In the age of “Man’s discernment” among Church leaders, it is necessary to retread the Word of God, as it is always necessary in every other case, in order to find examples of exhortation specifically targeting Church leadership. Now, there may be some bias in interpretation among the brethren, but we know “that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20). So the purpose of this retread is not to find scripture that proves one way or the other the understanding of one brother or another, but it has the singular purpose of understanding what our Heavenly Father wants us to understand about his Son, through the Holy Ghost. I will therefore endeavor to lay out only that which the Lord has given to me, and will refrain from dwelling on any perceived vendetta’s against those who would make a mockery of God’s work and his word.
Let us begin with the exhortation of the Apostle Paul to the elders at Ephesus, in Acts 20:17-36. The elders are an important part of the early Church, yet their purpose and role is lost on the modern body. An elder by today’s standards would be simply a Christian who has been saved a number of years, which is to say the man is old, and has lived a relatively respectable life. I think one would be hard-pressed to find someone who would disagree with my understanding, but let us consider that my understanding is wrong. What we should do is to understand first what an elder’s purpose was in the early Church, and perhaps move on from there.
From the book of Acts we see that the elders were highly involved in ministrations of the Church, which included the Apostles and general brethren,
“And they wrote letters by them after this manner; The apostles and elders and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia”.Acts 15:23
This specifically concerned communications with the born-again Gentiles regarding obedience to necessary commandments, showing that circumcision was unnecessary, which things were delivered unto them by the writing of the Apostles, Elders, and brethren. One may notice the lack of, in this instance, “pastoral authority” so-called. Pastoral authority so-called is rightfully termed “pastoral supremacy”. That is to say, that presently the pastor is seen as a man beyond reproach, even in wrong-doing, who cannot be accused, who cannot be removed, but whose supremacy overrules any demerit placed upon him by the Bible. Again, let us focus on what the Bible says, not merely on what it does not say. What is written is the authority of the elders to write unto the born-again believers.
At least one measure of authority is understood to be positioned with the ruling of the elders. And the elders did indeed rule, as Paul bade to Timothy to teach that the elders that rule well should be counted worthy of double honor (1 Timothy 5:17 “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine”), particularly those that labor in the word and doctrine. To rule and labor in word and doctrine is not a minuscule aspect of the fellowship of believers. Paul warned that those that rule over the flock watch for the souls of the flock (Hebrews 13:17 “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you”). In the same epistle he explains that one of the reasons for assembling is exhortation,
“Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching”.Hebrews 10:25
We can understand that the elders will have much to do with the teaching of the word and of doctrine, yet this responsibility is presently laid wholly upon the one and only so-called pastor.
Yet, who must ultimately take the oversight of the flock? The Apostle Peter said the elders must.
“(1 Peter5:2) Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; (1 Peter 5:3)Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock.”1 Peter 5:2-3
Oversight is not under any, it is over all, and these elders were not one, but many (“The elders which are among you I exhort” 1 Peter 5:1). Many were leading many in this case, in the case of Acts 20 likewise.
To bring this point to its conclusion, let us see what Paul told Titus concerning the elders. Titus 1:5 “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, as I had appointed thee:
Titus 1:6 If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly.
Titus 1:7 For a BISHOP must be blameless, as the steward of God; not selfwilled…”
It may or may not be at this very point that the understanding that a bishop is an elder is realized. After all, when Paul told Timothy the traits of a bishop in 1 Timothy 3, he was referring to mature Christians. Notice with me that Paul does not describe a bishop again for the rest of the epistle to Timothy, or even use the word bishop again, but when he explains the laborer of word and doctrine he names the elders. It is because a bishop is an elder, and an elder is a bishop. The word for bishop in 1 Timothy 3:2 is the same word for the overseeing elders in Acts 20:28, which is where our discussion resides.
Why is this important? It is necessary to understand that the current ministrations of the Church are discombobulated because there ceases to be checks and balances in the modern system of “pastoral supremacy”, but if elders were again given joint oversight in the Church, perhaps false doctrines could be successfully opposed and uprooted. A bishop is rightfully understood as a position, nothing more, and it is certainly not the one head of a body of believers. Christ told his disciples not to exercise authority like the gentiles do (Matthew 20:25-26 “But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister”), so he gave some prophets, some teachers, some evangelists, and in the Church he gave pastors (elders) (Ephesians 4:11).
When Peter was taken in the dissimulation of the Jews, Barnabas was as well. Paul describes this disaster as being a direct result of false brethren crept in unawares (Galatians 2). What was the solution? Paul withstood Peter to the face, for the elder is responsible for the path a sheep takes if it is within their power to steer. This is why the words an elder speaks, preaches, writes, endorses, etc. are important, for the word and doctrine will be understood by the Church according to their understanding. The Holy Ghost brings all things to understanding, yes, but the Word of God tells us to obey the elders and remember them, and consider their conversation, for the elders watch for the souls (Hebrews 13:7 “Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation”).
Of the discussion of the purpose elders so far, this is the sum: They have the authority to command and rule, they are mature Christians in word, not necessarily in age, the oversight is theirs to take, and they should be doubly honored if they are true laborers. This is what the word of God describes elders as in the New Testament Church. The question of where the elders have disappeared to in modern times is perhaps outside the scope of this discussion, but I digress.
Our Lord Jesus Christ ordained 11 men to “go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you.” (John 15:16) This process continued in the early Church after the Lord’s ascension, as can be seen in Acts 14:23, and Titus 1, as pastors continue to be ordained today. As Christ is our head, we ourselves are not heads. Other than in marriage, the picture of the head, the chief cornerstone, is not found anywhere but in Christ and antichrist. If the elders are the same mind one toward another in word and doctrine, then there is no one head but Christ. But if an elder here, an elder there, rule according to their own will and not God’s, then they become the head of those that will follow, and turn away from Christ.
This brings us finally to the scripture in question, that of Acts 20:17-38. Being the passage that most clearly gives testament to the responsibilities, expectations, and warnings concerning elders, it should never be neglected in the daily Church ministrations. The apostle Paul knew that his journey would take him to Jerusalem (20:16), so he wanted to stop at certain places to see the brethren again. These included Macedonia, Philippi, and Ephesus. At Ephesus he called the elders to him (20:17). The Church at Ephesus had several elders, but it is not certain how many. He had a personal rule with each one as can be gathered from his exhortation with them, “Ye know after what manner I have been with you,” he begins, “Serving the Lord with all humility of mind” (20:18-19). Paul told us to remember and consider the conversation of those that rule over us, he was no stranger to reminding these elders of that very fact presented in his walk. Paul told each brother to “condescend to men of low estate” (Romans 12:16), which thing Christ did when he became flesh (Philippians 2:7 “But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men”). The mind of Christ should be in the elders, and if it is not, then they are not ministering according to the ability that God giveth.
“If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God; if any man minister, let him do it as of the ability which God giveth: that God in all things may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be praise and dominion for ever and ever. Amen”1 Peter 4:11
Paul’s tears were in mourning for sin (20:19), and in necessary chastisement, as can be evidenced in his descriptions from 1 and 2 Corinthians (5:2, 2:4). His tears were for the congregations, but here he talks to elders. The tears are for imperfect people! As we each are indeed imperfect, let us never assume that we are without reproach, error, or temptation. Paul is talking to elders here, notice then that he gives them himself as an example first, as Peter said the elder must be an example, before he tells them how they should minister from now on. He kept back nothing profitable, keeping back then that which is unprofitable. We know what is profitable is found in God’s word (2 Timothy 3:16 “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness”), and he truly desired that they would know nothing but the word, that they may be fully furnished elders. It is further understood that when Paul taught them, that is was in the word. He taught them from house to house, proving also that they were rightly hospitable, but a subtle reminder to hospitable to all the brethren as they should be (20:20). No man is better than another, regardless of position. It is a poignant reminder, then, that the man of God should condescend to others, and not the other way around. The elder should be honored, but not revered, obeyed, but not lifted up, not beyond reproach. Paul has to remind them that he is not commanding without himself first obeying, as it is written, “the husbandman that laboureth must be first partaker of the fruits” (2 Timothy 2:6).
Paul gives the Gospel again in Acts 20:21 as a reminder of what it is that the elders are ministers of. Paul told Titus that the elders are to be ordained, but first explained that they must be ordained because God has manifested his word through preaching (Titus 1:3 “But hath in due times manifested his word through preaching, which is committed unto me according to the commandment of God our Saviour”), and for our illumination, God gave us the definition of preaching (2 Timothy 4:2 “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine”). This preaching is the gospel, unadulterated, complete, beautiful. Repentance and Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. There was not an ounce of easy-believism in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ then, there must not be now. But if we leave off remembering the traditions of the Apostles we will let them slip (Hebrews 2:1 “Therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we should let them slip”), and it is when the elders left off this ministration that the issues arose in the Churches. The prophet Jeremiah preached the word given to him by God, that the pastors scatter and lead astray the flocks (Jeremiah 23:1, 50:6) and Paul will repeat it in this passage.
Now, “the Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel.” (1 Corinthians 9:14). And as Paul is leaving to go to Jerusalem, he states that he does not know what will befall him there. He knows that he will be in bonds and afflictions because the Holy Ghost said so. But he was not moved with worry, or with fear, because he knew that the Lord would care for him. These bonds came by the gospel, yet he preached the gospel. It must be preached, regardless of the dangers, yet many are willing to sell out for filthy lucre. Where many would make merchandise of the Church, Paul would suffer afflictions for it (2 Corinthians 1:6 “And whether we be afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation, which is effectual in the enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer: or whether we be comforted, it is for your consolation and salvation”). Many such like examples are good to meditate on to glean the mind of Christ, for he had not where to lay his head (Matthew 8:20 “And Jesus saith unto him, The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head”).
It is clear that because of the stakes of Paul’s sacrifice, that the ministration of the word was more than life to him, and he did not count his life dear (20:24), but counted their lives dear. So dear, that he endeavored to be pure from all of their blood on his head. This follows the same line of commandment that God gave the prophets responsibility over (Ezekiel 33:8). None of this should come as a surprise, considering that God said these watch for their souls! It means that even if you must die as an obedient elder, or be jailed, or be fined, an elder must never consider themselves painted into a corner! Paul did not shun the ministering of God’s word (20:27), beware that elders in the present age do not commit the folly of counting their lives more dear than the flock!
This warning is written quite adamantly in the following verse, where Paul exhorts the elders to take heed of themselves and to the flock. There must be no pride, there must only be humility, for God paid for these souls with his own blood. How dare they take advantage of the people, or lead them astray! If they do this, they will pay dearly for it. And Paul gives the warning because he knows that some of them will take advantage and make merchandise, for it is only a matter of time. It is only a matter of time until the elders take oversight by constraint and not willingly, until the elders leave off feeding the flock spiritually, and instead are fed physically by the flock. They cease to live of the gospel, and instead live out of the pockets of the sheep. The shepherds fleece the sheep.
Looking at the modern Church through the lens of the Ephesian exhortation could make a Christian sick. But Paul warned that the elders would pervert the Gospel, so there is not much with which to be surprised. As Paul says in 20:29, that when he departs (after the judge retires, the criminals take over), that grievous wolves would enter in and eat up the flock, not sparing them. And that of the same ones that Paul was presently exhorting would some rise up and pervert the gospel. This breaks the key factor of condescending to men of low estate, for when a man “think himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself” (Galatians 6:3). When a man perverts the gospel he puts himself in the place of Christ, (Hebrews 6:6, 10:29) for it is only by the Holy Ghost that we know truth, as Christ told Peter that flesh and blood did not reveal the knowledge of the truth of Christ.
Matthew 16:17 “And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven”
1 Corinthians 2:11 “For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God”
Therefore, any perversion would be by the spirit of man, by which no man can know God (1 Corinthians 2:14 “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned”). The spirit of man is devilish, but the Spirit of God is holy, and true. If we have a perversion, therefore, the question must be asked, did this person receive it from a devil? Or are they liars? Because it certainly would not be a perversion by the Holy Ghost, God forbid. So, a man that preaches perverse things is a god unto themselves, and to others, because they do not preach truth by the Holy Spirit, but instead preach lies by their own spirit. They have become false gods, and their followers become their disciples, and they shall be called by that false teacher’s name (20:30). Did not the devil tell Eve she would become as a god?
Such a grievous turn of events this would be, for a preacher of truth to become an antichrist, that Paul warned them all for three years, all day every day. Some might call this excessive, but I would hazard a guess that if there were more Pauls warning of perverseness among the teachers in the Church perhaps the modern Church would not celebrate perverseness as they do! Paul wanted them to focus on the grace of God, wherein the Church stands (1 Peter 5:12 “I have written briefly, exhorting, and testifying that this is the true grace of God wherein ye stand”), the Christians grow (2 Peter 3:18 “But grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and for ever. Amen”), the lost are saved (Ephesians 2:8 “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God”), and by which we abound in his work (2 Corinthians 9:8 “And God is able to make all grace abound toward you; that ye, always having all sufficiency in all things, may abound to every good work”). The grace of God is unmerited, and something in which no man can boast of a different measure compared to another. God’s grace is sufficient for every man
Romans 12:3 “For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith”
As Paul told the Corinthians not to boast in the things they received (Ephesians 4:7 “But unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ”), it would behoove of us, as well as the Corinthians, as well as the Ephesian elders, to not be puffed up one toward another in anything (1 Corinthians 4:6-7 “And these things, brethren, I have in a figure transferred to myself and to Apollos for your sakes; that ye might learn in us not to think of men above that which is written, that no one of you be puffed up for one against another. For who maketh thee to differ from another? and what hast thou that thou didst not receive? now if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it?”).
As we have therefore received the gift of grace, let us take heed where we stand, lest we fall. Knowing also that the faith in Christ where we stand is not something borne of the spirit of man, but of God. For how do we know Christ but by the Holy Ghost? Therefore, as Paul exhorted the elders not to preach perverse things, let us also understand that the word of faith by our mouth must only be by the Holy Ghost, and not in vanity. “But the righteousness which is of faith speaketh on this wise, Say not in thine heart, Who shall ascend into heaven? (that is, to bring Christ down from above:)
Or, Who shall descend into the deep? (that is, to bring up Christ again from the dead.) But what saith it? The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach;” (Romans 10:6-8). To go beyond the gospel and into the realm of perverseness is to make a christ in our minds, a separate truth, that we alone have called down from heaven as truth, and if we do this, then is it a marvel that men would follow us as disciples, instead of true Christ? We are always seeking new wisdom, but it is God alone that grants it. Therefore, let us remember the exhortation of James 1:5 (“If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him”), and ask God for wisdom, and not try to pull down wisdom on our own, for this wisdom is “earthly, sensual, devilish” (James 3:15).
So by grace we perform the operations of God. Paul commends the elders at Ephesus to the will of God, and to the word of his grace (20:32). This grace saves and gives an inheritance through faith. We are counted as joint-heirs with Christ Jesus, and our inheritance is an eternal life in an eternal house in the heavens. For this cause, Paul says he has coveted no man’s silver or gold or clothing (20:33), for his affections are set on heavenly things, things above (Colossians 3:2 “Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth”). This creates a conundrum in the modern Church, for those who are seen to rightfully and dutifully preach the gospel are paid to do so. But Paul, understanding that his inheritance is Christ, coveted no provisions, “Even so hath the Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel.” (1 Corinthians 9:14). Jesus is the gospel, and had nowhere to lay his head. Those that preach the gospel should therefore cease to burden the Church with provisional supplements, namely money. There should be no reward for the man that preaches the gospel, except for that Paul wrote: “What is my reward then? Verily that, when I preach the gospel, I may make the gospel of Christ without charge, that I abuse not my power in the gospel.” (1 Corinthians 9:14). To further drive this point home, Paul says that his own hands performed the work that provided necessities to both himself and Luke and anyone else that was with him (Acts 20:34). At least three separate places Paul explained the desire he had to not be chargeable to the Church for the gospel’s sake (2 Corinthians 11:9, 1 Thessalonians 2:9, 2 Thessalonians 3:8). The bishop should not work for filthy lucre. A lord is given tribute for his work, the elder must not be a “lord over God’s heritage” (1 Peter 5:3). The preacher must be an “ensemble to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3). So we have Paul being an example here. If he would not be chargeable to any man for the gospel’s sake, then neither should the elders. For a little money goes a long way, and a little money here and there can lead to a lot of money here and there, and before the preacher knows it, his love of money overthrows the work of God, then the goal becomes to amass to himself disciples to worship him, and give him tribute. The love of money truly is the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10 “For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows”). And it is the love of money that will turn the elder away from preaching sound doctrine.
Then, to drive the final nails in the coffin of covetous elders, Paul explicitly states: “I have shewed you all things, how that so labouring ye ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (20:35) Laboring, as Paul labored, not to be supported but to support. It is clear Paul means both physically and spiritually, but it is also clear that, having exhorted them to support the spiritually weak in an earlier verse, this exhortation is a more physical application. It is truly more blessed to give than receive, and Paul wanted to ensure that the elders at Ephesus were going to be givers and not takers. A final reminder that these words were spoken by Christ is used for them to keep in mind that disobedience from them would be towards their Lord, not Paul. The Apostle knelt down and prayed with them after this sermon, the exhortation of departure is not complete until the Lord is asked for a blessing upon the ministries and laboring of the elders, and of the Church (20:36).
The summation of the matter is this, that the elders of modern times have not heeded the warning of Paul the Apostle, and have rather taught perverse things to lead away the sheep, drawing disciples away unto themselves, for filthy lucre’s sake. What things were not difficult for Paul to do in the Lord; preaching unadulterated truth, sacrificing for the flock, refraining from supporting those elders that oppose themselves and the Church, the opposite are now common practices of the modern pastors. Find me a Church where the Pastor does not preach lies in word, in deed, or in practice at some capacity. Find me a Church where the Pastor does not take a salary, or a regular offering, and works with his hands to provide every necessity for his family. Find me a Church where the Pastor does not emulate unsavory characters that exhibit worse Pastoral behavior than themselves, nevertheless they desire to emulate them because of their perceived success, consensus, theological aptitude, but in their works they prove they are reprobate. You will be hard pressed, I think, to find one, just one, who took the whole warning to heart. Most of them, you will find, either make merchandise of the flock, draw away disciples of the flock, or promote false teachers to the flock, and therefore should be removed. But the congregations will not move, for they have been taken already in their dissimulation.
Acts 20:17 And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church.
Act 20:18 And when they were come to him, he said unto them, Ye know, from the first day that I came into Asia, after what manner I have been with you at all seasons,
Act 20:19 Serving the Lord with all humility of mind, and with many tears, and temptations, which befell me by the lying in wait of the Jews:
Act 20:20 And how I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have shewed you, and have taught you publickly, and from house to house,
Act 20:21 Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.
Act 20:22 And now, behold, I go bound in the spirit unto Jerusalem, not knowing the things that shall befall me there:
Act 20:23 Save that the Holy Ghost witnesseth in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions abide me.
Act 20:24 But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God.
Act 20:25 And now, behold, I know that ye all, among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom of God, shall see my face no more.
Act 20:26 Wherefore I take you to record this day, that I am pure from the blood of all men.
Act 20:27 For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God.
Act 20:28 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.
Act 20:29 For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock.
Act 20:30 Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.
Act 20:31 Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears.
Act 20:32 And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified.
Act 20:33 I have coveted no man’s silver, or gold, or apparel.
Act 20:34 Yea, ye yourselves know, that these hands have ministered unto my necessities, and to them that were with me.
Act 20:35 I have shewed you all things, how that so labouring ye ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive.
Act 20:36 And when he had thus spoken, he kneeled down, and prayed with them all.
The grace of God be with you all, walk in truth in Christ. Amen.
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