An elder (in Greek, πρεσβυτερος [presbyteros]; see Presbyter) in Christianity is a person valued for his wisdom who accordingly holds a particular position of responsibility in a Christian group. In some Christian traditions (e.g., Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, Methodism) an elder is a clergy person who usually serves a local church or churches and who has been ordained to a ministry of Word, Sacrament, and Order, filling the preaching and pastoral offices. In other Christian traditions (e.g. Presbyterianism, Baptists), an elder may be a lay person charged with serving as an administrator in a local church, or be ordained to such an office. However, elders exist throughout world cultures.
Elder in the Bible
The term 'elder' is used in various ways in the Bible. In many instances, particularly in the Old Testament, it has reference to the older men in a tribe, usually entrusted with the governmental affairs. Their counsel was frequently sought because of their age and experience. This was not necessarily a priesthood calling. The Melchizedek Priesthood is listed as having ordained elders.
In addition to the word commonly translated 'elder', there are two other words used in the New Testament to describe various aspects of this position of leadership: 'overseer' and 'shepherd' (or 'pastor'). In 1 Timothy and Titus, Paul drafts largely overlapping lists of qualifications for 'elder' and 'overseer', while Peter draws all three concepts together in one passage: "Therefore, I exhort the elders among you... shepherd [i.e., "pastor"] the flock of God among you, exercising oversight..." (). Luke uses all three terms when referring to the same group of leaders in .
(πρεσβύτερος, [Strong's ])
This is the most commonly used word in the New Testament with regard to the twelve apostles, the quorum of seventy () or others acting in a specific role of authority in a local assembly of Christians. It refers 28 times in the Gospels and Acts to the members of the Jewish Sanhedrin and 12 times in Revelation to the representatives of the redeemed people of God. The remaining 19 times the word is employed in Acts and the Epistles, it identifies a unique group of leaders in the church. The word itself means 'advanced in age' but in the first century context indicates a rank or office: among Jews, as members of the ruling council; among Greeks, as those who those who managed public affairs and administered justice; and among Christians, as those who presided over the local assemblies. While no specific age is given, this term emphasizes the nature of the position and the character of the person, implying maturity, dignity, experience and honor.
(ἐπίσκοπος, [Strong's ]) This was a common word in the Greek culture for any official who acted as a superintendent, manager, controller, curator, guardian or ruler. It occurs only five times in the New Testament, once referring to Christ ( ) and the other four times to church leaders. The term emphasizes the function of an elder as exercising authority and supervision "by divine placement, initiative and design".
(ποιμήν, [Strong's ]) This word means shepherd. It is applied only once in the noun form and three times in the verb form in the New Testament in the context of church leaders. The term emphasizes the heart attitude of an elder as one who tends, feeds, guides, protects and cares for his flock.
Template:NPOV-section Together, the New Testament writers mention elders, overseers and shepherds in reference to church leadership more than twenty-five times in the Gospels and the Epistles. The basis, selection, office, character, functions, attitude and qualifications of elders are laid out and the pattern established early and often. Strauch writes, "In fact, the New Testament offers more instruction regarding elders than on any other important church subjects such as the Lord's Supper, the Lord's Day, baptism or spiritual gifts".
For example, Acts 11:30; 15:2,4,6,22-23; 16:4; and 21:18 demonstrate that elders had a significant role in the Jerusalem church and the Jerusalem council. In reference to churches in Antioch, Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe, demonstrates Paul's pattern of appointing elders as a key step in organizing a new church. Paul spoke directly to the elders in Acts 20:17 and warned them in 20:28 to "(b)e on guard for (them)selves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made (them) overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood."
Instruction about elders is given to the churches in 3:1-7,10 and 5:17-22,24-25; ; ; ; and . Instruction is given to elders about churches in ; ; and . In the majority of the references, the word for elders is plural and word for church is singular.; 1 Timothy
(This list was developed by the leadership of Grace Community Church and can be found in the The Biblical Case for Elder Rule)
- Blameless as a steward of God; above reproach (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6-7)
- Husband of one wife; a one-woman man (1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:6)
- Temperate, sober, vigilant (1 Timothy 3:2)
- Sober-minded, prudent (1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:8)
- Of good behavior; orderly, respectable (1 Timothy 3:2)
- Given to hospitality (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:8)
- Apt to teach; able to teach; he can exhort believers and refute false teaching (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:9)
- Not given to wine (1 Timothy 3:3, Titus 1:7)
- Not violent, not pugnacious (1 Timothy 3:3, Titus 1:7)
- Patient, moderate, forbearing, gentle (1 Timothy 3:3)
- Not a brawler; uncontentious; not soon angry or quick tempered (1 Timothy 3:3, Titus 1:7)
- Not covetous; not a lover of money; not greedy of base gain (1 Timothy 3:3, Titus 1:7)
- Rules well his own house; his children are faithful, not accused of rebellion to God (1 Timothy 3:4, Titus 1:7)
- Not a novice; not a new convert (1 Timothy 3:6)
- Has a good rapport or reputation with outsiders (1 Timothy 3:7)
- Not self-willed (Titus 1:7)
- A lover of what is good (Titus 1:7)
- Just, fair (Titus 1:8)
- Holy, devout (Titus 1:8)
- Self-Controlled (Titus 1:8)
- Shepherd the flock, setting an example for all (1 Peter 5:1-3)
- Feed and care for the church (Acts 20:28; 1 Thessalonians 5:12)
- Teach and preach sound doctrine (1 Timothy 5:17; Titus 1:9)
- Rule and lead (I Timothy 5:17; Hebrews 13:17; cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:12; 1 Timothy 3:2,4)
- Train and ordain others (Acts 14:23; 1 Timothy 4:14; 5:22; Titus 1:5)
- Refute and rebuke the insubordinate (Titus 1:9, 13)
- Keep watch over and give account to God for the spiritual well-being of the church (Hebrews 13:17)
- Serve clothed in Christ-like humility (1 Peter 5:3-5)
Distinctions in practice
Some churches, particularly under Presbyterian polity, make a distinction between teaching and ruling elders. This distinction rests upon , and other passages. The distinction is made that some elders are called to teach and govern while others are called to govern only.
Within this distinction, there are two-office and three-office views. The two-office view sees the church offices as elder and deacon. The three-office view sees the church offices as minister, elder, and deacon. Under the two-office view, teaching is a gift that all elders possess and all (pastor or overseer) receive their ordination from the same source. Under the three-office view, teachers or ministers in the church possess not only a separate gifting but also a separate office. Under the three-office view in Presbyterianism, ministers (or teaching elders) are ordained by the presbytery while ruling elders and deacons are ordained by the minister in the local congregation. In Presbyterianism, all elders (both teaching and ruling) are eligible for participation in church courts (congregational session, presbytery, synod, general assembly). Those holding to the three office view are more likely to hold to a distinct demarcation between clergy and laity.
Most Baptist churches do not recognize elder as a separate office; it is commonly considered synonymous with that of deacon or pastor. This is not universal in Baptist circles, however, and there are many Baptist churches which are elder-led.
Christian (or Plymouth) Brethren
In early 19th century Great Britain groups of believers began to gather in what they referred to as Biblical simplicity. Under the leadership of such men as J. N. Darby and George Mueller these groups began to meet with no clergy to share the Lord's Supper.
The most defining element of these churches is the total rejection of the concept of clergy. Rather, in keeping with the doctrine of the Priesthood of All Believers, they view all Christians as being ordained by God to serve and are therefore ministers. Leadership is by example and by the recognition of their abilities by those they lead.
Regardless of great efforts to prevent it, splits happened, with the two largest divisions being commonly referred to as Open Brethren and Closed Brethren. Among other differences their view of elders vary.
So called because they serve the Lord's Supper to any Christian who wishes to fellowship with them, their churches are led by elders—men meeting the Biblical qualifications found in  and meeting the qualifications of 1 Timothy 3:1-4 and Titus 1:6-7."and . These men are the spiritual leadership of the church. They are not electecd to terms of office but rather are "recognized as being appointed by the Holy Spirit
Closed or Exclusive Brethren
Exclusive Brethren are so named for their practice of serving the Lord's Supper exclusively to those who are part of their own particular group, agreeing with them on various doctrinal positions.
Most Exclusive Brethren groups believe the church to have been in ruins between the death of the apostles and their own time. Since no truly apostolic authority exists to appoint elders the church has none. Instead they recognize leading brothers who demonstrate maturity and leadership ability.
Churches of Christ
Most congregations referring to themselves as a church of Christ believe that local congregations should be led by a plurality of biblically-qualified elders. They base this on a conviction that congregations (and Christians in general) should attempt to follow the teachings of the New Testament wherever humanly possible. This belief is shared with other religious organizations with roots in the Restoration Movement, such as the Independent Christian Church.
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Elders are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who have the Melchizedek Priesthood and have been ordained to the office of elder. Additionally, male missionaries of the Church, General Authorities and Area Authority Seventies are honorarily titled "Elder" unless they are instead referred to by the title of President.
The detailed duties of the ordained elders in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints today have been defined by revelation (D&C 20: 42-45; D&C 42: 44-52; D&C 46: 2; D&C 107: 12). Elder is the proper title given to all holders of the Melchizedek Priesthood. Thus an apostle is an elder in this sense, and it is proper to speak of members of the Quorum of the Twelve or the First Quorum of the Seventy by this title (D&C 20: 38; cf. 1 Pet. 5: 1; 2 Jn. 1: 1; 3 Jn. 1: 1).
In some Protestant churches, an elder is a senior member of an individual church who is a lay and non-salaried minister. This is a defining characteristic of a Presbyterian church, which draws its name from the Greek language for 'elder'. The elders provide either an advisory or a ruling role in the decision process of local issues; though most modern churches now emphasize the participation of all confirmed members.
In Orthodox theology, the charism of Eldership (itself an extenuation of Prophesy) continues to this day in monasticism. An experienced monastic Elder (Greek: Geronta; Slavonic: Starets) will provide guidance not only for their fellow monks, but for the laity as well.
Among Jehovah's Witnesses, an elder is a man appointed to teach the congregation. Elders within each congregation work within a "body of elders", several of whom are assigned to oversee specific congregational tasks. Each body of elders has a Coordinator (previously known as the "Presiding Overseer"), a Secretary, and a Service Overseer. Elders are not clergy in the common sense of the term; they are not paid and are not required to complete a course of study different from that available to any other member. Witnesses do not consider the term elder to be a title, and typically leave it uncapitalized. Witnesses consider the office of an elder to be the same office referred to elsewhere in Scripture as "older man" ("presbyter"), overseer ("bishop"), and shepherd ("pastor"). Witnesses typically avoid referring to an elder as "presbyter", "bishop", or "pastor" because of the way such terms have come to be used by others.
Elders in a congregation receive no monetary compensation for their work. Although the Governing Body of Jehovah's Witnesses may appoint elders directly, members must be appointed elders before they may serve as traveling overseers or on the boards of the offices of Jehovah's Witnesses. Traveling overseers are not forbidden from doing secular work but do receive a modest stipend.
Twice each year, circuit overseers visit each congregation. During this visit, the circuit overseer and local elders discuss whether any of the congregation's ministerial servants (that is, deacons) meet the qualifications to be recommended for appointment as an elder. If consensus is reached, the body's recommendation is formally communicated to a branch office for consideration. The decision is then communicated to the existing body of elders, which may include a request for further information. Before an appointment is finalized, two elders meet with the candidate to confirm that he is qualified for appointment and will accept the position.
An Elder in the Lutheran Church is a position of lay-service, concerned with the temporal and administrative affair of the congregation. In many congregations, elders are also charged with oversight of the pastor. But, rightly understood according to Scripture, they exercise only that oversight given to every Christian in the congregation. They are also assigned to assist the pastor in the sacraments (the Eucharist and Holy Baptism). In the Sacrament of the Eucharist, the Elder commonly gives out the wine. In Holy Baptism, the Elder holds the water and is to assist the pastor. Generally, an elder is not permitted to consecrate the bread and wine in the Eucharist, or perform Holy Absolution, as these acts are usually reserved for the pastor.
An Elder -- sometimes called a "Presbyter" -- is someone who has been ordained by a bishop to the ministry of Word, Sacrament, Order, and Service. Their responsibilities are to preach and teach, preside at the celebration of the sacraments, administer the church through pastoral guidance, and lead the congregations under their care in service ministry to the world. The office of Elder, then, is what most people tend to think of as the pastoral, priestly, clergy office within the church. Indeed, even a Methodist Bishop is still an Elder who has been elected and consecrated by the laying on of hands to the office of Bishop (Bishop being understood as an office within the Presbyterate, not an order or separate level of ordination). In most of the denominations within Methodism, ordination to the office of Elder is open to both women and men.
Presbyterian Church (USA)
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In the Presbyterian Church (USA), elders are "ordained lay" people (Ministers of Word and Sacrament are also elders, though they have a different function). They form the session, which is a ruling council for their congregation.
Elders are chosen by the people. Together with ministers of the Word and Sacrament, they exercise leadership, government, and discipline and have responsibilities for the life of a particular church as well as the church at large, including ecumenical relationships. They shall serve faithfully as members of the session. (G-10.0102) When elected commissioners to higher governing bodies, elders participate and vote with the same authority as ministers of the Word and Sacrament, and they are eligible for any office.
Gifts and requirements
Elders should be persons of faith, dedication, and good judgment. Their manner of life should be a demonstration of the Christian gospel, both within the church and in the world. (G-6.0106)
It is the duty of elders, individually and jointly, to strengthen and nurture the faith and life of the congregation committed to their charge. Together with the pastor, they should encourage the people in the worship and service of God, equip and renew them for their tasks within the church and for their mission in the world, visit and comfort and care for the people, with special attention to the poor, the sick, the lonely, and those who are oppressed. They should inform the pastor and session of those persons and structures which may need special attention. They should assist in worship. (See W-1.4003, W-2.3011-.3012, W-3.1003, W-3.3616, and W-4.4003.) They should cultivate their ability to teach the Bible and may be authorized to supply places which are without the regular ministry of the Word and Sacrament. In specific circumstances and with proper instruction, specific elders may be authorized by the presbytery to administer the Lord's Supper in accord with G-11.0103z. Those duties which all Christians are bound to perform by the law of love are especially incumbent upon elders because of their calling to office and are to be fulfilled by them as official responsibilities.
Among the Shakers, Elders and Eldresses were leaders in specific areas. Two Elders and Eldresses headed the central Shaker ministry at the Mount Lebanon Shaker Society and dealt with both spiritual and temporal matters. Other pairs of elders and eldresses headed groups of Shaker communities, while others were spiritual leaders of smaller groups within the communities.
- The Human Elder in Nature, Culture, and Society by David Gutmann, ©1997, Westview Press, ISBN 0813329736, Preface
- World Cultures: a Global Mosaic by Iftikhar Ahmad, ©1993, Prentice Hall, page 14, "In cultures with extended families, respect for elders is strong. The elders pass on their wisdom to the young."
- , , and are examples of this usage.
- ( , )
- Strauch, A. (1995). Biblical Eldership. Lewis and Roth Publishers, p. 125
- Webster's New World Dictionary of he American Language, College Edition, The World Publishing Company, Cleveland OH, s.v. "priest".
- Strauch, A. (1995). Biblical Eldership. Lewis and Roth Publishers, p. 148
- Strauch, A. (1995). Biblical Eldership. Lewis and Roth Publishers, p. 149
- Strauch, A. (1995). Biblical Eldership. Lewis and Roth Publishers, p. 103
- See Acts 20:28)
- "Overseers to Shepherd the Flock", Organized to Do Jehovah's Will, pages 39-40
- BiblicalElders.com - a website dedicated to the teaching of NT Church Government
- The Biblical Case for Elder Rule by Dan Dumas, executive pastor Grace Community Church