In these two chapters, we see the word "elders" used six times (in bold font below), all referring to the same people.
It is difficult to determine the exact meaning of "elders" in these chapters. Is Luke talking about older wise men in the church in Jerusalem, is he referring to people who have been appointed (such as in Acts 14:23), or is he referring to both? I don't think we can determine from this text.
What can we learn about the role of elders from this passage? Let's see.
This is a long passage, but I'm including it here so that we will all read it again before discussing it.
The passage is Acts 15:1 - 16:5:
1 But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." 2 And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.
3 So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. 4 When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. 5 But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, "It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses."
6 The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. 7 And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, "Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, 9 and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. 10 Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11 But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will."
12 And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. 13 After they finished speaking, James replied, "Brothers, listen to me. 14 Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. 15 And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written, 16 "'After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, 17 that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things 18 known from of old.' 19 Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, 20 but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. 21 For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues."
22 Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers, 23 with the following letter: "The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. 24 Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, 25 it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 men who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. 28 For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: 29 that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell."
30 So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch, and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. 31 And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. 32 And Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, encouraged and strengthened the brothers with many words. 33 And after they had spent some time, they were sent off in peace by the brothers to those who had sent them. 34 35 But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also.
36 And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, "Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are." 37 Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. 38 But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. 39 And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. 41 And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
16:1 Paul came also to Derbe and to Lystra. A disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek. 2 He was well spoken of by the brothers at Lystra and Iconium. 3 Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. 4 As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem. 5 So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily.
Before we discuss the above passage, let's remember the context. Acts chapters 10-11 are critical. In those two chapters, we see salvation come to Gentiles. The Holy Spirit falls in a very visible manner, making it clear that following O.T. requirements is not expected for Gentiles to become Christians.
Now we move to Acts 15. We come across what many people refer to as the "Jerusalem Council." What happens during this gathering? What can we learn about elders?
To sum it up - I don't think we learn very much about elders in this passage.
We see a gathering taking place. We see a problem arise that the church has to deal with. That problem (do Gentiles have to follow the O.T. law to be Christians?) is the focus of this chapter. Elders are mentioned but not highlighted.
Much of the chapter is a lengthy discussion. The apostles are there, as are the elders. It seems that the church as a whole was involved. Verse four tells us that they were received by the church. Verses 22 -23 mention the apostles, elders, and "the whole church" and "the brethren." It is difficult to determine what role the elders played that the whole church did not.
After much discussion, there is a resolution. The group comes to the conclusion that Gentiles do not have to follow the O.T. law in order to be Christians. The key is that they did not need to be circumcised in order to be saved.
Did the church come to this conclusion on its own? It appears not. They were simply recognizing a truth we have already seen back in Acts 10-11. The Holy Spirit made it clear to everyone in those chapters that Gentiles are accepted by God through repentance and faith.
Also, who came to this conclusion in Acts 15? We learn a lot from Acts 15:23. In the first line of the letter sent to Antioch, it reads, "The apostles, the elders, and the brethren..." The implication was that the decision from the Jerusalem meeting came from the entire church.
So what about the elders? What did they do? What can we learn?
-The fact that they are mentioned implies that they are important to the life of the church. In the space of a little over one chapter, they are mentioned six times.
-The elders are involved in the decision making. While some verses suggest that the decision was that of the entire church, others focus more on the apostles and elders (see 16:4). My guess is that those in the church in Jerusalem looked to the elders as a model to follow in their decision making. This does not imply, however, any specific authority on the part of the elders.
That's about all I can find. Since this is primarily a narrative passage that focuses on other things, we don't learn much about elders. This does not imply that elders aren't important; rather, they just aren't the focus of this passage.
I wanted to look at this passage for two reasons. First, it contains the word "elders," and I intend in this series to look at all N.T. passages that use that word. Second, and equally important, the "Jerusalem Council" is often used as evidence for the authority of elders in the church. The thinking goes like this: the apostles and elders made the decision; apostles don't exist any longer but elders do; therefore, elders now have authority in the church. The big problem with this reasoning is that elders don't have authority in this passage.
We must be careful not to read into passages what isn't there. This passage is remarkably sparse on what we can learn about elders.
I believe we can safely say that Acts 15:1 - 16:4 teaches us the following about elders:
-Elders were part of the church.
-Elders were important to the life of the church.
-Elders were involved in decision making.
Based on what we see in 16:4, we can guess (not be certain) that others within the church looked to the elders as examples in how to think through this problem.
In the end, we don't learn much from this passage. Let's let the bible speak, not add to it, and not take away from it.
To learn more about the "Jerusalem Council," click here to read several posts that my friend Alan has written about it.