Because it is unwieldy to type and read "elders/overseers/pastors," from this point forward I'm simply going to use the term that is used in the biblical passage we are looking at.
Today's verse is Acts 11:30, where we read, "And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul."
In order to get a better feel for the verse, read Acts 11:19-30 .
What's going on here? The situation is actually very simple. Some prophets had come from Jerusalem to Antioch. Agabus, one of the prophets, told the church in Antioch that there was going to be a severe famine "throughout all the world." In response to this, each disciple in Antioch gave "according to his ability" to a relief fund of sorts that would be sent to the church in Judea. The church in Antioch sent this monetary gift by the hands of Barnabas and Saul to the elders.
This is the first mention of elders in the New Testament church.
When I read this passage, what initially strikes me is how simple and relatively sparse it is on information about elders. We might expect several verses that introduce the position of elder to us. Luke does not give this to us. He simply mentions "elders." It may be that Luke does this because he believes the readers already understand who elders are and what they do.
However, it may also be that Luke doesn't think elders are as important as we tend to think of them today. His language certainly does not imply that elders hold a very significant position in the church. Later bible passages will speak more about the importance of elders, but this one doesn't.
What can we glean about elders from this little passage? I think there are a few significant things.
1. Elders are part of the church. This may seem painfully obvious, but it is worth stating here at the beginning. The elders mentioned here were in Judea, which would include the leaders of the church in Jerusalem but other sections of Judea as well.
2. Elders are trustworthy and do not seek dishonest gain. We can assume that this would have been a substantial offering taken from Antioch (the exact amount is not significant). Barnabas and Saul would not take the money to simply anyone. They would give it to those who could be trusted. This suggests that elders should be men of godly character. Significantly, we see right from the beginning that character is more important than skill or experience when it comes to who elders should be (we see this very clearly in I Timothy 3:1-7).
3. Elders hold some type of leadership position. I think Luke at least implies that elders act as leaders of some type within the church. I hope I'm not reading this into the text (always a danger when we have traditions that cloud our vision). Luke does not define this leadership here. Luke does not say that the elders made the decision about how best to distribute the offering. He does not say any more about elders here. We are simply told that the money went to them.
4. Elders are not extremely significant to the life of the church. Please let me explain what I mean. In modern churches, we clearly see a clergy-laity divide which puts the pastor(s) on a pedestal. This is such a normal practice that it isn't usually questioned. Many people can't conceive of the church doing anything significant apart from the pastor(s) leading it. Luke does not imply that significance here at all. He simply mentions elders. If elders were extremely significant to the degree that the church couldn't function without them leading the way, then Luke certainly would have written more about their role. As we look at other passages, we'll see that elders are, in fact, significant. However, I think we'll see that their significance is both lesser and different than what we see in most modern churches today.
These are four aspects of the role of elders that I believe we can learn from this passage. What do you think? Am I off the mark anywhere (possibly)? Have I missed anything important (probably)?