“Elders” is a designation of Old Testament origin. We find reference made in the Old Testament to the elders of Israel and also to the elders of different cities; and in the Gospels we meet the term again, but still in relation to the Israelites. Even the elders referred to in the first part of Acts are of the Old Testament order (4.5,8,23; 6.12).
When were elders first instituted in the Church? Acts 11.30 refers to them in connection with the church in Jerusalem, and this is the first mention of elders in connection with any church; but though their existence is mentioned, nothing is said of their origin. Not till Acts 14.23, when we read of Paul and Barnabas returning from their first missionary journey, do we discover who they were, how they were appointed, and by whom. “When they had appointed for them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord. . . .”
We have seen that the apostles themselves could not remain with the new believers to shepherd them and to bear the responsibility of the work locally; how then were the new converts cared for, and how was the work carried on? The apostles did not request that men be sent from Antioch to shepherd the flocks, nor did one of themselves remain behind to bear the burden of the local churches; what they did was simply this: “When they had appointed for them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord on whom they had believed” (verse 23). Wherever a church had been founded on their outward journey, they appointed elders on their return journey. They did not wait until any arbitrary standard was reached before appointing elders in a church, but “in every church” they chose a few of the more mature members to care for their fellow-believers.
The apostolic procedure was quite simple. The apostles visited a place, founded a church, left that church for awhile, then returned to establish it. In the interval certain developments would naturally take place. When the apostles left, some of the professing believers would leave too: others would continue to attend the meetings, and would prove themselves to be truly the Lord’s, but would make no appreciable progress: others again would eagerly press on in the knowledge of the Lord and show real concern for His interests. Those who had more spiritual life than others would spontaneously come to the fore, and take responsibility for their weaker brethren. It was because they had proved themselves to be elders that the apostles appointed them to hold office as elders, and it was their business to shepherd and instruct the other believers, and to superintend and control the church affairs.
Nowhere did the apostles settle down and assume responsibility for the local church, but in every church they founded they chose from amongst the local believers faithful ones upon whom such responsibility could be placed. When they had chosen elders in each church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord, just as, with prayer and fasting, they themselves had been committed to the Lord by the prophets and teachers when they were sent out on their apostolic ministry. If this committal of elders to the Lord is to be of spiritual value, and no mere official ceremony, a vital knowledge of the Lord will be required on the part of the apostles. It is easy to become so occupied with the problems and needs of the situation, that one instinctively takes the burden upon oneself, even whilst admitting the truth that the Lord is responsible for His own Church. We need to know Christ as Head of His Church in no mere intellectual way if we are to let all its management pass out of our hands at the very outset. Only an utter distrust of themselves, and a living trust in God, could enable the early apostles to commit the affairs of every local church into the hands of local men who had but recently come to know the Lord. All who are engaged in apostolic work, and are seeking to follow the example of the first apostles in leaving the churches to the management of the local elders, must be spiritually equipped for the task; for if things pass out of human hands and are not committed in faith to Divine hands, the result will be disaster. Oh, how we need a living faith and a living knowledge of the living God!
The Word of God makes it clear that the oversight of a church is not the work of apostles, but of elders. Although Paul stayed in Corinth for over a year, in Rome for two years, and in Ephesus for three years, yet in none of these places did he assume responsibility for the work of the local church. In Scripture we read of the elders of Ephesus, but never of the apostles of Ephesus; and we find no mention made of the apostles of Philippi, but we do find reference to the bishops of Philippi. Apostles are responsible for their own particular ministry, but not for the churches which are the fruit of their ministry. All the fruit of the apostles’ work had to be handed over to the care of local elders.
In God’s plan provision has been made for the building up of local churches, and in that plan pastors have a place; but it was never His thought that apostles should assume the role of pastors. He purposed that apostles should be responsible for the work in different places, whilst elders were to bear responsibility in one place. The characteristic of an apostle is going: the characteristic of an elder is staying. It is not necessary that elders resign their ordinary professions and devote themselves exclusively to their duties in connection with the church. They are simply local men, following their usual pursuits and at the same time bearing special responsibilities in the church. Should local affairs increase, they may devote themselves entirely to spiritual work, but the characteristic of an elder is not that he is a “full-time Christian worker”; it is merely that, as a local brother, he bears responsibility in the local church. Locality determines the boundary of a church, and it is for that reason that the elders are always chosen from amongst the maturer believers in any place, and not transferred from other places. Thus the local character of the churches of God is preserved, and consequently also their independent government and spiritual unity.