1 Peter 5: Presbyter and Episcopate


Throughout his letter, Peter had spoken of the glorious privilege and blessing of salvation, -and- the glorious privilege and blessing of suffering. Living in the Spirit of Christ simply would entail suffering—it had for Jesus, and it certainly would for any person who put their faith in Jesus and followed in Jesus’ footsteps. But we are not without recourse, Peter might have said. We have Jesus’ example, we have his Spirit, we have his help, and his glory will be revealed in us, in the situation, and one day when he returns.

Paul had so far talked about the suffering that comes from living honorably in a world that rejects God. Then, suffering that comes from persecution, suffering as purification and sanctification, suffering as a seal of the authenticity of being joined to Christ. Now, Paul would write about suffering that comes in service to God, among God’s people.

Definition of Leadership

Peter made his appeal not as an apostle—though certainly he could have done—but rather as a fellow elder and as one who had not only witnessed Jesus’ death but also his resurrection. He described himself as one who participates in the glory to be revealed, looking forward to Christ being revealed on earth in them, and also at Jesus’ second coming.

Everything Peter had written about so far applied to every believer, everywhere. But now Peter wanted to address those who took on the particular work of teaching and pastoring among the brothers and sisters.

Therefore, elders, I encourage you all, [as one who is] a co-elder and witness of Christ’s suffering, and one [who is a] partaker in the glory about to be revealed:

Tend as a shepherd [graze] the flock of God among you,

Visit and observe [as a physician would]

Not by constraint, but rather willingly according to God,

Nor for filthy lucre’s sake, but rather eagerly,

Nor as ones who exercise dominion over the inheritances [those who have an inheritance in the kingdom of God], but rather as ones who are becoming examples of the flock—

1 Peter 5:1-3 (my translation)

Pagan Christianity

I translated these verses myself because I could not find a translation that departed from the culturally laden definitions of “presbyter” and “episkapo.” In fact, before I read “Pagan Christianity,” I had no idea there even were definitions that preceded the church’s meaning of “Presbyter” and “Episcopate”!

When I looked up the definitions of the words Peter wrote, in several Greek lexicons, it became clear that Peter was not using terms that implied governance, but rather terms that described care from those who were skilled for those who were in need.

  1. Physicians: When we view physicians today, for instance, we recognize their expertise, their years of education, training, and practice, we treat them with respect and we (if we want to heal, to get well) heed what they have to say. We follow their instructions, and we trust the medicines they prescribe.

In a certain sense we recognize their authority in this part of our lives, this part that is unwell. And it is in that sense that those who teach and pastor among God’s people are also respected and recognized.

  1. Shepherds: In the same way, sheep come to trust and follow their shepherd because a good shepherd grazes the sheep in the best pastures, makes sure they are safe and protected, does not drive them to walk farther than necessary, gives them rest, keeps them refreshed and well, helps them when they are in need, finds them when they are lost, shelters them from the elements.

In that sense those who shepherd among God’s people are trusted and followed.

  1. Teachers: Those who set examples are acting as living templates of what is being taught. They teach with their lives far more than they teach with their words (though they also teach with their words).

In that sense we seek to follow their example and learn from them. We recognize what they are doing and we appreciate it. We change our own lives to better align with how they are living their lives, for we accept that their way is better, it is closer to what we have already committed to living like, and being like.

In each of the examples Peter offered, there is a certain sense of authority, respect, the need to heed. However,

The sense of hierarchical governance and rule are completely wrong in the church setting.

I know.

It is a bold statement.

But, it is also Peter’s example and exhortation.

And it was (as it is now) radically countercultural.

Not as Rulers

James and John had approached Jesus with an outrageous request, but it was their mother who had voiced the question. “Rabbi,” she had said, in the most humble way, as she knelt before Jesus, “We have a favor to ask of you.” Peter had instantly gone on alert, as he and the others stood beside and behind the Zebedee brothers.

“What do you desire?” Jesus had answered, looking down at the older woman as John and James shifted from one foot to the other, furtively glancing at Peter, and Andrew behind him.

Peter had audibly gasped at her audacious appeal. What! Give the two best positions to her two sons? Did she really think James ranked ahead of Peter? Maybe John, Peter begrudged, could have the left hand. But Peter was so obviously Jesus’ right-hand man! Their chutzpah was unspeakably pompous!

Jesus was silent for a moment, studying the bowed head of the mother of the Sons of Thunder. Then his eyes lifted to look into the now confident and flashing eyes of James and John. He asked them if they thought they could drink the cup Jesus was about to drink, and endure the baptism Jesus was about to undergo. They both nodded vigorously and shouted with arms thrust up like champions, “we are able!” They turned around to take in the now angry and sputtering disciples.

Peter expostulated, and was about to retort when Jesus’ voice rang over all their voices. “You indeed will drink that cup and endure that baptism.” John and James had turned back as Jesus began to speak, but Jesus was now addressing them all.

Then Jesus was bending, and helping the mother of James and John to her feet. He spoke gently to her, saying it was not his to give those positions away. God the Father had already chosen who would be at Jesus’ left and right hand. None understood Jesus was speaking of his crucifixion.

But the scene was not finished as they all raised their voices, gesticulating wildly, angry arguments rising to pitch level, when Jesus’ voice cut through once again.

“You all know how among the nations those they recognize as their rulers lord it over them. You know those greater exercise authority over others, as tyrants.” Jesus stopped, now he had their attention, and looked each disciple full in his face. The minutes ticked by, as each woman and man among them felt Jesus’ penetrating gaze, reading their hearts and shepherding their souls.

When he spoke again, Jesus’ voice held a mesmerizing power, rich, deep, powerful, though also peaceful. “But rather,” and Jesus let that word sink into their minds.

But rather.

“Not so is it to be among –you-.” Jesus had now lifted his arms out to encompass them all.

Then it was Jesus who knelt, first to one knee and then to the other, lifting his face to them.

“Whoever may desire among you to become great is to become your servant.” And Peter could feel the hairs on his neck and arms rise to painful points as Jesus looked fully and frankly at him. There was no mistaking it. Jesus was addressing -him- rather than James and John.

“And whoever may want among you to be first is to be your slave.”

Jesus remained on his knees, his hands now resting on his lap, as he sat back on his heels. His face had softened as he smiled and shook his head, taking them all in. “Just as the Son of Man,” and here he had lifted his hand to indicate himself, “did not come to be served, but to serve . . .” Jesus’ voice broke with emotion, “. . . to give his life a ransom, for many.”


[Charlemagne or Charles the Great (748-814) was King of the FranksKing of the Lombards, and the first Holy Roman Emperor. Due to his military accomplishments and conquests he has been called the “Father of Europe”. | By Beckstet – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15563212%5D

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