Here is the passage in question:
Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius). So the disciples determined, everyone according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul. (Acts 11:27-30 ESV)
Now, the term “elders” in that passage is a translation of the adjective Ï€ÏÎµÏƒÎ²ÏÏ„ÎµÏÎ¿Ï‚ (presbuteros). As I said, this is actually an adjective (in the comparative form) that simply means “older.” In English, we have to supply a noun (which was not necessary in Greek). Since the adjective is masculine, we usually supply the noun “man,” although it could be generic. So, instead of being translated as “elder” (in the sense of a church “position”), the adjective could also be translated as “older man or older person.” Also, in this instance, the adjective is plural, so it could be translated as “older men or older people.”
Now, here is my question – which I asked Eric, and which is an honest question, because I haven’t decided myself yet: How do we know if Luke was writing about “elders” or if he was writing about “older men or older people”? Did Paul and Barnabas give the “relief” to specific people within the church in Jerusalem who had been recognized by the church as “elders”? Or did they give the relief to older men/people in the church in Jerusalem?
In fact, there are many passages in which this same question could be asked. Did James tell the sick person to summon the elders or older people? (James 5:14) Should the elders who lead well be considered worthy of double honor, or should the older people who lead well be considered worthy of double honor? (1 Timothy 5:17) Did Peter tell the elders how to care for the church or the older people? (1 Peter 5:1-3; note 1 Peter 5:5)
How do we decide which group of people each passage is referring to?
(By the way, Dave Black argues – convincingly, I think – that “older person” is someone who is older than 30.)