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Elder (religious)

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Elder (religious)

An elder 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, Redeemer, 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. Particularly in reference to age and experience, elders exist throughout world cultures,[1][2] and the Christian sense of elder is partially related to this.

Elders in the Bible

Elders 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. [Acts 11:30]] [15:2-6]] [15:22-23]] [16:4]] [21:18]] In reference to churches in Antioch, Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe, Paul appoints elders [Acts 14:23]] as a key step in organizing a new church and instructs Titus to appoint others. [Tit 1:5]] Paul spoke directly to the elders in Acts [Acts 20:17]] 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." [Acts 20:28]]


The 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 [Exod 3:16]] [4:29]] [12:21]] [Josh 7:6]] [Ruth 4:2]], whose counsel was frequently sought because of their age and experience. This was not necessarily a priesthood calling, [Gen 50:7]] [Ruth 4:2]] [Matt 15:2]] [Acts 4:5]] although the Aaronic Priesthood is listed as having ordained elders. [Exod 24:9-11]] [Num 11:16]] In the Septuagint, the word for Old Testament elders is presbuteros, as used in the New Testament for both Christian and Jewish leaders.[3] 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.[4]

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." [1Pet 5:1-2]] [Acts 20]]


Presbuteros (πρεσβύτερος, Template:StrongGreek) is the most commonly used term for elder in the New Testament, stemming from presbus, elderly.[5] 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.[6][7]

The modern English words "priest" or "presbyter" are derived etymologically from presbyteros.[8]


Episkopos (ἐπίσκοπος, Template:StrongGreek) was a common word in the Greek culture for any official who acted as a superintendent, manager, overseer, controller, curator, guardian or ruler.[9] It occurs only five times in the New Testament, once referring to Christ [1Pet 2:25]] 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."[6]


Poimen (ποιμήν, Template:StrongGreek) means shepherd,[10] also translated as pastor [Eph 4:11]]. 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.[6]

Responsibilities of elders

The 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,[6] 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,[11][12] suggesting that the pattern in the early church was for a plurality of elders in each local church.[13][14] These were to be shepherds to their flock, setting an example [1Pet 5:1-3]] - just like shepherds, they were to feed their flock [Acts 20:28]], to work hard among them and to reprove where necessary [1Thes 5:12-13]] and to care for the spiritual and physical needs of church members. [Jas 5]] Elders are considered rulers over their flocks [1Tim 5:17]] [1Thes 5:12]] and their judgement to be submitted to, [Heb 13:17]] not so that they can be "lords over God's heritage," [1Pet 5:3]] but because they are to give account to God for the spiritual character of their church. [Heb 13:17]]

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. [1Tim 5:17]] [Tit 1:9-13]] To this end, they are also to train and appoint others. [Acts 14:23]] [1Tim 4:14]] [Tit 1:5]] Above all, the elder is to serve with humility, remembering that their position is a picture of Christ as the chief shepherd. [1Pet 5:4]]


There are two key passages dealing with the qualifications of elders in the New Testament, The qualifications given by the Apostle Paul are as follows:

  • Blameless as a steward of God, above reproach
  • Faithful husband of one 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
  • Self-controlled

Elders in the early church

Where elders are addressed in the writings of Paul and Peter, there is no inference of a monarchical episcopacy or single leaders in any of the New Testament-era churches, [1Pet 5:1-3]] [Phil 1:1]] and presbuteros and episkopos are used interchangeably. This was still the case later in the century: the writings of the Apostolic Fathers (such as 1 Clement and the Didache) continue to assert the apostolic authority of the bishops/presbyters as rulers of the church making no distinction between the two terms. The epistle does imply a degree of authority residing in the Bishop of Rome.[15][16] Writing c.199, Tertullian claimed that Clement was ordained by Peter himself as bishop of Rome,[17] and although tradition identifies him as the fourth pope (after Linus and Anacletus) the order is much disputed.[18] According to the Liber Pontificalis, Linus and Anacletus were ordained with responsibility for the church at Rome and Clement for the church as a whole[19]

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.[20] This became the norm by the middle of the century.[21] 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 practice

Church governance is generally organised in one of three main types:


Historically, Baptist churches do not recognize elder as a separate office and it is commonly considered synonymous with that of deacon or pastor.[22] 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,[13] and other Baptist branches (including Reformed Baptists) are governed by a group of elders.


Christadelphians do 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 ecclesia when male believers are present, and do not sit on the main committees, however they do participate in other ecclesial and inter-ecclesial committees.

Churches of Christ

Congregations referring to themselves as Churches of Christ believe that local congregations should be led by a plurality of biblically qualified elders,[23][24] assisted by deacons, often with an appointed minister in each congregation. 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 God in Christ

In the Church of God in Christ, an elder is an ordained clergy person. This person may serve as a pastor or assistant pastor. Also, if the pastor or bishop finds them worthy, after a few years of being their assistant, the pastor (or bishop) will allow them to be the pastor of their own church and leader of their own congregation.

The 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 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.[25][full citation needed].

Church of Scotland

Main article: Ministers and elders in the Church of Scotland

Governance in the Church of Scotland is based on 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.[26]

Congregational churches

Main article: Congregational church

Congregational churches 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.

Eastern Orthodox

Main article: Starets

In the Eastern Orthodox Church the term presbyter is used to refer to priests, whose authority is considered to be an extension of that of the local bishop. 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.

Jehovah's Witnesses

Among Jehovah's Witnesses, an elder is a man appointed to teach the congregation. He is also called an "overseer" or "servant". 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. 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 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,[27] 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 ask whether he 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 exercising only that oversight given to every Christian in the congregation. They are also assigned to assist the pastor in the sacraments (the Eucharist and Baptism). 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.


Main article: Elder (Methodism)

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.[28] 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.

Plymouth Brethren

One of the key distinctions of Tit. 1:6-9, and appointed by the Holy Spirit. [Acts 20:28]] 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.[30] 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.


Main article: Presbyterian polity

Although practices in the Presbyterian Church vary internationally, typically the church recognises three offices within church polity: the minister, teaching elder or pastor, a bench of ruling elders, and deacons.[31] The elders are "ordained lay" people and are appointed by and 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)[full citation needed] 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. 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)[full citation needed]

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.)[full citation needed] 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[full citation needed]. 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.

Quakers (Religious Society of Friends)

In the Religious Society of Friends, there are four church offices reflecting the four words used to describe those in church leadership in the New Testament - elders (presbuteros), overseers (episkopos), pastors (poimen) and ministers (diakonos). Elders and overseers exist in most Quaker meetings, but some have eliminated the acknowledgement of ministers (e.g. in Britain it was abolished in 1924). Pastors are common in the programmed tradition of Friends' meetings. Elders are responsible for the spiritual oversight of the meeting, in particular for encouraging spiritual and ministerial development, study of the Bible and disciplining Friends who express unsound doctrines during the meeting for worship. Overseers are responsible for bringing together the worshiping community, inviting people to become members of the Meeting and encouraging members to attend. Pastors take on both these roles, often in a paid capacity. Recorded ministers are noted for their particular gift in giving vocal ministry during meeting for worship.


Among the Shakers, noted for their acceptance of females in leading roles, 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.

See also


External links

  • - a website dedicated to the teaching of NT Church Government
  • Grace Community Church
  • McGarvey, J.W., A treatise on the eldership (1870) - audiobook
  • Wallace, Daniel B. Who Should Run The Church? A Case for the Plurality of Elders
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