Sovereign Grace Blog

Sermon Summary - The Office of Elders - Acts 14:19-23

The Office of Elders - Acts 14:19-23

In the last 60 years, there has been a growing separation of evangelism and the local church in American Evangelicalism. This separation was not at all the goal of Paul and Barnabas’ evangelism. Paul and Barnabas return to the cities they preached in, not as evangelists, but as shepherds to organize the believers into churches with elders. 

Paul and Barnabas showed an astounding faithfulness and persistence in preaching the gospel, despite violence and opposition (Acts 14:19-20). This same faithfulness led them to go back through each city where they preached the gospel (Acts 14:21-22). They could have easily just gone back to their home base church at Antioch, but they didn’t. They had pastoral hearts - hearts to encourage, instruct, admonish, strengthen, and grow the new disciples in these cities. How were they “strengthening the souls of the disciples"? By teaching them, by showing them the fulfillment of the Old Testament in Christ, and by the eyewitness testimony of Jesus’ death and resurrection. They were also “encouraging them to continue in the faith” and warning them of tribulations they must face to enter the kingdom. Paul and Barnabas foretold of tribulation just as Jesus did (Matt. 5:11-12). Lastly, Paul and Barnabas’ faithfulness to the gospel led them to organize these new churches under Christ’s teaching by installing church leadership (elders, Acts 14:23). 

The idea of elders is clearly embedded throughout the New Testament. In appointing elders, Paul and Barnabas did not merely pick names out of a hat. They are daily interacting with members of the body, noticing and recognizing gifts and people who are already shepherding. They are looking for particular characteristics (see Tit. 1:5-9). 

So what are elders (or overseers)? The terms “elder” and “overseer” are used interchangeably in the New Testament (see Tit. 1:5, 7, Acts 20:28, 1 Tim. 3:1-7, 1 Peter 5:1-2). There is one other office in the New Testament, called “deacon”. The qualifications for an elder are the same as those of a deacon, with the addition of the ability to teach and to govern (1 Tim. 5:17). In the 1st century and beyond, there have always been those whose full-time work is preaching and teaching. There are also “lay elders”, who have jobs outside of the work of preaching and teaching. All elders, however many there may be in a church, must be able to teach (not necessarily from the pulpit on a Sunday). They must know Christian doctrine and how to discern error. 

Christ is the head of the church. He is the head of the church universal, and also the head of every local church. He rules over the church, His body. He does not rule with mystical, secretive words which he speaks into the hearts of His pastors. From the beginning Jesus has ruled, having laid the foundation with His hand-picked apostles. Paul and Barnabas did not go to Antioch, Lystra, Iconium, and Derbe and just tell them to teach whatever came into their mind. They gave them the Scriptures, numerous writings, sayings of Jesus, and oral teachings. Today, what we have in the New Testament is the written expression of Jesus’ rule over the church. Elders are not meant to merely teach from the Word, or to use the Word for their own ends, but they are to preach the Word (2 Tim. 4:2). 

Elders are called to take heed to Paul’s words to care for the flock (Acts 20:28). Teaching and ruling, at its core, in the church is a leadership that is primarily through influence. The way elders influence is first by their example, and secondly, by the teaching of the Word (Cf. Heb. 13:7, 1 Tim. 4:16). That’s why most of the qualifications for the office of elder are character issues. Lastly, elders are also to be accountable to the Chief Shepherd (Heb. 13:17). 


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