Christianity Knowledge Base

A religious elder (in Greek, πρεσβυτερος [presbyteros]) is valued for his or her wisdom, in part for their age, on the grounds that the older one is then the more one is likely to know. The concept of an elder was common in parts of the world where what is now called civilization had taken over. Elders are typical of societies where oral history plays a large part; in societies with patrilineal descent, elders are frequently male, whereas in societies with matrilineal descent, elders are often female. However, both men and women may be elders of a particular society. The sections below look at the concept of eldership held in various religious denominations.


Presbyterian Church (USA)[]

In the Presbyterian Church (USA), elders are "ordained lay" people (Ministers of Word and Sacrament are also elders, though they have a different function). They form the session, which is in effect, a board of directors for their congregation.

Elders are chosen by the people. Together with ministers of the Word and Sacrament, they exercise leadership, government, and discipline and have responsibilities for the life of a particular church as well as the church at large, including ecumenical relationships. They shall serve faithfully as members of the session. (G-10.0102) When elected commissioners to higher governing bodies, elders participate and vote with the same authority as ministers of the Word and Sacrament, and they are eligible for any office.

Elders should be persons of faith, dedication, and good judgment. Their manner of life should be a demonstration of the Christian gospel, both within the church and in the world. (G-6.0106)

It is the duty of elders, individually and jointly, to strengthen and nurture the faith and life of the congregation committed to their charge. Together with the pastor, they should encourage the people in the worship and service of God, equip and renew them for their tasks within the church and for their mission in the world, visit and comfort and care for the people, with special attention to the poor, the sick, the lonely, and those who are oppressed. They should inform the pastor and session of those persons and structures which may need special attention. They should assist in worship. (See W-1.4003, W-2.3011-.3012, W-3.1003, W-3.3616, and W-4.4003.) They should cultivate their ability to teach the Bible and may be authorized to supply places which are without the regular ministry of the Word and Sacrament. In specific circumstances and with proper instruction, specific elders may be authorized by the presbytery to administer the Lord's Supper in accord with G-11.0103z. Those duties which all Christians are bound to perform by the law of love are especially incumbent upon elders because of their calling to office and are to be fulfilled by them as official responsibilities.


An Elder is someone who has been ordained by a bishop to the ministry of Word, Sacrament, and Order. The office of Elder, then is what most people tend to think of as the pastoral, priestly, clergy office. In most Methodist churches, ordination to the office of Elder is open to both women and men.


In some Protestant churches, an elder is a senior member of an individual church who is a lay and non-salaried minister. This is a defining characteristic of a Presbyterian church, which draws its name from the Greek language for 'elder'. The elders provide either an advisory or a ruling role in the decision process of local issues; though most modern churches now emphasize the participation of all confirmed members.

Most Baptist churches do not recognize elder as a separate office; it is commonly considered synonymous with that of deacon or pastor. This is not universal in Baptist circles, however, and there are many Baptist churches which are elder-led.

In many Lutheran churches, an elder is a lay leader of the congregation, synonymous with a deacon. In some Lutheran churches, the elder reads the First Lesson (from the Old Testament or Acts of the Apostles) and/or the Second Lesson (from the Epistles). Larger congregations may have more than one elder.

Shakers and Bretheren[]

Among the Shakers, Elders and Eldresses were leaders in specific areas. Two Elders and Eldresses headed the central Shaker ministry at Mount Lebanon, New York and dealt with both spiritual and temporal matters. Other pairs of elders and eldresses headed groups of Shaker communities, while others were spiritual leaders of smaller groups within the communities.

In early 19th century Great Britain groups of believers began to gather in what they referred to as Biblical simplicity. Under the leadership of such men as J. N. Darby and George Mueller these groups began to meet with no clergy to share the Lord's Supper.

The most defining element of these churches is the total rejection of the concept of clergy. Rather, in keeping with the doctrine of the Priesthood of the Believer, they view all Christians as being ordained by God to serve and are therefore ministers. Leadership is by example and by the recognition of their abilities by those they lead.

Regardless of great efforts to prevent it, splits happened, with the two largest divisions being commonly referred to as Open Brethren and Exclusive Brethren. Among other differences their view of elders vary.

Open Bretheren are so called because they serve the Lord's Supper to any Christian who wishes to fellowship with them, their churches are led by elders—men meeting the Biblical qualifications found in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9. These men are the spiritual leadership of the church.

Exclusive Bretheren are so named for their practice of serving the Lord's Supper exclusively to those who are part of their own particular group, agreeing with them on various doctrinal positions.

Most exclusive groups believe the church to have been in ruins between the death of the apostles and their own time. Since no truly apostolic authority exists to appoint elders the church has none. Instead they recognize leading brothers who demonstrate maturity and leadership ability.

Restoration Movement[]

In churches growing out of the American Restoration Movement (or Campbell-Stone Movement), namely the Church of Christ, Independent Christian Church, and Disciples of Christ, elders are laity who form the major government of the church. In the Church of Christ, all elders are still male. In this group, the elders are generally the entire governing unit of the congregation; they hire and fire ministers, determine Sunday school curriculum, and are generally the trustees of the physical building and other real estate of the congregation as well. This arrangement is generally followed to some extent in the Independent Christian Church as well; in more recent years the function of the eldership in the Disciples of Christ has been more of an advisory and ceremonial role (serving the Lord's Supper, for example) and a separate board has been constituted to serve in conjunction with the minister in the church's governance.

See also[]

  • Ordination of women
  • political elder
  • Ministers and elders in the Church of Scotland

External links[]

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