The Identification of Elders

Recently, while reading through the book of 1 Peter, I re-encountered a familiar passage linked to the passage from Ephesians 4, which we worked through in an earlier post. Both passages are often used as support for various ecclesiastical, i.e. church, offices. The 1 Peter passage under our consideration today is cited below, from the ESV

So 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: shepherd 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; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.Likewise, 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

The context for this passage is framed by the central themes of the letter, suffering and submission in this present world following after the example of Christ. The relationship between this chapter and the remainder of the book appears to be Christian suffering in community and that within this community there are those who perform certain God-ordained functions to help guide and navigate the Christian community through suffering. With that, we follow Peter’s path in addressing the elders of his audience, those among the “elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia.” In other words, it would seem that this particular letter would have been a general Christian letter circulated throughout the region.

The opening phrase of this passage is significant for following the author’s logic throughout the entire section. First, as we’ve just noted, the letter is addressed to the entire scattered Christian community throughout Asia Minor, but this particular exhortation is towards the elders among you. Elder, presbuteros, is an adjective that in nearly every one of its 67+ uses in the New Testament simply means older. It can be masculine or feminine or simply refer generically to older people, depending on the context. (Please note the noun form occurs in Luke 1:18, Philippians 1:9, and Titus 2:2.) Depending on the context, elder could mean physically older or it could mean spiritually mature. Given this range, it’s certainly possible and maybe even preferable that both are generally in view. In other words, an elder in the Christian context is typically an older believer that is more spiritually mature. We might even say a seasoned veteran of living the Christian life or one who has seniority, a sage.

The concept of elder is not unique to Christianity. It was evident in Israel under the leadership of Moses and while Judaism became more secularized by the first century, elders still had a role in the community (see primarily the Gospels and Acts). Even today in Western culture we understand the meaning of “Respect your elders” or “Listen to your elders” without implying any notion of religious office. More modernly, we use language like senior citizen, elderly, or less politically correct, gray hairs (note this actually is the implication behind the meaning of presbuteros).

In our context, the elders – these older, mature believers – are among the body, not over the body. This is significant, as we will see. The Christian community ground is level and among the many are the elders. While leadership is certainly important, it is a horizontal leadership, rather than a a vertical or top-down leadership (our vertical leadership, if you will, comes from Christ alone). It is a believer who is further along on his journey, not one who is elevated above the rest. This simple phrase undercuts any notion of a clergy-lay distinction and most certainly authoritarianism, as we will see. Instead, it corresponds with Peter’s prior assertion of the priesthood of all believers

you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

1 Peter 2:5

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 

1 Peter 2:9

Given this, we may remind ourselves of the role that priests held within Israel, primarily the mediation of the people to God, essentially, access to God was through the priests. Similarly, within the priesthood of believers, a subject we will venture into with more depth in the future, there is an obvious relationship with the Old Testament priesthood, but today there are no Aaron’s, no Levi’s, no high priests that rule over a lay class of priests. There is Christ the High Priest, after the order of Melchizedek no less, and then there are all those who by means of His finished work on the cross, resurrection, and ascension to the right hand of the Father, are now serving as a royal priesthood, literally king-priests, in His service with open access to God on the basis of Christ alone.

With the addressee of this exhortation established, Peter shifts to a word concerning his own status within the Christian community. He refers to himself as

  • A fellow elder – present
  • A witness of Christ’s sufferings (thematic link) – past
  • A partaker of the glory to be revealed – future

Each statement appears to carry with it a time element. In other words, he is presently a fellow elder alongside those whom he is exhorting; he has previously been witness to the sufferings of Christ; and he carries an expectation, even now as he partakes, in the future glory to be revealed in Christ.

This brings up an interesting question, is Peter an elder by virtue of his apostleship or by means of his maturity in the faith?

From here, he shifts to the heart of his exhortation that he has for the elders, centered around two action statements or functions, which are to be performed by those who are older, more spiritually mature, and wise among them. These two functions are to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you” and “exercising oversight”.

Before jumping into the details of these individual functions expected of the older ones, we need first to mention the prior use of both shepherd and oversight/overseer in Peter’s letter, both of which were used in the noun form and both of which refer to the Lord Jesus Christ.

For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

1 Peter 2:25

This prior use establishes the office and the pattern. Who holds these offices? Jesus. How are the elders among you supposed to function? After the example of Jesus. Does this imply that they are office holders as well? Many have made that connection, however in this particular passage it is clear that Jesus holds the titles and His servants perform the functions as given to them. In the next post, we’ll take time to unpack what these functions are and practically what they look like when operating within a body of believers.

Note: there are other essential passages used to support eldership, namely 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9 (arguably Acts 20:28 as well), but for our purposes here, we are focusing on the passage from 1 Peter.

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