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.


  1. Hey John, this is an interesting post. I have some questions that come to mind. What do you infer from the words, “you who are younger, be subject to the elders,” and how does this square with the thought that elders are not actual office-bearers but simply older and/or mature believers? To me it presupposes—at least seemingly—a hierarchical authority within the body, even if only related to age and/or maturity. I would also add that, in the broader context of the whole section, Peter’s mention of him being a fellow elder, witness, and partaker, seems like an appeal he is making to buttress his exhortation. In other words, it looks like he is saying, “On the basis of my being an elder, witness, and partaker, I now exhort you to this duty which you have.” To shepherd and exercise oversight also seems to imply an authority structure, for what is a shepherd but one over the sheep, and what is it to exercise oversight but to be an overseer, to be over others—and how can you be over others in any meaningful way without also being among them? When I look at Christ, I certainly see both; he was over yet among them. This is just some food for thought. I enjoy your writing.

    1. Hey Cody, thanks for stopping by to the narrow corner of the blogosphere where few tread, yet I can still work out my thoughts with fear and trembling. Let me first say that I don’t want to be arrogant enough to presume I have the whole nature of ecclesiastical authority worked out, but I am attempting to move through it slowly. So slow in fact that I stopped looking at 1 Peter 5 and moved over to 1 Peter 2:25 to think through what it means that Jesus is the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls, before I can understand what 1 Peter 5:2 means. So that said, I haven’t moved down to the verse you mentioned 1 Peter 5:5 just yet.

      Still, I’ll try to offer some thoughts. It’s a long response because I’m working through it as I write.

      First, on the surface, it would seem that the statement, “you who are younger,” lends itself to the idea that eldership, at least in part, has age in view – whatever that might be – and again I think we could argue maturity is included in that, since younger (neos) means recently born, young, youthful, new. So it seems this at least squares with my understanding above with what the term elder means and implies.

      Now, what do we make of just two categories mentioned here, younger and older? The juxtaposition of the two groups assumes, I think, one of two things, either Younger is an office (which some have concluded means deacons) AND Elders are an office or neither are referring to ecclesiastical offices. I’m not sure I could make a reasonable defense of the first option, so my view is that it is not a reference to ecclesiastical offices. If this is the case, then either Peter is highlighting a specific problem between the group of youngers and the group of olders, without much concern for the middle group, OR this is a general statement with regard to those who are immature/younger in the faith and those who are more mature/older in the faith.

      But what do we do with the sticky “be subject”? Regardless of whether we are talking about ecclesiastical offices or just a group of more mature believers within the ekklesia, doesn’t this imply authority, hierarchy, and/or subordination? I believe that is your question. As I alluded to in the post, this section is framed by two large themes in the book, Suffering and Submission, so I would interpret this command to submission in light of the book’s entire context.

      Submission in 1 Peter is a big subject, it occurs in chapter 2 twice, 2:13 and 2:18, with the first usage a reference to government submission and second with a reference to servants and masters, with Christ being the exemplar for submission unto death (suffering) in the latter part of the chapter. 1 Peter 2:13 introduces the subject of subjection (see what I did there!), with the little word “Therefore”. In essence, all that came before in Peter’s exhortation to the believers prepares them for this “therefore”. Despite their circumstances of suffering, Peter calls them to persevere, he arrives at therefore, submit to every ordinance. Next, in chapter 3 we see the call to submission of wives to husbands 3:1, 3:5 and angels, authorities, and powers 3:22, this latter use by way concluding another section on the sufferings of Christ. Then the final example in 5:5. Summarizing these sections, and I guess the whole book, in the face of suffering and persecution, isolation and marginalization, maintain:
      The civil government structure/relationship
      The social structure/relationship
      The marital structure/relationship
      The ecclesiastical structure/relationship

      Now before we run off with this, we need to unpack what this ecclesiastical structure/relationship is. Is it like a citizen to its government? A slave to a master? A wife to a husband? Well no. Neither would we say a wife is like a slave or a citizen like a wife. Each are different relational arrangements, therefore individual pictures of submissions.

      To reiterate, I have not worked down through this verse yet (I guess I’m doing that now), but looking at it this evening, something interesting appeared. The ESV reads as follows:

      “5 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.”

      While the NKJV reads:

      “5 Likewise you younger people, submit yourselves to your elders. Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for

      “God resists the proud,
      But gives grace to the humble.””

      In the NKJV, we see a call for mutual submission, i.e. not only do we see the younger’s submitting to the older’s, but we see a call for universal submission within the Christian community- for all to be submissive to each other. Even though this is a textual variant, I find it interesting and persuasive nonetheless. I’m not equipped to determine its validity, but I’m also not going to easily dismiss it, particularly given that the exact same statement appears in the exact same context in Ephesians 5:21. If we dismiss it, giving priority to the ESV, it’s no less striking in the demand for mutual humility within the relationship.

      Nevertheless, let’s move on to the meaning of “be subject”. Our normal, at least mine, understanding of subjection immediately draws my mind to a King and his subjects, but that does not appear to be in view here. A good corrective to my default understanding of “be subject”, and I think that is found in verse 3, “not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” Whatever we conclude the inference of “be subject” to be in this passage, it can’t be one of a master, and since my hand is already tipped, it can’t be an authoritarian position either. Further, the contrast here is not good rule vs. bad rule, rather the contrast is rule vs. be an example. The word for domineering over is probably a poor translation, it implies bad rule, when actually what’s being communicated here is an emphasis on rule – katakyrieuo. Again, the contrast is NOT between those who domineer and those who rule well (1 Tim. 5:17), the contrast is between ruling and being an example. (See also Matthew 20:20-28 and 23:1-12.) Likewise, this pattern of being an example is found throughout Pauline letters, as I’m sure you know. Much more could be said here.

      Next, what exactly is meant by “be subject” or hypotasso ? We have already seen above, as in Ephesians 5:21, that submission does not necessarily imply a position, power, or authority. Given the nature of what’s been said above, I think that holds true here as well (particularly in light of the NKJV on 1 Peter 5:5). BDAG describes hypotasso in this verse as, “submission in the sense of voluntary yielding in love.” This seems consistent with the blog post where throughout various cultures the idea of “respect your elders” is in view. What is being described here is simply the recognition that the older, more mature believer in Christ is worthy of deference.

      Third, be subject in what way to the elders? In what matters? In all things? Perhaps hold to their interpretation of Scripture in an unquestioning manner? So if they’re dispensational premill, out of submission we just go along? No, I don’t think so (yes that’s an absurd example). Interestingly, in this passage we do not have any mention of teaching, preaching, or communication of any kind really. What we do have is character, however, and we do have that the elders are supposed to be an example. If we view this as an ecclesiastical position, then the submission is either 1. To the office or 2. To the person by means of the office. What I am saying is that this submission, this yielding out of love is not tied to a position, but it is given because it is earned and recognized and their is an example worthy of following and yielding to.

      I think we both understand what this looks like. For me, I remember being a part of a bible study, led by an older, more mature brother in Christ. There were multiple times in the study where, in my youth, I would get frustrated with some of the things that were being communicated, which sounded either dispensational, or premillennialism, etc. In my youthful zeal, I would vent all the way home, meanwhile God was gracious enough to keep me submissive to the “elder”. As it turns out, this was a measure of humility. What good would it have done to either interrupt or confront over a difference of opinion on a non-central issue such as that to a man who had studied the issues far longer than I had and had certainly encountered greater objections than I would bring. He held no ecclesiastical office, but it was evident that he was living a pattern of life pleasing to God and providing an example that had earned my submission. Perhaps you have had similar occasions.

      The category of elders is widely disputed and there is as much disagreement over them as there are eschatological views. Case in point, simply observe how different they are viewed among Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Baptists: Plural Elder Rule, Single Elder Rule, Congregationalism. I think this summary explanation would actually diminish the false and arbitrary walls between each of these denominations over this issue.

      Elders are leaders, but they are not leading from top-down, they’re leading from out in front, just like a shepherd. That out-front leading is by means of their example in living out and applying God’s Word in wisdom to first their own lives and then to the lives of others. This leading does not imply an ecclesiastical office or authority by means of a position, in fact just the opposite. Genuine Christian leadership isn’t ruling or driving its leading and those who lead are simply following the leadership of Christ. Who, by the way, does exercise Lordship. I’ll dive more fully into shepherd/overseer at another time.

      P.s. I would think if Peter wanted to appeal to authority in order to motivate the elders to action, he would have appealed to Apostolic authority. Instead, he appealed to his commonality among the elders, not over them but equal among them.

      P.s.s. I disagree with the clergy – lay distinction, perhaps obviously. This disagreement is due largely to the priesthood of believers, interestingly enough, established in 1 Peter 2:4-10. This Reformation Rediscovery, in my humble opinion, has been largely misapplied. I believe that my exegesis in the post and this comment is consistent with the priesthood of believers and the disavowal of the clergy – lay distinction.

      Grace and peace brother, thanks for always being a model of humility.

      1. You are certainly thinking through this more than I am, and it shows. Unfortunately, being that I believe the bible, I simply cannot submit to dispensationalism! Thank you for your detailed response. I have much to chew on, and perhaps we can talk more about this Friday. One point I’d like to clarify: I did not intend to intimate that Peter’s appeal to authority was made in order to motivate to action; rather, that it was the basis (or buttress) of his exhortation. Please excuse me if I was unclear. This may seem like a distinction without a difference. Maybe it is. I think the NIV expresses this well: “To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care…” Maybe another good question to ask is, is Peter giving a command? If so, does this necessarily imply authority? I would think yes, but I am open to hearing more. Admittedly, I haven’t studied the book or noted the larger context, which inevitably puts me at a disadvantage. You are a thoughtful student and handler of the Word, and I sincerely admire that. It is a profitable challenge to me.

        1. Hah, it wasn’t actually dispensationalism that I was hearing. My youthful zeal led me to believe it was. There are many faithful men who have held to it though that I have and still could learn alot from, men who are far better than the system they espouse. As long as they hold to the gospel, there’s something to learn.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: