The Duties of Elders

Introduction

While on his third missionary journey, St Paul found himself “constrained by the Spirit” to go to Jerusalem, despite knowing that “imprisonments and afflictions” awaited him there (Acts 20:22–23). However, before reaching Jerusalem he desired to meet with the elders of the church in Ephesus one final time. These elders were not strangers to Paul, who had spent three years with them and their church, never ceasing day or night “to admonish everyone with tears” (20:31). Understanding this context, we can assume that Paul communicated that which he thought most important for the Ephesian elders, knowing that this was his final chance to exhort them in the work of the ministry. Therefore, when considering pastoral care and the duties of elders, it behooves us to give attention to Paul’s words here.

Paul’s Example

St Paul begins his speech to the elders by first speaking of himself, “You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time…” (Acts 20:18). This is a very Paul thing to do—“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1, see also 1 Cor. 4:16–17a). As an apostle and father in the faith, Paul teaches, admonishes, and instructs not only with words in his written letters, but also with the example of his own life. 

Paul’s first example to imitate is this, he “served the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews…” (20:19). A minister serves the church, the people assigned to him by God, as a shepherd cares for his sheep. But all of this labor is unto the Lord first. He is not merely an employee of his church. He is a servant of the Lord. But this task of serving is not easy work for the fainthearted or for those who prefer to be holed up in their study thinking deep thoughts. Paul, an apostle anointed by the Lord, says the difficulty of the work brought him to the point of tears. He had many trials, including plots against him and his ministry. And likewise, a minister today must also expect various trials and plots from those within and without the church. He must be willing to withstand fair and unfair criticism, and, in a world still rife with sin, he must anticipate attempted sabotage at some point. Therefore, the ‘job description’ of a pastor should include a bullet point for conflict.

Paul then highlights his primary work, stating that he did not shrink from declaring anything that was profitable, teaching in public from house to house and testifying to all of repentance toward God and faith in Christ (Acts 20:20–21). One of the primary duties of a minister is that of preaching and teaching, in which he declares with authority anything and everything that is profitable to his hearers. But notice that Paul said he didn’t “shrink from declaring…” Even though what a minister is proclaiming is “profitable,” it does not mean that it will be well received. So a minister must pray to God for courage so that like the apostle Paul, he would not shrink back from declaring the truth to his congregation and to the world. 

The primary message that Paul says he declared was “repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). A minister today would do well to imitate Paul in prioritizing these things in his preaching, for this is fallen man’s greatest need—repentance of sin and faith in Christ. And Paul didn’t restrict his preaching to one day a week in the pulpit. He taught both in public and “house to house” to all people, “both to Jews and to Greeks” (20:20–21). The minister carries a burden not only for the families in his church, but also the families in his community. Therefore, opportunities for the public proclamation of the gospel must be pursued if a man is to imitate Paul’s example. This can include evangelism, open-air preaching, speaking at public events, writing letters to the editor, etc. As always, pastors should go where people are, and today people are on social media. An intentional online presence would not be wasted by Paul, and ministers should use these platforms to proclaim the gospel and biblical teaching.

After recalling these aspects of his ministry in Ephesus, Paul then explains to the elders his plan to go to Jerusalem despite the uncertainty and expected danger, for he is “constrained by the Spirit” (Acts 20:22). Paul isn’t a free spirit, blowing about across the nations as he pleases, but instead has submitted himself to the Spirit’s guidance and direction. We see this elsewhere in Paul’s ministry when Luke records that Paul and his co-laborers were “forbidden by the Spirit to speak the word in Asia” (16:6). Not only is Paul committed to discerning and submitting to the will of God—he’s committed to obeying despite the uncertainty. While the Spirit may guide ministers today in a more subtle way than he did with our Lord’s apostles, a minister must still be committed to prayerfully following the Spirit’s lead, regardless of possible or anticipated discomforts or dangers from doing so. Paul is able to live this way because he does not account his own life of any value, but rather, he endeavors to be finish his course and be found faithful at the end of his ministry, testifying to the gospel of the grace of God (20:24). 

Paul finishes the first part of his speech by returning to the fact that he did not shrink from declaring the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:26). Because of this, he can now say that he is “innocent of the blood of all,” meaning that, like the prophet Ezekiel (Ezek. 33), Paul has sounded the trumpet and faithfully discharged his duty. Therefore, any who do not heed his teaching are now culpable when judgment comes (20:26). Here Paul is teaching the Ephesian elders another weighty matter regarding the eternal seriousness of pastoral ministry. This means that a minister who fails to teach the whole counsel of God will be held accountable for those under their care who come under the judgment of God. As the author of Hebrews wrote, elders keep watch over souls “as those who will have to give an account” (Heb. 13:17). This is exactly why St James wrote that “not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (Jas. 3:1). When a man enters pastoral ministry, he is submitting himself to stricter judgment from the Lord, and in a very real way taking upon himself the souls of men.

Paul’s Instructions

We now turn to Paul’s final instructions to the elders of the church in Ephesus. First, Paul tells the men to pay careful attention to themselves (Acts 20:28). The qualifications for elders are ongoing qualifications, not one-time milestones or achievements. Therefore, ministers must pay careful attention to their own walk with the Lord, fighting sin in their hearts and lives, cultivating righteousness in their families, and being vigilant against the schemes of the evil one—lest they begin to sow small seeds of sin that one day sprout into a disqualifying bloom.

Not only must a minister pay attention to himself and his family, but he must pay careful attention to all in his flock, for this is the job of a shepherd. Once again, what a weighty responsibility! For Paul says that the Spirit of God himself has made them overseers of the church, and this church was “obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). God has entrusted his church, purchased by the blood of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, to finite men, called and equipped by his Spirit to be pastors. When a minister in the pulpit looks out upon his congregation, he is seeing men, women, and children whom Christ shed His own blood for. This should give the minister great confidence, for Christ’s work cannot be broken. And at the same time, he should feel the weight of responsibility for Christ’s people.

One of the major roles of pastors is to protect the Lord’s sheep from “fierce wolves” (Acts 20:29). Paul warns the Ephesian elders that after his departure these wolves will come into the flock and not spare it. Additionally, from within the flock itself men will arise “speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (20:29–30). Therefore, pastors must “be alert” (20:31). Pastors must be willing to defend their people from those outside the church who wish to devour them. But perhaps more difficult, pastors must be willing to confront and rebuke any in their own churches who speak “twisted things” and lead others astray. Once again, a minister must be willing to stand strong in conflict. He must be willing to ‘kill’ wolves. He must be willing to lay down his own life for his people, following the example of our Lord. 

After this warning, Paul offers a benediction to the elders, commending them to God and to his word, “which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32). A pastor must minister before God and in His strength, or else he will find his efforts fruitless. The word of God must be central to a pastor’s ministry, for as Paul wrote to Timothy, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16–17). Scripture is not only essential for a pastor’s own spiritual health, but when rightly handled in preaching, is the means by which God saves sinners and brings the sanctified into their inheritance. 

Lastly, Paul adds that he “coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel” (Acts 20:33). Instead with his own hands he worked to provide for himself and his companions, noting a previously unrecorded saying of Jesus, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (20:35). Paul’s lesson here is not that all ministers must be bi-vocational and work with their hands to provide for themselves. We know this because Paul teaches elsewhere that churches should pay their pastors (1 Tim. 5:17–18). Instead, Paul is instructing the Ephesian elders to be content and not to lust after riches (1 Tim. 6:10, Heb. 13:5). If a man’s primary desire in this life is wealth and comfort, typically they will need to look outside of the ministry to achieve this. Not only do many pastors not find themselves with an extremely high salary, they work in a context where they must speak the truth, even if it will upset those who pay their bills. Therefore, a minister and his family must be content with much and with little, always trusting the Lord (Phil. 4:11–13).

Conclusion

And so ends the instructions of St Paul to the Ephesian elders and to all the faithful men of God who have been raised up throughout the ages to serve the church. In summary, ministers must be qualified and equipped, committed to following the Spirit’s leading, willing to preach the whole counsel of God to all men, able to oppose wolves and deceivers within and without, and willing to lay their lives down for God’s people.

Find other posts in this series here.

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