Elders as Described by Luke in Acts

The book of Acts records for us the early history of the Church from Jesus’ ascension to heaven, the birth of the Church on the day of Pentecost, the activities of the Apostles as they witnessed to Jesus’ Resurrection and the growth of the movement from Jerusalem to Samaria and into the Roman Empire. It records in broad strokes much of what happened in those early days as the Gospel was spreading and churches were being planted. Acts also records for us some of the inner workings of the church as it developed and grew. One of the fascinating records is that of the leadership of the Church. In its earliest days the Apostles and a few others preached, taught, evangelized and led the believers. In the earliest chapters of Acts much of the focus is on Peter’s leadership. In later chapters, Paul is the dominant player. In between there is mention of John, Phillip, Stephen, James and a number of others. Behind these broad stroke scenes another leadership entity emerges and is given considerable mention in Acts. We first meet this entity in the context of the church in Antioch coming to the aid of the churches in Judea. The Judean churches had been hit hard by a famine and the believers in Antioch responded. Acts 11 recounts;

Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius). So the disciples determined, everyone according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul. (Acts 11:27-30 ESV)

“…to the elders…” Presbuterous is a plural, masculine, comparative adjective meaning ‘older’ (i.e. older men).¬† Here it is used as a descriptor for a group of leaders within the context of the Judean churches.

This is the first mention in Acts of elders (plural) within the context of the church. Luke (the author of Acts) gives no explanation. From our perspective it seems that he assumes his reader(s) will be familiar with the term as it applied to the church and feels no need to clarify who this group is, what they do, or how they began. They are just there. So early in the life of the church in Judea our historian, Luke, identifies a group of leaders called elders – and we assume at this point that they are leaders because they are the ones to whom the assistance from the church in Antioch is delivered – probably for oversight and distribution. The next time Luke mentions church elders it is in the context of Paul’s first missionary journey. Paul and Barnabas have had a successful church-planting journey and are swinging back through Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, towns they have evangelized, with a view to encouraging the disciples. Luke records;

When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed. (Acts 14:21-23 ESV)

This time there is a little more information. Paul and Barnabas found it necessary to make an appointment of “elders” (plural) in each church. This was something that was good for the church. It was part of what they saw as necessary for the strengthening and encouraging of the disciples. Paul and Barnabas then did something which looks like a “setting apart” ceremony in which they prayed, fasted and committed these men to the Lord. There is still no description of what elders do, who they are or what their qualifications are but again we assume that the role is leadership.

Then controversy arises in the church. The story starts in the context of the Antioch church again. The church is doing well, its first “official missionaries” have just returned with great stories of what God has done among the Gentiles! Then come the Judaisers – teaching the Antioch believers that to be true Christians (saved) they must follow the Jewish ceremonial law of circumcision. Paul and Barnabas disagree and Luke describes the dispute as “sharp”. The church appoints Paul and Barnabas along with some other believers to go and get clarification on this matter from the “apostles and elders” in Jerusalem. This is recorded in Acts 15 and is the third mention of elders in the context of the church in the book of Acts. Five times in this chapter Luke couples the term “elders” with “apostles”. What was their role? Was not the discerning of truth and error the purview of the apostles in the early church? How is it that elders feature so strongly in this context. Again we are not told. Luke assumes that the reader(s) understands who and what elders are and do. However, as we read Luke’s account of the Jerusalem Council we cannot help but notice that elders are intimately involved in the most critical aspects of church leadership. When the decision is made and a letter is sent back to the church in Antioch the letter itself is from the “…apostles and elders, your brothers…”

The next mention of elders in Acts comes at the end of Paul’s third missionary journey. He is on his way to Jerusalem for Pentecost and stops in Miletus long enough for the elders of the church in Ephesus to meet him there.

Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. And when they came to him, he said to them: “You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. Acts 20:17-27 ESV)

After describing how he himself ministered among them Paul then proceeds to give the elders his instructions for them. Here it is very clear that they are the leaders of the church – the flock. They are identified as Spirit appointed overseers with the spiritual ministry of caring for God’s precious church.

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears. Acts 20:28-31 ESV)

Once again we are left with the impression that Luke assumes his readers are familiar with the concept of elders in the church and so no explanation or description is necessary. Rather than addressing this passage here I will take some time to investigate Acts 20 in a future article. The next time Luke makes mention of church elders takes place as Paul reaches Jerusalem and meets with the church there. Special mention is made of his meeting with James and that all the elders were present.

When we had come to Jerusalem, the brothers received us gladly. On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. (Acts 21:17-19 ESV)

It is interesting that these leaders identify themselves as the ones who wrote the letter to the Gentile churches mentioned in Acts 15.

But as for the Gentiles who have believed, we have sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. (Acts 21:25 ESV)

In the account above these leaders advise Paul with regard to what they believe Paul should do in the context of the Jewish culture in order to put to rest any rumours that Paul has betrayed his Jewish heritage. Paul follows their advice and the rest of the story is history.

This is Luke’s last mention of elders in the context of the church. It is interesting that individual elders are never identified. In the book of Acts they seem to be a faceless group. The apostles are frequently mentioned by name – but not elders. We can speculate that maybe the James mentioned in chapter 15 and 21 was an elder – but Luke does not tell us that. What Luke does tell us is that early in the life of the church there is a leadership entity called “elders”. He gives us some small descriptive glimpses into the role they play but for the most part assumes that his readership knows who and what elders are.

©Copyright 2008 Loren Warkentin

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