Do Protestants Have the "Fullness of the Faith"?
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Do Protestants Have the "Fullness of the Faith"?

Christian, You Need Faithful Elders {Acts 20:17–38}

The health of a local church depends on the faithfulness of her elders. This is the point of Paul’s speech to the elders at Ephesus in Acts 20:17–38. Expecting to never see them again, he described for future and current elders what faithful leadership looks like.

But the text isn’t only for church leaders. Here is a pattern for how believers should be led to follow Jesus; this is the kind of church you need! This is the kind of leadership your prayers and eager submission can facilitate (Heb. 13:17).

In his speech Paul calls elders “overseers” (Acts 20:17, 28). Overseers are watchmen. They are not like elected officials, accountable to their constituents. Their primary allegiance is to the head of the church. Paul’s speech identifies three ways elders must oversee Jesus’s flock.

Faithful Elders Oversee Their Own Lives

Paul says it loudly and clearly: “Pay careful attention to yourselves” (Acts 20:28). Appointment to office doesn’t guarantee faithfulness. Elders must consistently live out the qualifications of their office, disciplining themselves to avoid disqualification (1 Tim. 3:1–7; Titus 1:5–9; 1 Cor. 9:27).

Faithful Elders Have a Humble Self-esteem

Paul served the Lord among the Ephesian church “with all humility” (Acts 20:19). True Christian leaders believe they are “least of all the saints” (Eph. 3:8). Leaders worth following value their calling over their own lives (Acts 20:24).

Faithful Elders Are Committed to Service

Paul worked hard to support the ministry. He was the first to show up and last to leave. No congregation should have to wonder, “Where are our elders?” Jesus wants his people to believe that “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). By giving of themselves, elders help God’s people catch that vision.

Faithful Elders Are Willing to Suffer

Looking back over his time in Ephesus, Paul could say that he served the Lord “with trials” (Acts 20:19). Looking ahead, he anticipated “imprisonment and afflictions” (Acts 20:23). Elders enter into the troubles of their people and lead them into hard places from the front.

Faithful overseers can only rule in the church if they rule themselves.

Faithful Elders Oversee Preaching

Paul summarized his own preaching ministry as a positive example of how elders must regulate the pulpit ministry.

Preaching Must Be Comprehensive

Paul proclaimed God’s kingdom (Acts 20:25)—everything God is doing and all of its implications. He “did not shrink from declaring … anything that was profitable” (Acts 20:20). Elders aren’t responsible for how people respond to preaching (Ezek. 33:4). But to be “innocent of the blood of all” they must insist that the congregation hears “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).

Preaching Must Center on Repentance and Faith

This can be done in different ways. Not every sermon needs to have altar-call language. But every text reveals something of our fallen condition and how we must find healing in Christ (Acts 20:21).[1] If hearers don’t repent and believe on account of a sermon, either the preacher or the listener has failed (and possibly both have).

Preaching Must Be Gracious

It is the word of God’s grace that is “able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32). Christian ministry must “testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24). Every command in preaching must tie in to the truth that God has purchased his flock with his own blood (Acts 20:28).

Preaching is a vital means of grace. Elders must ensure that it is done well.

Faithful Elders Oversee the Congregation

Good elders “Pay careful attention … to all the flock,” and “care for the church of God” (Acts 20:28). What does this mean?

Faithful Elders Love the Flock

Paul loved the never-dying souls of the Ephesian congregation—he ministered with tears among them (Acts 20:19, 31). And the congregation felt his love; there was much weeping and sorrow when he departed (Acts 20:37–38). People today are reluctant to submit to oversight. But if overseers are motivated by tangible, Christ-like love, church members have nothing to fear.

Faithful Elders Protect the Flock

Paul warned that “fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; … Therefore be alert” (Acts 20:29, 31). Spiritual wolves want to steal believers away from Jesus; they use biblical terminology with a deceptive twist (Acts 20:30). Worthy elders “admonish” God’s people (Acts 20:31), warning against dangers and driving away the incorrigible.

Faithful Elders Feed the Flock

In the public preaching Christ, the bread of life is broken before God’s children. But preaching isn’t enough. So Paul taught “in public and from house to house” (Acts 20:20). Through family visitation, elders get to know the condition of those under their care, invite them to discuss vital spiritual matters, and apply the word of God more personally than public teaching affords.[2]

Competent elders oversee the church as godly husbands manage their families. But this text isn’t ultimately about elders. It is about God. God loves his church. He has given his blood for our lives. He has also given overseers for our health. And in Paul’s meeting with the Ephesian elders he has given a beautiful pattern of how elders and Christians can walk together down the path of faithfulness that Christ has blazed for us.

[1] See Bryan Chapell’s work on “The Fallen Condition Focus” in Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 40–44.

[2] For more on the historic practice of family visitation see Peter Y. DeJong’s Taking Heed to the Flock: A Study of the Principles and Practice of Family Visitation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1965).

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William Boekestein

William Boekestein is the pastor of Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He has written several books and numerous articles. He and his wife, Amy, have four children.