Who are the Elders?

Our recent blog series through the book of Acts has led us into an excursus on the meaning of elders in the setting of Christian churches, or gatherings. We have been examining the general evangelical response to the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic by attempting to answer three primary questions in order to help us as Christians better respond in times of pandemic, persecution, and peace for the purpose of maintaining our Christian fellowship regardless of the external circumstances. After examining Acts to answer the question on the necessity of the ‘church’ building, we find ourselves squarely in the midst of question two, “Does a gathering need to have staff pastors and/or ministers present to be considered an official “church” gathering?”

In our last post, we began looking at the second section of Acts, Acts 11:19-15:35 (first section – Acts 1:15-11:18) and found an interesting use of the familiar New Testament term, elders, in Acts 11:30. We saw that elder, the Greek word presbuteros, has been used entirely in the Jewish sense throughout the Gospels and Acts up to this point. Here, without any warning, redefinition, or apparent change of use, the author of Acts refers to the elders in the church at Jerusalem (Judea), “So the disciples determined, everyone according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea.  And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.”  Because of this subtle transition, it seems incumbent upon us as 21st Century believers to digest the background of elder in order to inform our understanding of how it is used here and in other passages within the Christian context. It would be an error of eisegesis to simply read our modern understanding of elder back into the passage. In falling into this error, those who come from a Baptist background would likely read their familiar view of the term into the passage, be it elder-rule, elder-led, or some combination of elder-congregationalism. Meanwhile, those familiar with the Presbyterian (note the similarity of the words) form of ‘church government’ will read their understanding into the passage as teaching elder or ruling elder, etc. Not to mention, what becomes of the Episcopalian view? If we briefly step back from these traditions, we may find that elder doesn’t carry an ecclesiastical sense here at all.

As I’ve written elsewhere, elder or presbuteros is an adjective that in nearly every one of its 67+ uses in the New Testament simply means older. It can be masculine or feminine or simply refer generically to older people, depending on the context. (Please note the noun form occurs in Luke 1:18, Philippians 1:9, and Titus 2:2.) Depending on the context, elder could mean physically older or it could mean spiritually mature. Given this range, it’s certainly possible and maybe even preferable that both are generally in view. In other words, an elder in the Christian context is typically an older believer that is more spiritually mature. We might even say a seasoned veteran of living the Christian life or one who has seniority, a sage. Before we get to any discussions on qualifications or duties in the New Testament or Christian sense, embedded into the term elder is maturity that usually comes with age, experience, and most certainly wisdom. Commenting on the use of elder in our verse from Acts 11:30, Barnes notes the following
The word literally denotes aged men, but in the Jewish synagogue it was a name of office merely. It is clear, however, I think, that the elders of the Jewish synagogue here are not included, for the relief was intended for the “brethren”…. I think it probable that it does not refer to officers in the church, but that it means simply that the charity was entrusted to the aged, prudent, and experienced men in the church, for distribution among the members.

Barnes’ Notes: Acts and Romans, pg 188
As Barnes points out, it is doubtful that what has become traditionally accepted as an ecclesiastical office is in view here with regard to elders. More likely meant by Luke’s use of elder would be those older, wiser, and more experienced men. This would seem to correspond with how the Old Testament informs the meaning of the term and how it is used during the time of Christ as well. Alexander Strauch, in his extensive and well regarded book on Biblical Eldership, provides for us some insight into the earlier understanding of elder that would perhaps help further inform the use and meaning of the word here, in its first Christian occurrence. He writes
Leadership by a council of men called elders predates the synagogue and was very familiar to the Jews and to all readers of the Greek Old Testament. The council of elders was one of Israel’s oldest and most fundamental institutions. It was nearly as basic as the family. Biblical Eldership p. 122
He continues
The Old Testament elders were preeminently men of counsel and wisdom. The concept of wisdom and discernment is implied in the word, elder, itself: “Wisdom is with aged men, with long life is understanding” (Job 12:12, also 1 Kings 12:8,13). To be an elder is to be a wise man and counselor. Biblical Eldership p. 123
Strauch’s conclusion regarding the meaning of elder within Judaism would seem to correspond with Barnes’ interpretation of elder in Acts 11:30. When we turn to the Old Testament, we find elder/elders to be largely represented by the Hebrew word, zaqen. As with presbuteros, it is an attributive adjective but also a substantive, meaning an adjective serving as a noun. The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament defines zaqen as the following
…describes the person (male or female) who, contrasting with the youth (na’ar; Gen. 19:4; cf. Ps. 37:25) has reached the stage in life called old age. The semitism “old and full of years (days)” is sometimes met (Gen. 25:8; 35:29; Job 42:17). The normal Hebrew society not only had boys and girls playing in the streets but there were also old men and women leaning on their staffs (Zech. 8:4). “Young” and “old” make up the total of society (Ex 10:9; Josh 6:21; II Chr 36:17; Est. 3:13).
TWOT p. 249
As to the substantive or use as a noun, the TWOT dictionary entry states the following
…usually plural, is a technical term occurring about one hundred times. Only context can determine whether old men or the ruling body is intended in an particular case. The OT is not clear concerning the age required to qualify one to be a zaqen or details of appointment to this group. TWOT p. 249
Based on the above definitions, it would seem that elder in the OT context can refer generically to ‘old’ people, but also denote a category within Israel known collectively as elders. The common thread, as we have seen already, is that there would have by necessity been a component of maturity and wisdom in the latter definition that typically comes with age as with the former definition.

That there was a distinct group of elders within Israel is without debate. This Hebrew word for elders occurs frequently in the Old Testament (~193x), however it’s first use as a technical term occurs in Genesis 50:7 in relation to the “elders of his [Joseph’s] household, and all the elders of the land of Egypt” informing us that the concept of elders was not unique with Israel nor did it originate with Moses. In relation to Israel, we next find the term used in Exodus 3:16, without qualifications, definitions, or even origins. Though little is known about their qualifications (other than those implied already), it appears in Scripture that some typical duties involved settling disputes and legal matters, i.e. upholding the law not making laws.

However, with respect to the elders in the Old Testament some of the distinctions are often overlooked regarding the use and application of the term. One such distinction appears between national and local or city elders, with the former, more specific, most likely being called out of the latter, a more broad and general group. The national group is sometimes referred to as the elders of Israel, elders of the congregation, or the elders of the people (c.f. Exodus 3:16; 4:29; 12:21). Sometimes elders were chosen for specific tasks from this larger group, as in Exodus 17:5. Furthermore, in Numbers 11 seventy elders were chosen from this larger, national group, to come alongside Moses and help him with matters of judgment (Exodus 24:1; Numbers 11:16-30). In addition to these distinctions, there were also city-elders, as in Deuteronomy 19:12; 21:2-6, 19-20; 21:20; 22:15-18; 25:7-9. Another, less familiar distinction is the elders of a particular region, as with those of Gilead in Judges 11. For our interests here, we may need to ask a difficult question, namely, given these distinctions, how is the term elder applied in the New Testament? While there is to be expected continuity between the meaning of elder in the Old Testament and elder in the New or more accurately early Christian era, there is implied discontinuity in terms of role and function. In other words, there is not a 1:1 relationship with the duties of elders as they served under Moses and the duties of elders as they serve under Christ, a change has taken place. There is now a new community established from those called out, of both Jews and Gentiles, a new Israel, an ecclesia of Christ no longer a qahal Israel in the strict sense. Additionally, there are changes that take place with regard to the elder distinctions. These changes occur over time, but are largely impacted by the establishment of Israel as a state (with king), the Babylonian exile, and the subsequent synagogue institution. The group of seventy elders called out under Moses, probably provided the background for what became known as the Sanhedrin in the New Testament, the ‘elders’ most often referred to there. Perhaps the most notable change in the post-exilic period is the, “dissolution of the tribal unions,” and the growth in importance of, “individual families (father’s houses)….After the exile these are the foundations of the new community. If previously the elders owed their authority to the position which they occupied in the clans and tribes, this is now based on the special position of their families within the people itself.” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, pg. 658) When we arrive at elders in Acts 11:30, Jewish readers of Luke’s historical account would not have been lost in translation with the transition of elders from a primarily Jewish sense to elders now in a Jewish-Christian sense. They would’ve understood that elder would’ve referred normally to an aged, wise man that would’ve typically been the head of a family or household (Note that the author Luke switches back to elder in a Jewish context in Acts 23:14; 24:1; 25:15 without warning or explanation). As to this latter point, elder as the head of a family, this particular aspect would’ve been a natural outgrowth of the societal changes post-exile – emphasizing heads of families, of the households that were saved throughout Acts, and the early gatherings that met within a home, as we saw in the post concerning buildings. William Lane comments,
The host who possessed the resources and initiative to invite the church into his or her home assumed major leadership responsibilities deriving from patronage offered. These included important administrative tasks, such as the provision of the common meals of the community, the extension of hospitality to traveling missionaries and other Christians, the representation of the community outside the domestic setting, in addition to pastoral oversight and governance…those who acted as patrons were in some sense also involved in governance of the community.
Lane, cited in Joel Comiskey, Biblical Foundations for the Cell-Based Church, p. 120-121.
Now with a better understanding of who the early Christian elders were – aged, wise men of counsel, and the context out of which they were known – heads of families or households, we are left with a bit of a mystery as to what they were called to do. Unfortunately, there is broad information of the duties of elders in the Old Testament, but limited information on their transition into first century Judaism (It would appear one primary function in the Old Testament, particularly of the city-elders, was judicial, see Deut. 19:11, 12; 21:1-8, 18-20; 22:16-19; 25:7-9; Josh 20:2-4). However, one fact is known about elders that continued into first century Judaism and may have bearing on how we understand their role and duty in the New Covenant. In Israel, there were both national elders and local city-elders. As Strauch points out, “At the time of Christ, there were local and national Jewish elders.” Before we make any sweeping conclusions, we ought to allow our survey to continue. As we proceed through Acts with a continued eye on the development of leadership and the necessity of the ‘professionals’ in an official gathering, some of the duties and roles of elders will become a little more clear. As we head back into the Book of Acts, below are the relevant uses of presbuteros or related words, for additional study:
  • Acts 11:30
  • Acts 14:23
  • Acts 15:2; 15:4; 15:22; 15:23; 16:4
  • Acts 20:17
  • Acts 21:18
  • *2 Corinthians 5:20; Ephesians 6:20 (trans. ambassadors)
  • *1 Timothy 4:14
  • 1 Timothy 5:1; 5:2; 5:17; 5:19
  • Titus 1:5
  • *Titus 2:2; 2:3
  • *Philemon 1:9
  • Hebrews 11:2
  • James 5:14
  • 1 Peter 5:1
  • 2 John 1:1; 3 John 1:1
  • Revelation 4:4; 4:10; 5:5; 5:6; 5:8; 5:11; 5:14; 7:11; 7:13; 11:16; 14:3; 19:4

“You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.” – Leviticus 19:32

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Christian saved by grace through faith.

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