1 Peter tells the elders that they must agree to take care of God’s people, and that they must see this as a calling from God, not as an office carrying prestige or financial reward. Their calling is not to be elevated above the flock, but to be given over to the flock’s well-being.
The gorgeous painted altarpiece of Augustine’s consecration as bishop of Hippo rather undermines that point. The fifteenth-century artist has depicted a contemporary (rather than fourth-century) consecration of great lavishness. The consecrating bishops and the bishop-to-be are wearing richly embroidered robes, and their mitres and gloves are jewelled. The ‘flock’ are conspicuous by their absence, unless represented by the face peering through at the far right of the picture; but even he is probably a portrait of a donor, rather than a symbol of the people to whom a bishop is called. Augustine’s face is serious, but there is no doubt that this is a man entering into a great office, with pomp and ceremony.
Augustine himself tells a different story. In a sermon, preached to his people after he had been their bishop for many years, Augustine describes how he was seized upon and ordained priest with no preparation and little opportunity to discern a calling. ‘A servant ought not to oppose his Lord’, Augustine writes, ruefully, very much in the spirit of 1 Peter 5:6: even bishops are humble ‘under the mighty hand of God’ (Ramsey 2007: 407).
He was bishop of Hippo for over thirty years, describing it as a task compelled by love—of God and of God’s people. As the ambitious young Augustine takes up this yoke as the servant of an obscure community at the edge of the Empire, as the intellectual turns his hand to the education of his people, as the contemplative takes on the management of a divided and unruly province, Augustine lives out an exegesis of 1 Peter 5.
Brown, Peter. 1967. Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (London: Faber and Faber)
Ramsey, Boniface (ed.). 2007. St Augustine: Essential Sermons, Sermon 355, trans. by Edmund Hill (New York: New City Press)
5So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ as well as a partaker in the glory that is to be revealed. 2Tend the flock of God that is your charge, not by constraint but willingly, not for shameful gain but eagerly, 3not as domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock. 4And when the chief Shepherd is manifested you will obtain the unfading crown of glory. 5Likewise you that are younger be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
6 Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that in due time he may exalt you. 7Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares about you. 8Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour. 9Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experience of suffering is required of your brotherhood throughout the world. 10And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, establish, and strengthen you. 11To him be the dominion for ever and ever. Amen.
12 By Silvaʹnus, a faithful brother as I regard him, I have written briefly to you, exhorting and declaring that this is the true grace of God; stand fast in it. 13She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings; and so does my son Mark. 14Greet one another with the kiss of love.
Peace to all of you that are in Christ.