June 27, 2004

The Church and Society: Our Elders, Our Enemy,
And Our Enabler
1 Peter 5:1-14

I sometimes find the last paragraph or two of an important letter to be the most difficult to write. I’ve already covered the necessary pleasantries and rehearsed the “news,” and I often want to end in a memorable way. When I write reference letters for students applying either to graduate school or for a job, for example, I always describe at length the person’s various strengths and weaknesses related to the situation. Then, in the closing paragraph, I try to tie everything together and make my case. Peter, it seems, follows much the same approach as he brings this stirring letter to a close. He cares deeply about these people, and he wants them to grow and flourish. How will he end the letter?

Peter first addresses the matter of how he expects congregations and their leaders—their “elders”—to relate to each other. You will recall that Peter previously discussed how Jesus’ followers were to respond to those in authority over them outside of the church—government officials, masters or employers, and spouses. “Respect those in authority over you,” he said—he didn’t say “Do everything they tell you to do”—and conduct yourselves in such a way that these people might see Christ in you and worship God themselves. Peter now ends his letter, interestingly enough, by commenting on leadership within the church. It is as though he implies that, regardless of how we respond to people in the world, our efforts ultimately lose their effect if the church itself crumbles from within.

In addressing the matter of church leadership, however, Peter says less to the people as a whole and more to those in positions of authority. Leadership is of course a “hot topic” in our world today. A quick stroll through Barnes and Noble or Borders bookstores presents you with seemingly endless shelves of books dealing with leadership. And genuine leadership, quite frankly, is often lacking in many churches today. It has been said on more than one occasion that churches are typically over-managed and under-led. In her book entitled Talking About God is Dangerous, Russian dissident Tatiana Goracheva remarks about at least a portion of the problem:
Since I’ve been living in the West, it has become clear to me that the crisis
of faith here for the most part rests on the fact that there are no true clergy, or
almost none; there are no true pastors who can really heal and give good
advice and say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ with authority.
The church needs pastors, of course, just as Goracheva remarks, but the church also needs leaders of all sorts serving in a wide variety of roles. Importantly, however, those leaders must model a certain type of leadership.

Leaders in the church, Peter suggests, need to “tend the flock.” They are called, in other words, to “shepherd” the people under their care. This shepherding image, as you perhaps know, grows out of the nomadic lifestyle of the ancient Near East in which people wandered from place to place, guiding their flocks along the way. The Psalmist picks up on the image in Psalm 23, Ezekiel years later refers to God as the true shepherd, and Jesus himself describes his role as that of a shepherd. The church doesn’t need contemporary CEO’s as much as it needs shepherds. Shepherds who care deeply about the people in their flock. Shepherds who can guide the caravan from one drinking hole to the next. Shepherds who exercise their God-given authority, not out of a sense of obligation or for selfish gain—what they can get out of it—but with a profound sense of joy and appreciation. Serve “eagerly,” Peter writes, for it is in fact a remarkable privilege that God gives to us to serve in meaningful ways within his kingdom.

To the congregation as a whole—the “younger”—Peter simply writes, “Accept the authority of the elders.” Accepting authority, as all of you know, is not so much in vogue today as it used to be. People have been let down too many times, both by civic authorities as well as religious leaders. That, of course, is why it is so painful to see church leaders fall in such alarming ways. As they fall, so does a sense of corporate confidence. It is vital, therefore, for all of us who serve in leadership roles throughout the church—pastors, teachers, commission chairs, board members, deacons, and so on—to live exemplary lives.

But the declining lack of respect for church leaders cannot solely be attributed to pastoral misconduct. Accepting authority is simply difficult, and it is not popular. Accepting such authority requires that we place ourselves under other people, and that doesn’t come easily for most of us. I’ve noticed this here at our church in various ways, even though I find the Grantham Church to be a place where leaders are respected and appreciated. In working with various couples and families whose relationships are in deep distress, for example, it is clear to me that some people are deeply committed to the authority of the church. They are receptive to counsel and open to accountability, even if that accountability requires considerable change on their part. Others, by way of contrast, do whatever they want and show little if any interest in what the leaders of the church ask of them.

This shouldn’t be, Peter suggests. The work of the church suffers both from overbearing leaders who care little for the flock as well as from people in the congregation who show no interest in living under the authority of their spiritual leaders. Leaders, shepherd your people, even as God shepherds the church. Brothers and sisters, respect those within the church who are in authority over you. That is the biblical balance that will help us all along the way.

Peter, next, describes the enemy. It is fascinating, I think, to reflect on the whole of Peter’s letter for a moment and recall that he has seemingly referred to enemies on several previous occasions. Without chapter 5, one might conclude that our enemy is the ruthless and uncaring government officials who seem not to care about our good. One might assume that our enemy is harsh and unreasonable earthly masters and employers who look out for their own welfare without paying due attention to ours. One might conclude that our enemy is unbelieving spouses who bring endless pain into our lives. We might conclude, in fact, that we are surrounded on all sides by an endless array of “enemies” who seek our harm and even our destruction. And in drawing such conclusions, we would be quite wrong.

In the same way that Peter refers to a wide variety of relationships outside of the church before addressing the matter of authority within the church, so too does he describe earthly enemies before focusing in on the true enemy. When Jesus inaugurated his kingdom here on earth, he clearly described his ministry as one of pushing back the forces of evil and overwhelming the evil one. In the same way, Paul assured the believers in Ephesus that they did not wrestle “against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Peter here picks up on much the same theme and points out that the assortment of so-called earthly enemies are not the true enemy at all. The opponent is stronger and more subtle than that. Our enemy is a spiritual one, and to convey the point, Peter likens him to a lion who prowls around seeking to destroy us.

In an article entitled “Spiritual Warfare in a Wilder World,” George Ohlschlager recounts the horrible attacks of human beings by lions in the Kruger National Wildlife Refuge on the border of Mozambique and South Africa. Frankly, I’m not quite certain how much Peter knew about lions and their habits. Analogies to lions were common throughout the ancient world, and several examples appear in various books of the Old Testament. But regardless of the extent of Peter’s awareness, the analogy is an appropriate one, to say the least. Lions, Ohlschlager points out, typically sleep during the day and attack in the darkness. They are able, if you can imagine it, to detect any hint of weakness or vulnerability on the part of their prey. One particular victim in the Kruger Refuge walked with a limp, a limp that produced sneaker tracks of varying depths. Lions tend to attack people or other animals traveling alone, and they become far more aggressive if their intended victim panics and runs.

Peter, if you read his words carefully, seems to pick up on many of these very same issues. Given the prowess of the devil, Peter encourages these believers to keep alert. “Don’t wander around in the darkness,” he clearly implies. “Don’t panic,” he continues, instead instructing us to “cast our cares on the Lord.” “Discipline yourselves,” making every effort to protect your vulnerable points. And by all means never travel alone. The whole of this letter assumes that we Christians need each other and are journeying through this world together. Don’t ever believe someone who tells you that you can be a growing Christian on your own. We are at far greater risk traveling alone. The enemy, Peter emphasizes, is subtle and strong.

But as threatening and as powerful as the enemy might be, he is simply no match for the one who enables us. This same God, Peter wrote, chose you and sanctified you (1:2). He is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, who has died to reclaim us and who has served throughout the letter as our model for faithful living. This same God raised the Lord Jesus from the dead (1:21), and he has called these otherwise unknown people to be his own holy nation (2:9). Now, Peter concludes, he will shower his grace upon us, and he will restore, support, strengthen, and establish them (5:10). The sequence or process depicted in this series of verbs is striking. God will restore us, filling our emptiness. He will support us, overriding our feebleness. He will strengthen us, overcoming our weakness. And he will establish us, destroying our waywardness. God, Peter announces, will bring his people through whatever comes their way.

We who follow Jesus are traveling together as aliens in a foreign land. This world is not our home, Peter reminds us. We’ve experienced the new birth and been promised an eternal inheritance. We are called to be holy—different from those around us—and we are to live model lives for Christ, even in the face of difficulty and suffering. But how are we to do that? Afterall, the challenges are great and the enemy strong. “Through the grace of God,” Peter makes plain as he concludes this letter. When it is all said and done, and all of the trappings are stripped away, we need God. We need him far more than we ever thought.