About three decades ago, I was sitting in a classroom with approximately 15 or 20 other ministerial students. Our professor, usually a fairly upbeat teacher, was very sober and serious that day. Looking around at the gathered students before him he said, with much concern and trouble in his voice, “some of you will be apostates.” He explained that in his own experience, men he sat with in Seminary classrooms had turned away from the faith, usually to pursue some kind of pleasure in the world. He knew that there was nothing about us to guarantee that we would be any different. We were Reformed Baptists, working every day with the Scriptures, fervent in prayer, active as preachers and teachers and evangelists. Still, some of us would fall.
It was a shocking and sobering hour, but subsequent events proved that professor correct. Men, held in esteem by their peers and seemingly increasing in usefulness in the Kingdom of God, gave themselves over to iniquity.
Sadly, these intervening years have demonstrated that it is not just young men who fall. Older men, experienced men, men of gifts and talents likewise fall—and not just out there in the broader Christian world. The seeds of disgrace are planted in our hearts as well. We cannot and must not point the finger at others. Brothers, you and I all face the danger of falling into disgrace, or worse.
The days in which we live are difficult. Iniquity in the world seems to grow stronger by the day. I know that it has always been a powerful force, but in our society, the restraints on its expression have been long gone. When we were children, society considered many things shameful, and as a result, they were done in secret. Today, these same acts are promoted as virtuous by the same social order. The Christian consensus in the West has failed, so that much of our culture has lost even its memory of Christianity. False religions foreign and domestic—Islam, Buddhism, Mormonism to name a few—appear to be making great strides forward, while the Evangelical world as a whole recedes into irrelevance. From doctrinal indifference we have fallen into doctrinal error in foundational things, so that we are told that God does not know all of the future, that the Scriptures are not all that we have claimed them to be, and that we have a part to play in our own justification. Some have even sought to make common ground with Jesus Seminar Scholars. We live in dark days.
But I am not convinced that our present circumstances are any worse than those faced by the Apostles and the first generation of Christians. In fact, their situation may have been even more difficult. A powerful empire was against them, an ancient religion actively opposed them, and iniquity abounded everywhere. Within the churches, false doctrine was accepted and spread. A whole region, Galatia, was in danger of losing the Gospel. In Corinth, some denied the resurrection, others tolerated gross immorality. The honest self-portrait of New Testament Christianity evidences many blemishes in the churches. And yet by God’s grace, the Gospel spread and the church grew.
There is one curious fact though. The New Testament leaves us no direct record of pastoral failure. Certainly, there were spiritual leaders who fell: Judas was an apostle, so was Peter; Demas was a useful companion of an apostle; men like
Hymenaeus and Philetus seem to have had some kind of teaching ministry, but we have no direct and certain record of an elder falling into sin. Perhaps the closest is Diotrophes, but we can only infer that he was an elder. It also seems curious to me when surveying these men and similar situations in the New Testament, that none of them are guilty of sexual sin. This seems to be the predominant sin of fallen pastors in our day. There is a probable explanation for this—that sexual sin is the manifestation of other sins present in one’s life—but we cannot pursue that thought right now.
While we have no record of pastoral disqualification, we do have texts that warn and exhort pastors about the dangers present in the ministry. Our passage, 1 Peter 5:1-4, is one of these. Let us look briefly at its’ teaching.
1 Peter is an epistle about grace in the midst of difficulty. Persecution and trouble are not just themes of the book, they are the ‘this present age’ context of Peter’s writings. Christians have always found this epistle to be especially helpful in the face of the realities of a fallen world. I remember in 1981, when Wycliffe Bible Translators staff member Chet Bitterman was kidnapped in Colombia, word spread among Christians that he had been memorizing 1 Peter—it seemed very appropriate, especially when the news of his martyrdom came in mid-March. The Lord had prepared him for the terrible trial by means of this book in His Holy Word.
Peter writes to elders in this milieu. 4:12-19, the immediately preceding context, is all about perseverance in the face of suffering and opposition. When the Apostle comes to address his fellow elders in chapter 5, it is this framework that is on his mind. He is like them, a witness to the sufferings of Christ and partakes of the present enjoyment of the age to come—the glory that will be revealed—and he knows that Christ will give to all an eternal crown of glory. But now, they face difficulty. They are men with feet firmly planted in two worlds—the age to come with all of its spiritual realities, and this present evil age with all of its opposition and trouble. And he is just like them.
In the midst of this, his exhortation comes: Shepherd God’s flock among you, serving as overseers. Take care of the sheep—they are the Lord’s. Watch out for them, protect them, feed them, nurture them. Serve the Lord as you serve them. But in saying this, he adds three antithetic pairs, each of which helps us to understand how to avoid the perils of a ministerial fall. Perseverance in pastoral work comes from a careful understanding of motivations and actions—provided here by the apostle. Let’s notice these three antithetic pairs. In structure, they take the same basic format: a negative particle, followed by an adverb contrasted with a positive adverb. The third pair is slightly different as Peter uses participles instead of adjectives, but the sense is not materially different. In each case, his purpose is to encourage elders to keep on for the glory of God. These are not LAW statements, they are gospel statements, and we need to keep this in our minds.
1. Not by compulsion, but willingly according to God. (By this translation, I have accepted the textual variant omitted in the NKJV but present in most modern versions).
Compulsion is an interesting idea. When I first considered these words, I thought that Peter was speaking about men entering into the ministry based on guilt motivations—that somehow they felt compelled to take up the responsibility based on a faulty notion of God’s call, but after study and thought, that doesn’t seem to be correct. Peter is not addressing men about their motives for entering the ministry, but rather about their present motives in the ministry—he addresses men who are elders. He tells us that some men may serve God and his flock as elders by compulsion—a sort of joyless grit your teeth and press on mentality—doing the work because it must be done, rather than as a glad volunteers. And this is a dangerous state to be in. When I do anything from compulsion, I may find myself doing it woodenly, half-heartedly, or incompletely—just enough to get the job done. But even worse, because my heart is not involved in the task, I may grow in resentment towards that act, and convince myself that I deserve some kind of compensatory activity to provide the joy I am missing in my perfunctory job. I can do the work of the ministry for me, or I can do the work of the ministry while really enjoying something else. One commentator put it like this: “Peter knows that the human ego is a severe and unhealthy taskmaster and that ministry all too often becomes a compulsive act of self-gratification. He wants it instead to be a free and joyous response to God’s love” (Ramsey Michaels p. 284). When I serve God and the flock by compulsion, I enter dangerous territory. My emphasis will begin to be self-oriented, and I will begin to think and to act for my own benefit. A door is open to all kinds of temptations.
The remedy is to consider myself a volunteer. It is to understand that I serve not myself, but Another and others—God and His people. I must be like Isaiah. When he saw The Lord high and exalted, when he heard the call “Who will go for us?” he answered freely, “Here am I, Send me.” His ministry stands before us as a glad example of one who offered himself to serve the Lord, and carried on in that way throughout the years given to him.
Compulsion can do terrible things to us—especially when we minister in difficult days. We all probably enter into the ministry wanting to be Whitefield or Spurgeon. We dream about conversions and growth and forward movement, about making an impact for Christ where we live, of seeing men and women and children come to faith, of believers growing in conformity to Christ and of the church moving forward in this world. But our realities often are very different. The world is at best indifferent and frequently openly hostile; professing believers fall into sin, our churches struggle and sometimes fail. We don’t receive the recognition we think we deserve, we face financial challenges, our own children discourage us. There may be a thousand realities of this present evil age we struggle with. Our dreams fail to materialize, and we begin to resent our ministries. But we continue in them not realizing the growth of the resentment and the dangers of compulsion. And then we are told that the remedy is to serve willingly. But I find that this in itself is not really helpful. If this is all that the text says, it simply replaces one difficulty with another, for now I am convicted of two sins—compulsion and low spirits, so that I feel guilty and more discouraged than ever. Have you ever spoken to your children when they have been disobedient, and told them that you want them to obey, and with a cheerful spirit? And do they suddenly flip a switch in their minds so that they move from compulsion to glad voluntary obedience? No, of course not. They are like the little boy who when told to stand up, obeyed but said, “I may be standing on the outside, but I am sitting on the inside.” We cannot manufacture willingness, and I do not preach this text to increase your guilt or mine. So what do we do?
It seems to me that there are two helpful perspectives to adopt—one in the text, and one in the lives of the Lord’s Servants as revealed elsewhere in Scripture. The first is in the phrase “according to God” kata qeon. These words remind us that the work is not ours, but God’s. Notice 4:19—we have a similar, though slightly expanded prepositional phrase there. The events of our lives do not depend on us, but on the Lord. In His providence, He allows some to be Spurgeons and Whitefields, but for most of us, He calls us to persevere in the face of trouble (of course both Spurgeon and Whitefield endured much hardship too). The results—if we can call them that—of our ministries are not dependent on men, but on God. And if He calls us to face the difficulties of the ministry in our day, this is not a matter of His judgment upon us. When I evaluate my ministry based on parameters of outward success, and I fail to meet my perceptions of them, I open myself to all kinds of dangers—beginning with discouragement and potentially proceeding to any kind of gross sin to compensate for my self-generated gloom. But if I can adopt a God-centered perspective (4:19); if I can commit myself to Him, having served faithfully, I can avoid discouragement and everything else, and gladly and willingly serve. The work is the Lord’s, not mine. He is free to do with it as He pleases. My goal is not results. It is to do the work “according to God.”
Consider the lives of God’s servants in Scripture. We have already mentioned Isaiah and his voluntary service to the Lord. He was one of the greatest of all the prophets of the Old Testament era. “Here am I, Send me.” We read these words and are captivated by them. But do you remember the commission that was immediately given to him? “Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy and shut their eyes . . . .” His reply: “How long Lord?” and the answer: “Until the land is desolate . . . and the holy seed a stump.” Do you want that commission? Did he protest that this was not what he enrolled for? No. He simply went about his business and served the Lord. His concern was not with how he evaluated himself, nor how others viewed him. His eyes were on the Lord. The very same words are used of Paul in Acts 28, and of Jesus in John 12. Think about this: How could Paul sing hymns while in prison? How could Peter and the other apostles testify boldly in Jerusalem immediately after they had been imprisoned? How could Paul, knowing that his death was imminent, write to his young friend with such conviction and joy? It was because these men understood the nature of willing service. It is not about me—it is about Him. I serve and leave the results to him. That is gospel, not law.
2. Not for dishonest gain, but eagerly. The second of our antithetical pairs follows along from the first; in fact both elements seem to complement the elements of the first pair: compulsion can lead to dishonest gain; willingly and eagerly belong together. The New Testament actually has many warnings about the dangers of money addressed to leaders—this is not a unique case. In the lists of qualifications for both elders and deacons this idea is present; so also in Paul’s words to Timothy in 1 Tim. 6:6-10 as well as in Hebrews 13:5. Covetousness—the violation of the 10thCommandment—is a serious thing. Sadly, Pastors may be subject to this sin.
The presence of these exhortations at various places in the New Testament seems to indicate that elders had a ready accessibility to the money supplies of the church—like Judas. He had charge of the funds for Jesus and his followers, and had his hand in the bag for his own purposes. Here, Peter tells us that the temptation of access to money is serious, but it can be overcome. In our own day, we have seen financial impropriety by ministers—the Bible always condemns this in severe terms.
What does Paul tell us is the root of all kinds of evil? It is the love of money. I wonder myself, was this part of Demas’s problem? We are told that he ‘loved this present world.’ These are eschatological terms. They refer to all of the things of this life. Demas chose what was available now. He looked around at the things he could see and said that he wanted them rather than Christ. Sadly, he missed the fact that even now we enjoy all of the blessings of the future age, through our reigning Savior. To love money, or this age, rather than him, is to think that we can gain the world, but we lose our souls in the bargain. A high price to pay.
Have you ever considered the statistics of apostasy? I do not know exactly how to quantify them. We might consider this though: Jesus had 1 out of 12 who was reprobate. That is 8.333%. If that is any basis for statistics, it works out like this: Applied to a group of 200 men, it comes out to just about 17. Frightening, but perhaps it helps us to think through our own experience so that we are not shocked when men fall. Such events are inevitable.
We have said that this is about the Gospel and its encouragements. Peter is not afraid to identify problems, but the focus is not on the sin, but on the grace. While we are not to be motivated by ‘dishonest gain,’ we must to the contrary sense the power of eagerness in our service. What does he mean? A commentator translates the word ‘with enthusiasm’ and says this “is as strongly positive as ‘greedily’ is negative. [This term] . . . reinforces and heightens the preceding [term, willingly], yielding a cumulative force not unlike that of the English phrase “ready and willing.” (Michaels, 285). This is very helpful. Again, the words belong together, and bring us back to our theme: a God-centered perspective on the ministry radically alters our outlook. What I have, or receive, in terms of earthly goods here and now, is nothing. What matters is that I have Christ, and I can serve Him now. My moments are for Him. I am called to shepherd His flock. Lord, Here I am. Send me. This too is clear from the context. Notice the very last phrase of verse 1. Peter is a fellow-elder, and a ‘fellow’-witness, and a ‘fellow’-partaker. These are placed together with this emphasis. He knows now, even in the midst of the opposition of the world, that Christ’s glory is real, and will be revealed. Suffering and glory, always in that order, are part of the fabric of this epistle. But the glory is not just in the future—it is in the present too. We now sit with Christ in the heavenlies. As I contemplate my risen and ascended Savior, seated at the right hand of the majesty on high, I am motivated to witness to his sufferings. Notice that witness in verse 1 does not mean ‘observer’ as in “I saw Jesus’ sufferings.” In fact, Peter fled and did not see all that the Lord endured. Rather it should be understood in the sense it commonly has throughout the New Testament: I testify of the sufferings of Christ. As Peter did, and his fellow elders then did, brothers, so do we. We preach Christ, and we can do so eagerly, for he is victorious over death and all of our enemies. Isn’t that greater than any earthly riches?
3. Not being Lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.
Now Peter changes form slightly, but only so that he is able to express his thought more clearly. Here is the third temptation to which elders may be susceptible: an abuse of power. The word is interesting. It is a verb carrying the sense of “have power over; overpower;” or even perhaps “parade one’s authority.” We are told that in the LXX, the word means “subduing an enemy or ruling by force over unwilling subjects (Michaels, 285).” It is a very strong verb. Here, the participle functions like an imperative, but we might expect that in such a strong verb.
By its very nature, the ministry lends itself to abuse of authority. We enjoy the prestige attached to our position or think more highly of ourselves than we ought, or perhaps when trouble comes and others don’t give to us the respect we perceive we deserve, we take it for ourselves. In light of the context, it could be that we assert our rights in the face of opposition or discouragement. It is not unusual for a man facing difficulties to misuse or abuse his position of authority, sometimes even unaware of what he is doing. Under the guise of helping others, or perhaps to avoid the difficulty of convincing others of a course of action, he presses ahead with his own ideas and plans, imposing them on others. When someone fails to respond, pride is wounded, and frequently this lack of response is perceived as a challenge, or disloyalty, or even opposition. And the seeds of deep trouble are born. Do you remember what John says was the root of Diotrophes’s problem? He ‘loved to have the pre-eminence.’ If he was a pastor, and that is very likely, he stands before us as a negative example of this very point. Authoritarianism is a terrible sin.
We must avoid it. If we have been guilty, let us repent, and let us seek to be examples to the flock. This is Peter’s contrasting participle. Think about his words. We have said that this book is all about suffering, and perseverance in the face of opposition. Here he calls the elders to humility—to show it to the flock—in fact to shepherd them—by means of example. When trouble, difficulty, and opposition come, endure it. This is what servants do—and this is the example the flock needs. Once more, his emphasis teaches us that the ministry is not about ourselves as elders, but it is about Christ. We look to Him and serve Him, and our people look to him and serve him. As he endured, so we endure, and we teach our people to endure. What is our example? It is a God-centered, Gospel oriented life. We serve willingly, eagerly, as examples. And as we do this, we shepherd God’s flock. They observe us, and they follow. The result? A God-centered church, even in the face of tremendous persecution and opposition and discouragement.
Notice verse 4. There is a motive here—a motive for all believers. Serving Christ ensues in glory. The crown is the glory, and it lasts forever.
Brothers, enough men have fallen by the wayside. Surely more will fall, but let us pray we are not any of them. Let us return to these simple truths:
1. We serve willingly: Lord, Here am I send me, even if it means that the cities will be wasted. I look for your approval and no one else’s.
2. We serve eagerly: Lord, I will forsake the world and all of its riches for the pleasure of proclaiming Christ.
3. We serve as examples. Lord, as you and your servants have endured, give me the grace to do this as well. My eyes are on heaven and not the earth. Make me humble before you.
These are real encouragements. The gospel motivates us to service. We testify to his sufferings and glory. Our Chief Shepherd reigns. Brothers, be encouraged. Serve the Lord with Gladness.
May the Lord bless His word to our hearts. Amen.