Elders: On the Authority of Elders, Part 1

Charles McLean asks,

My question is, how did we come up with all this stuff that requires centralized rule?

Jason Stockton asks,

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.

Acts

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.

“Elder”

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.

Moulton-Milligan explains,

“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.

Profile photo of Jay Guin

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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12 Responses to Elders: On the Authority of Elders, Part 1

  1. I am looking forward to this study and discussion. One aspect of this article is that the passages presented cause an interesting non-autonomy position of the early church. New congregations sought and held to, we presume, the decisions of the original congregation or apostles and elders to be more specific (Jerusalem). Could this be that the new congregations did not have established elders that could make decisions or that autonomy is needing further evaluation?

  2. Todd Collier says:

    I know I’m jumping the gun but I just gotta… Our actual problems are not whether the elders have enough centralized authority – I believe that they do not have enough. Our real problems are:
    1. We have let the Church become an ongoing institutional corporation instead of a disciple making family and so the modern elder is forced to concern himself with concepts and issues that take away his time and authority from his intended function.
    2. We rely to much on the “pattern” of Paul’s qualifications and not enough on its intent so that men who “look” right are appointed instead of men whose hearts are right. Hence we select a group of men who might be popular and great at business but who couldn’t fulfill the roles of Biblical eldership if they ever found out what it was.
    3. Christians fail to follow the third Beatitude. We do not allow Christ to be truly Lord of all so how can we submit to a flawed group of men? Who are they to tell me how to run my family or to handle my finances or to deal with my neighbor in a property dispute?
    So long as we fail to create true Christian discipleship we will see an ongoing failure of our elderships. Wrong job focus, wrong men, wrong atitude among the flock. When Christ is Lord of all we will select men who follow Him with all their hearts and submit to them as to Christ as He intended and as His apostles commanded.

  3. Grizz says:

    Jay,

    Why is it that we assign authority when the scriptures assign responsibility? Where is the authority found that we read about in Acts? Is it in any person or persons OR is it in the word of the Lord spoken by one or another person or persons?

    Did Paul have less authority from God than Peter? Or did Paul defer to his brother (as God inspired him to teach others to do)when he could and stand up to him (as God called him to do) when he should?

    Why must we make it about ‘authority’ when the scriptures do not? Shall we use CENI when convenient and discard it when it is not? Why use it at all?

    We really need to examine our hermeneutic here.

    Grizz

  4. What model of authority did Jesus demonstrate to his disciples in John 13. Who is supposed to show the congregation what that looks like today, so it can be emulated? Jesus prayed for the unity of believers. Who has the responsibility (authority) to show the congregation a living example of what it looks like to be “of one mind and spirit?” Where else can the body of Christ see a display of unity in the Spirit in the bond of peace? Jesus gave the example while literally living on this earth. Does everyone just have to read about it and guess what form that might take in a congregation today, or has the Holy Spirit appointed a group to serve as a living model of unity before the congregation. To model what love and forgiveness and peacemaking and putting Jesus and the church ahead of private opinion. What body of mature spiritual leaders is supposed to provide that living example? Acts 20. Should we be looking at individual elders the elders as if we lump them together, or the function of the eldership as a body of one?

  5. Charles McLean says:

    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.

    More “organizational structure” than a discussion at breakfast or on a walk to the temple, or juggling dinner invitations? I think we may be unconsiously overlaying MBO on the Twelve. Remember, these are Jewish sheep and shepherds, not Roman cohorts and centurions. To presume that the Twelve organized themselves, perhaps by geography, or demographics, or equalized span of control for educational purposes is to think of them as pretty much just like us, only in sandals. I think we need to tap the brakes a bit on our way to such an assumption.

    I do fully agree with Jay’s view of the authority inherent to the apostles and elders. But I would note that the convocation in Acts 15 appears to be an ad hoc gathering, not a session of a legislative body or a large staff meeting. It appears to be a meeting that presumed the wisdom and personal influence of the leaders involved, both among themselves and in the church at large. Nothing is recorded as to how James came to be the one who wound up speaking for the consensus at this meeting, so it leaves us to wonder if this indicates a “first among equals”, or more informally, that James merely had the gravitas to be a logical person to get the attention of the whole body. As to when or how the “elders” here were appointed to their positions, I would opine that it is just as likely that most of these men were already godly “elders” in the community, who had received the Messiah. It would be a logical progression for them to be recognized as leaders in the early church.

    I suggest that we have thought of the Jerusalem church by American analog; that is, what would it be like here if we started a new religion overnight with a dozen leaders and 3000 instant adherents? But I think that tells us very little about how the church initally developed.

  6. Charles McLean says:

    I have become more careful about the concept of “models” in trying to discover the will of God. I am reminded of the man who proudly told his co-worker, “My wife says I am a model husband!” The co-worker did not look up, but said, “Hmph. Look in the dictionary.”

    The puzzled husband looked in the dictionary and found the following:

    Model (n): a small replica of the real thing

  7. Price says:

    Who makes up the “multitude” (KJV), the “whole assembly” (NIV) in Acts 15:12 ?? Is it just the Apostles and Elders or did it include the members of the church as well ??

    At least we know that some of the pattern has been followed from then until now… 15:7 “And after much disputing.” 🙂

  8. Tom Cadmus says:

    Jay;
    Your topic about centralized authority through the question(s) of C McLean &
    Jason Stockton were just what God ordered for me, and came just in time. I’m
    in leadership & let me just put it this way………. I needed to take a breath and re-
    develop a clear & more sanctified perspective of the men I serve with.
    Thanks so much; I will be awaiting the next 3 or 4 parts to this post;
    Tom

  9. Jerry says:

    Jay,

    In your assumption that the Jerusalem church in Acts 15 was 5,000+ members may be a bit of a jump. Remember that Saul’s persecution (Acts 8:1-4) had caused the disciples to be scattered and at that time only the apostles remained in Jerusalem. The 5,000 number came from Acts 6. Of course the end of Acts 9, when Saul returned to Jerusalem as a Christian and left again for Cilicia, there was another period of growth, but we do not know how many adherents the church had at that point. Later in Acts 21, on Paul’s final recorded visit to Jerusalem, James spoke of “how many thousands of the Jews who believe” – but this number would also include those Jewish Christians who were in the city for the Pentecost Feast, even as Paul was.

    Nevertheless, your larger point is well taken. The apostles and elders took the lead in the matter and the church was brought in to concur.

    Has anyone considered that the elders were involved because the controversy began when some from Judea came to Antioch saying the Gentiles must be circumcised? While “Judea” is larger than “Jerusalem,” Jerusalem is the major city of Judea. If members of that congregation were responsible for the heretical teaching Paul and Barnabas were contending with, it seem it would only be natural to include elders of that church with the apostles when the matter was discussed. This does not require any “authority” of the elders at all – but only that they represented the Jerusalem church. As a spokesman for the church, James proposed the solution: do not require circumcision, but let the Gentiles avoid those things that pertain to pagan worship and conduct.

  10. aBasnar says:

    Aren’t our “issues” with authority and “centralized leadership” just a refölection of our culture and society? Just as we accuse Ignatius of having introduced a “mornachical episcopate”. Beside the fact that it was later scholars who use the term for the leadership-structure we find in his letters, we com from a society that a few generations ago chased all kings into exile! The dislike for monarchy was part of our education. And yet, did it ever occur to us that democracy is the direct antithesis to Rom 13? Have wqe ever taken a look at who it was that kicked kings off their thrones beginning in the late 18th century? And what God says about rebellion?

    There was another rebellion in the 1960ies/70ies that opposed authority in general, and that’s especially the culture ingrained in us. What if – and there is not much “if” in fact – our culture has been seriously misled? How would realizing this change the way we ask such questions?

    It is very hard in our circumstances to lead any group of people into one direction. As a production leader in our printing company or as a leader in church …

    Alexander

  11. I go along the lines of Alexander. We are reading something written in another culture. We live in a one person one vote culture (it used to be one man one vote, and then property owners only, and then only if you are correct race, and then…well it gets messy sometimes). We also live in a culture where if you don’t like an association, you start a new association. And on and on…

  12. aBasnar says:

    As a production leader in our printing company

    Today I “summoned” my colleagues for a demonstration. I proved to them how much can really be done when you do things efficiently and without to much talking. I am responsible to the owners of our company that the work we do is done swiftly and correctly. That’s true for leaders in Christ’s church as well: We are accountable to our Lord, and things can be done more or less fruitful. Since our Lord likened the Kingdom to relationships like these (among others) I think it is not a far stretch that elders/leaders of a congregation …

    a) know their duty as slaves of Christ
    b) know what is at stake spiritually (as in a competing economic setting)
    c) have to be able to prove and demontrate how it really works
    d) are able to communicate the vision

    Alexander

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