In Acts 20:28 and following, Paul is charging the leaders of the Ephesian church. So who are the biblical leaders of churches? Alistair Begg points out that biblical church authority is NOT set up as a democracy (where everything is a vote, and the leaders must please the people or be fired); not an autocracy where one man has complete power, or a dictatorship where the people are beaten down into servitude by an overbearing ruler. He goes on to say that Jesus is the Head of the church; He has entrusted leadership of the church to shepherds, who care for his flock. Who are these shepherds?
A. Apostles To Elders. Jesus sent out the Apostles, who ruled in the early church. But in Acts we see the emergence of elders taking on local church leadership.
- Acts 11:30 Barnabus and Saul bring money from Antioch to Jerusalem and give it to the elders of the church.
- Acts 14:23 Paul and Barnabus lay hands on elders they have appointed in all the churches they have planted.
- Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22-23 & 16:4 Both the apostles and elders in Jerusalem are called upon to settle the dispute about whether or not Gentile converts should be circumcised (James presides over the counsel as a sort of ‘pastor’).
- Acts 21:18 Paul goes to Jerusalem again and goes to see James and the elders.
B. The Office. The Bible uses several words to describe the leadership of the church.
1. Presbyteros (Greek) – ELDER. Paul calls for the “elders” (v17). This word speaks of spiritual maturity (Begg).
2. Episkopos – OVERSEER (Bishop). Paul says the Holy Spirit has made them “overseers” (v28). This word speaks of spiritual authority (oversee, supervise, rule) [Begg].
3. Poimēn- SHEPHERD (Pastor). Paul charges them to “care for” (shepherd, pastor) the church of God (v28). This word speaks of exercising spiritual responsibility (Begg).
These words describe the same office; They are used interchangeably in Scripture:
- Here in this text (Acts 20) all 3 are used of the same men ("elders" v17; "care for" [shepherd, tend, pastor], v28; "the Holy Spirit has made you overseers" v28).
- 2 of the terms are used in Titus: “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town…For an overseer…must be above reproach (1:5, 7).
- All 3 are used in 1 Peter: “I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder…shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight…” (5:1-2).
Jesus’ rule over the church is described using these same words:
- For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. 1 Peter 2:25
- Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep… Hebrews 13:20a
C. Plurality. Jesus’ authority over the church is spoken of in terms of singularity; Elders’ rule is spoken of in terms of plurality (Begg). Notice the plurality of elders in the following verses:
- V17 – Paul “called the elders of the church.”
- Paul writes to Titus to appoint “elders” in every town.
- Acts 14:23, “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.”
- James 5:14, “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.”
E. Qualifications. In this post it is not our purpose to fully study the qualifications for elders given in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. But we will quickly point out that the qualifications mostly pertain to character, and are traits that all Christians are commanded in other Scriptures to have (with the exception of a teaching gift and not being a novice) [Carson]. This shows us that elders are to model all of Christianity in character, and be able to teach the word. They cannot be perfect, but they are to be consistent.
In part 2 and 3 we will look at the roles of elders and the responsibilities of church members to their elders.
• Sermons by Alistair Begg: A Farewell Address, and The Role Of Elders In The Church, Part 1.
• Sermon by D.A. Carson: The Role Of The Elder.