Who are “the elders”? The term sounds strange in modern ears. For those not raised in the church, or not raised in churches with “elders,” it can be a perplexing term. Who are these “elders” I hear about? Do they meet in secret?
To the unfamiliar, “elders” may sound sectarian or even cultish. Modern people intuit that the term “elders” belongs to a bygone era, to more traditional times. More broadly, the term can have negative connotations in a society that increasingly prizes the strength and beauty of youth over the wisdom and grace of age. And “elderly” is something we all want to avoid.
Who Are ‘the Elders’?
“The elders” is one of three main terms in the New Testament for the leading office in the local church. In the narratives of Acts, as Christianity grew and spread in Jewish soil, the elders were the plurality of formal leaders in individual churches (Acts 14:23; 20:17). Paul wrote to his protégé Timothy about church leaders as “elders” (1 Timothy 4:14; 5:17, 19; so also in Titus 1:5). Both James and Peter refer to local-church leaders as a team of “elders” (James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1, 5). In other contexts, Paul refers to leaders in this same office as “overseers” (Acts 20:28; Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:1–2; Titus 1:7). Less commonly, but no less significantly, those in this same lead office are also called “pastors” (noun in Ephesians 4:11; verb in Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2), drawing on the great Old Testament theme of the shepherd as the leader of God’s flock.
“Pastors” is the most common term today, even though it appears least in the New Testament. “Overseers” likely is used least today. And then, most common in the New Testament, and now experiencing a comeback in some circles, is “elders.”
Why Call Them ‘Elders’?
Odd as it might sound today, “elders” was not a foreign term in ancient Israel, and beyond. At least since the days of Moses, and even before the exodus from Egypt, Israel had recognized elders (Exodus 3:16, 18; 4:29; 12:21). Egypt too had elders (Genesis 50:7). So did Midian and Moab (Numbers 22:4, 7), Gibeon (Joshua 9:11), Gebal (Ezekiel 27:9), and other surrounding nations.
“Elders, as one might expect, were not young men, but those old enough (in general) to have a full beard.”
In Hebrew, the word for “elder” (zaqen) comes from the word for “beard” (zaqan). Elders, as one might expect, were not young men, but those old enough (in general) to have a full beard. This should not be confused with “elderly.” Having a full beard is not the same as having a gray beard. In this sense, elder was an approximate term in Israel, not strictly linked to a particular age — though a case can be made for 30 as a minimum. Cornelis Van Dam says we get “the impression that the age of thirty was the minimum. However, Scripture gives no specifically prescribed age for this office” (The Elder, 29).
Van Dam mentions office, which is important. “The elders of Israel” were not simply all the older men of Israel, but officially recognized authority figures, whether appointed formally by providence or chosen by the people (as in Deuteronomy 1:13–16).
Given the term’s longtime use among God’s first-covenant people for officers who were not prophets, priests, or kings, “elders” was a natural name for formally recognized leaders in local churches as they first formed in Jerusalem and spread out from there.
What Did Hebrew Elders Do?
But what did “the elders of Israel” do in those centuries before the coming of Christ? What were their tasks? Ask any veteran reader of the Bible that question, and you might get a puzzled look. The Old Testament mentions elders with some frequency, but what they did is not nearly as plain as we might expect.
Remember, these were the days of prophets like Moses and Samuel, priests like Aaron and Phinehas, statesmen like Joshua and Nehemiah, and kings like David and Solomon. And as the nation spiraled downward in royal depravity, God sent major and minor prophets as his mouthpieces, to call the nation back to himself. Van Dam summarizes the task of the elders, in such times, to be “preserving and nurturing life in covenant with God” (8). That’s not very specific.
Jim Hamilton adds that the elders were responsible for “the regulation of society at large — judging cases and enforcing the law” (Shepherding God’s Flock, 31). They exercised their leadership, and office, in particular through providing wisdom and counsel, and rendering judgments on disputes.
What Do Church Elders Do?
Yet more important than what Hebrew elders did is what church elders do, under the terms of the new covenant.
Hamilton asks, “Is there a relationship between the leadership structure of the nation of Israel, the synagogue, and the church?” His answer is yes and no, but he clarifies: “less yes than no” (13). In other words, even given what (little) we know about the responsibilities of the elders of Israel (under the direction of prophets, priests, and kings), we find “more discontinuity than continuity between the old and new covenant elders” (16). In fact, according to Hamilton, “the similarities basically end with the fact of leadership and the use of the term” (13–14). Benjamin Merkle agrees: the New Testament office of elder is “an almost entirely new position” (The Elder and Overseer, 65).
What’s not new is that church elders are charged with “leading” and “ruling,” or “governing” (1 Timothy 2:12; 3:4; 5:17; 1 Thessalonians 5:12; Hebrews 13:17). They still judge disputes and provide counsel. They still “preserve and nurture life in covenant with God.” However, now, under Christ, without earthly kings and prophets over their heads, more governing weight rests on the elders’ shoulders. But most striking of all is how new-covenant elders relate to the absence, or fulfillment, of the priesthood.
Elders Lead and Feed
In the Old Testament, the priests in particular were charged to teach the nation. God spoke to Aaron, the first high priest, “You are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the Lord has spoken to them by Moses” (Leviticus 10:11). Memorably, the priest Ezra, in line with the calling of his office, “set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel” (Ezra 7:10). It was Ezra and his fellow priests who, after the completion of the wall under Nehemiah, “read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (Nehemiah 8:8). The priests were teachers.
But now, in Christ, the Great Teacher, and our Great High Priest, has come. He not only taught God’s word but is himself the Word (John 1:1–3; Hebrews 1:1–2). And he speaks to his church today in the word he gave us through his apostles and prophets — and not only when that word is read by individuals but when it is taught by the elders, “the pastor-teachers” (Ephesians 4:11), in the life of the church.
Therefore, two fundamental differences between the elders of Israel and the elders of the church are (1) the constitution of God’s people as born again, from all nations, rather than focused on the Jewish ethnicity and (2) the calling of the elders to take up the word of Christ and “feed my sheep,” as Jesus said to Peter (John 21:15–17).
“In the church age, among a body of regenerate saints, the emphasis will be even less on mere physical age.”
In sum, says Hamilton, “The teaching of the Scriptures to the people of God is specifically entrusted to the elders in a way that we do not see in the Old Testament” (25). Even though “oversight of the church is more than simply teaching and preaching,” as Don Carson writes, “a substantial part of the ruling/oversight function is discharged through the preaching and teaching of the Word of God. This is where a great deal of the best leadership is exercised.”
Must ‘Elders’ Be Old?
One final question about church elders and their relationship to Hebrew elders is, How old should a man be to serve as an elder in the church? In brief, he should be sufficiently mature for spiritual leadership, with that maturity being discerned relative to the congregation, and in the context of the life of the church. For instance, a wise team of elders will discern when they are aging as a council and need to bring on younger men, in the safety of an experienced team, to begin investing in the next generation of leaders when the older generation is gone.
Remember, even under the terms of the old covenant, “the elders of Israel” was an office, whether by the providence of God or the choice of the people, not a simple collective of old men, and the general minimum age of 30 was perhaps surprisingly low for what we today might assume for the word elder. Now, in the church age, among a body of regenerate saints, the emphasis will be even less on mere physical age, though it’s not irrelevant as it relates to a man’s spiritual and emotional maturity.
Wise councils also will consider stage-of-life details with a young potential elder. While marriage is not required to be an elder, it may be prudent to wait for a season if the man is unmarried and desires to be married soon, or if he is engaged or a newlywed. Also, as the median age for marriage continues to rise, some otherwise qualified men may need more time to get their feet underneath them as young fathers before adding the additional responsibilities of eldership.
However focused on spiritual maturity new-covenant eldership must be, there is no escaping the wisdom of some modest passage of time, in order that elders might “not be hasty in the laying on of hands” (1 Timothy 5:22). As with deacons (the assisting office), so all the more with pastor-elders (the lead office), “let them also be tested first” (1 Timothy 3:10). And as with the other elder qualifications, spiritual maturity will be evaluated in context. Younger congregations, perhaps especially church plants, will often have younger leaders, for good reason, while older, more established churches may fittingly have more elders who are indeed older men.
However strange it may sound to modern ears, “elder” is a term worth keeping, and worth teaching with patience and care, not assuming our people are familiar with it. Alongside “pastor” and “overseer,” this is one (and the most common) way the New Testament refers to formal leaders in the local church, and we at least want our people to read their Bibles with more understanding. And perhaps “elder” has a new day coming for it, as the church relearns how our forebears thought and spoke about spiritual leadership.