What Is an Elder?

Understand the biblical and church office of elder

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The Hebrew word for elder means "beard," and literally speaks of an older person. In the Old Testament elders were heads of households, prominent men of the tribes, and leaders or rulers in the community.

Biblical Qualities of an Elder

  • One who is above reproach;
  • Has a good reputation;
  • Faithful to his wife;
  • Not given to heavy drinking;
  • Not violent, quarrelsome, or quick-tempered;
  • Gentle;
  • Enjoys having guests;
  • One who is able to teach others;
  • His children respect and obey him;
  • He is not a new believer and has a strong belief;
  • Not arrogant;
  • Not dishonest with money and does not love money;
  • One who exercises discipline and self-control.

New Testament Elders

The Greek term, presbýteros, meaning "older" is used in the New Testament. From its earliest days, the Christian church followed the Jewish tradition of appointing spiritual authority in the church to older, more mature men of wisdom.

In the book of Acts, the Apostle Paul appointed elders in the early church, and in 1 Timothy 3:1–7 and Titus 1:6–9, the office of elder was instituted. The biblical requirements of an elder are described in these passages. Paul says an elder must be blameless:

An elder must be blameless, faithful to his wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. Since an overseer manages God’s household, he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Rather, he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it. Titus 1:6–9 (NIV)

Many translations use the term "overseer" for elder:

Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap. (1 Timothy 3:2–7, NIV)

In the early church, there were usually two or more elders per congregation. The elders taught and preached the doctrine of the early church, including training and appointing others.

The function of an elder was centered on taking care of the church. They were given the role of correcting people who weren't following the approved doctrine. They cared for the physical needs of their congregation as well as the spiritual needs:

"Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and  anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord." (James 5:14)

Elders in Denominations Today

In churches today, elders are spiritual leaders or shepherds of the church. The term can mean different things depending on the denomination and even the congregation. While it's always a title of honor and duty, it might mean someone who serves an entire region or someone with specific duties in one congregation.

The position of elder may be an ordained office or a lay office. The elder may have the duties of a pastor and teacher. He may provide general oversight of financial, organizational, and spiritual matters. Elder may be a title given to an officer or a church board member. An elder may have administrative duties or may perform some liturgical duties and assist the ordained clergy.

In some denominations, bishops fulfill the roles of elders. These include Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, Methodist, and Lutheran faiths. Elder is an elected permanent officer of the Presbyterian denomination, with regional committees of elders governing the church.

Denominations that are more congregational in governance may be led by a pastor or a council of elders. These include Baptists and Congregationalists. In the Churches of Christ, congregations are led by male elders according to their biblical guidelines.

In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the title of Elder is given to men ordained in the Melchizedek priesthood and male missionaries of the church. In the Jehovah's Witnesses, an elder is a man appointed to teach the congregation, but it is not used as a title.

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Fairchild, Mary. "What Is an Elder?" Learn Religions, Aug. 25, 2020, learnreligions.com/what-is-an-elder-700721. Fairchild, Mary. (2020, August 25). What Is an Elder? Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/what-is-an-elder-700721 Fairchild, Mary. "What Is an Elder?" Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/what-is-an-elder-700721 (accessed March 12, 2022).