The principle of identification is often cited as a missionary necessity, part and parcel of the work of proclaiming the gospel of Christ. Examples are found in Scripture of this principle.
Stan Shewmaker called it “a purposeful participation in the lives of others” and “an understanding and acceptance of the validity of another culture’s style of life, different though it may be. True identification is never a vertical condescension, but a horizontal cultural shift.”
Perhaps the principle may be expressed succinctly by Paul’s statement to the Galatians: “I beg you, brothers and sisters, become like me, because I have become like you” Gal 4.12a. Identification is not a goal in and of itself, but the means to helping others become followers of Christ, like the proclaimer is a follower.
Jesus is the prime example of identifying with those he desired to reach. He gave up the glories of heaven to became a human being. He subjected himself to all the rigors and temptations of humanity.
The apostle Paul is another widely cited example of missionary identification. A popular passage used to demonstrate this mission principle is 1 Corinthians 9.
The apostle Peter is seldom mentioned, however. But he also knew and used the principle of identification.
Peter to elders
Toward the end of his first letter, Peter addresses himself to elders, specifically. Most of the letter is written to the saints in general. But now he has a word to the overseers.
This pericope appears in the context of suffering, and joins elders and youths. If the letter contains a chiastic structure, it may correspond to an earlier section, about couples and slaves, where Jesus is mentioned as the “shepherd and guardian of your souls” 1 Pet 2.25.
1 So as your fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings and as one who shares in the glory that will be revealed, I urge the elders among you: 2 Give a shepherd’s care to God’s flock among you, exercising oversight not merely as a duty but willingly under God’s direction, not for shameful profit but eagerly. 3 And do not lord it over those entrusted to you, but be examples to the flock. 4 Then when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that never fades away. 1 Peter 5.1-4 NET
To the shepherds in the congregations of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, the province of Asia, and Bithynia, 1 Pet 1.1, he writes as a “fellow elder” when making his appeal to care for God’s flock. He does not here remind them of his apostolic position or authority. Apparently, he wants them to know that he faces the same challenges and opportunities as they do.
It is noteworthy that Peter does not call his readers fellow elders, but that is what he calls himself. He is one of them. Peter uses, or perhaps coins, a term not found elsewhere in the NT for fellow elder.
Coffman sees this term as an expression of shared authority within the eldership. “The authority of the eldership is in the group sharing the office and is not to be exercised individually, each elder himself being subject, as is the whole church, to the eldership.” Since Peter is not within the same congregation as the elders to whom he writes, and since his readers do not belong to the same congregation either, this position must be rejected.
The term is the first of three phrases by which Peter describes himself. Placed at the beginning of his self-identification to the elders among the churches, therefore, it serves the important function of communicating to them that he “personally felt the responsibilities, and from experience knew the difficulties, of an elder” (cited in Hiebert, p. 332).
Peter, then, uses the term co-elder, as well as the verb “urge,” rather than issuing a commandment, as a means of identifying with those readers of his letter who serve as shepherds. His use of it is not a full-blown development of the principle, but shows his awareness of and appreciation for it. His choice of terms indicates a desire to identify with them and to urge upon them the duties of their function, proper motives for serving, and the reward for the efforts.
This principle is important because (1) it allows the speaker to communicate from the perspective of the hearers; meaning is facilitated; (2) it creates a point of contact or an emotional bridge, which creates greater receptivity to the message.
Peter shows that he understand the principle. His use of it reinforces its importance in the biblical evidence and encourages us to seek opportunities to identify with others.