Did the early church have elders

I’m currious to know when the Acts church first developed “Elders” as a governing body for the church. What does God have to say about the construction of the early church…specifically “leadership.” When did it occur. What should I know about “elders?”

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The first appearance of the word “elders” in a church context is when the church of Antioch sent a donation to the elders of the church at Jerusalem in Acts 11:30. From that point on, the leadership in Jerusalem is consistently referred to as the apostles and elders (Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22, etc.) while the leadership in other churches is referred to as elders (Acts 14:23; 20:17).

In the rest of the New Testament, the word elder seems to be used interchangeably with pastor and bishop (or overseer) - making these three words appear to refer to the same office, but perhaps emphasizing different aspects of it. Elder would emphasize the maturity and wisdom of the church leaders, bishop (overseer) focuses on the administrative authority of the office, and pastor describes the heart of the leader for his people.

Notice in Acts 20:17 where Paul calls for the elders of the church at Ephesus. Then down in verse 28, he calls them overseers and tells them to feed, a word which means to pastor, the flock of God.

Again, in Titus 1:5, Paul tells Titus to ordain elders in every city, and then he begins listing the qualifications for them - and in verse 7 he explains that a bishop must be blameless, using elder and bishop interchangeably.

And it’s not just Paul. In I Peter 5:1-3, Peter also begins by talking about elders in verse 1, he tells them to “pastor” the flock in verse 2, and to take the oversight - a verb form of overseer - of the church.

I hope these thoughts will help with what you were wanting to know.


Thank you! Another question; if I were to start a church on the Acts 2:42 model, would the church need to have “elders?”, “deacons?” I am fascinated with the early church and Christianity prior to organized religion and prior to the great schism. I know that for hundreds of years, the early church primarily met in homes. But what more can you tell me about the organizational structure of the early church? I am familiar with 5-fold ministry, but still unclear of the necessity of elders. Trying to expand my knowledge. Thanks!

The apostles in Acts 2 essentially served as the first elders for a church that exploded onto the scene with thousands of members overnight. And it only gained momentum from there. By Acts 6, it finally saw the need for the first seven deacons whose initial role was to care for the widows who were being overlooked. It was a position of humble service, not of authority.

James eventually becomes the first non-apostolic pastor of the church - the first “elder” - but he doesn’t appear in that capacity until Acts 12:17 (this isn’t the apostle James who is martyred for his faith in Acts 12:2; this is James the Lord’s brother - Galatians 1:19).

Toward the end of the book of Acts, in 21:18, we finally see that there are other elders in addition to James.

Other than Paul who served as the founding pastor of numerous churches, no other church besides Jerusalem in the book of Acts had apostles as elders. However, early church history indicates that John was a pastor for a short time in Ephesus. Still, Paul turned the churches he founded over to local pastors as quickly as feasible, and moved on to plant still others - Acts 14:23. And he instructed Titus to do the same in 1:5.

Bear in mind that the apostles were to be the first witnesses to the resurrection of Christ (Acts 1:21-22) and their role was foundational (Ephesians 2:20) - as such, it was never meant to be a permanent office throughout the Church Age. However, while their office has passed off the scene, their contribution continues to this day in their New Testament writings.

So the normal leadership of a church since the earliest times after the apostles would have been in the hands of one or more elders (or pastors, or bishops - they all refer to the same office) - the number of elders would have depended on the size and needs of the congregation. And they would continue ministering the writings of the apostles and prophets until the resurrection at the end of the Church Age.

The need for deacons would depend upon the size and the demands of each particular church.

The earliest churches met wherever they could find that would accommodate their size - Solomon’s Porch in the temple (Acts 5:12), the school of Tyrannus (Acts 19:9), a building with three floors (Acts 20:7-10), and numerous homes. The place itself was never the real issue - the real church has always been the people who make it up.

I hope this helps you to better understand New Testament church polity.