The Biblical term ‘elder’ was based upon the traditional cultural understanding of what the word universally meant. For in every culture and community, elders are the patriarchs and matriarchs of local and extended family units. These elders are never elected or appointed to an office—they merely assume this unofficial role of leadership by virtue of age, wisdom and influence. An example of continuity in the practice and use of the term surviving with its meaning intact from earliest times until today is cited with perfect clarity by S. M. Stiegelbauer in her paper on the First Nation Elders, published in The Canadian Journal of Native Studies. With reference to the Inuit people who today still inhabit the Arctic regions which include Canada, researcher Stiegelbauer writes:
“The term “Elder” can refer to anyone who has reached a certain age and in some cases is used interchangeably with the term “senior” as in senior citizen. In both cases, the individual has had enough life experience to have something to offer those behind them. In a sense, Elders are “experts on life.” Their exact expertise may be dependent on the nature of their experience, but in one way or another it involves some aspect of traditional knowledge and culture, or an interpretation of their experience in traditional terms. What they learned from their experience and how they interpret it is as important to being an Elder as the experience itself. It is also important to be able to communicate that learning to others.”
Having pointed out that elders serve as unofficial leaders of a community, Stiegelbauer goes on to explain how the elders are given this distinct honour:
“An elder won’t self-appoint himself, but he is an elder in the eyes of the people and they depend on him or her in that way. Who puts a person in that position? They don’t elect or nominate him. The process takes place over time. It depends on the quality of the person and on that person’s life and his ability to talk to people and talk meaningfully to them in ways that they can understand in their own personal life. To do that he has to have knowledge of all the traditions and he has to know all that, but he also has to have the ability to talk to a person at their personal level…Elders are not born, they are not appointed, they emerge as the sum total of the experiences of life, they are a state of being.”
Stiegelbauer’s observations would be applauded by communities around the world—elders assume an unofficial leadership role by virtue of age, wisdom and influence. For example, elders just starting out—let’s say two parents with children—will be honoured as elders by their children. As these household elders grow in age, wisdom and influence, extended family and the local community will naturally recognize their leadership. In many cultures, a council of elders (presbytery) is formed within a local community (village or town elders)—these men and women are not elected or appointed to an office of eldership, but rather, they are naturally honoured and recognized by their community as elders, based on their age, wisdom and influence.
If, therefore, an elder is essentially a household head (father/mother), then the first pair of elders in history was Adam and Eve. Indeed, that this meaning of ‘elder’ remains invariably the same in all cultures throughout the centuries may be demonstrated by the use of the word in the Old and New Testament scriptures.
Looking first at the Old Testament, one of the most frequently used Hebrew terms translated elder is zaqen. According to Strong’s Hebrew Dictionary, zaqen means, “Old: Aged, ancient (man), elder(est), old (man, men and…women).” This term is applied to individuals and groups of people on four levels of society:
1. The Local Family—Households. At this level, the wife and children are overseen by a single leader designated ‘elder’. However, children also recognized their mother as being an ‘elder’. Each home is governed according to this structure. For instance, the term is used with reference to Abraham and Sarah—Genesis 18:11: “Now Abraham and Sarah were old and well stricken in age; and it ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.”
2. The Extended Families—Clans. At this level, each community is composed of a number of local families. These local families include grandparents, parents and children; uncles, aunts and cousins. Each local family in the community is represented by the household head (elder). Thus, each community has a plurality of elders, each elder representing his own household, and together they share counsel and make decisions for the community. For instance, the term is used with reference to Job and his friends, whom Elihu reverenced by virtue of their age—Job 32:4: “Now Elihu had waited till Job had spoken, because they were elder than he.” That these men served as elders in a larger community (clans) is inferred by Elihu’s submission to them.
3. The Extended Clans—Tribes. At this level, and within the context of Jacob’s (Israel’s) children, the genealogy of the various clans were traceable to specific patriarchs from whom sprang a number of tribes. Each local family would be represented by its own household elder; each clan would be represented by its own set of household elder(s); each tribe would be represented by its own set of clan elder(s), as, for example, when Moses rehearsed with the children of Israel how God had given the Ten Commandments on the mount, reference is made to the tribe elders—Deuteronomy 5:22-24: “These words the LORD spake unto all your assembly in the mount out of the midst of the fire…And it came to pass, when ye heard the voice out of the midst of the darkness, (for the mountain did burn with fire,) that ye came near unto me, even all the heads of your tribes, and your elders…”
4. The Extended Tribes—Nation. At this level, the twelve tribes of Israel were joined together to form a united nation. Just as elders formed part of the fabric at the previous levels of society, so the national elders carried out the same type of roles. They were household heads, rising up through the clan eldership, advanced to the tribal eldership, and finally recognized as national elders. These men were representatives of their own households, clans and tribes; they were also men of wealth, wisdom and influence, whose leadership was revered by the younger members of society. Reference is made to these national elders when Moses and Aaron gathered them together—Exodus 4:29,30: “And Moses and Aaron went and gathered together all the elders of the children of Israel: and Aaron spake all the words which the LORD had spoken unto Moses, and did the signs in the sight of the people.” Apart from the elders of Israel, the scriptures also reference the elders of Egypt (Psalm 105:21), the elders of Midian (Num 22:4,7) and the elders of the Hivites (Joshua 9:11), for every society was structured in precisely the same way.
It was common for these elders (household heads) to gather at the city gates for the purpose of transacting business and offering counsel to the local community. Hence, the elders formed a presbytery, which served as a tribunal among the people. Boaz conferred with one such council of elders in Ruth 4:1,2: “Then went Boaz up to the gate, and sat him down there: and, behold, the kinsman of whom Boaz spake came by; unto whom he said, Ho, such a one! turn aside, sit down here. And he turned aside, and sat down. And he took ten men of the elders of the city, and said, Sit ye down here. And they sat down.” Again, it is to such a council of elders that the husband of the virtuous woman belonged— Proverbs 31:23: “Her husband is known in the gates, when he sitteth among the elders of the land.” No doubt, this is the meaning of ‘presbytery’ in 1 Timothy 4:14—there was a council of elders within the church, just as there had always been a council of elders in each city, town and village.
Turning to the New Testament, the most frequently used term translated elder is presbuteros. According to Strong’s Greek Dictionary, presbuteros means, “Comparative of presbus (elderly); older; as noun, a senior; specially, an Israelite Sanhedrist (also figuratively, member of the celestial council) or Christian “presbyter”:– elder(-est), old.” Strong takes liberties by applying the basic meaning of the term to the Jewish Sanhedrin and the Christian church, suggesting it may refer to an elected office within these institutions. However, the word itself strictly means “old, older, elder, a senior.” It carried the same import as the Hebrew term zaqen. For instance, the term is used with reference to the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son—Luke 15:25: “Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard musick and dancing.” Obviously, the term elder has nothing to do with an elected or appointed office.
The term is used with reference to the saints living during the Old Testament dispensation—Hebrews 11:1,2: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For by it the elders obtained a good report.” Among these ‘elders’ are included the names of two women—Sarah (11) and Rahab (31)— along with a reference to the “women receiv[ing] their dead raised to life again” (35). As in Genesis 18:11, this text confirms that both men and women are identified as elders. The term is a generic title distinguishing those men and women whose age, wisdom and influence is recognized by the larger community.
The term is used again by the Apostle John in his second and third epistles—2 John 1: “The elder unto the elect lady and her children, whom I love in the truth; and not I only, but also all they that have known the truth;”; 3 John 1: “The elder unto the wellbeloved Gaius, whom I love in the truth.” As John had already been appointed to the office of apostle, it is unlikely he was using the title elder as a reference to his appointment to the office of bishop/pastor. In fact, based on the meaning of the term elder, and its use throughout the Old and New Testaments, the most natural interpretation is that John was identifying himself as an older man honored in virtue of his wisdom and influence.
The first reason Baptist churches should not appoint elders is because there is no such office to which men may be appointed. On the other hand, every church is naturally made up of a plurality of elders, for there are in each congregation household heads who serve as unofficial leaders (Tit 2:1-5; 1 Pet 5:1-5). This reason alone should be sufficient cause for churches to pause before embracing the views of the eldership advocates.
If the term elder is allowed to retain its core meaning, and if its general use throughout the Old and New Testaments is allowed to determine its meaning when applied to the early churches, then the second argument against Baptist churches appointing elders may be stated thus: The terms elder, bishop and pastor are not interchangeable.
 S. M. Stiegelbauer, “What is an Elder? What do Elders do? First Nation Elders as Teachers in Culture-Based Urban Organizations”, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto, The Canadian Journal of Native Studies XVI, 1(1996), pages 37-66.
Jared Smith served twenty years as pastor of a Strict and Particular Baptist church in Kensington (London, England). He now serves as an Evangelist in the Philippines, preaching the gospel, organizing churches and training gospel preachers.