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Could elders be house church leaders?

Submitted: 5/15/2006
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Question: In Acts 14:23 the Bible speaks of Paul and Barnabas ordaining “elders (plural) in every church.” Acts 14:21 indicates that they did this in Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch. Could the phrase “elders in every church” mean that a pastor was ordained at all of the house churches founded in these locations? Because a number of locations are listed in verse 21, is it possible to conclude that this is the reason for the use of “elders” (plural). So it might not mean that a board of elders was established in each church. Thank You for your attention.

Answer: You have posted a very good question to which we would like to make several points:

1. Linguistically, the phrase 'elders in every church' means that every church (singular) has elders (plural). If it were as you suggest, the text would read 'an elder in every (house) church.'

2. If we lay Acts 14:23 ('appointed elders in every church') beside Titus 1:5 ('appoint elders in every city'), we see that the terms 'church' and 'city' are interchangeable. This tells us that from God's perspective, there was one church in each city. This squares with Paul's letters, many of which were written to the church in a particular city, not to all the various churches or house churches in that city.

3. Today's house church movement is not in keeping with the biblcal concept of one church in each city. It places leadership over each house church rather than leadership over the entire church of a city. This is not to say that the early Christians did not meet in houses and that these meetings did not have some kind of leadership. We see this in Acts 2:46, Acts 5:42, and other places. But the church of each city also functioned under the oversight of the elders of that city. For example, there was one church in Derbe led by a team of elders with Jesus as the Head. This church met regularly in homes and there was some form of leadership in those meetings, but that leadership was not independent of the elders.

4. We believe the term 'board of elders' implies that the elders are nothing more than a church board with a different name. This is not the case at all. The elders of a church are mature spiritual men who work together in providing pastoral oversight and care to the assembly. They are not merely 'board elders,' as we see in some assemblies today. For this reason, we prefer to call them a 'council of elders' or a 'pastoral team.'

For a more detailed look at biblical elders, please read the articles on Shelf 2. Apostolic Church Polity on the Apostolic Free Library.