January 7, 2013 at 4:46pm
Acts 20: 17 ~ 38
Paul sent a messenger to Ephesus and “called the elders of the church.” What church? The church of Ephesus. “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” (Acts 20:18). I don’t know if you are an elder in the church of God or if you are “elder material.” In any case, I want to lay down an apostolic rule or guideline for the work of elders.
When Paul asked the elders of Ephesus to come down to Miletus, he did two things. He issued a directive to the elders, and he gave an account of his own ministry. I want to deal with those two things. It is likely that by the time we are finished, we will feel disqualified for the work of an elder; and that is not bad. It is too easy for us to be comfortable in our inadequacies.
The apostle Paul knew he would never see those elders again. This was his last chance to talk to them, so his words carried even more weight and importance than usual. Paul began in verse 28 with the words, “Take heed therefore unto yourselves...” (Acts 20:28). Paul said these words to the elders, the presbuteros. This verse could also be phrased, “Keep a watchful eye on yourselves....”
Now, let me ask you a very simple question: What is most important to the elder, or to the pastor? What is more important to him, his relationship to the elders in the area or his church? Come.....his church? Wrong. Look closely at Acts 20:28. Paul set a clear order in his final command to the elders he had ordained in Ephesus! He said, “Take heed therefore unto [number one] yourselves, and to [number two] all the flock, over which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers [episkopos]...” (Acts 20:28).
The “College of Elders” in Ephesus were the pastors, elders, presbyters, or overseers of the church in Ephesus. They were shepherds. As leadership goes, so go the followers. Division doesn’t start with the sheep! It starts with the shepherds. Paul told these shepherds, “Your priority is not the flock; it is your fellow elders.”
Why did the apostle Paul command something that seemed so contrary to true love for the sheep? Paul knew the primary rule of leadership: Leaders lead, for good or for evil. If you, as an elder, cannot maintain unity and a prayerful loving concern in collegiality with other elders over the church, then your disunity is going to seep down to the flock. Your separation at the top will become separation at the bottom. This is very similar to the counsel that should be given to parents: If marriage partners fail to maintain their own relationship as a first priority, then their children will suffer from their parents’ division—no matter how close their relationship is to their children. Do you see what I’m saying?
We have problems. Number one, we don’t have a “College of Elders” in our geographical areas. That’s how subnormal we are. What would happen if you were to call all the elders in your geographical area and say, “It is important for us to get together because we are the leaders of God’s people in this area; could we all get together for an hour on Thursday afternoon?” What are the chances of getting all the elders in your area together for an hour during the week? Pretty slim. Why? Most of them will put their proprietary rights over their church first, even in the face of God’s clear command!
Our first responsibility as elders is to maintain equality and care within the local body of elders and to guard our relationships. If we allow division and differences to separate the leaders, then the people of God will be separated as well.
If you are a shepherd, it will be of no use for you to thunder at your people for their failures when you cannot obey the command of the apostle Paul to look to your relationship with your fellow elders as your first priority, and then to the needs of the flock. There are elders living and ministering in the same area who don’t even talk to one another! Then we wonder why we have carnal sheep! This is a serious breach because it puts God’s sheep at risk!
“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” (Acts 20:28). Notice the “sheep” word—flock. It is translated from poimnion, a form of poimen. Poimnion means “a flock of sheep.” The word translated “to feed” is poimeomnio, another poimen word.
Acts 20:28 is an apostolic command. How do you or your shepherds measure up to God’s command? Is the first priority among you as elders to keep in such close touch with each other that nothing comes between you? Is your collegial care devoted to the whole Flock of God in your city? “That goal is too high to reach, Brother Baxter.” That is our problem, yet God set the goal, not me. ‘Well, I meet with three brothers over on the south side....” Do you meet with the elders of the church in your city? “Well, we do have some churches in the north side.” This answer only compounds the problem; we have just institutionalized our division We have so many problems that have become “traditionally acceptable” that we can’t obey God.
Why did the Ephesian elders need to be kept together? Look at Acts 20:29: “For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:29). The first reason elders must guard their unity is, if the elders or pastors of a communicable area are not of one accord, they are also unable to keep the wolf from coming in from outside.
I’m sorry to say this, but I personally know of pastors in certain areas who will deliberately bring in somebody of questionable character, who can draw a crowd and raise a lot of money. If they had bothered to get counsel from other elders in the area, they would have been told, “No.” The elders are set in the sheepfold by God to protect the flock of God from the grievous wolves. Yes, there are grievous wolves roaming around. They don’t come to hold a meeting to bless the people. They hold meetings to build up their mailing list and raise an offering. Now that may sound terribly crass, but I’m not in a polite mood—I have the fear of God on me.
We will answer at the Judgment Seat of Christ for allowing wolves dressed as men to come into territory where we have authority. A wolf can only come in and trouble the flock when we don’t have enough concern in the college of elders to keep them out.
That is not all. Paul also said, “Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:30). I can think of case after sad case down through the years where somebody wanted their own following. He deliberately thought up some kind of a phony teaching—not because he was convinced that he was right, but because it’s a point of deviation that he could use to draw people unto himself. Now if the college of elders in an area is in unity, and one of their brothers starts to create division in order to build his own personal following, the solidarity of that college of elders will say, “Brother, we forbid you to do that,” and their unified word will carry authority.
How much splitting, dividing, and reallocating of sheep would have been avoided if we had enough unity in our citywide eldership to say to a brother in error, “You are wrong, Brother, and in the Name of God, we forbid you to do that”? If there is no unanimity among the members of the college of elders, then they can‘t keep the wolves out. If there is no unanimity in the college of elders, then you can’t keep men in the area from splitting churches.
Some of these “splinter churches” are started on the subtle pretext, ‘Well, I can’t do anything else. I have no vocation, and I need to earn a living. I have to start a church.” Listen, God will not allow sectarianism to continue. He is not going to allow ministers to come into areas and tear them up, causing the Gentiles to blaspheme God because of the way we handle the flocks of God.
Acts 20:28-29 records Paul’s final word to the elders of Ephesus. But today, we don’t even have true city elders. We don’t have elders of our county. In most cases, it is questionable whether we could ever gather them all together in one place long enough to talk to them! Instead, we’ve done things our way. We have independent, unilateral, proprietary little kings saying, “these are my people, this is my church, these are my sheep.” Then we wonder why it’s a squalling mess.
Elders, guard your fellowship with the other elders first, and then take care of the flock. “I’m too busy to meet with you because I’ve got some church problems.” Well, if you met together, maybe you wouldn’t have those church problems. I’m going to say it very simply once more. It is God’s ideal that in any communicable area, all the pastors, elders, and shepherds stay so close to each other that they function as a “College of Authority” to keep wolves out and to keep men from drawing away disciples after themselves. That is the ideal agenda of God for the church in every city.
from the book God’s Agenda by Ern Baxter