Thursday, October 7, 2010

Elders in Acts 11:30

As we look the biblical role of elders/overseers/pastors, we're not generally going to move in canonical order. The order of texts we study will be somewhat subjective based on perceived importance. That said, it does seem fitting to begin by looking at the first use of any of these terms for this role in the N.T.


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)?

13 comments:

Alan Knox said...

Eric,

I probably should have asked this in the first post in this series, but how do you decide if Scripture is talking about "older men" or some recognized position/role called "elders"?

-Alan

Eric said...

Alan,

Good question. I could give some vague answer like, "by context." However, I'm really not certain. What do you think?

Alan Knox said...

Eric,

I'm not certain either. Many passages (like Acts 11:30 in this post) could be translated "older men." So, Paul and Barnabas gave the money to the older men who were part of the church in Jerusalem. Other passages don't seem to work with "older men." Titus 2 is always translated "older men," probably because "older women" is in the same context. So, I do think that context is important, but it doesn't always answer the question. Consider James 5:14 for instance. Was James telling the sick person to call for "the elders" or "the older men"? I don't know.

-Alan

Aussie John said...

Eric,

Alan asked the question which was on my mind.

May I suggest that #3 might better be , "Elders were well known as trustworthy " rather than as you have it, "hold some type of leadership position."?

I don't see any reason for the decision to send the elders as meaning any more than that they had proven themselves as faithful to Christ and trustworthy.

"Luke at least implies that elders act as leaders..." May I ask why you think that?

Eric said...

John,

As for being trustworthy, I tried to cover that in number 2. I certainly agree that that was a character trait that caused them to be able to receive the money from Barnabas and Saul.

As for leadership, I'm not suggesting that in any type of modern, corporate, programmatic sense. Rather, the elders seem to have been leaders in the sense that they had godly character (trustworthy). Therefore, others within the church could follow their example of living a godly life. Now, I would also say that there are certainly others within the church who would not have been elders but who would have had godly character. They would have been men whose character would have been worth noting and following as they followed Christ.

Aussie John said...

Eric,

Thank you for your response. The reason I asked the question is that, to my mind, in our day, the statement that "Luke at least implies that elders act as leaders..." is fraught with all kinds of difficulty. Australian and British folk I am acquainted with understand the word "leader", to mean the boss, the CEO, the ruler, or maybe head honcho.

I suspect that is true in most of the English speaking world. It was certainly true in the Baptist church I twice visited in the USA!

Maybe I'm wrong?

Eric said...

John,

That's true in the USA as well - at least until the church decides to get rid of him.

If we follow Christ's example, leadership should be servant-leadership.

Jeffrey said...

Eric,

My definition of leadership is: going in the direction one knows they need to go, understanding that others are influenced to emulate them. My definition of being a boss is telling others what they must do. Both have their place in life, but these terms have become wrongly interchangeable in our society. As such, people have wrongly interpreted leadership in the church to be equivalent with boss-hood.

Jeff

Eric said...

Jeff,

Good point about the mistaken interchangability within the church of these terms. Thanks.

francisdrakeprivateer said...

Great post! Also great and surprising comments, rare wisdom.

I believe that eldership has nothing whatever to do with an appointment. It has everything to do with the date of birth! The word elder is NOT interchangeable with pastor or overseer as most churches teach.

As has already been pointed out, the word elder(male) is frequently juxtaposed against elder female, and younger male and female, thus excluding it from being an appointed position.

Titus is usually quoted as proof that an elder should be an appointed position, however that is an abuse of the scriptures used to maintain the status quo.
Tit1v5. ...............and set in order the things that are wanting and APPOINT ELDERS in every city...v6.....if any be blameless etc..........v7for a BISHOP (OVERSEER) must be blameless etc.....

Titus is NOT about appointing elders, but it IS clearly and specifically about APPOINTING OVERSEERS from the older mature people amongst the saints.

Imagine a denomination deciding to boost its children's work. A decision is taken and a message sent out to various local churches.
"It has been decided to properly address the issue of children in the congregations. Therefore we ask you TO APPOINT WOMEN in each assembly. Any CHILDREN'S HELPER must be mature etc................"

Using exactly the same rules that bible colleges use in interpreting Titus1v5-7, this example would be about APPOINTING MEMBERS TO BE WOMEN!
Obviously nonsense, but why isn't the idea also considered nonsense in the churches.

From this, you might see that I would call you, Eric, an overseer or bishop (episkop) of one of God's works rather than a pastor. You might be blessed with the anointing of a pastor, but that is another thing altogether.

A church can legitimately appoint overseers and deacons. However I believe that only God gave the fivefold ministries, and these ministries are not accompanied by a badge. The bible reveals no evidence of anyone operating with such used as titles, only descriptions.
Nowhere is it a "given" that a pastor runs a church, anymore than a prophet apostle evangelist or teacher does.

Eric said...

Francis,

Thanks for commenting on my blog.

I've got a couple of questions for you:

First, what do you do with Acts 14:23, which says, "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."? In this verse, elders are appointed.

Second, what about I Peter 5:1-2, "The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly."? This mentions the same people as elders and overseers. The word now used for pastor (shepherd) is even used in verb form.

What do you think?

Mark said...

Those that have walked out of the institution have difficulty with the concept of leadership, because we've seen it so often abused. As has been stated previously, leadership should be by example, and should be by service to the body, of which the leaders or elders are a part. The unfortunate effect of this past is that we now tend to be hesitant both to follow those that the Lord has called us to follow, or even to lead when He tells us to. I use as an example a dear brother that the Spirit has knit me together with. He truly is an elder to me, and is an example of a life lived in dedicated pursuit of Christ. Because of this, I submit myself to Him, as I see him submitted to Christ. Likewise he submits himself to me in areas where I have a gracing he does not. That really is the gist of it. In an area where one person has a grace, others follow. In an area where that person doesn't have a grace, he/she follows. We all are to submit one to another! We need a renewal in our minds of what leadership is, and that is why I like this series, Eric.

Mark

Eric said...

Mark,

I like what you have to say about mutual submission. I also agree that some who have departed from the institutional church shy away from biblical eldership out of reaction against problems in leadership they have seen. We all just need to try to be as biblical as we can. That sounds trite, but I really do mean it.