Prominent member of both Jewish and early Christian communities. In the Old Testament, “elder” usually translates the Hebrew word zaqen from a root which means “beard” or “chin.” In the New Testament, the Greek word is presbuteros, which is transliterated in English as “presbyter” and from which the word “priest” was derived.
Elders in the Old Testament From the beginning of Israelite history, the elders were the leaders of the various clans and tribes. When the tribes came together to form the nation of Israel, the elders of the tribes naturally assumed important roles in governing the affairs of the nation. Moses was commanded to inform the “elders of Israel” of the Lord's intention to deliver Israel from Egypt and to take the elders with him to confront the pharaoh (Exodus 3:16,Exodus 3:18). Similarly, seventy of the elders participated with Moses at the covenant meal at Sinai (Exodus 24:9-11). As the task of governing Israel grew in complexity, part of the burden was transferred from Moses to a council of seventy elders (Numbers 11:16-17).
During the period of the Judges and the monarchy, the elders were prominent in the political and judicial life of Israel. They demanded that Samuel appoint a king (1 Samuel 8:4-5); they played crucial roles in David's getting and retaining the throne (2 Samuel 3:17;
2 Samuel 5:3;
2 Samuel 17:15;
2 Samuel 19:11-12); and they represented the people at the consecration of the Temple of Solomon (1 Kings 8:1,1 Kings 8:3). In the legal codes of Deuteronomy the elders are responsible for administering justice, sitting as judges in the city gate (Deuteronomy 22:15), deciding cases affecting family life (Deuteronomy 21:18-21,
Deuteronomy 22:13-21), and executing decisions (Deuteronomy 19:11-13;
Although elders were less prominent in the post-exilic period and the term was apparently not much used in Jewish communities outside Palestine, the “council of elders” was an integral part of the Sanhedrin at Jerusalem. In the New Testament, frequent reference is made to the elders of the Jews, usually in conjunction with the chief priests or scribes (for example,
Mark 14:43). In this context the elders, apparently members of leading families, had some authority but were not the principal leaders in either religious or political affairs. Elders did have leading roles in the government of synagogues and after the fall of the Temple became even more central to Jewish religious life.
Elders in the New Testament In the earliest Jewish Christian churches, at least the church in Jerusalem, the position of “elder” was almost certainly modeled after the synagogue pattern. Although there are few specific details about the function of elders in the Jerusalem church, they apparently served as a decision-making council. They are often mentioned in conjunction with the apostles, and some passages give the impression that the apostles and elders of Jerusalem considered themselves to be a decision-making council for the whole church (Acts 15:1;
Acts 21:17-26). As the Jewish character of the Jerusalem church increased with the departure of Philip, Peter, and others more amenable to preaching to Gentiles, the synagogue pattern probably became even more pronounced in Jerusalem.
Other churches also had elders.
Acts 14:23 reports that Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in churches on their missionary journey. These elders do not seem to fit the Jewish pattern, however. In the address to the Ephesian elders Paul referred to them as overseeing the church and serving as shepherds of the church (Acts 20:28). Paul did not use the term “elders” often usually referring to the functions of ministry rather than titles of offices. For example, in
Romans 12:6-9, Paul referred to those with gifts for prophecy, serving, teaching, and several other aspects of ministry (compare
1 Corinthians 12:1). Although those exercising such gifts in churches are not expressly called elders, it is likely that at least some of them were elders. Thus, elders in the Pauline churches were probably spiritual leaders and ministers, not simply a governing council.
One of the most debated questions concerning the pattern of early Christian ministry is the relationship between bishops and elders. Some scholars believe the two terms are interchangeable; others argue that they refer to distinct offices. Nowhere in the letters of Paul is there any explicit reference to the duties of either, nor is there any listing of the qualifications of elders.
Titus 1:1: 5-9 is the only passage which mentions both terms. The passage begins with a direction that elders be appointed in every town and continues with a description of the qualifications for a bishop. The context leads to the conclusion that the directions and the qualifications refer to the same persons, thus implying that the terms are interchangeable.
The qualifications in
Titus 1:6-9 and in
1 Timothy 3:1-7 apparently apply to elders. It becomes apparent that the elders were the spiritual leaders of the churches. Taken as a whole, the qualifications describe one who is a mature Christian of good repute, with gifts for teaching, management, and pastoral ministry. The only specific reference to the ministry of elders is the description (James 5:14-15) of elders praying for and anointing a sick person. Although “bishop” usually occurs in the singular form, none of these passages indicate that there was only one elder in each congregation. The nature of the relationship between the various elders is nowhere described.
Although some translations use the term “ordain” in reporting the appointment of elders (Acts 14:23;
Titus 1:5), there is little evidence concerning the church's practice of commissioning elders. The reference to laying on of hands in
1 Timothy 4:14, as well as the analogous ceremony in commissioning the seven (Acts 6:6), seems to indicate that the church did make formal recognition of their function, or office. With the possible exception of
1 Timothy 4:14, however, none of the references to such ceremonies contain any implication that the ceremony gave the recipient any special status or power.
After the New Testament period, the structure of the ministry became more formalized. By the early second century, many churches were governed by one ruling bishop, assisted by presbyters (elders). These presbyters performed pastoral tasks, preached sermons, and conducted worship services. Often, perhaps usually, bishops were chosen from the ranks of the presbyters, thus making the bishops the “chief presbyters.” By the third century, as the Lord's Supper was increasingly conceived as a reenactment of the sacrifice of Christ, the priestly function became more central to the presbyter's role. Thus, the English word “priest” was derived from “presbyter.”
Fred A. Grissom