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Elder is one of the principal terms in the New Testament for the primary office of a church leader. Together with overseer and shepherd, these terms describe the function and character of the men God ordained to rule and govern the body of Christ in the local congregation.
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, 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.
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While there are three different words to offer perspective on who the man is, what he does and how he does it, it is important to note that the words are used synonymously and refer to the same office and person. In I Timothy and Titus, Paul drafts nearly identical lists of qualifications for elder and overseer, while Peter draws all three concepts together in one passage: "Therefore, I exhort the elders among you... shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight..." (I Peter 5:1-2). Luke uses the terms elder, overseer and shepherd interchangeably in Acts 20.
(Strong's number 4245)
This is the most commonly used word in the New Testament with regard to church leaders. It refers 28 times in the Gospels and Acts to the members of the Jewish Sanhedrin and 12 times in Revelation to the representatives of the redeemed people of God. The remaining 19 times the word is employed in Acts and the Epistles, it identifies a unique group of leaders in the church.
The term simply means advanced in age, but in the first century context indicates a rank or office among Jews as members of the ruling council, among Greeks as those who those who managed public affairs and administered justice, and among Christians as those who presided over the local assemblies. While no specific age is given, this term emphasizes the character of the elder and implies maturity, dignity, experience, and honor (Strauch, p. 125)
(Strong's number 1985)
This is a common word for in the Greek culture for any official who acted as a superintendent, manager, controller, curator, guardian or ruler. It occurs only 5 times in the New Testament, once referring to Christ (1 Peter 2:25) and the other 4 times to church leaders.
This term emphasizes the function of an elder as exercising authority and supervision "by divine placement, initiative and design." (Strauch, p. 148).
(Strong's number 4166)
This word simply means shepherd. It is applied only once in the noun form and 3 times in the verb form in the New Testament in the context of church leaders.
This term emphasizes the heart attitude of an elder as one who tends, feeds, guides, protects and cares for his flock (Strauch, 149).
The clear teaching of Scripture places elders at the center of the church's work, bestowing a great amount of responsibility and authority as the highest level of local church leadership. It can be reasonably demonstrated that Scripture mandates church government by a plurality of elders. Together, the New Testament writers mention elders, overseers and shepherds in reference to church leadership more than twenty-five times in the Gospels and the Epistles. The basis, selection, office, character, functions, attitude and qualifications of elders are clearly laid out and the pattern established early and often so as to leave little room for confusion. Strauch writes, "In fact, the New Testament offers more instruction regarding elders than on any other important church subjects such as the Lord's Supper, the Lord's Day, baptism or spiritual gifts." (Strauch, 103).
For example, Acts 11:30; 15:2, 4, 6, 22-23; 16:4; and 21:18 demonstrate that elders had a significant role in the Jerusalem church and the Jerusalem council. In reference to churches in Antioch of Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe, Acts 14:23 demonstrates Paul's pattern of appointing elders as a key step in organizing a new church. Paul spoke directly to the elders in Acts 20:17 and warned them in 20:28 to "[b]e on guard for [them]selves 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."
Each of these passages points to an early understanding that God's intent for church leadership was by a plurality of elders. Instruction about elders is given to the churches in I Thessalonians 5:12-13; I Timothy 3:1-7, 10 and 5:17-22, 24-25; Titus 1:5-9; Hebrews 13:17; James 5:14; and I Peter 5:5. Instruction is given to elders about churches in I Thessalonians 5:13; James 5:14; and I Peter 5:1-5. In the majority of the references the word for elders is plural and word for church is singular, indicating a very clear directive that the church should be governed by a plurality of elders.
- Blameless as a steward of God; above reproach (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6-7)
- Husband of one wife; a one-woman man (1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:6)
- Temperate, sober, vigilant (1 Timothy 3:2)
- Sober-minded, prudent (1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:8)
- Of good behavior; orderly, respectable (1 Timothy 3:2)
- Given to hospitality (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:8)
- Apt to teach; able to teach; he can exhort believers and refute false teaching (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:9)
- Not given to wine (1 Timothy 3:3, Titus 1:7)
- Not violent, not pugnacious (1 Timothy 3:3, Titus 1:7)
- Patient, moderate, forbearing, gentle (1 Timothy 3:3)
- Not a brawler; uncontentious; not soon angry or quick tempered (1 Timothy 3:3, Titus 1:7)
- Not covetous; not a lover of money; not greedy of base gain (1 Timothy 3:3, Titus 1:7)
- Rules well his own house; his children are faithful, not accused of rebellion to God (1 Timothy 3:4, Titus 1:7)
- Not a novice; not a new convert (1 Timothy 3:6)
- Has a good report or reputation with outsiders (1 Timothy 3:7)
- Not self-willed (Titus 1:7)
- A lover of what is good (Titus 1:7)
- Just, fair (Titus 1:8)
- Holy, devout (Titus 1:8)
- Self-Controlled (Titus 1:8)
- Shepherd the flock, setting an example for all (1 Peter 5:1-3)
- Feed and care for the church (Acts 20:28; 1 Thessalonians 5:12)
- Teach and preach sound doctrine (1 Timothy 5:17; Titus 1:9)
- Rule and lead (I Timothy 5:17; Hebrews 13:17; cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:12; 1 Timothy 3:2,4)
- Train and ordain others (Acts 14:23; 1 Timothy 4:14; 5:22; Titus 1:5)
- Refute and rebuke the insubordinate (Titus 1:9, 13)
- Keep watch over and give account to God for the spiritual well-being of the church (Hebrews 13:17)
- Serve clothed in Christ-like humility (1 Peter 5:3-5)
The elder as clergy
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The elder as laity
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- Strauch, A. Biblical Eldership. Lewis and Roth Publishers, 1995.