RPM, Volume 17, Number 33, August 9 to August 15, 2015

The Elder

Acts 15:1-21

By D. Marion Clark


As I mentioned last week, during June church members are given the opportunity to nominate men to be elders and deacons in the church. This is not a task to be taken lightly. You should neither quickly excuse yourself from considering nominees, nor be too quick to put names forward. It is a matter that requires prayerful and thoughtful attention. We looked last week at the role of the deacon, defining it in broad terms as a servant who serves whatever needs may arise in the church. This morning we consider the role of the elder. Two weeks from now we will review the qualifications of both.


Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: "Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved." 2 This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question.

My, my, my, another problem in the church. I thought the first Christians did everything right! Whereas the other problem had to do with administering a ministry within the church, this one is over theology. It was the theological issue of the early church. Was it necessary for the male gentile believers to become circumcised in order to be saved? This was a concrete way of raising the question of whether Gentiles needed, in effect, to become Jews to enter into God's kingdom.

It was not an odd idea. If the apostles are able to look from heaven and observe the church today, they certainly would find humorous the idea that Jews cannot be Christians. In their day, it was incredulous to conceive of Gentiles being Christians. After all, the good news of the gospel is that the Jewish Messiah has come to save God's people, who, in their minds, were the Jews. Remember, it took a vision from heaven to convince Peter that he could enter into a Gentile home and present the gospel.

So that line had been crossed. But, then, what to do with these Gentiles? Understand, the first generation of believers and the apostles certainly did not consider themselves as starting a new religion. They were Jews simply believing the promises of their religion had come true. If Gentiles want to be included shouldn't they do what other Gentiles have done who wanted to be identified with God's people, and that is to embrace the Jewish laws and customs? Jesus came to save the people of the covenant. Okay, then, if you are on the outside, you need to come in before you can reap the benefits. In this case, men need to get circumcised. That was the argument of the Judaizer party of the church. Barnabas and Paul strongly disagreed. They were the pioneer missionaries going among the Gentiles and leading them into faith without requiring adherence to circumcision or the other Jewish customs.

You can discern how important the matter is. It determines how the church would understand the theology of salvation and the method of evangelism. How then is this difference to be resolved? Should the leaders take a survey of the churches? Should they hold group encounter sessions in the homes to determine the prevailing opinion? Evidently, there was no question as to how the matter would be resolved. It would be taken to the apostles and the elders.

This is the third occasion in which the elders are mentioned in Acts. In 11:30, Luke tells us that money to help the Jerusalem church during a famine prophesied was to be delivered to the elders. In 14:23 we learn that Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for the new churches they had started.

We saw last Sunday how the position of the deacon got started in the church; how did the role of elder arise? Well, there is no chapter in Acts to turn to. Luke suddenly brings up the elders in a matter-of-fact way, as though they would not be a surprise to the reader. Why? Because the elders were already fixtures in Jewish life and in the Jewish synagogues.

The elders are referred to a number of times in the gospels, always with bad press because of their opposition to Jesus. The elders were the Jewish leaders. One would not refer to the leaders of a synagogue. They would be called the elders. They were the men responsible to provide leadership and to shepherd the people. The elders were the men who sat at the city gates to settle disputes and render judgments. It would only be natural then for the church to have elders to handle those duties in the congregations and church as a whole.

Now, though the office of elder would be a natural position for the apostles to establish, it does seem unusual for them to elevate the elders to their own level of authority. It is one thing for Paul and Barnabas to appoint elders to oversee new churches where the apostles themselves could not be, but evidently the Jerusalem church itself not only has elders but they share the responsibility of governing the church alongside the apostles. Thus, when Paul and Barnabas come to Jerusalem, they make their report to a session of apostles and elders. 4 When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.

But not only are the elders included in hearing reports, they share the same authority to render judgment. Note what follows.

5 Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, "The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses."
6 The apostles and elders met to consider this question.

Again, this is no little matter being discussed. No less than the future of the church and the very doctrine of salvation are at stake. If at any time, you would expect the apostles to say, "We had better handle this alone," it would be now. After all, they are the founders of the church as appointed by Christ. Sometimes, you just got to take over. But, no, the elders are treated as equal partners of the court.

We know the rest of the story. Peter repeats his story about the Holy Spirit's work in Cornelius' home, and James offers his judgment that no Jewish customs should be added to the Gentiles other than three: avoid food offered to idols, sexual immorality, and meat from strangled animals and with blood still in it. At another time, we would discuss this ruling. Our interest is in the role that the elders play. When a letter is sent to the Gentile churches, it is sent on behalf of the apostles and elders.

The elders take the role of overseeing the teaching and practice of the church. They determine what is orthodox, i.e. correct, to teach and how the church is to function, the role passed on from the apostles. It is instructive to note that at the beginning of the church, the believers would deliver money to the apostles to dispose of appropriately; by chapter 11, the money is being delivered to the elders.

Another helpful passage is in chapter 20, where Paul gives a farewell charge to the elders of the Ephesus church. Listen to the charge:

28 Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. 29 I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. 31 So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.

That is a heavy responsibility given to the elders. As overseers and shepherds, they must protect the church from false teaching, even being careful to be on guard against themselves leading their people astray. And as Paul says, it will happen; sooner or later false teaching will make its way and false teachers will come in to disrupt the church and lead people away from the truth.


Let's now take what we have so far and review the role of the elders in the church. Their first action recorded is sitting as a court to settle an issue of theology and the practice related to it. That pretty much is what Paul is charging the Ephesian elders to do. Be alert to false teaching and deal with it. Thus, the first duty that our BOCO lays forth is this: "It belongs to the office of elder, both severally and jointly, to watch diligently over the flock committed to their charge, that no corruption of doctrine or of morals enter therein."

We can see the necessity of such a role in the church. Without it, a church can be subjected to all manner of teachings which inevitably lead to conflict and to being pulled in different directions. Independent churches led solely by a pastor are especially in danger of this. Who is going to correct them when they are in error? The elders of this church have the obligation to question me should I teach something not within the bounds of orthodoxy.

I am not given freedom to teach ideas from the pulpit that are not in keeping with the Bible and accepted doctrine. Nor is anyone who teaches in this church. And it is the elders' job to keep us and one another in line. That may sound harsh, but what it means is that truth matters and especially teaching Scripture. Straying from the truth has consequences. If the Judaizers had been allowed to push their false doctrine, it would have wrecked the missionary work among the Gentiles and led many people into a false confidence about their salvation, believing they were saved by law-keeping rather than by faith.

It is the elders' job to discern these dangers. The Judaizers would have said that they were just trying to insure salvation. Better to be safe and require too much, than require too little. No, it is better to discern the truth correctly so that we do not fall into the many pits that error leads us into. And that is the elders' job — to make that kind of discernment for the church.

Would you like that job? Christ, the head of the church, holds you responsible to decide what will be taught and what will not, what will be practiced and what not. He holds you responsible for everything that goes on, everything.

Would you like to be a father of the church? That is a close description for an elder. Let's take time with this because having a clear understanding of the nature of the elder's position helps explains their "peculiarities."

Because elders are elected to their positions by the congregation, we might mistakenly regard them in the same manner we regard government representatives. We elect them to office to look out for our interests, making sure that we have a voice in the government. There is truth to that. Elders ought to see that everyone is heard and that our interests are considered. So should fathers regarding their children. When they are making decisions (with their wives) that affect the family, they ought to consider the impact on their children. But, like parents, the elders must make decisions for the church based on their discernment of God's will. They have to do what they believe is best for the people, and what is best means what God would have.

Furthermore, as elders, they take on authority that they did not have before, the same kind of authority that fathers have in the home. However decisions are made, ultimately the responsibility lies with the fathers. They may delegate, but they can never shirk authority and responsibility. So in the church. The special music sung in the service? The elders are responsible. The nursery care for the children? The elders again. The content of this sermon? The elders.

This explains some of their peculiar behavior, why, for example, they can seem so uptight. Before they were elders, they were regular, even pleasant guys. Now they are like, well…like parents all of a sudden; even worse, like fathers! You can't ask to do anything without getting the third degree. Just like the teenager who looks at dad and says, "Don't you trust me?" we want to say the same thing to the elders.

I talked about the sins that the deacons face, one of the sins of the elders is doing just what the Bible warned fathers not to do — exasperate their children (cf. Ephesians 6:4). It is easy to do. You are so concerned to carry out your responsibility properly before God and not to make mistakes that could harm his church, that you become a bit more cautious and more meticulous before making decisions.

Parents, you understand this. You listened to singles or to couples without children talk about how they would handle children and then thought to yourself (or maybe said it), Just wait until you have your own. You know that it is easy to give an opinion when what you say or do does not carry authority and responsibility. So it is with elders. It is one thing to give opinions about what the church ought to be doing or believe. It is another to have responsibility for those things, and especially to realize that you are answerable to God for the decisions you make. As Hebrews 13:17 notes: They keep watch over you as men who must give an account.

Another sin that the elders have to struggle with, by the very nature of their office, is pride. Let me read my favorite verse in the Bible! The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching (1 Timothy 5:17). That is a good verse to memorize! But, as much money tempts a person to greed, so, much honor tempts a person to pride.

I described last week the job of the deacons as to meet "whatever needs may arise." That is a rather broad job description, to say the least. Consider the job of the elders. They are responsible for the welfare of everyone in the church, and for the appropriate operation of every activity in the church, and for the orthodoxy of all teaching that takes place on the church grounds and by anyone representing the church. How the deacons do their work, how the Women in the Church conduct their activities, how the Missions Committee directs mission work, what the SS teachers teach, what music is played in worship, what is being taught in youth groups — every single thing that goes on in and by the church, Christ the Head of the Church holds them accountable. Oh, meanwhile, according to BOCO they should be visiting in homes, visiting the sick, "inquir[ing] into the knowledge, principles and Chrisitan conduct of [all] the church members under [their] care."

How can they possible carry it off? The only way, of course, is the same way the deacons can do their work — through the efforts of everyone using their gifts given by the Holy Spirit to build up the church, and also through everyone taking responsibility for one another. We are not all to become as elders, but we are to at least be good brothers and sisters. Good brothers and sisters help out around the house and take care of each other as needed. We can visit one another, help each other out when needed, even do that very difficult work of holding one another accountable in following after Christ.

We can be conscientious in the job we are given to do. It is easy to oversee a conscientious worker. We can be "good spirited," being patient with one another, emphasizing the good, mourning rather getting angry over sin, being kind and forgiving. We can be what our parents fussed at us to be when we were growing up!

By the way, do you want to know the elders' favorite activity? It is listening to the testimonies of people joining the church. That's one of their duties — to receive new members. The requirement for membership is to have a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, thus they must listen to everyone's story of coming to that knowledge. It is so much fun listening to them recount what the redemption of Jesus means to them. Some tell stories of being raised by their parents to know the Lord; some tell stories of turning to Christ after a rebellious life. But when they each speak of the blessedness of being forgiven of their sins and of their faith in and love for their Savior, well…it just doesn't get any better for an elder. After all, Jesus Christ is the Good Elder, the Good Shepherd of us all. When it comes to his redemption there are no elders or deacons or leaders or followers; we are all the children of God, heirs of his riches in Jesus Christ.

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