And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed.”
A Baptist deacon advertised a cow for sale. "How much are you asking for it?" inquired a prospective purchaser. "A hundred and fifty dollars," said the deacon. "How much milk does she give?" "Four gallons a day," the deacon replied. "But how do I know that that cow will actually give that amount?" asked the customer. “Oh, you can trust me,” reassured the advertiser, "I'm a Baptist deacon." "I'll buy it," replied the other. "I'll take the cow home and bring you back the money later. You can trust me, I'm a Presbyterian elder." When the deacon arrived home, he asked his wife, "What is a Presbyterian elder?" "Oh, "she explained, "a Presbyterian elder is about the same as a Baptist deacon." "Oh, Lord," groaned the deacon, "I’ll never see that money!”
Now I have mixed feelings about that old story. I guess it says more about what the deacon thought of himself than deacons and elders in general. But, in any case it asks a good question. What is a Presbyterian elder?
In the Old Testament, elders were literally older men who were selected to rule the people of God. For example, when God told Moses to go to Egypt and free the people, he told Moses that first he should “gather the elders of Israel together,” (Exodus 3:16) and explain God’s plan to them. Later on, when Israel was established in the land of Canaan, the elders sat in judgment at gates of the city. they formed the local court. When court was not in session, they also did business at the gate of the city. Archaeological excavations have uncovered the stone benches they used at Gezer, for example, on three sides of the six-chambered gate. At Dan a special seat of decorated stone was located at the right of the massive entryway where the business of the city was decided. [Borowski, Oded, Daily Life in Biblical Times (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003) 47-48. Philip J. King and Lawrence E. Stagner, Life in Biblical Israel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001) 234-236]
In the New Testament, the Greek word for elder (presbuteros) describes the leaders chosen to govern the congregations that the apostles instituted in the fledgling Christian church. For example, Titus 1:5 has the Apostle Paul say to Titus, “For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city.” Further, the author of Third John is identified simply as “the elder.”
So it appears that the biblical method of church government involved elders. What kind of person should an elder be? Elders should be people of faith, dedication, good judgment. Their manner of life should be a demonstration of the Christian gospel, both in the church and in the world. They should have sufficient experience to lead, strong faith in Jesus Christ, and spiritual gifts. Further, elders are required to have a style of life that demonstrates they are committed to following Jesus Christ as his disciples.
But we should remember that when God calls, God empowers. It is not that the person is fit for the office, it is that God makes the person fit. Jeremiah was so young when he was selected by God to be a prophet that he still called himself a “boy,” but the Lord said to him, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you and you shall speak whatever I command you” (Jeremiah 1:4-8). Likewise, in the New Testament, Timothy is instructed to refuse to let anyone ridicule his youth. All he has to do to qualify as a leader is to “set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, and purity” (1 Timothy 4:11).
The point is that God can use people of any age. Being an elder in the church is not a matter of physical age, but of spiritual maturity.
We read in Acts 14:23 of Paul and Barnabas ordaining elders in the churches. This was during the return phase of the first missionary journey. On the way out, Paul had been run out of Antioch and Iconium. He had been stoned and left for dead in Lystra. But Paul was one tough guy. He survived and went on to Derbe. But then he did an incredibly courageous thing. He turned around and went back—back to Lystra, back to Iconium, back to Antioch. Why? Because even though some people in those cities hated his guts, others had heard his words and loved the gospel, and Paul felt a responsibility for these folks. He knew that they needed help if they were going to continue in the faith. Vs22 and 23 are a summary of what Paul did on his return mission. We read in v22 that he “confirmed the souls of the disciples, and exhorted them to continue in the faith.” He strengthened them and encouraged them.
Then we are told in v23 that Paul and Barnabas ordained elders, or presbyters. On this second visit to these folks, Paul and Barnabas organized these new disciples into churches and appointed officers to pray with the members of the church and to preach to them when they assembled. These officers were called to administer the sacraments and to do whatever was required of them: to instruct the ignorant, warn the unruly, comfort the troubled, and convince unbelievers.
Understand that the elders were not then, and are not now, the rulers or owners of the church. The church has only one ruler, Jesus Christ. The elders are more like stewards. They have been given this job by the owner. Their job is a servant’s job, not a ruler’s job. They are to act for the benefit of the congregation.
Notice also that v23 says that by prayer joined with fasting the apostles commended these new elders to the Lord. I do not know if we are fasting today. I suspect that a lot of us need to do a lot more fasting. But, in any case, we are to commend these new elders to the Lord by prayer. We ask God to keep them and help them and be with them. We ask that not only for these elders, but for every Christian.
This is Reformation Day. On this Sabbath, we look back to the reformation of the church in the 1500’s. We remember reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, and a host of others. We remember their sacrifices so that we might have the religious freedoms that we so often take for granted.
For example, all Presbyterians have a heritage from Scotland and the work of John Knox who was a student of John Calvin. Consider the situation in Scotland before the Reformation. The king appointed the bishops. The bishops appointed the priests. The people had no say in how the church was run. Not only that, the people were required by law to attend church. If you skipped a Sunday, the sheriff showed up at your house, wrote you a ticket, and you paid a fine. So, you have to go to church but the church is actually run by the King. Any priest or bishop who says anything that the king does not like is gone next Sabbath, and a new and more politically correct person is put in his place.
Well, to the average person, this whole system stunk to high heaven. Now wonder Scotland so eagerly embraced the Reformers.
The reformers believed that over the centuries the church had lost sight of its mission. They said that a lot of things had been brought into the church that had nothing to do with the gospel, These “Romish excesses,” as the Reformers called them, must be cleared out so we can get back to what the church is about, that is get back to Jesus.
The Reformers wanted a plain New Testament Church. They wanted no statues of saints in the church, no statues at all in fact. They wanted no stained glass windows. The pulpit should be unadorned. The preacher should wear a plain black robe. The congregation should sing only psalms, because if the Lord intended for you sing it, he would have put it in the Bible. Incidentally, we have honored the Reformers today by singing only metrical psalms. But, above all, they said that the preacher should preach the word, the Bible, for hours. You have nothing else to do on Sunday, the Lord’s Day, but listen to the sermon and think about God. The definition of a Reformed church is “the word is preached and the sacraments are celebrated.”
Also, reformers like John Knox in Scotland thought that the very structure of the church had become an abomination. The civil government, in that case the king, had no business running the church. During the Reformation the Scots threw out the whole notion of bishop and priest—which meant rule by the king—and returned to a more New Testament form of church government, government by elders, elected by the people of the church.
Now I am summarizing a lot of history here. The king did not willingly give up control of the church. It was not until after the English Civil War, not until after Charles I had his head chopped off, not without war and persecution and murder and execution that this principle was established in Scotland, and came from Scotland to America.
People were tortured and enslaved, people had their property confiscated, People were exiled, but they won, and their victory means that the church is separate from the civil government and the church elects its own leaders.
We should remember that every time we have a church election or a civil election. By the way we have a national election in a few weeks. We should remember that people have shed blood for our right to vote, both for church leaders and for secular leaders, and we should take that right very seriously.
If you are elected to office in the church, take that seriously.
In Acts 20:28, Paul is speaking to the elders of the church at Ephesus. He says, “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.” This is perhaps the most powerful image we have of the work of an Elder. The elder is like a shepherd. The Shepherd’s job is to take care of the flock, to feed the sheep. The elder is called to take care of the church and to nurture God’s people. Actually, Jesus is the shepherd of his people. Elders and church officers are subordinate shepherds or undershepherds. You might say, how can I possible be that? How can I possibly take on the responsibility of caring for God’s people? Through prayer and dependence on God.
A tale is told about a small town that had historically been "dry," but a local businessman decided to build a tavern. A local church planned an all-night prayer meeting to ask God to intervene and stop this project. It just so happened that shortly thereafter lightning struck the bar, and it burned to the ground. The owner of the bar sued the church, claiming that the prayers of the congregation were responsible for destroying tavern, but the church hired a lawyer to argue in court that they were not responsible. The presiding judge, after his initial review of the case, made this comment: "no matter how this case comes out, one thing is clear. The tavern owner believes in prayer and the Christians do not." (This story is found in many places on the Internet).
That, as our Reformation fathers would say, is an abomination. Christians are, above all, people of prayer. Our new elders and all our elders should pray and our deacons and all our church officers and all our church members. Let us all pray. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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