When Paul and Barnabas were concluding their first preaching trip, they were preaching in Derbe (Acts 14:20-21). They had preached in Antioch of Pisidia, Iconimum, and Lystra and had experienced fierce opposition and persecution in all three cities (Paul was even stoned in Lystra, Acts 14:19). In Derbe they turned around and revisited the churches they had just preached in “confirming the souls of the disciples … and appointing for them elders in every church” (Acts 14:22-23). The churches needed strengthening: they were babes in Christ and forced to suffer persecution for their newfound faith, and they needed the men and the work God ordained for those men to do to be functioning among them. When Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in “every church” in every city, they were fulfilling God’s divine purpose for the church which He planned before the world existed (Ephesians 3:8-11).
The church is a body of people composed of those who have been purchased by the blood of Christ (Acts 20:28). When God purposed the church, He purposed that there was to be a collective body of those redeemed ones who would meet publicly to worship, and that the fellowship between those redeemed ones would be a means of strength for each of them. Thus we see churches meeting in various places such as in Troas (Acts 20:7) and Corinth (1 Corinthians 16:1-2). God ordained that these collective bodies be overseen by men who would be identified, among other definitions, as elders (Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Peter 5:1-4).
Paul and Barnabas “appointed” elders in every church but that did not mean, as some suppose, they chose those men they appointed. When the Grecian Jews murmured because their widows were “neglected in the daily ministration” the apostles called the multitude of disciples to them and instructed them, “Look ye out (choose, jm) from among yourselves seven men, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business … And the saying pleased the whole multitude and they chose….” (Acts 6:3, 5). The multitude chose, the apostles appointed. The apostles appointed by instructing the church the qualifications necessary for the seven men; “appointed” included the apostles then publicly recognizing these men as servants of the church when they prayed and laid their hands on them (Acts 6:6).
Elders in the church was one of five gifts Jesus gave to men. In Ephesians 4:8, 11, 12 we read, “Wherefore when he ascended on high, he led captivity captive and gave gifts to men … and he gave same to be apostles, and some prophets, and some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the perfecting of the saints, unto the work of ministering, unto the building up of the body of Christ”. This latter verse spells out the work God has assigned the church collectively to do: preaching the gospel, caring for its needy saints, and edifying the brethren. The verses also included the “gifts” God gave to men to enable churches to do the work He wished that church to do.
The fourth gift Christ gave to men is “pastors” — an English word occurring nowhere else in the New Testament. However, it is found several times in the Old Testament, particularly in Jeremiah. Jeremiah charged certain “pastors” (shepherds in later translations) of Israel with dereliction: they had failed to care for the flock (Israel) in the way they should have. This neglect was in large measure responsible for the idolatry the nation fell into, with the subsequent exile in Babylon. The word “pastor” in Ephesians 4 is not a reference to the preacher as some suppose (although a preacher might be one of the “pastors”; the word for the preacher and his work is “evangelist”, Acts 21:8; 2 Timothy 4:4-5). “Pastors” is a reference to that group of men who are identified by the term “elders” (presbyters), “overseers” (bishops) and “shepherds” (pastors). A close examination of Acts 20:17-28 will show that the words “elders”, “bishops”, and “feed” (pastor) are all in the text and are all references to the same man or men: the elders of the Ephesian church.
Paul and Barnabas appointed “elders” (plural) in every “church” (singular), and this plurality of “elders in every church” was a universal practice. Churches were formed, then these churches appointed elders, following the direction of the apostles for the qualifications for such men (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). Churches which profess to be New Testament churches do the same today. Majority rule by the men is a poor substitute for the rule of elders Christ ordained for His churches. It should always to be our goal that we are just a New Testament church — nothing more, nothing less.