The Biblical Concept of Elder -- By: Ed Glasscock

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 144:573 (Jan 1987)
Article: The Biblical Concept of Elder
Author: Ed Glasscock

The Biblical Concept of Elder

Ed Glasscock

Columbia City Bible Church, Columbia City, Indiana

The term “elder” is familiar to most Christians, but it is also misunderstood by many. To some, the elder is the pastor of a church; to others, he is one of many pastors; or to a few, he is one of a board of elders who serve with a pastor. The one constant idea in all these is that he is a leader of the church.

Such a concept, however, is not sufficient. Several factors unfold the meaning of “elder”—lexical definition, historical use of the term, and the context in which it appears. Above all, it is critical to divorce oneself from contemporary concepts of the church and to keep in mind the Jewish context in which the term “elder” was used. Often overlooked, this Jewish heritage gives a significant dimension to the meaning of “elder.” The word has a lexical meaning determined by its cultural and historical setting. Paul’s idea of what an elder was is critical to a proper understanding and function of that office in the church.

Definition of Terms

Lexical Definition

The Greek word for elder (πρεσβύτερος) refers to age (“an individual person older of two…in contrast to the younger generation οἱ πρεσβύτεροι the older ones”) or an office (“elder,

presbyter”) among both Jews and Christians.1 Πρεσβύτερος is a comparative form of πρέσβυς, which Liddell and Scott define primarily as “old man.”2 There is no doubt that the basic meaning of the word concerns “age.” Yet this is often overlooked today when men are appointed to the office of elder or pastor. The sense of “age” is even more emphasized by the comparative form.

Bornkamm notes that the comparative sense could fade but that the word would still “simply mean ‘old,’ ‘the old.’“3 Perhaps people take its root meaning for granted, but when Paul told Titus to appoint elders in every city (Titus 1:5), he obviously knew the implication of age and assumed the men appointed were of sufficient age to be called older, that is, older men in the congregation.

New Testament Considerations

What exactly constituted an “older” man is open to debate, but obviously it was in contrast to a young man. Arndt and Gingrich offer the suggestion of ...

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