We tend to collapse the shepherding metaphor into pastoral care—which then often means we only apply it to pastors, and let the rest of the elders of the church off the hook. Peter’s point is much bigger. Shepherds put their lives at the disposal of the sheep. They lead the sheep, but they don’t set the agenda—the sheep do. The sheep are concerned about having good grass, good water, and a safe place to lie down, and they aren’t going to change that for anybody. The shepherd leads the sheep, but that only means his job is to figure out how to get the sheep where they need to be, and then to do what it takes to make that happen. If that means going without sleep to find a missing lamb, he goes without sleep. If it means risking his life to protect them, then so be it.
The shepherd is entirely the servant of his sheep, with no hope that they will accommodate his wishes, or let him get comfortable, or even express proper appreciation for all his sacrifice on their behalf. They’ll certainly complain if they don’t like the grass or the water, but they aren’t going to tell him he’s wonderful when he leads them to good pastures. They won’t make him rich, either, because most of them aren’t his sheep; one or two may be, but the rest belong to someone else, and so too will the profit. He’s just a laborer working for his daily bread.
Peter speaks to us as a fellow elder—as one who knows this work from the inside out. As a fellow elder, he tells those of us who are elders that this is who we are and how we’re called to lead. This is the model for anyone who would lead the people of God, no matter who you are. If it was true for Peter, who had about as much claim to importance as anyone in the history of the church, it’s true for all the rest of us. As Jesus said, the world thinks leaders are people who exercise power to make things happen the way they want them to happen, but those who would lead his people must be a very different kind of leader, with a very different heart and mindset.
If you want to be a leader in the church, you need to be all about serving others—not putting yourself first, but putting yourself last. Leadership means laying down your life for the church. And note this: this is addressed to us to apply to ourselves. As leaders, we have the responsibility to convict ourselves before we presume to criticize others, and to challenge ourselves harder than anyone else.
Thus Peter tells us how and why one ought to be an elder in the church: not out of any sort of compulsion, not for money, not to dominate others or serve our own agenda, but freely, out of a desire to serve and bless the church as a whole. In this, he says, we are to be examples to those whom we lead. I’ve talked about this before: this is the heart of Christian leadership. The essence of the calling is to say to the church with Paul in 1 Corinthians 11, “Follow me as I follow Christ.” This is critically important because of what we’ve seen all the way through 1 Peter: being a Christian doesn’t just mean following a different set of rules from the world, it means we have a whole new identity apart from the world, because we are now in Christ. This isn’t something you can just explain to people; they have to be able to see it lived out if they’re going to understand it. It has to be modeled. It can’t be taught unless it’s also caught.
The church is the body of Christ, alive by the life of Christ, who came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life for us. He calls us to live as a people who do everything we do not to be served but to serve, and to give our lives for others—for enemies and opponents as much as for friends and family. This means that the primary duty of elders is to be examples of the life of Christ, who came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life for us. To lead as servants isn’t a strategy, or a method, or a program, it’s the essence of the work of Christian leadership, because we can only teach others to live this way if we’re living this way ourselves.