The Function of an Elder
Passage: Acts 20
Paul has called the elders of the church in Ephesus over to him Miletus. I think, probably, Paul knew it would be problematic for him and the church if he went to Ephesus so they came to him. Paul is going to Jerusalem and the Holy Spirit has made it abundantly clear to Paul that trouble awaits him there and Paul believes deep within his heart that this is the last time he will be able to see and talk with these men.
This is a fascinating passage for a few reasons. First, it’s the only full message we have recorded in Acts given to Christians. If you’re reading through, you can feel the tone change. It feels much more like Paul’s epistles. Well, that makes sense and is a great validation that Paul really wrote the letters we have in the New Testament.
This passage is also fascinating because this is the best glimpse we have about what elders do. When we think about what an elder does, we can quickly go to 1 Timothy 3 or Titus 1 where Paul gives the qualification of elders, but he really doesn’t tell us much about what elders do. This passage does exactly that! Paul gives these men their marching orders and Luke records a lot of it for our benefit.
The word elder comes from the Greek word Presbuteros which is where we get the word Presbyterianism. It really doesn’t have anything to do with baptizing babies or not, the name came from the form of church government. A couple years ago a professor at RTS told his class, kind of tongue and cheek, that OGC was the best Presbyterian church in town. He said this of course to highlight the elder part. And we were very happy to receive that great compliment. As we will see in this passage, the words elder, pastor, and overseer are interchangeable words for the same office.
So what do elders do? My kids often wonder that when I’m coming home late from an elder meeting or leaving early for one. A while back I came home late from helping a family in a very trying time and praying with them in their home along with other elders and I was talking to my daughter, Ivey, about that she said, “I thought all you did was write a sermon each week.”
So, why does this matter to the church? You might be feeling like I’m teaching a passage that only applies to about ten men in this room. You would be wrong. You elect the elders. Some of you aspire to be elders. And all of you (including individual elders) are led by elders. You should care greatly that you are in a church A) that has elders and B) that has the kind of elders that you want to be cared for by.
In this passage, Paul gives us four things that elders are to do.
- Elders must be willing to suffer
To see this clearly, we have to remember that Paul is telling these men to see his example and to carry it on. So what is Paul’s example? Verse 22 22 And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained uby4 the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there,23 except that vthe Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that wimprisonment andxafflictions await me. 24 But yI do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only zI may finish my course and athe ministry bthat I received from the Lord Jesus, cto testify to dthe gospel of ethe grace of God. - Acts 20:22-24
Everywhere Paul went, he faced opposition and suffering because of the message he took with him. Now, this looks different in some contexts than others. In China, it’s not only expected that pastors will go to prison, you actually aren’t really considered a seasoned pastor until you do. They refer to prison as seminary. But, in our context, at least right now, that’s not what we face. But we do still face opposition and suffering.
I see some pastors that seem to just love the stage and the attention and that drives me crazy. I think that if real opposition and suffering came about they would pick a new job fast. Now, this doesn’t mean that elders will suffer more than the rest of the church, it means that there is a special type of danger for the church when elders aren’t willing to suffer for the gospel. When we avoid suffering, we avoid hard conversations that have to happen for the good of the church. We avoid difficult people or allow them to do damage to others in the church. We don’t take the unpopular positions that the Bible often requires us to. We avoid doing the right thing because we think it might upset people.
I’ve said this in smaller groups, but 2020 and 2021 were so hard on our elders. All of us. There were many hard things we had to do, many hard conversations we had to have both with members and among ourselves. At one point I was praying and asking God if this is really what he wanted me to do because I felt like a good pastor would not have had so many confused and angry people in the church. But, looking at where we are now, I’m so thankful for those men. Even the ones who left did so in the right way and I’m thankful for that.
Then there is the real suffering of suffering with other people. I remember years ago a younger pastor I know whose church was growing asked an older pastor, “How do you do it? There is always someone who is sick. There is always some sort of crisis. There is someone who is dying or in great need. It feels like it never stops.” To which, the older pastor said, “That’s the call brother. That’s what you signed up for.” You can’t the title, but not the role.
That’s the first thing elders are supposed to do. The second is this.
- Teach the full counsel of God
Again, Paul starts by telling the church what he did that they should model. He says he did not shrink from telling them anything that was profitable. He did this publicly in the Hall of Tyrannus and privately going house to house. He did this with both Jews and Greeks. He showed no partiality based on ethnicity. And the core of his message we see in verse 21: repentance toward God and faith in Jesus Christ.
In verse 26 Paul says, Therefore hI testify to you this day that iI am innocent of the blood of all, 27 for jI did not shrink from declaring to you kthe whole counsel of God. - Acts 21:26 Why is Paul saying that he is innocent of the blood of all? He’s using Ezekiel 33. The word of the LORD came to me: 2 t“Son of man, speak to uyour people and say to them, If vI bring the sword upon a land, and the people of the land take a man from among them, and make him their wwatchman, 3 and if he sees the sword coming upon the land and xblows the trumpet and warns the people, 4 then if anyone who hears the sound of the trumpet does not take warning, and the sword comes and takes him away, yhis blood shall be upon his own head. 5 zHe heard the sound of the trumpet and did not take warning; his blood shall be upon himself. But if he had taken warning, he would have saved his life. 6 aBut if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, so that the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any one of them, athat person is taken away in his iniquity,but his blood I will require at the watchman’s hand. - Ez 33:1-6
He’s taking what was commonly understood in the ancient world and applying it to his ministry and the elders there in Ephesus. In the ancient world, a watchman or group of watchmen were placed on the outer walls of the city to be the first to see danger coming and to sound the alarm. This is what Paul likens part of the call of an elder to. The elder is supposed to teach and apply the full counsel of God in a way that warns people of the dangers surrounding them and Paul is saying that he has done this. A good watchman who does his job has no innocent blood on his hands and Paul has been a good watchman.
Our hope is that you will hear teaching in this church both from the pulpit, Equipping Hour, and in one on one conversations that will help guard you from the dangerous views that surround us. Now, when I say dangerous, I mean they are dangerous if we embrace them. The Jehovah’s Witness who shows up to my front door is only dangerous if I embrace what they teach. They themselves are not a threat. Although I might be the next time they ring my doorbell at 7am on a Saturday morning and wake up all my kids.
This can certainly be taken to an extreme where we are looking for dangers under every rock and behind every verse. That’s not what Paul is saying. I’ve said this story once before so I’ll retire it after today. My younger two kids are under the impression that every white van is driven by a bad person. A kidnapper at best. A murderer at worst. And there is no telling them otherwise. Last year we were driving down 436 and there was this white van that was a business to help people with special needs move from one part of town to another. My daughter said, “See! That van literally says, “We will take you!”” That’s not the way we are to look for danger. We are to point people to Scripture and the safety offered to us there.
Paul said, 29 I rknow that after my departure tfierce wolves will come in among you, unot sparing the flock; 30 and vfrom among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. - Acts 20:29,30 He had some special knowledge that proverbial wolves would come into this church and he is adamant that it was the elders who were to protect the church from them. In the most extreme cases, the elders are given church discipline as a means to protect the church. I’ve only ever been involved in one serious church discipline case in this church. A man was harming those in his care and our conclusion was that he was a wolf in sheep's clothing. We did not come to that conclusion easily or quickly, but at the end of the day, it did become very clear.
This is the reason we preach through whole books of the Bible. It prevents us from being able to skip hard or controversial topics. It prevents us from just talking about what is easy and safe. It forces us to consider the whole counsel of God. It’s also the reason we take a book like Acts and walk through it during the fall and pick up where we leave off next fall. We want to walk through multiple genres of Scripture in a year. This is also the reason we have Equipping Hour during the second service where we dive even deeper into books of the Bible, systematic theology, Biblical theology, church history, and Christian living.
You hear some people say things like, “I don’t want all that heady theology, I just want God.” Well, theology is the study of God and that statement is a theological statement. Just not a very good or accurate one. Studying the word of God draws us into joy and satisfaction and from danger. If our elders ever stop making the teaching of the Word a priority in this church, if we ever go gospel-light or gospel-less pop psychology message that only loosely touches the Bible, then the role of this church is to hold us accountable because we would be failing in our roles and failing to love the church the way Paul commands.
Then, the third thing elders are to do is be careful.
- Be careful
Verse 28 lPay careful attention to yourselves and to all mthe flock, in which nthe Holy Spirit has made you ooverseers, pto care for qthe church of God, - Acts 20:28 Paul is saying first that the elders should pay careful attention to themselves. They should pay attention to the way they live their lives. To their walks with the Lord. To their families. They should make sure they do not disqualify themselves.
And as I said before, this is where we see that elders, pastors, and overseers are different words for the same office. He’s speaking to the elders saying that the Holy Spirit has made them overseers and that they are to ‘care’ for the church. That word for overseer is episcopos from which we get our word for bishop and the episcopal church. One of my very close friends is a bishop in town, but I can’t get around the fact that Paul uses these terms interchangeably. Then, the word care here is the word we use for pastor or shepherd.
I will also point out that there is no distinction between types of elders. Paul doesn’t divide up teaching elders and governing elders the way our Presbyterian friends do. We just have elders, but two of us at this moment, Robert and myself, are freed up financially to give our full attention to the role.
My goodness does Orlando have a uniquely bad history of pastors who have not taken care of themselves. A history of very prominent pastors disqualifying themselves in very public ways. When a pastor disqualifies himself, he’s not only hurting himself and his family, he’s hurting the whole church. There was a season in Orlando when three pastors failed massively in the span of about a year and two of them lost not just their jobs, but their lives in the process. For the next five to eight years it was common to hear, “I used to go to church, but then so and so happened.” This is why Paul says something very similar to Timothy as he was pastoring in Ephesus. 16 yKeep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save zboth yourself and ayour hearers. - 1 Tim 4:16
Elders have to keep a close eye on their habits. Their prayer lives. Their walks with God. Their financial responsibility. What they watch on their devices. How they control their anger. Every Christian should do this, but it’s especially important for the elders in a church. We can’t expect a church to be more spiritually mature and more joyful than its elders.
I remember well at my former church, it was time for elder nominations and there was a man nominated who seemed to check all the right boxes. He had five kids who seemed to be obedient. They came to church every week, they went to community group, he knew his Bible, and the elders were like, “It seems to make sense.” But then the Senior Pastor said, “Yes, but he doesn’t seem to have any joy in his life.” If there isn’t joy, we have to wonder what is really going on in his life. So we didn’t allow him to proceed and years later we saw clearly that things in his personal life were in fact not going well at all.
When elders compromise their own walks with God, they tend to become soft on sin. Things begin to look less black and white and more gray. When I was on staff with Cru, there was a guy who was applying to staff and he was a nice guy, but a year earlier he had faked having cancer. He liked the attention people showed him so he just lied about it until he got caught. One of the staff people very reasonably said this guy should not be allowed on staff. Well, one of the regional directors called this staff person and said that staff member needed to be confronted on his lack of grace. This staff person said, “Well, maybe that true, but even so…faking cancer.” Well, it came out the next year that this regional director was living about the worst double life you can imagine. His neglect of his own personal holiness had skewed the way he saw sin in others.
Elders need to be careful they pay attention to their own lives for their own sakes and the sake of the church they lead. But, not only do they need to be careful, they need to be caring. Last point.
- Be caring
This is also in verse 28 28 lPay careful attention to yourselves and to all mthe flock, in which nthe Holy Spirit has made you ooverseers, pto care for qthe church of God, - Acts 20:28 Our job is to care for the church. Not to lord over it. There has been this wave of public and credible accusations of church leaders leading in abusive ways. We just lost a pastor in Central Florida in the Acts 29 network for both neglecting his spiritual life and leading in an abusive way. Some of this church abuse has caused so much damage that people will not trust any form of church leadership ever again and certainly not any church leader that has the title of elder.
How sad is that? That elders have so abused the responsibility they have been given that people won’t ever put themselves again under the leadership that God has given them for their good. Our hope is that the elders here would be men who listen well, who care well, who sacrifice their time to pray for and guide you, and who invest in you in the ways you need. We meet twice a month and one of those meetings is a time where we just go through the membership list and pray for each and every one of you. And often there is someone who we haven’t seen for a while or who is on our care list and one of the elders will reach out to them to see how they are doing and if they need anything from us.
All this is summed up when Paul says lremember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessedmto give than to receive.’” - Acts 20:35 Jesus isn’t recorded in the gospels as having said that, but clearly people heard him say that. It shouldn’t be surprising that there would be many things he did and said that weren’t recorded. John says that all the books in the world couldn’t contain all that Jesus did. But the phrase is dead on. The call for the elders is to give more than we receive. We don’t look at our positions as a way to exploit service, money, or gain out of the people in the church. If we are ever receiving more than we give, we are no longer qualified for this office.
Paul said that he served the church with humility and tears. That is the opposite of lording over someone. He put them ahead of himself. Augustine said, “If you ask me what the essential thing in the religion and discipline of Jesus Christ is, I shall reply: first, humility; second, humility, and third, humility.”
A good elder is going to see that God is the gospel. The gospel gives us God. This is why Paul in verse 32 commends these elders to God and the word of his grace. Elders are not above the gospel, we aren’t saved by a different form of gospel. He started this message by telling them to preach the gospel to their people and he ends by preaching the gospel to them. We all need the same grace and the same gospel that will lead us all to the same inheritance: Jesus.