Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
April 21, 1955

Lording It Over The Flock

L. W. Mayo, Van Nuys, California

In 1 Peter 5:1-3 we have this reading, "The elders therefore among you I exhort, who am a fellow-elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, who am also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: Tend the flock of God which is among you, exercising the oversight, not of constraint, but willingly, according to the will of God; nor yet for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; neither as lording it over the charge allotted to you, but making yourselves ensamples to the flock." (ASV)

I do not know how many times I have heard it said — "those elders are trying to lord it over the flock." This verbal eruption often comes from church members as soon as the elders begin to start to exercise a little of their God-given authority. Usually it is said by a person who knows nothing whatever about the Bible, or by a person who is like the unruly sheep in the flock; he just can't stand to allow some one to have authority over him. For this reason the passage given above has been as much abused as any passage almost. Often we have a lot to say about sectarians abusing a passage to justify their doctrine. Of this charge they are as guilty as can be, but when some church member hides himself behind 1 Peter 5:3 to prevent the elders from exercising their God-given authority over him, he is just as guilty as the sectarians are on some of the passages they abuse.

I am sure that it will be well just here to study briefly these verses. The apostle Peter identifies himself as an elder, and then calls all elders to attention that he may "exhort" them. The word "exhort" means to call to one's side, call for summons, indicating the purpose, to admonish." This sets forth the seriousness of what Peter was going to say to the elders of the various congregations. An elder was expected to take this admonition or exhortation and unselfishly apply it. In verse two the elders are commanded to "feed the flock." Thayer says that the word "feed" means "to rule, to govern, to be rulers, used of the overseers (pastors) of the church." In this verse the comparison is to an overseer or shepherd of sheep. The owner might give a shepherd the command to "feed the flock." This would be a general command. It would give the shepherd authority to take the flock from the corral out to where they might find water and grass. It would give him authority to force one or any number of the sheep to stay in the flock. It would give him the authority to move the sheep from one pasture to another, and even to change the type of food the sheep might need. It would give him the authority to bring the sheep in at night. If one old buck and a ewe should try to lead the flock away from where the shepherd thought they should stay he would have the authority to show them who was boss. All of this he would do for the betterment of the flock as a whole. Moreover, the command by the owner to "feed the flock," would bind upon the shepherd an obligation that he must perform or be unfaithful to the owner, and untrue to the flock. All of us who have herded sheep know this is true. So, when Peter told the elders to "feed the flock," he declared that they had the authority to do whatever needed to be done in order that the flock (church) as a whole might be properly fed. Just as the sheep are under the authority of the shepherd, so the congregation is under the authority of the elders. Now, it is possible for a shepherd to make a mistake, but that would not make him to be "lording it over the flock." So the elders may make a mistake but the fact that they do does not say that they are lording it over the flock.

Also the admonition is given to the elders to "take the oversight thereof." This expression means "to look upon, inspect, oversee, look after, care for — spoken of the church which rested upon the presbyters." (Thayer.) It would be foolish to talk about an overseer and refer to a man as such in any other affair without the understanding that the "overseer" had some authority. He has the authority to, change men around on a job, and to assign to other men jobs to do. Too, he has the authority to dismiss a man from service. An inspector has authority to accept or reject. The doctor who "looks after, or cares for" the patient has authority to prescribe a remedy and demand that the patient use it. The same is true of the eldership. They have the authority to do any of the things granted in the definition of those terms. Whatever it takes to properly oversee the church they have the authority to do. The overseer of a job of work is not "lording it over" the men when he changes them around on the job, or gives a man a job to do and expects him to do it. He is just doing his duty. So it is with the elders. They are not "lording it over" the flock when they assign certain work to members of the church, nor even when they change some around in the work. An overseer of a job is not "lording it over" his men when he tells a certain man that doing certain things will not be permitted on the job; nor are the elders "lording it over" the flock when a man is told that he will not be permitted to behave after a certain manner.

A man is to take the oversight as an elder "not by constraint." That is he must not force himself into the office of an elder nor have to be forced into the work. It must be willingly done on both sides. He must not enter the eldership for personal gain in any way. It is possible for a man to use the office of an elder for personal power or even gain financially, but this is not right and must not be.

In verse three the elders are exhorted to refrain from "being lords over God's heritage." After all, the heritage belongs to God and not to the overseers or shepherds Their work must be toward the betterment of the heritage of God and not for personal power, or gain. The expression "lords over" means "to bring under one's power, to subject to one's self, to subdue, to master." This kind of behavior is forbidden regarding elders. It would mean that they were acting as if the church were theirs and they could use it for their own gain in what ever way they might choose. We find similar uses of the word in Acts 19:16 where we read "And the man in whom the evil spirit was leaped on them, and overcame them, and prevailed against them, so that they fled out of the house naked and wounded." The expression here "and overcame them," and the expression "lords over" (1 Peter 5:3) are of equal force. The same is true in Matthew 20:25 where it says "But Jesus called them unto him, and said, ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them — and they that are great exercise authority upon them." Here we have some more expressions of the same force. So we can see that the expression "lords over" does not carry with it the idea of exercising God given authority in keeping the church in order, nor of keeping certain unruly ones in check. Elders are "lords over God's heritage" when they have completely and selfishly subdued the church to their own personal affairs such as to make them do just as they personally say for the elder's own personal benefit. The use in Acts 19:16 shows the force of the word to be that of complete personal mastering, and the use in Matthew 20:25 shows the force to be like unto the force the domineering Gentile rulers held over the Jews when the Gentiles were in power, such as the Romans who were in power at that time. They did not "prevail against," or "exercise dominion over" those people for the good of all concerned, but for their own selfish benefit. However, when the elders exercise their God given authority they are not "lording it over" the church.

It is quite a serious charge to accuse good God-fearing men of taking the church into their own power for personal or selfish gain. It is indeed a serious charge to charge men who labor day and night for the cause, and spend sleepless hours studying, praying and maybe weeping over their concern for the betterment of the church of endeavoring to destroy the people of the church like the evil spirit did those men in Acts 19:16. It is just as bad as it could be to accuse men of the degree of character that elders must have (1 Tim. 3:1-8; Tit. 1:5-9) of being like unto the Gentile ruthless rulers. Especially is this true when the elders are doing everything in their power to help each individual, but especially the church as a whole. We must be careful when we start to say "they are lording it over the flock" for we might be making a very serious charge and that falsely.

I am not an old man, nor do I claim to be the wisest of the wise. I do not even think I have seen everything, but I will say that I have been a member of the church twenty seven years and have been preaching above twenty one of those years and can truthfully say that I have never seen an elder yet who was endeavoring to bring the church under his personal power and selfish control. I have seen some elders who let the matter go to their head a little, but they did not "lord it over the flock." I have seen elders make mistakes in judgment and even to be wrong on points of doctrine, but they did not do that. (I do not say that none exist — I just have not seen any.) One thing I know is, that not all those I have ever heard accused of "lording it over the flock" were guilty. If I were an elder I had rather a man would call me any bad name he could lay his tongue to, and hurl every purple adjective in my direction that a mule skinner ever used, than to accuse me of "lording it over the flock of God." Again, I had rather be guilty of calling a man any thing my tongue would utter than to accuse him of subduing the church to his own personal benefit and gain unless it was true and I was absolutely sure it was true.

Let us be careful lest we are lost in the after-while for falsely accusing the brethren — especially the elders in this way.