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Elder (NT)

See also Elder

ELDER IN THE NT (πρεσβύτερος, G4565, lit. older person or old man; sometimes transliterated presbyter). This term designated three different groups in the NT: (a) older individuals comparatively speaking; (b) the religious-political leaders of Jewry and (c) the early leaders of the apostolic church.

Background: OT, Rabbinic Judaism and the Qumran community.

In the first cent. a.d., the office of elder was a regular position in the Jewish synagogue. In the tractate Sanhedrin of the Mishna, the duties of this office are clearly outlined. The council of elders was responsible for the government of the Jewish community. In Jerusalem, the Sanhedrin, a council composed of seventy-one elders, acted as the supreme court for all Judaism. (Cf. Berakhoth 4:7; Nedharim 5:5; Meghillah 3:1; Edhuyoth 5:6; Ta’anith 3:8; Middoth 2:2; Ezra 10:8; Luke 6:22; John 9:22; 12:42.)

The discoveries at Qumran have revealed a covenant community in which the office of elder also functioned in much the same sense as that office in Judaism, and there is general agreement that the Qumran community did have rather significant connections with early Christianity. This is not to suggest that the Early Church adopted its ecclesiastical structure from the Qumran community. The Manual of Discipline (1QS VI) speaks of the elder (mebaqqer) as being second in rank behind the priests.

NT meaning and significance for the Church.

In the Lukan apostolic history, the office appears without explanation as to its origin for the first time in Acts 11:30. The reference here is to the elders in the Church in Judea for whom a collection had been taken in the Church at Antioch. Later we are told that Paul “appointed” (χειροντονήσαντες, from the Gr. verb meaning “to choose or elect by raising hands or to appoint”) elders in every church (Acts 14:23). The exact nature of this apostolic ordination or appointment is not described except to imply that prayer and fasting were a part of the ritual. We may assume that this unexplained appearance in contrast to the selection of the seven in Acts 6 implies a rather natural transition from the synagogue structure of Judaism to the organization of the Early Church (cf. Acts 2:46).

Two questions are raised by the NT evidence. First, what is the significance of the plurality of elders in the NT Church? Second, what is the relationship of bishop or pastor to the office of elder?

In regard to the first question, it should be observed that two possible explanations are available. On the one hand, the existing structure of the synagogue with its plurality of elders is paralleled by the NT church organization. It should be pointed out here that even in the synagogue there was a “head of the synagogue” known as the רֹאשׁ הַכְּנֶסֶת or ἀρχισυνάγωγος, G801. The plurality in this case would not forbid the predominant leadership of one elder, perhaps referred to as a “ruling elder” (1 Tim 5:17). There is in later church history a traceable development from a plurality of elders to a presiding bishop to an episcopal hierarchical structure. The nature of the early NT Christian assemblies which often worshiped in the homes of the members may also help to explain the plurality of elders. In other words, in a given community there might be a number of elders each one responsible for the care of a particular congregation which met in his home or the home of some other Christian in the congregation. Clear examples of this are found in the NT itself (cf. Acts 16:11ff.; Rom 16:3-5).

As to the latter question, it already has been noted that by the time the pastoral epistles were written, the terms “bishop” and “elder” were used interchangeably (cf. 1 Tim 3; Titus 1). But even earlier in Paul’s ministry (cf. Acts 20:17-38) when he met with the elders of the Ephesian church, he seems to relate the three terms together—elder, bishop or overseer and pastor. The idea of the elders serving as shepherds of the flock and overseeing the administration of the Church helped to distinguish the title of the office from its practical functions. In other words, the term elder originally designated those who were both naturally as well as spiritually older or more mature. Note that Paul makes specific mention of the fact that no one is to be admitted to the office of elder or bishop who is a “recent convert” or novice (cf. 1 Tim 3:6). The other terms—pastor or shepherd and bishop or overseer—refer to the functions of this office in the Church. An elder is, therefore, an older, spiritually more mature male member of the Church who is responsible for the administration of the congregation. In this latter case, it is instructive that Peter refers to himself as an elder: “So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder” (1 Pet 5:1). In the later postapostolic writings of the Church, there is clear evidence that the office of pastor or bishop and elder were the same (cf. Didache 10:6).


H. B. Swete, ed., Essays on The Early History of the Church and the Ministry (1921); K. E. Kirk, ed., The Apostolic Ministry (1946); E. Schweizer, Das Leben des Herrn in her Gemeinde und ihren Diensten (1946); W. Michaelis, Das Ältestenamt der christlichen Gemeinde im Lichte der Heiligen Schrift (1953); R. Reicke, “The Constitution of the Primitive Church in the Light of Jewish Documents,” The Scrolls and the New Testament ed. by K. Stendahl (1957), 143-156; G. H. Davies, “Elder in the OT,” IDB, II (1962), 72, 73; M. H. Shepherd, Jr., “Elder in the NT,” IDB, II (1962), 73-75; I. Sonne, “Synagogue,” IDB, III (1962), 477-491; H. W. Beyer, “ἐπίσκοπος, G2176,” TDNT, II (1964), 608-622; G. Bornkamm, “πρεσβύτερος, G4565,” TDNT, VI (1968), 651-681.