Recently I was reading Acts 20. In this chapter, a good part of the text is devoted to the apostle Paul’s words to the elders of the church in Ephesus. You can read an extended account about the early days of this church in Acts 19. This meeting with the elders was one that Paul requested; he asked them to come and meet with him at Miletus (Acts 20:17). When he spoke to them he had some very serious things to say. I have read this passage many times and have preached from it. But this time when I read the text something, in particular, caught my eye. In Acts 20:28 Paul said, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (NIV). These were the words of a senior Christian leader to other Christian leaders. Paul was an apostle and he spoke to the elders, who were local church leaders. He charged them with diligence concerning both their personal lives and the lives of the people who sat under their care.
This is very important. I once sat under a pastor who made a statement to the effect that one of the easiest places to backslide is in the ministry. That may sound odd, or unlikely, but it is true. Sometimes ministers can be so taken up with ministering to, and caring for, the church that they do not give proper attention to their own spiritual lives. Church leaders, like all other Christians, are susceptible to error and sin, no one is immune. This being the case, care needs to be taken regarding one’s personal spiritual life. Paul knew the dangers of the ministry. When he wrote to the believers in Corinth he spoke about his own diligence in caring for himself, so that after preaching to others, he himself would not be disqualified (1 Cor. 9:27). Paul practiced what he preached. In Acts 20 he urged the Ephesian elders to beware and take care. Please note that he said this to the whole group.
Paul’s words to the Ephesian elders reminded me of something he wrote in one of his letters. In 1 Timothy 4:16, he wrote “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (NIV). The wording here is different from what he said in Acts 20:28, but the basic message is the same. His message was: take care of your own life so you can take care of the lives of others. However, the verse in 1 Timothy further breaks down the issue of self-care; Paul mentioned two major areas that Timothy was to give attention to. He told him to watch his doctrine (what he believed and taught) and how he behaved. Timothy was in the city of Ephesus when Paul wrote to him (1 Tim. 1:3). It is worth noting that both the elders I mentioned above and Timothy, received similar warnings and that all of them ministered in the church in the city of Ephesus. It makes me wonder if there was a particularly vulnerability for ministers in that city. We know the city had a major idol, the image of Diana, and some demonic activity because there were exorcists in the city (Acts 19:13).
Just before I graduated from seminary I attended a banquet at the school’s main campus. The speaker at this event spoke from the verse I cited in the previous paragraph, 1 Timothy 4:16. He urged those of us who were graduating to watch our lives and doctrine closely. Some, like me, were probably already in ministry, while others may have been in the early stages of starting theirs. Though I cannot give specifics concerning the makeup of the group of ministerial students who were present at that banquet I think I can say with confidence that it was diverse. The students probably consisted of men and women, of different ages, and different ethnicities. They would likely serve in different denominational and perhaps non-denominational churches and ministries located in different places in the world. Paul’s words are very relevant; they are appropriate for ministers in every place at every time in history. All of us who hold leadership positions in Christ’s church do well to periodically take a brief personal inventory to see if things are really well with our souls. A little introspection can be a good thing.
As we seek to lead the church, we need to be careful that we do not bypass the scriptural directives addressed to leaders. These texts were given for a reason; they are meant to help us. If we fail to heed these ministerial warnings we do so not only to our own hurt but also potentially to the detriment of others. May God help us to hear and heed Paul’s words both in Acts 20 and in 1 Timothy 4:16. The Lord’s church depends on it.
About the Author
John P. Lathrop is a graduate of Zion Bible Institute and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and is an ordained minister with the International Fellowship of Christian Assemblies. He has written articles and book reviews for a number of publications including the Pneuma Review, the Africanus Journal of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Christian Trends Magazine, in India, and Berita Mujizat and Jurnal Jaffray, both in Indonesia. He is also the author of four books.