What is an elder?

An elder is a man with the responsibility of leading the church of God.


Old Testament

What were elders in the old testament?

In the Old Testament, “elder” is a term used to refer either to a person of advanced age or to a person who has some influence in the community.  After God appeared to Moses at the burning bush, He ordered Moses to gather the elders together and to tell them what God had told Moses at the burning bush. (Exodus 3:16)  Here, we see the latter meaning, and this is the most common meaning in all of Scripture.  We also see here that elders were an already existing entity in Israelite society.


What was the function of these elders?

It is not entirely clear.  More than likely, they were simply leaders in their own families and tribes.  Later, we find that these elders represented their families/clans.  In Exodus 12, after Moses has given the instructions for celebrating Passover, he tells the elders to get a lamb for each of their families.  This shows us that these elders represented their families before Moses. (Exodus 12:21)


Did these elders provide leadership in the religious activities or in the civil?

In Israelite society, these two were not distinct sectors; there was no separation between church and state as we know it today.  Thus, an elder would have had influence in both the religious life and the civil life.


How were these elders chosen?

No one knows; the Bible says nothing about this.


Was Abraham an elder?

Abraham was a nomad and ruled his own kingdom as an independent sovereign.  He does not appear to have submitted to anyone except God.  In Genesis 20:7, God calls Abraham a prophet.  Jahn writes:

Abraham Isaac and Jacob governed their respective families with unlimited paternal authority.  The number of servants in these families was so great that the power of the patriarchs was by no means inconsiderable.  Allowing a fourth part of the males to be capable of bearing arms, it appears from the mention of Abraham’s three hundred and eighteen homeborn armed servants that the whole number of males in this class only exclusive of those who had been purchased was twelve hundred and seventy two.  His subjects then must have amounted to several thousands; and hence, an estimate may be made of the number of his herds to attend which so many servants were necessary.  Bearing this in mind, it will not appear surprising that the land of Canaan was scarcely sufficient for the residence of Abraham and Lot.  These patriarchs were powerful princes as the emirs of the nomads are at the present day.  They were completely independent and owed allegiance to no sovereign; they formed alliances with other princes and even with kings; they maintained a body of armed servants and repelled force by force.  For their vassals, they were the priests who appointed the festivals and presented offerings; the guardians who protected them from injustice; the chiefs who led them in war; the judges who banished the turbulent and when necessary inflicted even capital punishment upon transgressors. source


How many elders were there in Israel?

This is not stated.  We know that there were 250 leaders נְשִׂיאֵי (Numbers 16:2) who died with Korah; were these elders?  Jethro had advised Moses to choose men of integrity to serve as judges שָׂרֵי over Israel. (Exodus 18:21)  These were arranged hierarchically with some having jurisdiction over 1000, others 100, others fifty, etc.  It is not clear if these men were considered to be elders זִקְנֵי.


Who were the seventy elders who accompanied Moses part way up Mount Sinai?

These appear to be seventy men whom Moses chose from the entire number of men who were elders in Israel to accompany him up Mount Sinai.  Then He said to Moses, “Come up to the LORD, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu and seventy of the elders of Israel, and you shall worship at a distance. (Exodus 24:1)  This appears to be temporary, however.  Later, however, God orders Moses to choose seventy men from Israel’s elders and to have them assist him in the administration of the nation of Israel.

The LORD therefore said to Moses, “Gather for Me seventy men from the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and their officers and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you.  “Then I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take of the Spirit who is upon you, and will put Him upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you will not bear it all alone. (Numbers 11:16-17)

So Moses went out and told the people the words of the LORD. Also, he gathered seventy men of the elders of the people, and stationed them around the tent.  Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him; and He took of the Spirit who was upon him and placed Him upon the seventy elders. And when the Spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do it again. (Numbers 11:24-25)

Then Moses returned to the camp, both he and the elders of Israel. (Numbers 11:30)

These seventy men receive the Holy Spirit to equip them to do the work suggesting that this was not a temporary group.



New Testament

What happened to this idea of eldership in the New Testament?

In the New Testament or that time when the old covenant passed away and the new covenant was inaugurated, the people of God were no longer limited to ethnic Israel.  Now the gentiles were brought in and placed on an equal footing with Jews. (1 Corinthians 7:19)  This gave rise to a completely new community made up of Jews and gentiles; the middle wall of partition separating Jew and gentile was broken down; there was one new man and one body of Christ. (Ephesians 2:13-16)

There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:4-6)

As with any society, some kind of leadership and structure was needed here just as had existed in old testament Israel.  At first, the apostles themselves took this responsibility on themselves.  Quickly, however, the work became too much for them and help was needed. (Acts 6)  This gave rise to those known as deacons. (1 Timothy 3:12)  Lightfoot writes:

St Luke’s narrative represents the Twelve Apostles in the earliest days as the sole directors and administrators of the Church. For the financial business of the infant community, not less than for its spiritual guidance, they alone are responsible. This state of things could not last long. By the rapid accession of numbers, and still more by the admission of heterogeneous classes into the Church, the work became too vast and too various for them to discharge unaided. To relieve them from the increasing pressure, the inferior and less important functions passed successively into other hands: and thus each grade of the ministry, beginning from the lowest, was created in order. source


Were there no elders then in addition to the apostles?

The references in Acts give the impression that there were elders alongside the apostles in the leadership of the early church.  In Acts 11, the Antioch church sends a gift to the Jerusalem church.  They gave Paul and Barnabas the responsibility of delivering the gift.  Luke then records: And this they did, sending it in charge of Barnabas and Saul to the elders. (Acts 11:30)  It seems clear from Acts that these elders were distinguished from the apostles.

(2) And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, [the brethren] determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue. … (4) When they arrived at Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. … (6)The apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter. … (22) Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren, (23) and they sent this letter by them, “The apostles and the brethren who are elders, to the brethren in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia who are from the Gentiles, greetings. (Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22-23)

Now while they were passing through the cities, they were delivering the decrees which had been decided upon by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem, for them to observe. (Acts 16:4)


Why has not Luke told us about the institution of the office of elder?

The reason is that the first Christians simply carried over the organization of the synagogue into their own assemblies.  Since every synagogue was ruled by a body of elders, this practice was taken over by the first Christians.  It is necessary to remember here that all the first Christians were Jewish, and they continued to practice many of the Jewish traditions to which they were accustomed.  These Christians even called their gatherings a synagogue.  James writes: For if a man comes into your assembly [synagogue] with a gold ring… (James 2:2).  More on this in Vitringa and Henson.


What was the organizational structure of a synagogue?

Schaff writes:

Every synagogue had a president, a number of elders (Zekenim) equal in rank, a reader and interpreter, one or more envoys or clerks, called “messengers” (Sheliach), and a sexton or beadle (Chazzan) for the humbler mechanical services. There were also deacons (Gabae zedaka) for the collection of alms in money and produce. Ten or more wealthy men at leisure, called Batlanim, represented the congregation at every service. Each synagogue formed an independent republic, but kept up a regular correspondence with other synagogues. It was also a civil and religious court, and had power to excommunicate and to scourge offenders. source  Schurer goes into great detail.


What are the responsibilities of elders?

The responsibilities of elders can be seen in the institution of deacons.  The need for deacons arose because the apostles were spending too much time administering the church’s ministry to the needy.  Hence, they set apart seven men to administer these programs while they continued steadfastly in prayer, and in the ministry of the word. (Acts 6:4)  We conclude from this the elders were responsible for the teaching ministry of the church.


Why were elders even necessary in the early church?  Didn’t the apostles have the primary responsibility for leading and teaching?

The apostles were temporary and there was no permanent apostolic office to which people could be elected.  The office of elder is a permanent office in the church and never comes to an end.  People are continually elected to this office to replace those elders who leave the office due to age or any other reason.


Where does Scripture teach that the apostles were temporary and not a permanent office in the church?

Because the primary credential of an apostle was that of being a witness of the ministry of Jesus; see here.  Obviously, when these men died off, there were no other apostles in this sense.


So elders take the place of the apostles as the leadership within the church?



Is the office of elder limited to males?

Yes, because Paul holds to the principle of male headship.


What is the principle male headship?

This is the truth that God gave to men the primary responsibility for leadership and direction setting in home, church, and society. (Report 33 – Committee on Headship in the Bible)  Based on this principle, Paul does not allow women to be elders in a church.  You can see this principle clearly in this passage:  But I permit not a woman to teach, nor to have dominion over a man, but to be in quietness. (1 Timothy 2:12)  This is followed by:

For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve.  And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression.  But women will be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint. (1 Timothy 2:13-15)

This shows that Paul understands the headship principle to be a part of God’s good creation, not something that has come into the world as a result of the fall into sin.


Are woman not allowed to do any teaching in the church?

No, only the teaching that would be done as an elder.  Clearly, Priscilla was involved in the training of Apollos (Acts 18:26), and women are allowed to pray and prophesy in the services. (1 Corinthians 11:1-16)  The understanding, however, is that even here, they are doing this under the oversight of elders who have the responsibility to see that everything happens in good order.  Later, Paul tells the Corinthians that women are not to speak as elders and stand in judgment on the prophesying that takes place in the assembly.  If they have a question about a specific prophecy, their protocol is to bring it to their husband’s attention, and he would then be free to take it to the elders.

The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says.  If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church. (1 Corinthians 14:34-35)

The silence that is commanded the women here is not complete silence since previously it was assumed they were praying and prophesying. (1 Corinthians 11)  Rather, the women are not to speak as elders in the oversight of these prophecies. (1 Corinthians 14:29)  Note that Paul adds in v34 “as the law also says” which is probably a reference to the male headship principle which he sees as part of God’s perfect creation order.  See more on this here.





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