What Is an Elder?

The Biblical and Church Office of Elder

Mark Bowden / Getty Images

The Hebrew word for elder means "beard," and literally speaks of an older person. In the Old Testament elders were heads of households, prominent men of the tribes, and leaders or rulers in the community.

New Testament Elders

The Greek term, presbýteros, meaning "older" is used in the New Testament. From its earliest days, the Christian church followed the Jewish tradition of appointing spiritual authority in the church to older, more mature men of wisdom.

In the book of Acts, the Apostle Paul appointed elders in the early church, and in 1 Timothy 3:1–7 and Titus 1:6–9, the office of elder was instituted. The biblical requirements of an elder are described in these passages. Paul says an elder must have a good reputation and be beyond reproach. He should also have these qualities:

  • Be faithful to his wife.
  • No heavy drinking
  • No violence and should be gentle and not quarrelsome or quick-tempered
  • Enjoys having guests
  • Able to teach
  • His children respect and obey him
  • Is not a new believer, but has a strong belief
  • Is not arrogant
  • Is not dishonest with money and does not love money
  • Exercises discipline and self-control

There were usually two or more elders per congregation. The elders taught and preached the doctrine of the early church, including training and appointing others. They were also given the role of correcting people who weren't following the approved doctrine. They cared for the physical needs of their congregation as well as the spiritual needs.

Example: James 5:14. "Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord." (NIV)

Elders in Denominations Today

In churches today, elders are spiritual leaders or shepherds of the church. The term can mean different things depending on the denomination and even on the congregation. While it's always a title of honor and duty, it might mean someone who serves an entire region or someone with specific duties in one congregation.

The position of elder may be an ordained office or a lay office. They may have duties as pastors and teachers or provide general oversight on financial, organizational, and spiritual matters. Elder may be a title given as an officer of a religious group or church board member. An elder may have administrative duties or may perform some liturgical duties and assist the ordained clergy.

In some denominations, bishops fulfill the roles of elders. These include Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, Methodist, and Lutheran faiths. Elder is an elected permanent officer of the Presbyterian denomination, with regional committees of elders governing the church.

Denominations that are more congregational in governance may be led by a pastor or a council of elders. These include Baptists and Congregationalists. In the Churches of Christ, congregations are led by male elders according to the Biblical guidelines.

In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the title of Elder is given to men ordained in the Melchizedek priesthood and male missionaries of the church. In the Jehovah's Witnesses, an elder is a man appointed to teach the congregation, but it is not used as a title.