The New Testament emphasizes Peter’s role as one of the leading apostles. Although Simon was his birth name, according to Mark 3:16 Jesus gave him the name Peter, which meant “rock” (cf. John 1:42; Matt. 16:18). Peter was the first of the apostles to see the risen Christ (1 Cor. 15:3–5). He also spoke for the disciples on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14). Paul later called Peter a “pillar” of the early church, along with James (the brother of Jesus) and John (Gal. 2:9). But in 1 Peter 5:1 Peter describes himself as “elder.”
The office of elder had its roots in the Old Testament, though elders in Israel functioned differently from elders in the New Testament church (see Ex. 3:16; 18:12). Scholar Thomas Schreiner observes that the similarities between the two “basically end with the fact of leadership and the use of the term.” Peter describes the function of the church’s elders as shepherding God’s flock by serving as “overseers” (1 Peter 5:2). Paul used similar language in his farewell address to the elders of the church of Ephesus in Acts 20:27–28. Shepherding the flock meant keeping watch over the church. This mode of leadership is both nurturing and protective. It is especially concerned with preserving and proclaiming biblical truth (Acts 20:29–30).
Peter did not see himself as the church’s chief elder but as a “fellow” elder, and he warns the other elders not to serve by “lording it over” the flock (1 Peter 5:3). This implies that there was no hierarchy among elders. They functioned as peers in their relationship to one another and as servants in their relationship to the flock. Elders were not necessarily apostles, however. The number of apostles was limited, but every church was to have its own elders (Titus 1:5; cf. Act 14:23). In the Jerusalem church there were both apostles and elders (Acts 15:2).
The difference between an apostle and an elder is their sphere of responsibility. Elders exercised oversight over the local congregation. The sphere of authority for apostles was the church as a whole. Apostles were responsible for laying the doctrinal foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20). The church’s elders are responsible for preserving and protecting that foundation.
FOR FURTHER STUDY
To learn more about elders, read Shepherding God’s Flock: Biblical Leadership in the New Testament and Beyond by Benjamin L. Merkle and Thomas R. Schreiner (Kregel).