Read 1 Peter 5.
As Peter closed his first letter to the persecuted believers scattered through modern day Turkey, he urged the elders over these churches to lead God’s people well (vv. 1-4). In verses 5-7, he turned to “you who are younger” and commanded them to “submit yourselves to your elders.” My interpretation of this passage is that the “younger” refers to people in these churches who were not elders; that is, they were not God’s ordained leaders for the church. Just as Christ referred to his disciples as “my children,” so Peter plays off the literal meaning of the office “elder” to speak to those who were not elders in the church.
The command to people not leading the church, then, was “submit yourselves to your elders.” Submission, in this context, means to fall into line behind the leaders. It is about surrendering control of decision making to someone else. This does not mean taking orders from the elders of the church about every detail in your life. As elders, we have no business telling you to marry this person, have four children–and we’ll name them for you, take that job, not this one, etc.
Instead, the meaning of “submit yourselves to your elders” is to let the elders of the church lead the church. If the elders decide to start a ministry, support the ministry in whatever way you can. If the elders choose to shut down a ministry–especially one you love–then understand that it is their decision to make before the Lord, not yours.
It also means listening to the wisdom of your elders in the moral aspects of your life. We, as elders, would never tell someone whom to marry. But we have told professing believers in our church not to marry–or to date–unbelievers. We have also told people in our church that we have concerns about someone they intend to marry. Our goal is not to control their lives but to help them apply Biblical truths.
Sometimes people listen to us and do what we tell them is right. Those people have obeyed the command in this passage to “submit yourselves to your elders.” Others have pushed back–hard, at times–against what we have told them. Inevitably, their pushback does not come from a place where they interpret the scriptures differently than us. The resistance we get as elders usually is about avoiding the application of scripture, not its interpretation. People are really good at justifying what they want to do. When we try to help them make godly and wise decisions, they will often give reasons why the biblical principle, which they admit is true, does not apply to them. People often think they are the exception to God’s word. Sometimes God is gracious to them anyway, but more often than not things turn out exactly as we warned them they would.
If you have godly elders, like the ones described here in verses 1-4, you can trust them. Submission is about trust. It is not about agreement; it takes no effort to “submit” to someone that you agree with. You’ve both made the same decision, so there’s no submission involved.
Submission only happens when you disagree: You want something different from what your leaders think is wise and best. If you trust them, and trust the Lord’s command here in 1 Peter 5:5, you will do what your elders advise you to do, because (a) you know they want to glorify the Lord, (b) you believe that they want what is best for you which is the will of God, and (c) because the Lord commands you to submit.
This takes humility (vv. 5b-6) and it is never easy. But look at the Lord’s promises: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (vv. 6-7).
Could you benefit from godly counsel in your life right now? Are you making decisions within the will of God or are you hoping to be an exception? Godly leadership–in the family, in the church–will protect you from bad choices, from the self-deception that operates so powerfully within us all. Do yourself a favor–seek counsel from your elders and submit to what we tell you. We are not perfect or infallible, but we know the scriptures, want to see God glorified, desire the very best for you, and have seen a ton of stuff over the years. Is it wise to ignore all of that?