Equipping Church Leaders – How to Be an Elder
May 12, 2024

Equipping Church Leaders – How to Be an Elder

Passage: Acts 20:17-38

A Speech Directed at Elders

Over the past several weeks, we’ve been opening our Bibles to a book called the Acts of the Apostles or simply Acts (A-C-T-S) for short. The apostles were a group of men who were specially commissioned by Jesus as ambassadors for the Christian message and leaders for the church. And this book tells us about their actions – what Jesus Christ did in and through his apostles as they proclaimed the good news of Christianity.

We’re now in week six of a seven-week series looking at the major speeches in the book of Acts. The five speeches we’ve seen so far have been directed at non-Christians – to persuade them that they’re at odds with God – that they need to receive Jesus as the only one who can lead them back to God.

But tonight, the speech we’ll be looking at is aimed at people who have already received the Christian message. Earlier in Acts, when people became Christians, the apostles gathered them together and started churches. And the apostles appointed church leaders called elders, or presbyters (which is where the word Presbyterian comes from. It describes churches that are led by elders). In our text tonight, we’re given an idea what these elders were responsible for and what elders in the church today continue to be called to. So if you haven’t already, please turn with me Acts, Chapter 20. I’ll be reading from verse 17 to verse 38. But before I read, please pray with me.


Following Paul's Lead

These elders from the city of Ephesus – Paul knew them well. He spent years starting their church, teaching them the Bible, mentoring them. And Paul called them together to meet with him. The fact that this speech is recorded in the book of Acts – it shows us raising up faithful elders was a key part of the apostle’s work. Paul recognized that elders were essential for the health and stability of the Church. And here in Acts 20, Paul gives some final instructions to make sure these elders are prepared to lead in faithfulness. Because Paul won’t be there to lead for them.

In verses 18 through 21, Paul reminds them what his own faithful leadership looked like. And this is because, in verses 22 through 25, Paul informs them – he won’t be in the picture anymore. Verse 22: “And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there.” Verse 25: “And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again.”

And in light of his coming absence, Paul wants the Ephesian elders to walk in the same faithfulness he modeled for them. So in verse 26, he testifies to these church leaders that he innocent of bloodguilt. His ministry has been blameless. His message has been complete. His lifestyle demonstrates what their service to the church should look like. And it’s strongly implied here that Paul wants them to follow his example.

So from this passage, I want to quickly point out five responsibilities that Paul either models or explicitly mandates for church leaders to follow.

Church Leaders Exhibit Character

First, Church Leaders should exhibit character. Specifically, church leaders should be men of humility and men of self-giving – of generosity.

Paul encourages humility in verses 18 and 19. He reminds the elders that he was serving the Lord in his ministry, with all humility. When Paul came to Ephesus, he wasn’t motivated by self-advancement. He wasn’t dreaming about the day that people would put his name on buildings: “St. Paul’s Cathedral” – “The Church of Saint Paul the Apostle.” No, Paul understood that he was called to be a servant, carrying out the priorities of the Lord who sent him.

Having this sort of humility, to embrace your status as a servant – you don’t get it by standing in front of a mirror, telling yourself “Be Humble, Be Humble, Be Humble.” Instead, you gain humility by spending time away from a mirror – by spending time close to God. The more you see the majesty and preciousness of God, the less obsessed you’ll be with you. We need this type of man to serve the church. Not rich men. Not intellectual men. Not (impressive) influential men. But humble servants, who know their God.

We also need self-giving men. In verse 18, Paul says he was also serving the Lord with tears and with trials. He gave himself to the Lord’s work, willingly, even when there was no earthly benefit – even when it was emotionally draining – even when people complained, criticized, even persecuted him. As Paul says later, in verse 33, he wasn’t craving people’s money or possessions. Paul’s mission wasn’t to gain but to give. And he urges these elders to follow his example. Verse 35: “In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”

Men focused on worldly self-gain will quit when the work feels inconvenient or unrewarding. But the elder of good character, who affirms “It is more blessed to give than to receive,” will humbly lay himself down for the sheep.

Church Leaders Explain the Gospel

But notice, second, elders are called to explain the gospel. In verses 20 and 21, Paul makes it clear that teaching the Christian message was the central, critical component of his service to the church.

And Paul emphasizes, he carried out the full responsibilities of this commission. He taught on every pertinent subject – he didn’t withhold anything profitable from them. He taught in every place – both privately with pastoral home visits house to house, and also in public. And Paul taught every-one – both Jews and Greeks, as we’ve seen in recent weeks. Paul wasn’t negligent in any respect. And consequently, he’s urging the elders here – teach the full scope of Scripture, teach it all over the place, and teach it to all people without any hint of favoritism.

At the end of verse 21, Paul also reminds them what stands at the core of the Christian message. It’s a message of “repentance toward God, and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” If church leaders aren’t teaching people to repent – to turn from sin and self toward God – if they aren’t insisting that people must place their faith in Jesus Christ alone, for the forgiveness of sins and for the promise of new life with God – they’re aren’t teaching Christianity. Because this was Paul’s message. (This was the message of the apostles.) And this is the message that elders of the church must teach today.

Church Leaders Exercise Oversight

Here’s the third responsibility for church leaders. Church leaders are called to exercise oversight. In verse 28, Paul says, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.” Paul points out here that the Holy Spirit has made the elders overseers, to act as managers who provide oversight for the church.

But notice, the first thing Paul tells elders to pay attention to isn’t other people. Paul first urges these church leaders, “Pay careful attention to yourselves.” An essential part of an elder’s job is to manage his own spiritual health and vitality. If a man isn’t faithful in managing his own lusts, his anger, his time, his money, his social media posts – then he isn’t qualified to exercise godly oversight over others.

Yet in addition to watching themselves, elders are also called to pay careful attention to all the flock. Elders don’t just focus on the “fun people,” or the “wealthy people,” or the “good-looking people.” Instead, they’re called to pay attention to all the flock. Even those who seem unlovable, or stubborn, or anxious, or awkward, or weak, or whatever. Being an elder isn’t just an administrative role, overseeing budgets, and programs, and buildings. No, the elder is a pastoral role, to oversee and serve the sheep.

And the reason elders must pay careful attention to the flock is because these are the people God loves. He obtained them with his own blood. As servants of God, elders are called, then, to love the church with the same manner of love.

And the church needs her elders to do this well. Paul warns, starting in verse 29: “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw the disciples after them. THEREFORE, be alert...”

The elders have an important job in their oversight, to protect the sheep. And we should realize with a good dose of humility – Paul’s warning here isn’t against those pagans and atheists outside the church. Paul warns about fierce wolves who will rise from within the church – divisive people and deceivers. Elders must pay careful attention to the sheep, and even to each other. You don’t your pastors or elders to run solo. When elders watch each other, it helps to protect the sheep. Having a Presbyterian, elder-led church is a gift, because it provides this accountability. When elders exercise faithful oversight together, it honors the name of Christ and greatly serves his Church.

Church Leaders Equip Future Leaders

Fourth, here, church leaders equip future leaders. We see this commended to us by Paul’s example. He started the church in Ephesus back in Acts 19, and almost definitely trained all the elders personally. And now, Paul has again made it his priority to call the elders together to make sure they’re prepared to serve the church.

Though Paul doesn’t explicitly tell the elders here that it’s their responsibility to raise up the next generation of church leadership, it’s implied that this was part of the take-home message. Because Paul won’t be around Ephesus anymore, to display his exemplary character, or to preach, or to give oversight. Just as Paul set an example for them, the elders will be responsible for passing these things on to the next generation.

For as long as Paul was in the picture, it was probably tempting for the elders to sit back and defer to his leadership. But now Paul is decisively stepping back. He’s showing what a transition in leadership looks like. And by this, Paul’s making it clear, here, that the elders, together, are now responsible to oversee the long-term health of the church. Just as Paul prepared them, they should be involved in equipping future leaders.

Church Leaders Entrust Their People to God

Finally, responsibility number five: church leaders are called to entrust their people to God. Paul himself does this in verse 32, when he says, “And now, I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” Even though he started the church in Ephesus, even though he spent three years there, he knows that the Ephesian church isn’t his church. And notice, Paul doesn’t commit the church to the elders, here, because it isn’t the elders’ church either. He commits the church to God, because the future of the church doesn’t rest on human shoulders. The church doesn’t belong to us. It belongs to God.

It's good to remember: human work can’t force spiritual fruit into existence. We must commit our work to God – we must commit our children, our church family, our neighbors – we need to commit them to God. And how do we do this? We do this in prayer. Just as Paul shows us in verse 36. “And after he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all.” This is a necessary part of every elders work: to commit the church to God in prayer.

Seeking Faithful Elders

This is the way God wants his church to be run. We can appreciate his wisdom in calling for faithful elders who will teach and watch and pray. God is calling me to these things, as an elder and pastor – and he’s quite possibly calling some of you to these things, too. So let’s commit our church in Mount Pleasant to God in prayer, asking him to provide faithful elders in the future and to build us up according to the word of his grace.