Do Churches Only Become Churches When Elders Are Present?

Acts 14:23 says: “When they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” (NASB)

Paul appoints elders in the churches that he had started earlier (Acts 13:1-14:22). Are churches only churches when elders are present or can a church be a church before elders are present in leading the congregation? The exegesis behind this is key.

I see this as a key point in church planting and movemental expressions geographically. I believe the churches Paul and Co started in Acts 13:1ff were truly “churches” for many reasons. I see them as churches before elders were appointed.  One reasons to explain is this:

Luke uses the word ‘church’ (ecclesia) 23 times in Acts. Twelve times he does so in a prepositional phrase. That Luke uses a prepositional phrase in Acts 14:23 is critical. The short side of the exegesis is this: Prepositions are used most often in a ‘stative’ way. That is, they state something in existence. You can see Wallace’s discussion in his grammar – Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (pp 358-359 in particular; even in a classical Greek grammar this concept is expressed – Smyth, Greek Grammar, p 366 section 1639).

The twelve times Luke uses a preposition with ecclesia are: Acts 5:11, 7:38, 8:1, 11:26, 12:1, 12:5, 13:1, 14:23, 15:3, 4, 22, 19:39.

Acts 13:1 illustrates well: “Now there were at Antioch, in the church that was there, prophets and teachers: Barnabas, and Simeon who was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul” (NASB – emphasis added).

Acts 13:1 is clearly stative, Luke tells us the church in Antioch was in existence. If what I am saying is true, this applies to Acts 14:23 this way:

“When they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” (NASB – emphasis added)

I would expand this out to say: “When they had appointed elders for them in every church that was in existence from the beginning of Paul’s mission movement that began in Acts 13:1, . . .”

Eldership is key to local church development, establishment and growth. In our GSE process the E stands for Elders, we intentionally bring elders into the church starting process. My point is this, if my exegesis is correct, then we can have ‘churches’ started before elders are a regular part of the church.

Questions to consider:

  • What steps are you able to take to further explore this exegetical issue?
  • Where are you currently on this question?