My question is, how did we come up with all this stuff that requires centralized rule?
Jay, I wanted to encourage you to go at it again. Give us a perspective that comes from the teaching of Jesus. Experience aside, what does Jesus say about leadership and how it should function?
This is the first of a series of at least four posts.
Of course, we have to consider the words of Jesus. Absolutely! But we don’t read them as overriding the words of the apostles. Rather, we read all the materials together.
And to make certain that we give Jesus’ words the emphasis they deserve, I plan to cover them last — as we all tend to give the greatest emphasis to the last verse read.
In this case, I want to start in Acts, because no one ever starts talking about elders in Acts. Maybe by starting in Acts, we can see afresh how the early church leadership operated.
We begin with —
(Act 2:42 ESV) 42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
Upon the foundation of the church, we see the apostles serving as the central teaching authorities — obviously because they’d been with Jesus and apprenticed under him for three years and because they were surely especially empowered by the Spirit to do so.
What we’re not told is how they organized themselves. Who decided what apostle went to what house when? There were surely over 100 houses involved in this ministry, and so some organizational structure would have been required.
(Act 6:1-4 ESV) Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. 2 And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 3 Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”
Just as Moses had to appoint judges to assist him as judge of his people, the apostles learned the hard way that they could not be the sole administrators of such a large congregation. And so they appointed men to run one of their essential ministries.
We see the authority centralized in the apostles and then delegated to others based on spiritual gifts (“men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom”). Evidently, the men were going to need God-given wisdom to deal with the Jerusalem widows!
When the circumcision question became divisive in Antioch (Acts 14:26), the decision was referred to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem —
(Act 15:1-2 ESV) But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.
(Act 15:6 ESV) 6 The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter.
Luke does not record the ordination of elders in Jerusalem, but it appears that as the church grew, the apostles ordained additional leaders called “elders,” and they acted together on this question.
It’s interesting that the early church chose to call their leaders “elders.” After all, the Jewish elders in Jerusalem get very bad press in Acts! They are enemies of the church. Therefore, we have to take it that the name was chosen very seriously — as it goes against the natural tendency to avoid naming your leaders after people who are trying to kill you!
“Elder” is a very common term in the Old Testament, and refers to the leaders of the Jewish families (Exo. 3:16). After the Exodus, they were the rulers of Jewish towns (Josh. 20:4).
The elders served as a combination city council and city court (separation of powers came much, much later!). They literally sat at the city gate (Ruth 4:11), and there they decided who could enter the city (1 Sam 16:4). If someone remembered that a visitor is a thief or cheat, he’d not be allowed in. The elders spoke for their towns, and so had authority to anoint David as king (2 Sam 5:3).
The Babylonian exile separated the Jewish people from their towns, but they continued to have elders (Jer 29:1; Ezra 5:5). While not recorded in the Bible, we know from history that the synagogue was invented as a place to preserve Judaism and to study the Torah. The synagogues were overseen by elders.
Jerusalem was the center of Jewish life, and it was overseen by the Great Council or Sanhedrin, including the “elders,” being the same men who persecuted the early church in Acts.
“All these terms [γερουσία, πρεσβύτεροι, συνέδριον], so familiar to us first in their Jewish, and afterward in their Christian usage, had been commonly employed before, in a precisely analogous sense, in Graeco-Roman civic life.”
Therefore, those who argue that “elder” merely means “older member of the church” and suggests no office or authority ignore at least 1,500 years of history and the meaning of the word among both the Jews and the Greeks.
The Jerusalem council
The decision on how to deal with the admission of the Gentiles into the Kingdom was made on the motion of James (Acts 15:13), an elder, and adopted by the apostles and elders as well as the entire church —
(Act 15:22-23 ESV) 22 Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers, 23 with the following letter: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings.
Now, in a church of many thousands, it’s hard to imagine how this would have been accomplished other than for the apostles and elders to agree on a decision and then announce and explain their concord to the church for endorsement.
It would have been impossible for the entire church to debate the issue, but it would have been quite possible for the church to support an announced decision by their leadership.
In fact, it would be a mistake to put too much emphasis on the phrase “with the whole church,” as the letter itself only recites that it comes from “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders.” The NIV translates,
(Act 15:23 NIV) With them they sent the following letter: The apostles and elders, your brothers, To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia: Greetings.
On the other hand, it was surely important that the entire church agree to the decision because the intent was to cement the union of Jews with Gentiles. This could not be done without the acquiescence by the largest Jewish congregation.
(Act 16:4 ESV) As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem.
Again, Luke emphasizes that the decision was reached by the leadership. The congregation was no autonomous collective making decisions by the entire 5,000 plus members participating in lengthy debates.