Who comes to mind when you think of a great leader? Could it be a uniter, like Abraham Lincoln? A model of compassion, like Mother Teresa? Or, a motivator and teacher, like our own (here in Wisconsin!) Vince Lombardi?
The Apostle Peter’s letter 1 Peter is about experiencing God’s grace in the midst of suffering. Prominent themes include rejoicing, But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed (4.13); judgment, For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God (4.17); and, humility, Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good (4.19). The letter, likely written in 63/64 AD and to churches founded by associates of the Apostle Paul in northern Asia Minor (Turkey today), was penned by Peter amidst Nero’s persecution. Nero’s purge of the early Christians had, very probably, taken Paul’s life. Who will lead the churches now? Peter wrote to address the consternation and fear of these churches.
In this critical juncture, Peter talks about leading and following. He exhorts elders first, then followers, as “a fellow elder,” as a “witness of the sufferings of Christ” and as a “partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed” (5.1). How strange. He might have mentioned that he had observed Jesus in His glory at the transfiguration. Or, he could have brought up the bit about his being given the “keys to the kingdom” (Matt 16.19) that indicated leadership in the early church. Instead, Peter speaks language of co-leadership with the rising generation of Christ-followers, and the language of witnessing Jesus in His humiliation, and the language of future glory.
And what about Peter’s witness to Christ’s sufferings? Was Peter a good witness? Hardly … He denied Christ three times and ran away, remember? Oh, but then Peter was restored. “Tend my sheep” (John 21, three times). It’s this picture of the humbled, restored, refined-by-suffering, and zealous for future grace servant that becomes Peter’s picture of the ideal church leader.
Peter’s instruction to appointed leaders being refined by trouble is to pastor God’s people (:1-4). These elders are to be those who lead the church through this time of humiliation between Christ’s two comings. They’re to serve “freely,” not as those who have gotten their arms twisted, so that they serve grudgingly. They’re to serve “eagerly,” not as those looking out for their own interests. And, they’re to model Christ, not domineering over those in their charge. Those who serve well receive the “unfading crown of glory” (5.4) at the appearing of the chief Shepherd, Jesus Himself.
Such an appeal cuts against much “wisdom” of our day. Often, we default to what we know best. As churches grow, we tend to replicate the corporate character many of us know from the work week: pastor as CEO, elders as a board of directors, associates as middle-managing project managers, membership as shareholders, unbelieving community members as customers. Such a business model is not in keeping with Peter’s exhortation. Instead, elders are pastors who shepherd the church through humility now, but toward the future glory of the Great Shepherd. Our profit and bottom-line are different. We’re to speak and think the currency of humility.
What about followers? Peter’s instruction to those following appointed leaders being refined by trouble is to follow with humility (:5a). Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders.
Why would those “younger” need a special word? Children can learn, through discipline, that they’re to respect and obey their mothers. And, cheeky disrespect from children should be met, probably, by a strong response from their fathers. This is because their fathers see a different side of things. Their fathers know, among other things, just how hard the child’s mother is working. The fathers appreciate—better than the child will ever imagine, until he is a parent himself—all the unique tensions of parenting through which his wife, the child’s mother, must navigate.
So it is in the church. Peter found occasion to address younger people, because they often don’t appreciate the tensions of leading people in the unique community that will be each church. Problems must be “pastored” through. While a board room (or the Oval Office today) might be a place to say, “You’re fired!”, this won’t be how the local church is run. Decisions will be made, but often “success” will be found only by coming out united on the other side. Progress like this will be made slowly, and with humility.
Peter ends his exhortations with a general word. Cloth yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (5.5). Peter’s instruction to everyone is to humble themselves before God till Christ lifts them up. Followers are not told when they will be lifted up. In this life? Maybe. In the life to come? Certainly. Important is that such a “lifting up” will come about through imitation of humbled, refined-by-suffering leaders who themselves have learned to imitate Christ.
So, who is your picture of a great leader now?
Find someone you can talk to about leading and following from 1 Peter 5.1-7. Discuss the following questions.
What character qualities does Peter state are most important in a church leader?
Why should church leaders receive special honor? (1 Tim 5.17-19 and Heb 13.7 also address this question.)
What are some ways that you can protect the reputation of those in leadership in your church?
How is the local church unlike a a business or any other kind of organization?