About Us (part II)
About Us (Part II)
This article continues a seven part series on the role of the elder in the church. Since the annual elections for elders are coming up in April, the elders want to ensure that the congregation is well prepared in advance to ascertain the will of God in this decision and select godly, able leaders for our body. As mentioned in last week's article, there will be a one-time presentation during the Bible Class hour for everyone from middle school to middle age and beyond. Please plan to attend this special session. Details will follow.
For those who may have had little exposure to an elder-led church in the past, one might wonder how the notion of having elders came about. While the concept of a deacon originates in the early history of the church (Acts 6), elders are much... well... older. Of the nearly two-hundred mentions of elders in both the Old and New Testaments, 65% are in the Old Testament. Many societies in the ancient near east were led by tribal or national elders. The first mention in the Bible of a group's leaders being referred to as elders occurs in Genesis 10:21. In this verse, we read of the elders of the nation of Egypt going with Joseph to bury Jacob his father. The nation of Israel was also led by its elders in Old and New Testament times. They first appear in scripture when Moses instructed the elders of Israel to gather to hear what God had said about their coming deliverance (Ex. 3). So when the first century rolled around, the earliest of our brothers and sisters in Christ had no problem in relating to the idea of the leadership of their elders.
The Old Testament elder had what we would call both executive and judicial authority over the people they led. Examples of each are found in Judges 21 and Deuteronomy 21. However, the elder's role went beyond leadership though. They served as representatives of the people (Jos. 24), led in worship (Le. 4:15) and also were responsible for teaching the people (De. 31:10-13) the law of God. Each responsibility is mentioned numerous times throughout scripture, and paints a clear picture of who these men were and how they served.
There are several New Testament parallels in the job description of an elder. Acts 11 demonstrates the authority of the elders, where the gift from the church in Antioch to impoverished brothers in Jerusalem was brought by Paul and Barnabas to the Jerusalem church elders. In chapter 15, the doctrinal authority of elders is demonstrated as they considered with the apostles how the law of circumcision and other rituals were to be applied to new Gentile believers. Almost unbelievably, in chapter 21, the Jerusalem elders instruct even the apostle Paul on how to resolve differences between Jewish and Gentile Christians. Paul submitted to the elders' decision in order to maintain unity. Just as Old Testament elders taught the Israelites, Paul, in his letters to Timothy (1 Ti. 3:2) and the Galatians (6:6), indicates that an elder is to be able to teach. While there are no direct New Testament parallels of elders representing their churches or leading them in worship, it is not difficult to understand, given their other duties, that they would have also had these traits in common with their Old Testament predecessors.
As you can see, New Testament elders were not merely an innovation by the early (or later) church to meet the leadership needs of the congregation, but are a continuation of an older practice. There was no change in mindset as people became Christians. They had been led and taught by their elders in times past, and they would continue to be so in their new life in the church. Chances are, that as the first century elders of the Jews heard the gospel, they may seamlessly transitioned into church elders. The use of the entirety of scripture gives us a broader and more detailed picture of what elders have historically done, and are given by God to do in the church of today.
Next week, we will examine in greater detail the role of the elder as described in the New Testament church.