The first mention of church leaders as elders is around 46 when the church in Antioch of Syria sent relief to the Christians in Judea. The gift was presented to the elders of the Jerusalem church by Barnabas and Saul (Acts 11:29-30). The church at Jerusalem had elders before the events recorded in Acts 11, but the leaders of the church at Antioch are not described as elders at this time. In 47, Paul began his first missionary journey from the city of Antioch. Luke describes the church in Antioch as having prophets and teachers but he makes no mention of elders (Acts 13:1‑3). If there were elders at Antioch, one would think they would be mentioned at such an important occasion. It is possible, however, that the prophets and teachers in Antioch were also elders. For example, Peter was both an apostle and an elder (1 Peter 1:1, 5:1). The apostles and elders are mentioned together on several occasions (Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22; 16:4). The elders are mentioned without the apostles in Acts 11:30, 20:17, and 21:18.
The prophets and teachers at Antioch laid their hands on Paul and Barnabas as they set them apart for this mission: “So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:3). The laying on of hands was a sign of approval and blessing by the church regarding the mission of Paul and Barnabas. We know from the New Testament that elders also laid their hands on others for a similar purpose. The elders laid hands on Timothy when he was set apart for his work as an evangelist: “Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you” (1 Timothy 4:14). Timothy received the gift through the laying on of Paul’s hands (2 Timothy 1:6) when (at the same time) he was ordained by the elders for his ministry of preaching. At a later time, Paul told Timothy not to lay hands on someone in a hasty manner: “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands” (1 Timothy 5:22). Timothy’s work as an evangelist in Ephesus required him to set apart certain men for special ministries. The qualifications of elders and deacons are given in 1 Timothy 3:1‑13 and it is probably these two groups of leaders Paul has in mind.
Before Paul concluded his first missionary journey, he appointed elders in all the churches he had established: “ 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” (Acts 14:23). Sometime later (perhaps in 49) he wrote his letter to the Galatian churches but does not address the elders and deacons. In 50, on his second missionary journey, the church at Philippi was established. When Paul writes to this church about 10 years later, he addresses the leadership of the church: “To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons” (Philippians 1:1). After establishing the church at Philippi, Paul went to Corinth and stayed for 18 months (Acts 18:11). About three years later, in the spring of 55, he wrote the letter of 1 Corinthians from Ephesus but does not address the elders and deacons of the church. If leadership existed in the church at this time, one would expect that these leaders would be admonished to solve the great problems present in Corinth. Perhaps the reason the elders at Corinth are not mentioned is because they were a part of the problem. About 40 years later (or perhaps only 15 years later), the letter of 1 Clement indicates that the Corinthian church had been disloyal to its elders (1 Clement 47.6). George Edmundson (The Church in Rome in the First Century) argues for an early date for 1 Clement. John A. T. Robinson builds on Edmundson’s arguments and argues for a date in the early part of 70. Note, however, the comment in the introduction to 1 Clement in the Apostolic Fathers (Loeb Classical Library, number 24): “It is safest to say that it must be dated between 75 and 110; but within these limits there is a general agreement among critics to regard as most probable the last decade of the first century” (p. 5). There seems to be a consensus among authorities today for a date around 95 but I believe the arguments presented by Edmundson and Robinson have not been effectively refuted.
In Paul’s first letter to Timothy (probably written a couple of years after 62) he wrote about the qualifications of elders in Ephesus. About seven years earlier in 57, while Paul was on his way to Jerusalem for the last time, he addressed the elders of the church in Ephesus (Acts 20:16‑17). This indicates the church in Ephesus already had elders before Paul wrote 1 Timothy and that Timothy assisted the church in selecting additional elders. Sometime after he wrote to Timothy, he also wrote to Titus in Crete about the selection of church leadership (Titus 1:5).
The historical evidence of the New Testament indicates that elders and deacons were appointed in some churches within months after their establishment. Other churches, however, do not seem to have elders and deacons until years later. They either do not have them or they are just not mentioned. Special gifts and helps from the Holy Spirit, such as the gift of leadership (Romans 12:8; Ephesians 4:11), certainly aided in the establishment of elders and deacons although it did not guarantee it. Special gifts by themselves would not automatically qualify one to serve since there were also family and moral qualifications.
In the first century letter of 1 Clement, the overseers and deacons are said to have been appointed by the apostles and were tested or approved by the Holy Spirit. The apostles “preached from district to district, and from city to city, and they appointed their first converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of the future believers” (1 Clement 42.4). The Greek verb translated “test” in 1 Clement is dokimazo and it is also used by Paul in 1 Timothy regarding the testing or approval of deacons: “They must first be tested (dokimazo); and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons” (1 Timothy 3:10). What is the testing in this verse? This probably refers to the examination of qualifications and approval by the congregation. The word translated “test” has the sense of examination. This is evident in the following occurrences where the Greek verb translated “test” in 1 Timothy 3:10 is translated approve, test, and examine: “Then, when I arrive, I will give letters of introduction to the men you approve (dokimazo) and send them with your gift to Jerusalem” (1 Corinthians 16:3). “Test (dokimazo) everything. Hold on to the good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). “A man ought to examine (dokimazo) himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup” (1 Corinthians 11:28). To examine, test, and approve men for these leadership positions would involve a qualification standard and the application of the standard to the candidates by the congregation. The Holy Spirit provides us with the standard in the qualifications set forth in the New Testament. Before such letters as 1 Timothy and Titus were written, the church had inspired apostles who were able to reveal the Holy Spirit’s will. Perhaps this is what the letter of 1 Clement refers to when it says the apostles were “testing them by the Spirit” (42.4). It may also be the case that it took some churches longer than others to find men who could pass the test and become approved.
J B Myers