Though they ought not to entertain accusations against a pastor of an elder lightly (1 Tim 5:19) officers must be ready to accept the possibility that abuse is occurring. Over the years I have received reports from laity and pastors of abuse and too often other officers have been reluctant to address the problem. Pastors get more than their share of criticism and sometimes a presbytery (or classis) can unintentionally turn into a sort of union in which the members (ministers and elders) reflexively defend themselves against accusation by laity or other officers.
vv.3–4: Not Abusing But Waiting
Last I knew, most Christian congregations in North America are 200 members or fewer and, as I recall, most of those are 100 members or fewer. If something like that is still the case, then most of them are understaffed or underfunded. The problem that Peter addressed in verse 2, greed, is a visible problem that has received much attention, largely because of some outstanding examples but I submit to you that the matter in vs. 3, pastoral abuse, is more pervasive and under-reported than that of greed. Perhaps it is because I have spent my ministry mostly in smaller, sideline, under-funded, under-staffed confessional Reformed congregations that I have seen little actual greed in ministry. I have seen and counseled those who have suffered abuse at the hands of their pastors.
The term that Peter uses here (κατακυριεύοντες) occurs 4 times in the New Testament, twice in Matthew and Mark, which are parallel accounts, once in Acts and here. In Mark 10 we see Jesus telling the disciples what is about to happen to him, that he is to be abused by the powers of this world, that he will die, and that he will rise on the third day. This is not at all the sort of Lord and Savior for which they were looking. Thus, the next thing we read (vv. 35–37) is that James and John approach Jesus to ask for positions of authority in his kingdom. They have quite misunderstood Jesus. They have heard him but they have not listened. They do not understand the nature of his kingdom and Jesus says as much: ““You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (v.38). In contrast, the King is the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 52–53:
And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42–45; ESV).
The Kingdom of God is a reversal of the order of this world. In this world, the first are first and the last are last. It is cut-throat and Darwinian, red in tooth and claw, but in the Kingdom of God the last are first and the first are last. This is the difference between grace and works. Works gives what is earned but grace gives to those who cannot, who would not, what they did not earn. So, as a consequence, ministry in the kingdom is on a different order, a different paradigm. Jesus is the model of ministry in the kingdom. The Son of Man was the suffering servant who as abused, stricken, and finally murdered for us, in our place, as our substitute. He did not suffer for himself. He did not obey for himself. His obedient suffering was for us, in our place, and all that he did is credited to us who believe and even our believing is a gift from God.
The same verb occurs in colorfully in Acts 19:16, where it describes how a man controlled by evil spirit “overpowered” the seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish high priest, and drove them naked and wounded out of the house. That is a compelling picture of “lording it over” or abusing people.
In Mark and Luke, then, this verb describes a pagan, even demonic way of treating others. “Lording it over” or “domineering” a congregation, whom Peter calls figuratively “the lot” (τῶν κλήρων), i.e., those whom the Lord entrusts to the pastor’s care and oversight (ἐπισκοποῦντες). By contrast, pastors are to be or become (γινόμενοι) examples (τύποι) to the flock (ποιμνίου). The contrast is between the pagan idea of authority and control and a Christ-centered, or Christ-patterned approach to authority and control. How did Jesus shepherd his little congregation of disciples? He was endlessly patient with them. He was also sometimes stern with them but other times he provoked them to think and to meditate on great and mysterious truths. He led them the way a shepherd leads his flock. He was in front of them, setting a pattern for them to follow. He was not behind them beating them into submission. There was more drawing along than pushing.
Pastoral abuse of the flock has always been an issue.