Reading Scripture with John Calvin: 1 Peter 5.1-4

1 Peter 5.1-4

[1] To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: [2] Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; [3] not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. [4] And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.

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COMMENTARY: As we begin this fifth and final chapter, we are confronted with some instruction regarding the proper execution of ecclesial polity. Before getting to the actual commentary, Calvin opens with a quick schematic to cover what is going on in these verse, and it is worth quoting in full for no other reason than to make it available for those engaged in ministry (and myself, though concerned only with the ministry of theological endeavor):
“In exhorting pastors to their duty, [Peter] points out especially three vices which are found to prevail much, even sloth, desire of gain, and lust for power. In opposition to the first vice he sets alacrity or a willing attention; to the second, liberality; to the third, moderation and meekness, by which they are to keep themselves in their own rank or station” (142).
For the sake of making some comment about this quote, I have to wonder why Calvin didn’t simply call the second vice “greed,” and the third “vainglory” or “pride.” This would more nearly approximate the traditional ‘7 Deadly Sins’ categorization. Indeed, Calvin’s remedies here match up well with those 7 virtues meant to counteract the 7 sins.

After giving us this schema, Calvin moves right into a point that I think could stand to be made forcefully in today’s context: “pastors ought not to exercise care over the flock of the Lord, as far only as they are constrained; for they who seek to do no more than what constraint compels them, do their work formally and negligently” (ibid). In the Reformed tradition, the term ‘pastor’ encompasses not only professional ministers but also elders – as Calvin notes with reference to verse 1: “By [the term ‘elders’ Peter] designates pastors and all those who are appointed for the government of the Church” (143). I don’t know about the experience of others, but I have seen many lay leaders in churches who serve simply because the bylaws stipulate that somebody has to, and who exhibit far too little devotion to their calling. This may not be readily apparent, nor may it represent the self-understanding of those in question, but it is always a danger lurking around the bend. Peter helpfully points it out, and Calvin highlights it.

Now, also with reference to verse 1, Calvin points out that Peter calls himself an elder, establishing a collegial bond as the basis of authority by which to admonish his readers. “But,” Calvin says with one eye glancing toward Rome,
“if he had the right of primacy he would have claimed it; and this would have been most suitable on the present occasion. But though he was an Apostle, he yet knew that authority was by no means delegated to him over his colleagues, but that on the contrary he was joined with the rest in the participation of the same office” (143-4).
With his eye similarly towards Rome, Calvin a little later affirms that the reference in verse 2 to “watching over” (in the TNIV above) or “taking oversight” (in Calvin’s text) is the establishment “the office and title of the episcopate” (145; the Greek term in question is episkopountes). And yet, he draws from the present context and alludes vaguely to other biblical passages, “bishop and presbyter are synonymous” (ibid).

Sticking with verse 2, those who exercise care over the church are told to “Be shepherds of God’s flock,” according to the above TNIV. This is a correct render of the Greek verb here – poimaino, which has as its sense to do that which a shepherd does. Clearly, one of the things that a shepherd does is to feed the animals under his care, and that is how Calvin takes this verb – “Feed the flock of God…” It seems that this interpretation pre-dates Calvin since he is quick to point out that the feeding in question has nothing to do with a sacrificial mass. Rather, “the flock of Christ cannot be fed except with pure doctrine, which is alone our spiritual food” (144) – for those who have ears to hear, John 6 – oft taken as support for transubstantiation – comes to mind, and I can only assume that Calvin is purposefully alluding to it here.

Finally, I will conclude as Peter does – with Christ – and with Calvin’s discussion of the matter:
“It ought also to be observed, that [Peter] calls Christ the chief Pastor; for we are to rule the Church under him and in his name, in no other way but that he should be still really the Pastor. So the word chief here does not only mean the principal, but him whose power all others ought to submit to, as they do not represent him except according to his command and authority” (146-7).

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