The book of Acts gives information about the appointment and function of church elders in the early church. Acts 14:23 says, “Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust” (NIV). Elders were appointed by the apostles, and they took care of the church. This brief article does not seek to find parallels between the function of presbyteros in the church of the first century A.D. and the functions of church elders today. Rather, it serves to highlight how elders dealt with problems in the church and made decisions to solve these issues. This is demonstrated in Acts 15, the central section of the book of Acts.
Acts 15 tells us that about 300 miles of traveling from Antioch Syria to Jerusalem was done as an effort to keep the unity of the church. And later, after that meeting in Jerusalem, a return journey of the same distance was taken only to bring a letter from the leaders—apostles and elders (Acts 15:2, 4, 6). A letter that consisted of only 100 words was delivered after being hand-carried for at least 15 days.
Below is the outline of what happened at the Jerusalem Council in 49 or 50 A.D., as recorded in Acts 15:
• Verse 4: Paul, Barnabas, and some believers reported to the leaders “everything God had done through them.”
• Verse 5: A case was presented: “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.”
• Verse 7: Peter spoke.
• Verse 12: Barnabas and Paul spoke.
• Verse 13: James spoke.
• Verses 16-18: The manual (in this case, the Old Testament) was opened and referred to.
• Verse 19: James gave direction, saying, “It is my judgment . . .”
• Verse 22: “It seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church . . .” (NASB).
• Verse 25: The letter reads: “It seemed good to us, having become of one mind” (NASB).
• Verse 28: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (NASB).
• Verse 30: The decision letter was written and delivered.
• Verse 31: “The people read it and were glad . . .”
The outline presents to us a logical sequence of what was taking place: It began with a presentation of some reports, followed by an agenda for discussion. Then council members spoke; the manual was opened and referred to; the committee chairman gave some directions; the whole body made a decision; the decision was written and delivered to the church; and the church read it and was happy with it.
The word “elders” is mentioned five times in Acts 15, and it always appears together with the word “apostles” (verses 2, 4, 6, 22, 23). Paul and Barnabas and the delegates from Antioch came to Jerusalem to see the apostles and the elders (verse 2); the apostles and the elders welcomed the delegates and received their reports (verse 4); then “the apostles and elders met to consider this question” (verse 6). Next, the apostles and the elders led the church in making a decision (verse 22). Finally, the apostles and the elders wrote the letter to the Christians in Antioch (verse 23).
After a long discussion, a decision was made. The author of Acts describes the process of decision-making by repeating three times the phrase “It seemed good” (NASB).
• It seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church (verse 22).
• It seemed good to us (verse 25).
• It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us (verse 28).
Interestingly, in the New Testament, Luke is the only author that uses this expression. He uses it four times: three times in describing the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 and once at the introduction to his Gospel. Here, in Luke 1:3, he says: “Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you . . .”
Luke could say “it seemed good to me” only after he “carefully investigated everything from the beginning.” In the case of the Jerusalem Council, the apostles could say “it seemed good to us” only after they called for a meeting, listened to reports, considered the opinions of the committee members, checked and followed the manual, received direction from the chairman of the committee, and made a decision.
They could say “it seemed good to us” because the preparation for the meeting involved days and hours of traveling, pure motives of the committee members, and respect for one another. However, these are not the only prerequisites for saying “it seems good for me.” One prerequisite is lacking, and it is perhaps the most important condition.
Above all, the apostles and the elders could say “it seemed good to us” because the Holy Spirit was present in that meeting. In the decision letter they sent to Antioch, they wrote, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (verse 28). This was a way of telling the church that the Holy Spirit was present at the meeting. This was a way of telling the church that the Holy Spirit not only was present but was involved in the decision-making. This was a way of telling the church that the Holy Spirit was a member of that committee.
In fact, the role of the Holy Spirit was not merely as a member of the committee; He was the divine Chairman of the council. This is evident in the way Luke arranges the sequence of the parties involved in the decision-making. In verse 22, Luke says: “It seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church.” This arrangement puts the apostles and elders first and the whole church later. The leader comes first, and then the members follow. In verse 25, these two groups of people are represented by one personal pronoun: “us.” However, in verse 28, when the Holy Spirit is mentioned, He is mentioned first, followed by the personal pronoun “us”: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.”
This arrangement puts the Holy Spirit as the leader, followed by the apostles, elders, and members. The Holy Spirit is the Guide. He is the leader. This arrangement does not suggest that the decision of the committee becomes the decision of the Holy Spirit. Instead, this arrangement suggests that the decision of the Holy Spirit becomes the decision of the committee. Therefore, the decision that was made in that meeting was not a man-made decision but a God-made decision.
Elders are involved in making decisions on the matters of the church, at least for their local churches. Careful investigation, reports, opinions, manuals, directions from the chairman, and votes are critical, crucial, and essential in the process of decision-making. But they do not give adequate reason for a committee, council, or board to say, “It seemed good to us.” It is after the Holy Spirit is invited, acknowledged, and given His right role in a meeting that the elders and the committee may say, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.”
Richard A. Sabuin is an assistant professor of New Testament Interpretation and Exegesis at the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies (AIIAS) in the Philippines. He is also an elder in the AIIAS Church.