In Christianity, an elder is a person who is valued for wisdom and holds a position of responsibility and authority in a Christian group. In some Christian traditions an elder is an ordained person who 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, an elder may be a lay person serving as an administrator in a local congregation, or be ordained and serving in preaching or pastoral roles. There is a distinction between ordained elders and lay elders. The two concepts may be conflated in everyday conversation. In non-Christian world cultures the term elder refers to age and experience, and the Christian sense of elder is partly related to this.
Elders in the BibleElders are mentioned in a number of New Testament passages. Individuals such as James had a significant role in the Jerusalem church and the Council of Jerusalem. In reference to churches in Antioch, Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe, Paul appoints elders as a key step in organizing a new church and instructs Titus to appoint others. Paul spoke directly to the elders in Acts and warned them to "be on guard for themselves 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."
TerminologyThe Christian office of "elder" is drawn from the word's various uses 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, whose counsel was frequently sought because of their age and experience. This was not necessarily a priesthood calling, although the Aaronic Priesthood is listed as having ordained elders. In the Septuagint, the word for Old Testament elders is πρεσβύτερος, as used in the New Testament for both Christian and Jewish leaders. Various traditions in Christianity translate the underlying term differently depending on their particular doctrinal or practical view of the role. In the Moravian Church, an elder is referred to as a Helper.
In addition to presbuteros, there are two other words used in the New Testament to describe various aspects of this position of leadership: 'overseer' and 'shepherd': Peter draws the three concepts together in one passage: "Therefore, I exhort the elders among you... shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight."
''Presbuteros''Presbuteros is the most commonly used term for elder in the New Testament, stemming from presbus, elderly. It is used with regard to the twelve apostles, the seventy disciples or others acting in a specific role of authority in a local assembly of Christians. It is used twenty-eight times in the Gospels and Acts of the members of the Jewish Sanhedrin and twelve times in Revelation of the representatives of the redeemed people of God. The remaining nineteen times the word is employed in Acts and the Epistles, it identifies the leaders in the local churches of the New Testament. While no specific age is given, the connotation of seniority and experience in this term emphasizes the nature of the position and the character of the person, implying maturity, dignity, experience and honor.
The modern English words "priest" or "presbyter" are derived etymologically from presbyteros.
The New Testament meaning is taken by some scholars as the Latin word Legate which describes the ancient classical function as a herald who represents the highest state office and might be a governor of a province.
''Episkopos''Episkopos was a common word in the Greek culture for any official who acted as a superintendent, manager, overseer, 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 Authorised Version translates the word as "bishop", emphasizing the function of an elder as exercising authority and supervision "by divine placement, initiative and design." The overseer can sometimes be viewed as a lead elder or as just one of a plurality of elders.
''Poimen''Poimen means shepherd, also translated as pastor. 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 elder as one who tends, feeds, guides, protects and cares for his flock.
Responsibilities of eldersThe New Testament offers more instruction regarding elders than on many other important church subjects such as the Lord's Supper, the Lord's Day, baptism or spiritual gifts, and their duties are laid out in several places. In the majority of the references, the word for elders is plural and word for church is singular, suggesting that the pattern in the early church was for a plurality of elders in each local church.
These were to be shepherds to their flock, setting an example - just like shepherds, they were to feed their flock, to work hard among them and to reprove where necessary and to care for the spiritual and physical needs of church members. Elders are considered rulers over their flocks and their judgement to be submitted to, not so that they can be "lords over God's heritage," but because they are to give account to God for the spiritual character of their church.
Elders must to be able to teach and preach sound doctrine and rebuke those who are teaching error, so that false teaching doesn't creep into the church. To this end, they are also to train and appoint others. Above all, the elder is to serve with humility, remembering that their position is a picture of Christ as the chief shepherd.
QualificationsThere are two key passages dealing with the qualifications of elders in the New Testament, and. The qualifications given by the Apostle Paul are as follows:
- Blameless as a steward of God, above reproach
- Faithful husband to his wife
- Temperate, sober, vigilant
- Sober-minded, prudent
- Of good behaviour, orderly, respectable
- Given to hospitality
- Able to teach
- Not given to wine
- Not violent, not pugnacious
- Patient, moderate, forbearing, gentle
- Uncontentious, not soon angry or quick-tempered
- Not covetous, not a lover of money
- Rules his own house well, his children are faithful, not accused of rebellion to God
- Not a novice or new convert
- Has a good rapport or reputation with outsiders
- Not self-willed
- A lover of what is good
- Just, fair
- Holy, devout
- Hold firmly to the faithful message as it has been taught
Elders in the early church
Another of the Apostolic Fathers, Ignatius of Antioch, records that many churches had single bishops by the beginning of the second century, although the church at Rome was not one of them. This became the norm by the middle of the century. Ignatius distinguished the relationship between bishop, presbyters and diaconate typologically and in doing so referred to the practice of a single bishop in a church, separated from the body of presbyters and deacons:
In like manner let all men respect the deacons as Jesus Christ, even as they should respect the bishop as being a type of the Father and the presbyters as the council of God and as the college of Apostles. Apart from these there is not even the name of a church. — Epistle of Ignatius to the Trallesians 3:1.
Distinctions in practiceis generally organised in one of three main types:
- Episcopal polity, in which churches are governed in a hierarchical fashion, with the role of elders being fulfilled by external bishops. It is common in Anglican, Orthodox, Methodist, some Lutheran, and Roman Catholic churches, and was prevalent up to and after the Reformation.
- Presbyterian polity, in which churches are governed on a denominational, geographical basis by committees of elders.
- Congregational polity, in which each church is responsible for its own governance. Churches employing this method include Baptist, Congregational, some Lutheran, and Plymouth Brethren churches. Some churches are led by a pastor; some maintain a plurality of elders.
BaptistsHistorically, Baptist churches do not recognize elder as a separate office from those of pastor or deacon; it is commonly considered a synonym of deacon or pastor. This is not universal in Baptist circles, however, and there are many Baptist churches which are elder-led. The Southern Baptist Convention does not prescribe an elder-led pattern, although a number of churches in this convention, and other Baptist branches are governed by a group of elders. The functional term 'presbytery' has been utilized among Southern Baptists to denote their ordination council.
Christadelphianismdo not appoint any form of clergy. Organisation is based on ecclesially accountable committees for evangelism, youth and Sunday School work, military service issues, care of the elderly and humanitarian work. These do not have any legislative authority and are wholly dependent upon support from within the church. Women are typically not eligible to teach in formal gatherings of the when male believers are present, and do not sit on the main committees, however they do participate in other ecclesial and inter-ecclesial committees.
In this regard, elders are accountable to each other and to God. The evangelist and the elders have the spiritual oversight of the congregation as well as administrative oversight.
The elders will be assisted by deacons who, depending on the congregation, may have a specific area of non-spiritual service ; the deacons are in all matters subservient to the elders. An elder may also be qualified to serve as a deacon.
Depending on the congregation, the elders may rotate main preaching and teaching duties or appoint one or more male persons to serve as the ministers for that congregation. If one person is assigned main preaching duties, he is never referred to as "Father", nor is the individual referred to as "pastor" or "reverend". Instead, common terms used are "evangelist", "preacher", "minister", or "preaching elder".Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who have the Melchizedek Priesthood and have been ordained to the office of elder, typically at the age of 18. 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 duties of the ordained elders in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are defined in the book of Doctrine and Covenants. 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.presbyterian polity. There are several roles in the ministry including ministers of Word and Sacrament, chaplains, deacons and readers. Elders are another role, which is voluntary and un-salaried elders. They are ordained for life by the minister and Kirk Session of a parish, and carry out pastoral and local church government duties under the guidance of the minister. All elders are members of the Kirk session, and may train to chair the session, conduct funerals, preach and lead worship.
Congregational churcheses are generally run by committee rule, and elders are one office which is appointed by the committee. The governance of each church is arranged with a system of checks and balances so that undue power is never given to one office or individual.
Representatives of the Governing Body of Jehovah's Witnesses select elders to be appointed as circuit overseers,. Each circuit overseer visits the congregations in his jurisdiction twice each year. During his visit, local elders recommend members who may qualify for appointment as elders or ministerial servants, and appointments are decided by the circuit overseer. Congregation elders do not receive monetary compensation; traveling overseers receive a modest stipend.
LutheranismAn 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 exercising only that oversight given to every Christian in the congregation. They are also assigned to assist the pastor in the sacraments. In the Eucharist, the Elder may assist in the distribution. In Baptism, the Elder may hold the water or assist the pastor in other ways. 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 helps brothers at each congregation.
However, many within the confessional wing of Lutheranism, see the term "elder" being used in such a way an unfortunate effect of Reformed influence on the Lutheran Church. Elder serving as a synonym for "Pastor" or "Priest", not unlike how Lutheran teaching also recognizes "episkopos", or bishop to be yet another synonym. Historic Lutheranism recognized a single office of Word and Sacrament being established directly by Christ ; all distinctions within nomenclature and structural ranking were purely "jure humano". Thus making a distinction between "pastor" and "elder" would seem pointless, and using the term "lay elder" would be oxymoronic.Bishop is still an Elder who has been elected and consecrated by the laying on of hands to the office of Bishop. In some of the denominations within Methodism, ordination to the office of Elder is open to both women and men, while in others, such as the Primitive Methodist Church and Evangelical Wesleyan Church, it is only opened to men.
Plymouth BrethrenOne of the key distinctions of Plymouth Brethren churches is the total rejection of the concept of clergy. In keeping with the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, they view all Christians as being ordained by God to serve and therefore ministers. Leaders are chosen according to the qualifications found in and, and appointed by the Holy Spirit. Plymouth Brethren churches tend to have multiple elders based on the plural use of the word in reference to New Testament churches.
One branch of the Plymouth Brethren, the 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.
PresbyterianismAlthough practices in the Presbyterian Church vary internationally, typically the church recognises three offices within church polity: the minister, a bench of ruling elders, and deacons. The elders are "ordained lay" people and form the session, which is a ruling council for their congregation.
RastafariMembers of the Rastafari Movement often refer to their experienced members as elders, such as Joseph Hibbert, Vernon Carrington, Leonard Howell, and Mortimer Planno.
Radical PietismThe Radical Pietistic communities, such as the Schwarzenau Brethren, do not believe in the swearing of oaths and also resolve problems at the congregational level under church councils presided by elders, rather than in civil courts. Members who sin openly are visited by the elders and encouraged to repent of their transgressions.
Roman Catholic ChurchMembers of the Catholic Church still use the Greek word Presbyter to refer to priests. Collectively, however, their "college" is referred to as the "presbyterium", "presbytery", or "presbyterate."
The presbyterium is most visible during the ordination of new priests and bishops and the Mass of the Chrism where the blessing of the oils used in the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, and Holy Orders takes place. They are also visible during other special liturgical functions such as the wake and burial of their bishop.Pastor Ted Wilson.