In the New Testament, we find the word “elders” refers to first-century local church leaders in various locations. For example, there were elders in the churches in Lysta, Iconium, and Antioch (Acts 14:21-23), in Jerusalem (Acts 15:2,4; 15:22-23; 16:4), Ephesus (Acts 20:17), and in the churches to which James wrote that were comprised of Jews “scattered among the nations” (Jas 1:1 NIV). (Elders are mentioned in the last chapter of this letter.) The apostle Paul gave us a list of key characteristics that should mark the life of an elder (Titus 1:6-9). He supplied this list when he instructed Titus to appoint elders on the island of Crete (Titus 1:5). In addition, in his writings Paul provided counsel about how elders were to be treated, both those who served faithfully (1 Tim 5:17-18) and those who had failed (1 Tim 5:20).
We also find passages in which the apostles spoke directly to elders. I am thinking specifically of Acts 20:17-35 and 1 Peter 5:1-3. In Acts 20 Paul addressed the elders of the church in Ephesus (v. 17): in 1 Peter 5 Peter addressed the elders of the churches located in “the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia” (1 Pet 1:1 NIV). The words in these texts are important, especially for church leaders. In the remainder of this article we will take a brief look at the apostolic counsel that was given to these first-century elders. These words still have relevance to leaders in the church today.
When Paul addressed the elders of the church in Ephesus, he was speaking to the leaders of a church that he had founded (see Acts 19). Paul was a Jew (Acts 21:39; 22:3) and an apostle (Rom 1:1; Gal 1:1), though not one of the original twelve disciples. We are given almost no information about the elders to whom he spoke. We don’t know how many of them there were or their names, ages, and ethnicities. Some of them may very well have been Gentiles because there were Gentiles in the church in Ephesus (Eph 2:11-13). Paul addressed these elders orally when he was present with them and by letter.
When the elders of the Ephesian church went to Miletus at Paul’s request, he spoke with them, referring to his own ministry as an example. He told them his ministry in Ephesus was characterised by humility, passion (evidenced by his tears), and perseverance, even while he was being opposed (Acts 20:19). He had taught the elders in public and in their homes: he shared with them every biblical truth that would help them (Acts 20:20). A few verses later he affirmed that he taught them all of God’s will (Acts 20:27). Paul conducted himself as he did because his ultimate goal was to finish the work that the Lord had given him to do (Acts 20:24). After speaking about what he did, he spoke about what he did not do. He did not covet other peoples’ belongings (Acts 20:33). Instead, he worked to supply his own needs and the needs of his companions (Acts 20:34).
Paul was a positive example of what a Christian leader should be. One important lesson that we can glean from this is that we can learn much by watching. A Christian’s learning should not come solely from reading. Elders should be able to learn from the lives of their senior leaders, and senior leaders should make sure that their lives convey the right message—a message that is consistent with Paul’s example and teaching. Senior leaders need to set a good example.
In his comments to the elders, Paul also gave them counsel for their own ministries. He told them to watch their own lives and the lives of those under their care: “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” (Acts 20:28). Keeping watch calls for diligence. What Paul said in Acts 20:28 reminds me of what he wrote in 1 Timothy 4:16, “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (NIV).
Please note that in Acts 20:28 the word “all” is used. A leader is responsible for all who are under their care, not just special interest groups. For example, an elder is not just to care for their friends in the church or the big financial givers. They are to care for everyone in the church that they serve because this is part of God’s will for them. Paul pointed out that the Holy Spirit appointed them to their positions of leadership (Acts 20:28). They had a sacred responsibility to God. Then Paul warned the elders that there would be people who would come to disturb, and if possible, destroy the church (Acts 20:29). And, as if that were not bad enough, he went on to warn them that some of them would, in fact, become a problem to the church (Acts 20:30). Leaders today need to take this warning seriously. The same forces and temptations that threatened the elders in the first-century church can also assault the elders in the contemporary church.
In 1 Peter 5, the apostle Peter addressed a group of elders who served in the churches in the provinces he mentions in 1 Peter 1:1. We don’t know if he participated in planting any of the churches. Peter, like Paul, was a Jew (Gal 2:14) and an apostle, one of the original twelve (Mark 3:16; 1 Pet 1:1; 2 Pet 1:1). As was the case with the elders that Paul addressed, we know almost nothing about the elders to whom Peter wrote. We don’t know how many of them there were or any specific details about them. We only know that they were located over a very widespread area; they did not serve in just one city. If you look at a map of the first-century world or Paul’s missionary journeys, you will see just how large an area they served. In view of the areas where these churches were located, some of the elders may have been Gentiles. When Peter addressed these elders, he was not physically present with them thus the need for the letter to communicate with them.
Like Paul in Acts 20, Peter also referred to himself, calling himself an elder and one who witnessed the sufferings of Jesus (1 Pet 5:1). His statements are much briefer than Paul’s, but they are no less important. He too instructed the elders to watch over the people under their care (1 Pet 5:2). Both Paul and Peter used “shepherding” language in their words to the elders (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet 5:2). Peter also instructed the elders to undertake their ministry not from a sense of obligation, but because they desired to serve (1 Pet 5:2). In addition, he told them not to seek “dishonest gain” (1 Pet 5:2 NIV) and not to be overbearing in their leadership, but to be examples to the believers (1 Pet 5:3). Much of what Peter wrote seems to deal with heart issues. What a leader is on the inside will eventually become visible in their behaviour (Prov 4:23; Matt 12:34; Mark 7:20-23).
The two texts we have considered are lessons for church leaders—lessons that modern-day leaders need to revisit frequently. These apostolic instructions serve as reminders of the kind of life and ministry that an elder should be engaged in. If these words of the apostles are heeded, then the modern-day elder will faithfully and fruitfully fulfil the work that the Lord has given them to do. Let us follow the example and instructions of the apostles found in these texts, because the contemporary church needs healthy leaders.