The Historical Role of The Brethren Elder -- By: Jack L. Oxenrider
ATJ 15 (1982) p. 59
The Historical Role of The Brethren Elder
What is the role of the elder within the tradition and polity of The Brethren Church? The term elder is the predominant historical designation for “pastor” in The Brethren Church. When persons were/are ordained to the Brethren pastoral ministry, it is to the office of elder. Preacher, minister, bishop, elder, helper, pastor, exhorter, and reverend are various designations which have been used throughout Brethren history to refer to this role.1 The late twentieth century finds the role designated by the terms preacher, minister, elder, or pastor.
Traditional definitions and pastoral models will not suffice due to the uniqueness of Brethren polity. Brethren Church polity is Believers’ Church polity.2 The genius of Brethren polity was best captured by Alexander Mack, Jr. in the Second Preface to The Rights and Ordinances of the House of God. There he said:
These eight persons (the original Brethren) united with one another as brethren and sisters in the covenant of the cross of Jesus Christ as a church of Christian believers.3
The role of the Brethren elder should be defined by its ecclesiology, but the Brethren have no systematic ecclesiology. “The Brethren avoided creeds and confessions… .”4 The texts of Scripture constitute Brethren ecclesiology. Thus, the elder’s role is defined by Scriptural teaching and example.
The use of the term “elder” within The Brethren Church was derived from the New Testament. The Greek word presbyteros, which is translated elder, is used in three different ways: (1) The “elders of Israel”, (2) The senior/aged members of the church, and (3) A technical reference to leadership. The model for the New Testament elder is rooted within the “elders of Israel” and the Old Testament cultural reverence for their character, counsel, and ability.5
The term “elder” is used throughout the New Testament as an inclusive designation for varied functions of leadership which included apostle, prophet, evangelist, teacher, deacon, and bishop. Within the New Testament definition of the role, there is neither hierarchical nor sacerdotal distinction. Thus, the elders were not the unquestioned authorities of the church who made all decisions, controlled the organization, practice, and future direction of a congregation. Neither were they endowed with special “priestly” powers to mediate between God and man. They were people sel...
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