In Acts 6:3 there is a single verse description of the priorities embraced by the early church apostles. “But we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” Truly a noble standard, but what exactly is meant? Comparing scripture with scripture provides some clues.
In Hebrews 13:7,17 & 24 there are three references to those who rule (more literally “those who lead”) among God’s people. Since the plural form is used, most understand the text as referring to church elders. Perhaps the word itself is not used to avoid confusing the Hebrew readers as to whether church elders or elders in Israel are meant.
In any case, the reference is clearly to those in authority, and may remind us about the work of elders today. Four activities are mentioned which, taken together, shed light on the passage in Acts 6. These leaders have spoken the word of God, and have provided an example of faith to follow. They watch for souls and then give account to God. On this latter phrase, AW Pink writes: “They often render an account to Him now, keeping up a constant intercourse with Him, spreading before Him the state and needs of His people, seeking supplies of grace. A full and final account must be rendered of their stewardship in the Day to come.” [Pink; Hebrews III p. 342] In order to make their work a joyful one, believers are instructed to remember, obey, and submit. Consider the practical outworking of these several functions.
First, elders must tell the people what God has said. To do so, they must spend time studying the Scriptures, pondering and discerning both the meaning and the intended application. Elders need to be good bridge builders; that is, they need to help people move in their thinking from AD 60 or 70 to the present. In this way, the Christian learns how God speaks through His word. Although an elder may not be a public speaker, he must learn ways by which he can bring God’s truth to others.
Second, and a natural corollary to communication, is conduct. An elder’s life must authenticate his message. Above all other virtues, his life must display his faith in God. I remember spending time with brother Vernon Schlief of Louisiana and noting the solid connection between his way of living and his oft heard exclamation: “I believe God!” Moreover, the qualification of elders in I Tim. 3:2 “given to hospitality….” is relevant here, because elders cannot be “Sunday only” leaders. Sooner or later trials will come and faithful elders will want to be transparent in their response. People should be able to talk to an elder’s wife and children without any suggestion that home and private life are off limits.
Third, elders watch over the sheep in the flock where God has placed them. The use of “souls” is interesting, for while there are certainly dangers to the spirit and the body, it is the soul that requires constant vigilance. The mind must be transformed, the will brought under God’s authority, and the emotions kept in their rightful place of responding rather than ruling. Doing this great work is beyond the abilities of any single man, and makes us appreciate God’s wisdom in providing a plurality of leaders in the church.
Finally, elders must give account to God. They are under authority as well as in authority. Nothing can make the work of overseer more painful than to report on the state of the flock with a heavy heart, literally groaning to the Lord. Happy the elder who intercedes for saints who, amid many problems and trials, are nevertheless growing in grace and in the faith.
In conclusion, these insights from Hebrews 13 help us understand the passage in Acts 6. Elders continually go before God in the study of His word, and then go among the believers to proclaim truth and care for the sheep. Then they return to commune with the Lord about the state of His flock. Believers who are aware of this process will be diligent to help their leaders do this work with joy.