"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 to be revealed. Tend the flock of God that is your charge, not by constraint but willingly, not for shameful gain but eagerly, not as domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock" (1 Peter 5:1-3). *
The risen Jesus thrice commanded Peter to feed His sheep (see John 21:15-17). The apostle in turn passed the command on to the elders in the church of every generation, including ours. As a pastor I find in this charge a prudent delineation of a ministerial ethic that defines the pastor's calling, commission, motivation, and leadership style.
Peter's charge is given to the elders. Elder is a title of honor with a history that goes back to Moses. When the burdens of leading Israel became too heavy, Moses appointed 70 elders upon whom God placed His Spirit (see Num. 11:16- 30). In the life of the covenant people, we find elders as friends of the prophets (see 2 Kings 6:32), counselors to the kings (see 1 Kings 20:8), dispensers of justice at the city gate (see Deut. 25:7), and later leaders of the synagogue and overseers of community discipline. The apostolic church used the term to describe church leadership (see Acts 14:23; 1 Tim. 5:17; Titus 1:5). The book of Revelation places 24 elders around the heavenly throne.
A word with such a rich history, when used to identify the Christian minister, underscores the gravity and responsibility of the position of the pastor, both lay and ordained. Whether the term elder was used to denote the leader of a local congregation or one with a wider and global responsibility, wherever the term appears in the New Testament there is a spirit of seriousness and solemnity. Even though the appointment may come from human hands, the office is to be perceived as proceeding from a divine calling. As if to emphasize the divine nature of the call to ministry, Peter anchors his eldership to history and hope. The anchor in history is that he "was a witness of the sufferings of Christ" (1 Peter 5:1). Even though that witness was marred by a threefold denial, the apostle affirms that the grace of Christ was exceedingly good and powerful not only to forgive him but to call him as an elder to feed His lambs. A pastor is made of clay, but has the opportunity to transcend that clay and be molded into an instrument of divine ministry to sinful mortals.
If the historic anchor of the cross gave Peter the call to be a minister, the anchor of hope provided him the momentum to press forward with his flock to that soon coming day when the Chief Shepherd Himself will place "the unfading crown of glory" (verse 4) on His faithful servants. Thus the sacredness and the seriousness of the call to ministry arise from an encounter with Jesus of Calvary and a commitment to await His return.
The call to ministry is meaningless without its accompanying commission: "tend the flock of God that is your charge." The flock is God's, and not the shepherd's. Therefore, fellow shepherds, let us beware! It is not given for the shepherds from their vantage point of power and position to manipulate, to violate, to use the sheep under their charge. How often ministry suffers public shame and ridicule because pastors assume such a role and exploit their members in areas in which members are so easily vulnerable: money, sex, and intellectual, spiritual, or emotional areas of dependency.
The metaphor of a shepherd and a sheep is not intended to convey the image of wisdom over stupidity, power over weakness, order over chaos, certainty over helplessness; for in the arena of the flock of God, both shepherd and sheep are made of the same substance, and therefore it behooves the shepherd to watch out against the perils of abusive power. The metaphor is meant to urge a relationship of love and care that the shepherd is to have toward the sheep: to nourish with proper diet, to protect from enemies with adequate security, to heal the hurting, to lead them all toward the final home, and to love with the risk of the ultimate cost.
To be an under-shepherd, to function as the representative of the One who said, "I am the good shepherd" (John 10:11), is, therefore, no mean task. It demands our utmost love for the sheep within the fold, for the sheep without a Shepherd, and for those all too many sheep that insist on also being their own shepherd while grazing in the prodigal land.
But Christian shepherding insists on its own motivation and high standards. The big fisherman understood that and charged the elders to "tend the flock of God . .. not by constraint but willingly, not for shameful gain but eagerly." The pastoral ethic demands an absolute willingness to serve. There is no coercion in ministry, except the kind experienced by Paul ("For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!" [1 Cor. 9:16]), and Jeremiah ("His word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay," [Jer. 20:9, KJV]).
An inner constraint of love, an eradication of self in order to recognize the needs of others, an absolute commitment to the Christ who had compassion on the lost of this world—these are the stuff out of which a willing ministry is made. Theological acumen, pulpit dynamics, persuasive techniques, emotional tenderness, personal charm, and even brilliant ability to handle Scripture don't make a minister. Nor can all the powers of ecclesiastic authority constrain or con spire to produce a caring shepherd.
Caring shepherds are not bought or sold. They are not hirelings, out to make quick money. While the command stands that "those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel" (1 Cor. 9:14), one cannot remain in the ministry "for shameful gain." The recent televangelist scams in accumulating personal wealth in the name of proclaiming the Word is a warning that a clean heart cannot exist without a clean hand. To be a shepherd is to be a steward, and a good steward's first question is not "What's in it for me?" but rather "What should I do to tend the flock of God?" A perennial temptation in ministry is to convert the flock of God into a personal empire of pride and achievement, marked by politics of prestige, popularity, and power. Peter's pastoral ethic warns against such empire building; instead it invites the minister to serve "eagerly," suffer if necessary the perils of the immediate, and lovingly serve in anticipation of the "unfading crown of glory."
The only cure for the malignancy of shameful gain is radical surgery: the removal of self as a life priority in order that the Chief Shepherd's charge to tend the flock may be carried out without interruption or indifference. Such a surgical process will result in a new leader ship style in the pastor: "not as domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock."
Was it Disraeli who said, "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely"? Of course, he was speaking about the world of politics, but the world of the preacher is no different. Indeed, here it is even more dangerous. When ministry that is meant to be an instrument of grace and mercy turns itself into a seat of arrogance and dominance, when ministers who speak from the pulpit about the Christ who took the towel in His hand and bore the marks of humiliation on His body act in private as purveyors of tyranny and injustice, when ministry fails to make a distinction between a mission ary and a mercenary, watch out: we have a leadership style contrary to what Peter is affirming.
Peter's ministerial ethic is not against authority. Tending the flock of God re quires the strong hand of authority and the discipline of an organization; but authority does not mean domination, and organization does not mean the violation of the personhood of a fellow-member of the body of Christ. "It shall not be so among you," said the chief Shepherd (Mark 10:43), warning His disciples that lording it over is not His model of leadership.
Servanthood is thus the key to Christian ministerial ethic. Where there is the spirit of service, there can be no violation of the other and no trespassing into for bidden zones of any type. Instead, servanthood drives a minister to be an example to the flock, and enables him or her to say with integrity: "Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ" (1 Cor. 11:1, KJV).
* Except as otherwise noted, all Scripture passages in this article are from the Revised Standard Version.