(The Book of Acts)

by Al Maxey

What is the function of an elder in the Lord's church? Although almost everyone has an opinion on this, the only acceptable way to answer the question is to examine the evidence provided by God in His inspired writings. Thus, every passage which deals with this topic (or which is even suspected of dealing with it) must be carefully studied.

Acts 11:30

This is the first mention of elders in the Lord's church. The date was 44 A.D. --- fifteen years after Pentecost, at which time the church was established. Thus, for the first fifteen years of the church's existence no mention is ever made of elders. There is also nothing said in this passage, or any other, as to how long these individuals had been serving as elders in this location. They may have been serving for many years; they may have been recently ordained. There is also a possibility that these elders were not located only in Jerusalem, but perhaps in congregations throughout Judea (a possible implication from Acts 11:29b).

The Context --- The disciples in Antioch (in Syria) had been informed by prophets of God that a great famine was coming (Acts 11:27-28), therefore they "determined to send a contribution for the relief of the brethren living in Judea" (vs. 29b). "And this they did, sending it in charge of Barnabas and Saul to the elders" (vs. 30). Since elders are the "shepherds" of the flock, it is only natural that aid designed to provide relief for the flock would be directed to those individuals whose responsibility it was to provide for the needs of those entrusted to their care. This passage clearly depicts an awareness on the part of the disciples that the elders were the caretakers of God's flock.

Exactly what the elders did with the contributions sent to them (which may have been food supplies, as well as money) is never specified. However, in light of the teaching in Acts 6:1-6 it is very possible that the actual administration and distribution of these gifts were accomplished through trusted servants operating under the guidance of the elders.

Acts 14:23

Paul's first missionary journey (45 - 47 A.D.) was nearing completion. Before returning to Syrian Antioch (the congregation from which they had been sent forth), they go back through several of the cities which they (Paul & Barnabas) had evangelized "strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith" (Acts 14:22).

In three of the eight cities evangelized (Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch of Pisidia --- vs. 21b) they were able to appoint elders. Although some have assumed from the wording of vs. 23 that elders were appointed in every city evangelized, a careful reading of vs. 21-23 (and the surrounding context) will quickly reveal this to be an invalid conclusion. It seems not every congregation was growing at the same rate spiritually. Thus, some were not ready to appoint elders, whereas others were.

It is also worthy of note that elders were appointed in these three cities with prayer and fasting (vs. 23). This was a very solemn, spiritually significant occasion; one which was not to be taken lightly. Although the text indicates it was Paul and Barnabas (the two evangelists/apostles) who "appointed" the elders, this does not necessarily mean they were the ones who selected these men. They obviously provided leadership and guidance in this matter, and were the ones who "formally" ordained them (set them in place) --- (see: Titus 1:5), but it seems very likely the disciples themselves also took an active part in the selection process --- (see: Acts 6:2-6, which speaks of a similar selection process).

This passage does, however, clearly emphasize the need for congregations to have recognized spiritual leadership......IF there are men qualified to serve in this capacity (Titus 1:6)! Paul did not appoint men to serve as elders in every city, appointing just the best he could find, simply so that a congregation could say it had elders.....and thus "be Scriptural." He appointed elders in those cities where he was able to do so, and did not appoint elders in those which were not yet spiritually ready. There is a lesson here for us!!

Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23; 16:4

These passages all deal with the elders who were in Jerusalem, and with their handling of the issues raised in the "Jerusalem Conference" (50 A.D.). Within this context, and included in these various passages, are several points concerning the nature of the work and responsibilities of elders which should not be overlooked.

#1 --- They were men to whom the brethren in Antioch of Syria felt they could confidently appeal for help in assisting them to settle a great debate which had arisen (Acts 15:1-2). It is clearly inferred from this passage that these were men widely recognized as possessed of wisdom, knowledge, and experience; men to whom one could appeal for a "thus sayeth the Lord."

#2 --- They were also men who did not always see things just alike, and who were confident enough in their relationship with one another to openly and frankly express their feelings and views. This is seen in the fact that when "the apostles and elders came together to look into this matter," there followed "much debate" (vs. 6-7a). However, their spiritual maturity is evidenced in that when their discussions were concluded they were still unified --- ".....having become of one mind" (vs. 25)!!

#3 --- They were not men who viewed themselves as "overlords" of the church, who would meet in some secluded place to formulate laws to impose upon the people of God. They were not shepherds who took some perverse delight in forcing the sheep of the flock to jump through hoops of their own devising. Their desire was to do God's will, and to see that His truth was promoted for the good of the flock. "For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us....." (vs. 28). They evidenced the attitude of the Good Shepherd Himself: "Not My will, but Thine be done" (Luke 22:42).

#4 --- They were men who, with the aid of God's Holy Spirit (vs. 28), made decisions which, when heeded, would be in the best interests of the people of God in their charge (Acts 16:4). The word "decree" in this verse is a translation of the Greek word dogma, which means "a decree, an ordinance, a judgment or opinion." It is "an opinion expressed with authority" (W.E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of NT Words). Although these decrees were in actuality their opinions, they were nevertheless opinions which were authoritative in that they had the support of the Holy Spirit behind them. Thus, they must be heeded. (See also: I Corinthians 7:25, 40).

#5 --- These elders were men who clearly involved the members of the congregation in both their deliberations and decisions. They did not meet in "secret session" to "formulate and pass laws" for the church, but met openly and sought the input of the brethren. The congregation was part of the "reception committee" for the delegation from Antioch (Acts 15:4), and some within the congregation even spoke out at this time (vs. 5). The members were present when the deliberations and the debate were occurring, although it appears at this time they "kept silent" (vs. 12). When the leaders decided how they intended to proceed, the congregation gave their approval and support --- which seems to indicate it was sought! (vs. 22).

Acts 20:17, 28

The year was 58 A.D. The place: Miletus, a port city 36 miles south of Ephesus. Paul was returning to Jerusalem at the end of his 3rd missionary journey. When he arrived at Miletus he called for the elders at Ephesus to come meet with him one last time. Paul had recently completed a three year ministry at Ephesus, and was convinced that this might well be his last opportunity to see these spiritual leaders with whom he had worked so closely (vs. 22-23, 25). This was a very moving farewell (vs. 36-38). In Paul's farewell address to these men one can find a great deal of insight into the ministry of elders.

#1 --- They were to be men who were personally alert and vigilant. They were to be guardians not only of their own spiritual lives, but also of the spiritual well-being of those entrusted to their care. "Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock" (vs. 28a). "Therefore, be on the alert" (vs. 31a). Paul warns these leaders that the flock is often threatened from outside (vs. 29) and from inside (vs. 30). It is even possible that vs. 30 ("from among your own selves men will arise") has reference to the spiritual leaders themselves; that some of them would end up leading astray members of the flock. Thus, "be on guard for yourselves" (vs. 28a) may have reference to the eldership as a whole. Elders are spiritual guardians, thus the need for alertness (vs. 31a).

#2 --- If indeed vs. 30 is a reference to the elders themselves (which is very likely), and specifically to those within the eldership who have become corrupt, then we have a further insight into the work of an elder. This is found in the word "speaking." The implication, obviously, is that they are men who speak to the flock; they are teachers. The problem, however, is that they have become desirous of gathering their own following, rather than shepherding those who are followers of the Lord. Elders must carefully examine their own teaching (individually and collectively), and their motivations for teaching. They must keep alert lest anyone arise (either from among themselves, or from some other source) speaking "perverse things" and attempting to draw away the disciples after themselves. In other words, part of the responsibility of the elders is to know what is being taught (fed) to the flock. They must "firmly hold the faithful Word as respects the teaching.....and refute the ones who speak against it" (Titus 1:9).

#3 --- These are men whom "the Holy Spirit has made overseers" among the flock (vs. 28b). The word translated "made" is tithemi, which means "to set in place; to make; to produce or create; to ordain or appoint." The work of the Holy Spirit of God in "producing/making/creating" qualified elders should not be disregarded, nor should the submission of such men to allowing the Spirit to work within them --- guiding and transforming them. When a man commits himself to preparing for leadership, and submits himself to the transforming power of the Spirit of God, in time this combination will "produce/create" a man who can be "set in place" as an elder of God's people.

#4 --- These men are "overseers" --- refer to the Greek Word Study lesson in which the various words utilized for these spiritual leaders are discussed in some depth.

#5 --- They were to "shepherd the church of God" (vs. 28c). This is the word poimaino, which is a verb form of the noun poimen. The noun means "a shepherd," and is used with reference to a leader of the church only in Ephesians 4:11. The verb means "to shepherd; to perform the duties of a shepherd" --- "to feed, pasture, tend, direct, and care for a flock." This verb is used of spiritual leaders only here and in I Peter 5:2. A few translations of Acts 20:28 have "feed the church of God" (KJV and ASV), rather than "shepherd the church of God." This, however, is much too limited, and limiting, a translation of this word. Although shepherding does involve feeding the flock, it also involves a great deal more. One might get the mistaken idea from such a translation that feeding (teaching) is the only thing a spiritual shepherd needs to be doing for the flock. That simply is not the case!

Acts 21:18

Paul has now arrived in Jerusalem at the end of his 3rd missionary journey. His first day back in the city is spent with the brethren (vs. 17). The second day he has a meeting with James (the brother of Jesus; also known as "James the Just") and "all the elders." At this meeting two things occur:

#1 --- He "relates one by one the things which God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry" (vs. 19). Paul did not make this "report" because these were his "sponsoring elders" and thus were insistent upon a detailed accounting of his activities, but because he knew it would thrill their hearts to hear what God had accomplished on this journey.

#2 --- The elders make a request of Paul (vs. 20-25), with which he complies (vs. 26). This passage shows that these spiritual leaders were very sensitive to the feelings and perceptions of their flock! Their request of Paul was for the purpose of preventing a possible confrontation among brethren.

The implication here is that elders are to know their flock; to know how they feel, how they think, and what might cause stumbling blocks in their lives. Elders are to be sensitive to these feelings and perceptions, and to take any appropriate action deemed necessary to avoid a harmful confrontation in the fold of Christ. The particular problem with which these elders had to contend was that there was a group of Jewish converts to Christ who were still bound to their traditions and customs (vs. 20-21). Paul, James, and the elders could have taken the position: "We're right, you're wrong, so we'll do as we please." However, they realized that such a stand (even though they may have been "in the right") could only lead to conflict and division. Submitting to their weaker brethren (Romans 14 - 15), they maintained the peace and harmony of the Body of Christ. Here we see an example of an eldership dealing wisely with a potentially volatile situation in their midst.

The apostle Paul could certainly empathize with these Jewish brethren who had come from out of a strict, tradition-bound religious experience. He himself used to be "more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions than many of my contemporaries among my countrymen" (Galatians 1:14). Most customs and traditions are developed slowly over a period of many generations --- even centuries, and thus are not easily shed. Wise counsel advises: Patience and loving instruction, not heated confrontation!

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