Monday, October 11, 2010

Elders in Acts 14:23


Let's continue the discussion of the role of elders/overseers/pastors by looking at the next instance of the word "elder." We find it in Acts 14:23.

Acts 14:19-23, "But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. 20 But when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city, and on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe. 21 When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, 22 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. 23 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." (emphasis mine)

This episode takes place during Paul's first missionary journey (I have always loved the way Paul gets stoned, but then somehow gets up and returns to the city).

On this journey, Paul and Barnabas traveled through parts of Asia Minor. They proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ and people were saved. Churches were started in these different cities. Paul and Barnabas did a U-turn of sorts once they reached Derbe, going back to the cities they had previously visited. When they did this, they encouraged the new believers and warned them that they would likely face persecution. In 14:23, we read that Paul and Barnabas "appointed elders for them in every church." Paul and Barnabas prayed and fasted for them, and then departed.

This is a fairly straightforward narrative passage. As in Acts 11:30, the elders are almost mentioned in passing. The focus is on Paul and Barnabas' activities rather than on the elders themselves.

Although this passage is short as it pertains to elders, we can still learn at least six things.

1. Elders are appointed by someone.

In this case, the church planters Paul and Barnabas appointed the elders. We can surmise that these two men looked around the churches and saw who should be elders. They then appointed them. We don't know why particular men were appointed or what they were supposed to do (we learn these things in other passages), but we can safely say that someone appointed them.

Notice that they didn't appoint themselves. This is far different from today when men go off to seminary, graduate, and then basically declare themselves ready "to preach!"

We cannot be certain what Paul and Barnabas were looking for in these men, but it is safe to say they had the characteristics of I Timothy 3:1-7 in mind. In other words, these were probably godly, mature men who lived in such a manner as to be examples to others in the church bodies.

2. Elders should be multiple, not singular.

Let us take note that "elders" not "elder" were appointed in every church. This is a role of multiplicity, not singularity. Throughout the N.T. churches we read of multiple elders.

How easily we ignore this today.

3. Elders are part of the church.

This is implied rather than overtly stated. However, I think we can safely say that Paul and Barnabas appointed men who were already parts of these church bodies. They would have recognized who were already acting as mature examples to others, and would then have appointed them. There is, quite obviously, no way someone could be an example if he was not part of a particular local church in the first place. We never get the idea that, for example, Paul appointed someone from Lystra to be an elder in Iconium.

Again, think how far we have strayed from this model today.

4. Elders are for the benefit of the church.

Acts 14:23 says, "And when they had appointed elders for them..." Notice that Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for the good of the people - for the benefit of the church families. So we clearly see that the church is not to benefit the elders (although that will probably happen), but the other way around. This clearly implies servanthood on the part of the elders. It also rules out any type of special status or rock-star type benefit on the part of the elders.

5. Elders are important for the church.

Elders are appointed in every church. Paul and Barnabas would not have done this in every church if elders were not important. We must be careful here. This does not automatically mean that elders are leaders in any type of hierarchical sense. It also does not mean that elders are more important than anyone else. We can simply infer that elders are important. If the role is one of being godly examples of servanthood, then this makes complete sense.

6. Churches should have elders.

Related to #5, we can surmise that elders should be a part of every church. Otherwise, Paul and Barnabas would not have appointed them "in every church." Every means 100%. The fact that there were no exceptions is significant. As there is a tendency in traditional churches to elevate elders (usually referred to as "pastors") to a special status, there is also a tendency among simple churches to react against this by having no elders. Neither of these follows the biblical model.


These are six aspects of the role of elders/overseers/pastors that I believe we can learn from this verse. What do you think?

6 comments:

Jessica said...

I like this post (except the part where you said you liked where Paul got stoned) I just have a curious question. Be patient with me for just a sec. Ok we know that Paul and Barabas appointed elders in a bunch of cities. In Ephesus and Jerusalm yada yada yada. we also know that in each of those cities that they passed the letters around from group to group and that they meet in houses plural. So my question is this. Does that mean that not every house church will have elders? Like there will be appointed some wise old go-to guys in Savannah and then some wise dudes in Garden City and some other elders in Rincon and Statesboro? I know that this isn't the most eloquent post but I'm just curious.

Eric said...

Jessica,

Yours is an interesting question. I think part of what was going on back then was that Christianity was very new in those areas. Therefore, Paul and Barnabas did the appointing. This does set a precedent for church planters appointing elders. However, in areas where people have been Christians for quite some time, it makes sense that the church body itself could recognize who within the body is already acting like an elder and therefore appoint them. In the end, I believe all churches should have elders. If the church plant is very new, it may take a few years to recognize who should be elders, but the church should be moving in this direction.

Mark said...

Eric,

I always say this when I agree with something, but "I love this post". There is a tremendous, and dangerous, tendency in those walking outside of institutional Christianity to ignore the importance of leadership in the body. There is also a complete misunderstanding of what leadership in the body should be, and you hit it on the head in your post. I have never liked the word "church planter", but I suppose Paul could be seen as that. I see that as the grace or function of an apostle, and I think the role of apostles, as well as many other graces, is lacking in the body today. For a person to acknowledge publicly that God has graced or gifted them as an apostle usually results in a very negative reaction, because, after all, apostles are so high and mighty! In reality, there is no difference in importance between an apostle and a pastor/teacher. It is simply different giftings or functions, but each equally important. We so need the example of servant leadership in the body, and then maybe these things wouldn't be so hard for people to grasp. The Lord has been teaching me about these things, mostly through 1 and 2 Corinthians, as it is obvious in these books the influence Paul had on these believers. As he said, however, he did not "Lord it over [their] faith", but rather he served them!!

Eric said...

Mark,

Thanks! I agree with you that the apostle issue is an interesting one. I've heard many people (including myself in the past) say that apostles don't exist anymore. The reality is that the first 12 don't exist anymore. However, if an apostle is a "sent one," then they certainly still exist. We need them to be involved in church planting. I wish I knew one to help with what we are doing.

It's exciting and challenging to study eldership from the scriptures while trying to ignore traditional influences. I'm glad to see you doing this, too.

reformedlostboy said...

Eric,

could you elaborate some on any similarities/differences you see between the appointing of elders in Acts and the ordinations that we have today?

Eric said...

Bobby,

I've thought about that a lot, but do not have a great answer. One big difference between then and now is that Paul was working in an area where there had been no Christian witness before his going there (at least we think). Today we have at least some mature Christians spread all around our country at least. Therefore, it seems that today the local body could recognize the elders that the Holy Spirit has selected.

Now, as for the whole professional pastor, resume, corporate mindset, please don't get me started on that.