Ordaining Elders: Evangelism Part B
By Matthew Roberts, 21 Sep 2017
It’s not possible for Christians to be unconcerned about evangelism. The gospel of Jesus is good news: and Jesus presumed (for example in Matthew 25:31-32, which I’ll be preaching from this Sunday) that the whole world would in time be in a position to answer for how they had responded to him. So Jesus’ church has a duty to make sure the whole world knows of him. The church is the family which has been raised to new life by her risen Lord. So if we’re part of that, how could we not want to see the same happen to other people, all over the world, starting on our doorstep?
For that reason every church must have proclaiming the good news of Jesus as a top priority. Just as it was for the apostles in the book of Acts. But interestingly, as Paul and Barnabas finished the first ever deliberate missionary journey, at a place called Derbe deep in what is now Turkey, they clearly did not consider the job done. This was despite the spectacular success of their mission; many people had become Christians. But instead of simply heading home (quite a short distance), they returned by the same looping roundabout arc by which they had come, despite it adding hundreds of miles, and great danger, to the journey.
21 When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, 22 strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. 23 And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed. (Acts 14:21-23 ESV)
These new believers were Christians in a hostile pagan world. They no doubt needed the encouragement. But that alone doesn’t explain Paul and Barnabas’ effort to return to them. The essential reason seems to be in v23: they went back to appoint elders for them, in every church.
When the apostles went out as missionaries, they went not merely to win converts but to establish churches. And in order to establish churches, those churches needed elders. Until that was done, the job was not finished. Appointing elders was not an afterthought, a late brainwave Paul had to give the churches a boost. Without elders the work of evangelism was incomplete. Ordaining elders is Evangelism Part B.
Because the elders of the church are part of the design God always planned for his church. They were present all through the Old Testament, to bless and rule God’s people wisely. That is not dropped but expanded in the New Testament. Elders are entrusted with the instruction and government of the church, for her good. They are to protect her from error and see that she is properly fed from God’s word. Without elders the people are sheep without a shepherd, hungry people without food, vulnerable to wolves. Christians are Christians because they have responded to and received Christ’s loving rescue, submitted to him joyfully as their shepherd; and Christ who is in heaven does not leave them without a shepherd’s care on earth. Part of his care for his flock is to appoint undershepherds who, under his authority, are to implement in practical ways his protection and provision. Here’s the apostle Peter:
1 So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; 3 not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. (1 Peter 5:1-3 ESV)
Part of the package of glorious good news of becoming a Christian is that you become part of the church. The church is where humanity is being remade into what it was made to be: the image of God. And part of that image is that this is a place which is rightly, justly governed, where truth is taught, wrongs are righted, offences are repented of and forgiven, relationships are restored. All of that requires that Christ provides for his church to be ruled rightly. And it is through elders that he has chosen to do that.
So to become a Christian means, integrally, to become part of the church; and for the church to be what she should be she needs elders. That was why Paul and Barnabas were prepared to go back to Pisidian Antioch, where they had been driven out of town by a mob; to Iconium, where they were nearly stoned; and to Lystra, where Paul had in fact been stoned. This was a phenomenally dangerous trip. And they considered it worth it, because the churches needed encouragement, and they needed elders.
One more thing from Acts 14 is worth noticing. The men chosen for this weighty task are drawn from the new churches themselves. They are not experts imported from elsewhere. No doubt the churches must have had to do a bit of mental adjustment to accept these men who were ex-pagans just like them had been entrusted with such a responsibility. But that is always Jesus’ way, to build his kingdom out of fallible human beings – including delegating to some of them (not only elders, but deacons, those who work in government, police, parents) genuine authority, to be used in his service and for the good of those under their care.
This Sunday we will be ordaining our first ruling elders at Trinity Church York. As a church which began from scratch eight years ago, It is our equivalent of Paul and Barnabas’ second visit to Lystra, Iconium and Pisidian Antioch. Just as there, this is not an afterthought or a tidying up exercise; it is part 2 of the same evangelistic enterprise which brought our church (just like every church, in fact) into existence in the first place. Let’s pray for our new elders, and let’s thank God for giving them to us.
For more on ordination, see my article from 2016: Ordination: do we believe in that?