In both the Old and New Testaments, the term "elder" indicates one of advanced age (Heb. zaqen [זָקֵן]; Gk. presbyteros [πρεσβύτερος]) who had a office of leadership within the people of God.
The Old Testament. We are not informed about the origin of this office, which was also known outside Israel (Gen 50:7; Num 22:7). It probably developed from the tribal structure, the elder being the head of a family or tribe. The basic criterion of age was significant, for it connoted both the experience and wisdom that comes with age (Deut 32:7; cf. 1 Kings 12:6-8, 13; Psalm 37:25) and the respect owing the elder (Lam 5:12). Growing older, however, did not necessarily mean growing wiser. Wisdom could be with the young rather than the old. Therefore elders had to be chosen carefully. Elders could serve locally as elders of a city (Judges 8:14), regionally as elders of a tribe (Judges 11:5), and nationally as elders of the nation (Exod 3:16).
The key duties of the elders could be summarized as being the twofold task of judging and discipline generally, and of ruling and guiding the people in an orderly way. In this manner the elders were to be in God's serve and to be instrumental for the preservation of life with God in the covenant community.
With respect to the task of judging, elders were appointed in the wilderness wanderings by Moses, with the cooperation of Israel, in order to help him judge the people (Exod 18:13-26; Deut 1:13). In the promised land, elders were also to be appointed to maintain justice locally (Deut 16:18; 21:18-21; 22:15-19; Ruth 4:1-12), but a higher tribunal of priests and a judge existed for difficult cases (Deut 17:8-9).
The ruling task of elders was theirs from earliest times. Their leadership position was evident from the fact that Moses had to go to the elders, he would have to go to Pharaoh (Exod 3:16-18). The elders' position of authority was also clear from their asking Jephthah to lead them in the fight against the Ammonites (Judges 11:4-11), from their seeking a king from Samuel (1 Sam 8:4-5), and from their anointing David king over all Israel (2 Sam 5:3; 1 Chron 11:3; cf. 2 Sam 3:17-18; cf. also the presence of the elders in 2 Sam 17:1-4). The elders' leadership was evident in other ways as well. Along with the priests, they were responsible for seeing to it that Israel walked obediently in God's ways. They too received the law, which had to be read every seven years (Deut 31:9-13). They had to make sure that the law functioned and that God's people remembered the mighty Acts of God (Deut 27:1; 31:28; 32:7; cf. 2 Kings 23:1-3). Faithful elders were of great importance to keep the nation faithful to their God (Joshua 24:31; Judges 2:7). Indeed, the elders' first responsibility was to God. In this way they would serve the well-being of Israel.
To do their vital tasks of judging and ruling, elders were to be capable men who feared God and were upright (Exod 18:21,25); they were to be wise, understanding, and experienced (Deut 1:13); and they were empowered by the Holy Spirit (Num 11:16-17). Although bad counsel could be given ( 4:3), generally good advice was expected and that characteristic became associated with the elder.
The Intertestamental Period. The office of elder survived the Babylonian exile, but not without change. As previously, elders were in positions of leadership both in the homeland (Ezr 10:14) and Babylon (Jer 29:1; Ezek 8:1; 14:1; 20:1, 3). With the disintegration of the tribal unit, influential families came to fill the void of authority left by the breakdown of the clan. Whereas the elders' authority once derived from their position within the tribe, real authority now became based on the prominence of a particular family and an aristocratic ruling class emerged.
By the second century b.c., we read of a council comprised of aristocratic elders (cf. 1 Macc 12:6; 14:20; Josephus, Antiquities, 12.3.3 ), which by the first century was known as the Sanhedrin (Josephus, Antiquities, 14.9.3-5). Although elders were historically the oldest members, in later times they became less important compared to the priests and scribes and the term "elders" came to signify lay members. This is the situation encountered in the New Testament, where the triad of chief priests, scribes, and elders is often referred to as the Sanhedrin (Mark 11:27; 14:43; also cf. Matt 16:21; Mark 15:1).
The New Testament. The office of elder in the New Testament church cannot be fully understood without the background of the Old Testament local elder, an office still functioning in New Testament Judaism with duties pertaining to discipline and leadership (cf. Luke 7:3; and the implications of Matt 10:17; and John 9:22). The first Christians were Jewish and the office was familiar to them. Thus Luke did not need to explain his first reference to Christian elders in Acts 11:30.
New Testament elders (presbyteroi [πρεσβύτερος]) are also called bishops (episkopoi [ἐπίσκοπος]) without implying any essential difference in the office referred to. In Acts 20:17, 28 and tit 1:5, 7 the two names are used interchangeably. Also the requirements for the office of the elders and bishops are very similar (cf. Titus 1:5-9; and 1 Tim 3:1-7). The term "elder" stresses the connection with the age of the office bearer, while the term "bishop" emphasizes the nature of the task that is to be done. A distinction is made (in 1 Tim 5:17) between those elders who rule well, especially those who labor in the preaching and teaching (who are now called ministers), and others (who are now referred to as elders and whose full-time task is directing the affairs of the church).
With respect to the duties of an elder, there is a continuity with the basic tasks of the elder in the Old Testament. All elders have the task of oversight and discipline of the congregation (Acts 20:28) and all have the responsibility to rule and guide the people of God with the Word in a manner that is pleasing to God (Acts 20:29-31). Also elders in the new dispensation are to preserve and nurture life with God in the covenant community (1 Thess 2:11-12). In executing this task they are in the service of their risen Lord (to whom they will have to give account 1 Thess 5:12; Heb 13:17) and they are empowered by his Spirit (Acts 20:28; 1 Col 12:4-6).
The elders' task of oversight and discipline can be described in terms of keeping watch and shepherding on behalf of the great shepherd Jesus Christ. In Paul's farewell to the Ephesian elders he said: "Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood" (Acts 20:28). The pastoral character of this task of oversight is also indicated when Peter writes: "To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder… Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, serving as overseersnot because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away" (1 Peter 5:1-4).
With respect to the elder's task of ruling and guiding, he has been set over the congregation (1 Thess 5:12; 1 Tim 5:17). He is a steward of God (Titus 1:7), a manager of God's household who administers the spiritual treasures of the mysteries of God (1 Col 4:1; cf. Matt 13:11, 52). Of prime importance, therefore, is to be the administration of the glad tidings. False doctrine must be opposed and the true safeguarded (Acts 20:28, 31; Titus 1:9-11). Like their Old Testament counterparts, the elders are to see to it that the gospel and the demands of the Lord are imprinted in the hearts and lives of God's people (1 Thess 2:11-12; 2 Tim 2:24-26).
In light of the awesome responsibilities, it is not surprising that the prerequisites of the office are high (1 Tim 3:1-7; Titus 1:6-9). The elder must be a blameless and God-fearing man who shows the fruits of the Spirit in his walk of life. He must also be able to teach others the way of the Lord, and confute heretics (1 Tim 3:2; 2 Tim 3:14-17; Titus 1:9), but not be quarrelsome (1 Tim 3:3) or enter into senseless controversies (1 Tim 1:3; 6:4-5). A good knowledge of the Word of God is therefore essential.
The necessary qualifications for the office suggest that elders must be chosen very carefully. They are not to be recent converts (1 Tim 3:6) and must have proven themselves (1 Tim 3:7). Elders could be simply appointed (Titus 1:5) although congregational participation may very well have been involved in at least some instances.
In Revelation 4:4 the twenty-four elders sitting on twenty-four thrones surrounding the throne of God probably represent the entire church (twenty-four for the twelve patriarchs of the Old Testament and the twelve apostles of the New Testament cf. Rev 21:12-14). These heavenly elders wear white garments, have crowns of gold, and worship God (4:4, 10-11; 5:7-10; 11:16-18; 19:4).
Cornelis Van Dam
Bibliography. G. Berghoef and L. De Koster, The Elders Handbook: A Practical Guide for Church Leaders; W. Hendriksen, Exposition of the Pastoral Epistles; idem, More Than Conquerors: An Interpretation of the Book of Revelation; G. W. Knight, III, The New Testament Teaching on the Role Relationship of Men and Women; J. B. Lightfoot, The Christian Ministry; J. Piper and W. Grudem, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism.