Word studies can be dangerous. D.A. Carson notes many of the problems with them in his book Exegetical Fallacies. However, rightly done they can open up Scripture for us. Take for example the phrase “lording it over” in I Peter 5:3. In I Peter 5:1-4 the Apostle Peter gives pastors and elders an exhortation on how to shepherd the flock. He begins by saying we are to shepherd the flock as overseers (I Peter 5:2). This is an overall description of the office. Then he give three sets of opposites to describe how we are to fulfill this calling. All translations are mine.
Not by compulsion/force, but willingly
Not greedy/eager for gain, but with readiness
Not as being lords/lording it over the lot, but by being an example
All of these deserve attention from ministers and elders. Peter’s description is different from Paul’s in I Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9, and Luke’s in Acts 20:28-30. All of these are adverbs or adverbial participles, which describe how the shepherd is supposed to his job. Unlike I Timothy 3:1-7, which focuses on the character qualities of the elder, Peter focuses on the how of the job. What is the attitude elders and pastors should carry as they exercises their office?
The verb translated “lording it over” is only used three times other times in the New Testament. Two of these will not surprise you.
Matthew 20:25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.
Mark 10:42 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 the third use outside of our passage is instructive. It happens to come in one of my favorite sections in Acts.
Acts 19:13-16 Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. But the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” And the man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded.
The word “mastered” is the same word translated “lording it over” in I Peter 5:3. In I Peter 5:3 bad shepherds are those who wrestle their people to the ground and overpower them. Shepherds who control through manipulation, cruel words, wrongful shaming, and abuse of power. Shepherds who lord it over are like demon possessed men seeking to master their slaves. It reminds me of Ezekiel’s rebuke of Israel’s shepherds in Ezekiel 34:4.
The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them.
The second word “harshness” is used twice in Exodus 1:13-14 to describe the way the pharaohs enslaved and treated the Israelites. The shepherds of Israel in Ezekiel’s time had become like the pharaohs of Egypt. Peter reminds us that we are tempted to the same thing. We are tempted to control, power, and enslave our people.
But aren’t shepherds supposed to protect the sheep and drive away wolves? How can we do this without controlling them? There are several answers to this given in Scripture, but the sum of it is our live and words must convince. Our job is not to overpower them. Our job is to exhort, persuade, convince, and plead with our lives and words.
Peter contrasts lording it over the sheep with being an example, a type to the flock. The primary method Peter encourages is a life of godliness, holiness, and devotion to the Lord. Paul uses the exact same word in his exhortation to Timothy in I Timothy 4:12
Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.
So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.
Is there ever a time for strong words? Of course. Do pastors and elders rebuke? Yes. Do pastors chase away wolves? I sure hope so. But if our normal pattern with our people is, “Listen to me or else.” “Do what I say or I will make you pay by embarrassing you or shaming you.” If we rely upon our position and power to force the sheep to obey or if our regularly wrestle them to the ground, trying to control them, and make them do what we say then we are just like that demon possessed man in Acts 19. We have become lords instead of shepherds.