The Congregational Code (1 Peter 5:1-11)

I want to read you a couple of profiles that describe a person, and see which one you like better.

The first description has words like these: considerate, good-natured, team-player, thoughtful, dependable, good listener. Do you like the sound of this person? Good. I don't want to brag, but this comes from a personality profile done on me.

Contrast this with this second description: stubborn, inflexible, hesitant, detached. How do you like the sound of this person? You may be surprised to know that this is from the same personality profile, actually from the same page, and it's also me, except under pressure, tension, stress, or fatigue. It's like I have these two sides: considerate, good-natured, thoughtful – but on the other hand stubborn, inflexible, detached. Same person, but different circumstances. And it makes all the difference in the world.

We all have this. We have our best selves – the people that we aspire to be, and maybe we succeed most of the time. Then we have the other side. I heard a young girl talking about her father one day. Evidently he gets a little grumpy at times. The word that she used for her father to describe wasn't grumpy, but stressed. We are different people when we are under pressure, tension, stress, or fatigue.

Maybe the same is true when it comes to churches.

I would like Richview to be known by words like these: biblical, loving, evangelistic, Christ-centered, people-focused. In our best moments we are these things. But churches face stresses too, and under stress it's possible for us to become like other words: grumpy, unloving, inward, program-focused. It's almost like two different churches, but it's not. It's Richview at our best and Richview under stress.

A couple of years after I arrived here, I started to discover the rhythms of our church's life. I began to discover that there are times that we shut down and that life is pretty relaxed around here. I also began to discover that there are other times – usually characterized by a budget crunch, busyness, or some stressful situation that we were facing – that we aren't who we aspire to be.

We're not the first people to face this problem. The passage that we're looking at this morning was written to churches under incredible stress. The stress came from the fact that the people around them were intolerant of their faith in Christ, and this put pressure on them at work and in their marriages and with their friends. They also faced the danger of having this stress affect the way that they functioned as they came together to be the church. Peter writes about this problem, and he sandwiches his instructions in between two passages on suffering. That's no accident. How we relate to each other is going to be affected by the situation we face.

So how should we respond when we're a stressed-out church?

It's interesting that Peter doesn't say to not be stressed. He doesn't say to light a candle or get a back massage or do aromatherapy to de-stress as a church. No matter what they did, they were going to continue to face stress, because their outside environment wasn't going to change.

I imagine there are times that we can look each other and say – in love – "Let's take a deep breath here." But there are going to be other times that we can't do anything about the fact that our church is under stress. Sometimes that is the reality that we face, and there won't be much we can do about the stress itself.

But there is something that we can do about how we respond in a time of stress. 1 Peter 5 gives us a congregational code, and it's all about our responsibilities to each other within the church, especially in a time of stress.

What is a congregational code? In Peter's day, they had something called a household code. In the Greek and Roman worlds, household codes outlined the way that the house should run. Instructions were usually given to the head of the house, the father, to rule over the household wisely. His wife, children and slaves were subject to him until his death.

Peter takes this household code and does something that the Greeks and the Romans didn't do. He applies it to the congregation, as if we are not just a collection of individuals but an actual household, connected by family ties despite all of our differences. This was unheard of. And Peter doesn't just write to the head of the churches saying that they have to rule over the church-households with a firm hand. Instead, he writes to the whole church and outlines responsibilities for all. He touches on areas that are especially appropriate when a church is under stress.

Let's look at the congregational code, or how to be function as members of God's family within the church when we're under stress. He addresses three groups of people: leaders, followers, and then everybody.

First: leaders are to serve.

Peter writes to "elders" in verse 1 as a "fellow elder", and in verse 2 he uses the word "shepherd" which is where we get the word pastor, and he talks about them "watching over" the church in verse 2.. Churches back then were based on similar leadership patterns based as Jewish synagogues and local ruling councils and in city government in the Greco-Roman world. So he's talking to the leaders of the churches.

To be a church leader in those days was a courageous act. They lived in perilous times, and serving as a leader meant that you were risking your position in society, even becoming vulnerable to the same fate as Jesus.

Remember that the codes in those days usually told the people in charge to take control and rule over the household. You can imagine that especially in a time of stress and pressure, leaders would have faced the temptation to become authoritarian and controlling.

But Peter says a couple of important things to the church leaders.

He first tells them what kind of leaders they are supposed to be:

  • not reluctant, but willing leaders
  • not greedy, but eager to serve
  • not domineering, but a role model

In other words, leaders aren't to serve reluctantly as if they're doing everybody a favor. They shouldn't be motivated by a desire to get, but an eagerness to give. And they shouldn't see themselves as bosses but as examples. They're not kings; they're to be servants, even – especially – when the church is under stress.

Gilbert Bilezikian writes, "Leadership is a servant ministry." Although the pecking order is  "an inescapable reality of daily life" in which people take their rank based on "birth, race, gender, fortune, and influence," the church is different. To be a leader in the church isn't "about the pride of who comes first," but "the humility of the one who comes in last." In the place of imperial leadership, we have the image of servanthood. We not only have the image, we actually have the example of Jesus, who took a basin and towel and washed his disciple's feet as a symbol of what he was about to do in dying for us. It's about a completely different attitude on the part of those who lead the church.

What could this look like? One pastor writes this:

I am pastored by my congregation. My struggles are often out in the open for everyone to see. I can be honest about my failures…I don't feel the pressure to "perform" for two reasons. First, "success" and "failure" are common property. We all share a responsibility for what happens…Second, ministry is not an event that occurs on a Sunday. It is a lifestyle of word-centered activity. Success is not judged by a sermon or service. It is judged in terms of growing Christians and gospel opportunities. (Total Church)

He goes on to say that this type of leadership feels scary, but "we should embrace this fragility because it forces us to trust God's sovereign grace."

And, if they serve this way, Peter says, then "when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away" (1 Peter 5:4). Their victory is assured. It depends not on their own efforts, but on the appearing of Christ. This is what leadership in the church is all about.

In a few weeks, we have the opportunity as members to choose those who will lead the church. You've already chosen me, and it goes without saying that I need your prayers to be this kind of leader.

As we select new leaders next month, we are looking for people who will lead in this way. That's probably why the Bible puts so much emphasis on their lives and doctrine. Leaders are to serve. As we select leaders, I'm going to ask you to evaluate them based on their ability to provide spiritual leadership for our church, not because they have reached the top of the pecking order, but because they are people of character who have servant's hearts.

Leaders are to serve.

Secondly, Peter says, everyone else is to submit.

Here's where it gets even harder. Verse 5 says: "In the same way, you who are younger [in other words, those of you who aren't elders], submit yourselves to your elders."

You'll notice that this section is a lot briefer compared to the previous section, but it's just as hard. It doesn't mean being a doormat. It's essentially a call to respect your leaders. On one level, this should be obvious. It may be obvious, but it's not easy. It may be even harder than it was back then. We live in a day in which the prevailing attitude is that leaders can't be trusted with power, and that nobody is going to tell me what to do. That attitude can easily carry over to the church as well.

I have a friend who pastors a congregation composed of a lot of people who belong to a generation that is not known for submitting to leadership. I asked him how that works at his church. He replied and said that he tends to see it as a fear that has come from the abuse of leadership. It's a fear of getting hurt. Our whole democratic system is built on checks and balances so that leaders can't lead without having safeguards in place.

But he keeps reminding his people that Scripture does not make concession for it, rather it calls us back to the gospel – to forgive when hurt, to repent when you hurt someone, and reconcile as brothers and sisters knowing leaders will give an account to God, so they submit to him.

"Our people need to trust God," he said, "who is placing leaders over the church. That is why character is the main thing in scripture about leaders. They are trustworthy men and women who lead. It can be abused of course but it is a good thing to submit."

Twenty years ago somebody wrote:

It seems rather strange that very few books on leadership have chapters on followership. As a matter of fact, followership is not even in the abridged dictionary. There seems to be a curious assumption that while leaders need special instruction for exercising their role, followers need no such instruction. (C. Peter Wagner, Leading Your Church to Growth)

1 Thessalonians 5:13 tells us to "Hold [leaders] in the highest regard in love because of their work." I know this is far from easy, and it goes against every cultural trend. But we're not called to follow cultural trends of distrust. We're to be an alternate community in which leaders serve and followers respect.

I know that this will get challenged almost every week especially when the church is under stress. Leaders serve, not rule. Everybody else submits, instead of distrusting.

Peter has one more instruction:

Third, everyone – leaders and followers together – be humble and faithful.

We get to the heart of the passage now. Peter says in verse 5, "All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another." And then in verse 6, "Humble yourselves, therefore, under God's mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time." And then in verse 8, "Be alert and of sober mind." In other words, don't let the stresses that your church is under stop you from really humbling yourselves before each other and staying firm no matter what is going on out there.

Why? A few reasons. Because if we humble ourselves, then God himself will exalt us. If we don't humble ourselves and instead waver in our faith, then Satan just may find the opportunity he's been looking for to devour us. Because when we suffer, we're in solidarity with all God's people who have suffered. And finally, because despite the stresses, God is completing his work in us. Verse 10 says, "And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast." We know how it will turn out in the end.

This all reminds me of a story that's been in the news lately. Last year, insurgents in Afghanistan opened fire on a Canadian base around 2:00 early one morning. A siren sounded, and small arms fire was heard throughout the camp. Soldiers were woken and went out on patrol to rout the attackers – all soldiers, except for one.

Corporal Paul Billard, a stretcher-bearer, stayed in bed. Other soldiers tried to coax him from his covers, but Corporal Billard wouldn't budge. He refused to put on his helmet and flak jacket, and only got out of bed once to go to the washroom with a pistol. When his fellow soldiers banged on a locker to try to get him out of bed, Billard replied, "I'm immune to that. I'm going to sleep."

Corporal Billard has been sentenced to twenty-one nights. The military judge said to him, "You displayed a total lack of discipline and lack of respect by refusing to report to your assigned duty. I find your conduct reprehensible. You let your comrades down in a time of danger."

If we really understand that there's a battle going on out there, and if we really understand what Christ has done for us – not only in setting an example for us as a servant who washed his disciple's feet, but who paid the ultimate price so that we could be part of a community that is transformed by what he did at the cross – then we'll stay wide awake. We'll never doze off into leadership that isn't about service, followership that isn't about submission, and church that isn't about humility. Stay humble and faithful despite the stress, Peter says, and God will take care of the rest.

Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash

I'm a grateful husband, father, oupa, and pastor of Grace Fellowship Church Don Mills. I love learning, writing, and encouraging. I'm on a lifelong quest to become a humble, gracious old man.
Toronto, Canada