The people of God to whom Peter was writing were facing difficulties. Some had already known the consequences of persecution, and the situation was liable to get worse. We can imagine all kinds of consequences: the fears some may have had of not being strong enough to continue their witness in the face of never-ending opposition; the sorrow and perplexity of those who had lost possessions and, worse, their loved ones; the normal circumstances of church life such as coping with temptations, looking for guidance, seeking for sympathy, provision of spiritual food, and so on. What does Peter do as he proceeds to advise them?
He could have repeated an exhortation to look to the Lord, and there is no doubt that the apostle would have stressed the importance and necessity of such a response. Yet he also knew that the Lord uses means, and one of those means were the elders that ruled the various congregations of God’s people. In a war, the victory is usually one by the side with the best commanders. The church was and is in a war and a lot is required of its leaders. Peter knew that as well and therefore he begins by encouraging them.
The term ‘elder’ here is presbuteros, from which we get the word Presbyterian, although the idea of elders is not limited to Presbyterian denominations. It usually occurs in the plural, a reminder that it is not right for a church to have only one elder as some other ecclesiastical systems have (the only Pauline greeting that mentions ‘elders’ is his greeting to the church in Philippi). The eldership role was probably taken over from Jewish practice and the little information we have about the apostolic practice is that elders were chosen by popular vote. The description so far is an ecclesiastical answer to the question, but there is more to the role than being a plural group selected by church members. So what else is an elder?
Paul answers this question in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9 and in those passages he basically focuses on the character and duties of an elder (there he calls them by the name bishop or overseer). It is a very searching list of items and those of us who are elders should go through them often, asking for divine help to live in such ways. But we will focus on Peter’s description of an elder in our next few readings.