Thursday, November 4, 2010

Elders in Acts 20:17-38

Acts 20:17-38 is a very important passage in discussing the role of elders/overseers/pastors within the church. I encourage you to read it prior to the rest of this post. Thanks.

The broader context of this passage is Paul's 3rd missionary journey. He is trying to get back to Jerusalem quickly in order to be there for Pentecost. For time's sake Paul decides to bypass Ephesus and stop in Miletus. Paul calls for the elders of the church in Ephesus to come to him. In saying a final farewell to them, the apostle reminds them of his example and instructs them in caring for the church.

What can we learn about elders/overseers/pastors from this passage?

1. The terms "elders," "overseers," and "pastors" refer to the same role in the church.

Acts 20:17-38 is a passage that uses all three of these terms. In 20:17 we read of Paul calling for the "elders." In 20:28, we see that the Holy Spirit has made them "overseers." Later in that same verse, we read that these men are to shepherd (pastor) the church. In the N.T. all three terms seem to be used almost interchangeably.

2. Elders are important to the life of the church.

Paul specifically calls for the elders of the church in Ephesus. This indicates that they play an important role. This is consistent with what we see in other sections of the N.T.

3. Elders should follow Paul's example in attitude and action.

In 20:18, Paul says, "You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia." I may be reading a bit into his statement, but I think Paul is telling them to emulate him. We know that in other places he tells Christians to copy his behavior.

In light of this, elders should serve with humility and long-suffering, declare and teach what is profitable to the church, proclaim the good news of Christ to all peoples, and care little for their own lives.

Of course, we should remember that all Christians are called to all of the above things as well. We should all follow Paul's example.

4. The Holy Spirit makes overseers.

In 20:28 we see that it is God who appoints overseers. It is His decision, not man's.

5. Elders are to be on guard for themselves and the church.

Paul warns in 20:28-31 of the coming of false teachers from both outside and inside the church. A primary duty of elders is to protect the church against false teachings. This obviously implies, then, that elders will be knowledgeable of the scriptures and what constitutes sound teaching.

6. Elders should work hard.

Paul's example to them was that of a tentmaker. He was able to provide for himself and those who were with him. He did not rely on the church in Ephesus to support him with a salary.

7. Elders are to help the weak because it is more blessed to give than to receive.

Paul makes it clear to the elders that they should help the weak, poor, and needy. Paul was able to give to those in need because he made money working with his hands. He reminds the elders of the importance of this because Christ Himself said that giving was better than receiving.

So what are the implications of this passage for us today?

The bible makes it clear to us that elders/overseers/pastors are important to the life of the church. I can't think of a N.T. church that lacked elders; therefore, all churches today should have them.

Elders, like all followers of Christ, should emulate Paul's attitudes and actions as he looked to Jesus. Obviously Christ is our ultimate example, but we can learn from Paul as well. We should be humble people who are willing to suffer for the sake of the proclamation of the gospel.

We must all recognize that it is the Holy Spirit who selects overseers. God makes the choice. In churches, we should look for God's decision about this and simply recognize who He has appointed.

Elders must know sound doctrine and be ready to protect the church from false teaching both outside and inside the body. Ideally we will all do this, but the elders in particular must be alert to this task.

If Paul's example is to be followed, then elders should work hard with their hands (not salaried by the church) in order to give to the poor and needy. The reason for this is based on what Christ has said: it is more blessed to give than receive.


Tim A said...

Is it possible that God calls all believing men to desire to qualify for and do the work of overseer?

If not, then the "whoever" in this verse makes no sense. It is the traditions of men that teaches us that God's calling to oversight is limited to only few men.
God's call on man is of no effect unless man is willing to aspire or desire to do it. It's not just about God's calling.

Here is a trustworthy saying: WHOEVER ASPIRES to be an overseer DESIRES a noble task. 1 Tim. 3:1

Jonathan said...

Hi, I've been studying this topic a bit lately. Here are a few thoughts to consider.

I understand there were elders in the NT church... just like there were elders in the OT ... society.

As for pastors and overseers. I find it interesting that nobody in the NT called themselves these titles. It may be that shepherding and watching for and caring for others is more of description of what we are all called to. It may have had little to do with title for an office or position.

I suspect if anyone was going around calling themselves 'Pastor' in those days, Jesus would have added that to the list in Matt 23:8-12.

They called themselves servants, brothers, apostles (sent ones), prisoner.... but interestingly not leader, shepherd, pastor, priest, deacon, bishop (overseer)...

I'm starting to see that if all Christians understood their call to be disciple makers this would all become clear. If we were all disciplining someone we would be caring for and shepherding someone. It wouldn't be a position of authority, but one of leading by example.

May the Lord be our chief shepherd (lead pastor),
God Bless.

Eric said...


We know that the bible is full of the one-anothers. I believe that we all should love, exhort, encourage, admonish one another. We should all oversee and be overseen.

That said, it does seem that some are overseers and some are not. This appointment is up to God. How it all works, I do not know.

I'm certain that God wants us all to live holy lives and encourage others to do so. We'd probably all be much better off if we concentrated less on titles and more on encouraging one another.

Eric said...


I certainly agree with you that the key in the church is that we all care for one another. There was no set apart clergy class. Churches would be far better off today of they functioned this way.

We do know that Paul appointed elders, and that in this passage the Holy Spirit made the overseers. In that sense, some had this role while others did not. You are right that no one seemed proud about it.

Ideally, when the church gathers a visitor won't even know who the elders are because everyone is caring for everyone else.

Thanks for your study and ideas. I know I still have a lot to learn in this area.

Tim A said...

" does seem that some are overseers and some are not. This appointment is up to God."

It "seems" this way because of....? Traditions of men that have taught for hundreds of years that there is a "special" "call to the ministry" that only certain men get, then they turn to the OT and point to Moses, etc. This is all part of the bogus clergy system web of deceit wrapped around the tragic habits that pedestalize a few and leave the rest in perpetual dependency. If any brother is growing up into the full image of Christ, then he will be aspiring/desiring this noble work. Those who don't work out their salvation to the end will linger in dependency. The difference is the response of man.

We must receive the Word as it speaks and not tweak it with our experience. God's giftings to each man are different but his call to full maturity, oversight, royal priestliness, and disciple-making are the same for all.

Eric said...


Thanks again for commenting.

I'm not trying to tweak scripture here. This passage tells us that Paul was speaking specifically to elders. It also says that the Holy Sprint made them overseers.

Was the appointment in response to their spiritual maturity? I imagine so. In that sense, I agree completely that we should all strive for spiritual maturity and oversight of one another.