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No. 39: Eldership and Maturity, Part 1

Rite Reasons, Studies in Worship, No. 39
Copyright (c) 1995 Biblical Horizons
May, 1995

I have lived and worked in Presbyterian circles since I became convinced of the Reformed faith over twenty years ago. Thus, it is easiest and most appropriate for me to issue criticisms and to call for reformation in the Presbyterian churches. Both Scripture and my own experience, and my observation of the experiences of others, have led me to a conviction that Presbyterian church government as it usually exists today is seriously awry from the Biblical pattern, but not really any more so than other options available at present. Thus, while I shall write critically of current-day Presbyterianism in this essay, what I have to say will impinge on other systems of government as well. As a Presbyterian, however, I feel I should deal with the “beam in my own eye” first.

My purpose in this essay is to investigate the Biblical meaning of eldership, especially as it relates to the Church.

Words for “Elder”

The word “elder” in the Hebrew Bible is zaqen. In the Aramaic of the book of Ezra it is sib. In the Greek Bible, including the New Testament, it is presbuteros. All of these words mean the same thing: old man, aged man.

The Hebrew noun zaqan means “beard,” and of course any man who is physically mature might sprout a beard. While this noun is linked to the noun zaqen, it does not govern the meaning of the latter. An elder is not simply someone with a beard. Rather, the verb zaqen always means “be old.” Often it is found in the phrase, “old and advanced in years” (Gen. 24:1; Josh. 13:1, 23:2). A glance at a concordance will show that every time it is used it refers to a very old man or woman. The adjective zaqen, from which the substantive noun zaqen comes, means “old,” and the noun means “old man, elder.” A gathering of elders is, in the first instance, a gathering of the old men, the white-hairs, the grandfathers.

The Aramaic word sib in Ezra 5:5, 9; 6:7, 8, 14 means “old man.” It is close to the Hebrew verb sib, which means “to be grayheaded” and is found only in 1 Samuel 12:2 and Job 15:10. In the latter verse, it is parallel to the phrase “very aged.”

In commenting on the Old Testament usage of zaqen, Jack P. Lewis has this to say: “zaqen as a substantive, usually plural, is a technical term occurring about one hundred times. Only the context can determine whether old men or the ruling body [of elders�JBJ] is intended in any particular case. The OT is not clear concerning the age required to qualify one to be a zaqen or details of appointment to the group.” [R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, and Bruce K. Waltke, eds., Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), �574, p. 249.]

While it is true that no age limit is specified, we shall see that the age of 50 is indicated as the bottom limit. Also, there is no way a man before at least that age could be considered “old and advanced in years.” Clearly, elders are old men.

The Greek term presbuteros derives from Greek words such as presbutes meaning “old man.” The Greek particle pres- means “old.” Its usage in the Greek translation of the Old Testament clearly associates it with the equivalent Hebrew terms. It means “old man.”

Scenes of Elders

As always in tribal societies, there were already elders among the Hebrews before Moses organized the Israelite society at Mount Sinai, and these men led the people (Ex. 3:16, 18; 4:29; 12:21). Seventy of these elders were associated with Moses as the supreme court of Israel (Ex. 24:1, 9, 14; Num. 11:16-30). Civil elders ruled local communities, and are sometimes called “elders of the gate” because they guarded access, both legal and physical, to the towns in which they held court.

It is hard to believe that in a society like this men in their 20s, 30s, or even 40s would be considered “elders” and thereby be eligible for such positions of oversight. We read in 1 Kings 12 that Rehoboam, himself 41 years old, forsook the counsel of the elders and hearkened to the words of the younger men with whom he had grown up. An elder is somebody well over 41 years of age!

It seems clear that there were also ecclesiastical elders. We read in Numbers that the Levites and priests could assume their duties at the age of 30, but then could retire at the age of 50. We are not told what they did after their retirement, and clearly such a retirement did not apply to the high priest because Aaron was 83 when he became high priest. Surely such elder Levites and priests would become overseers of the priestly duties and of the Levitical cities. Later on, when David reorganized the worship and set up 24 chief priests, we can assume that these overseers were also older men, past the age of 50.

With all of this in the background, it seems strange to assume that the elders in the New Testament churches were younger men who simply held the "office of elder.”

Overseers

It is often felt that the word episcopos, “bishop” or “overseer” (the Greek-English form of the Latin-English “supervisor”), is simply equivalent to “elder.” But that is not quite true. Hebrews 12:15 teaches that we are to oversee one another in the Church, “overseeing that no one fails to obtain the grace of God.” In 1 Peter 2:25, Jesus is called the Chief Overseer of our souls. In Acts 20:28, Paul tells the elders that he has summoned that they are to oversee the Church. In 1 Timothy 3:1ff., Paul writes of the office of overseer as something all men might aspire to, and proceeds to list qualifications, as he also does in Titus 1:7.

The association of elders with overseers in Acts 20:28, however, does indicate that anyone with the office of overseer should be an old man.

Immediate Implications

Modern Presbyterians object to the idea that a minister can transubstantiate bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ with his hands. They rightly see this as magic. Sadly, they practice the same thing when they think they can make a man into an elder by laying hands on him. Only years of experience can make a man an elder, whether a teaching or a ruling elder. Ordaining men in their 20s, 30s, or even 40s to the fullness of the ministry is a serious mistake.

Deacons

Modern Presbyterianism has invented the office of deacon. The deacons are a group of men, they say, who handle the physical side of Church life: maintaining the property, carrying out works of charity, and controlling the money. This notion is based on Acts 6, taken out of its Biblical context.

In reality, and this is pretty obvious from the Bible as a whole, a deacon is an assistant and/or apprentice elder. Joshua was Moses’ deacon; Elisha was Elijah’s deacon; Gehazi was Elisha’s deacon; Baruch was Jeremiah’s deacon. The Twelve were Jesus’ deacons, and after they became elders, they enlisted other men as their deacons.

The deacons of Acts 6 took care of physical needs under the oversight and direction of the elders, the apostles. The diaconate is not a separate o_ce, but the training ground for the o_ce of overseer. Elisha “poured water on the hands of Elijah” (2 Ki. 3:11). According to 1 Kings 20:21, Elisha “ministered to” Elijah. The Twelve fed the 5000 while Jesus taught them, and then cleaned up the loaves and fishes.

Thus, a deacon is someone who is set aside by the Church to help the elders. Each elder should have a deacon. The deacon mows the elder’s grass, takes his car to the shop to be fixed, and does anything else necessary to help the elder do his job. This is a far cry from the modern “board of deacons,” who all too often pride themselves in “controlling the money.”

Teaching and Ruling

For many years I was persuaded, based on studying the New Testament in isolation from the whole Bible, of the modern view that there is only one office of elder. All overseers rule, I maintained, and all teach in one form or another. That is quite true, but is not all there is to say about the matter.

The fact is that the Old Testament shows a clear separation between church functions and state functions. The “elders of the gate” were civil officers, while the older Levites and priests were ecclesiastical officers. The New Testament does not change any of this. Rather, what happens is that the New Creation comes, and there is a need for both offices to continue in the context of the Church. Later, as the Church matures, there may also be civil elders. In the Church herself, however, there are interpersonal conflicts that can be settled by ruling elders, and there is also a need for experts in the Bible and doctrine to oversee the worship and teaching of the Church.

Does a man have to be aged before taking up tasks in the Church? By no means. We should have ruling deacons and teaching deacons. A teaching deacon would be a younger man appointed to teach and lead in worship in a local church, but because of his relative youth, he would be under the oversight of the older men in the presbytery (the wider association of churches). In meetings of the presbytery, such teaching deacons would have the right to speak and contribute to the discussion, but when it came time to vote, perhaps only the elders, the old men, would cast a vote. Similarly, ruling deacons would sit in with ruling elders and the local teaching elder or deacon, and contribute to the leadership of the church in the discussion, but perhaps not in the vote. Perhaps only elders (teaching and ruling overseers) should have the power to pronounce excommunication. We shall return to this matter of voting later.

A shadow of this truth is seen in the traditional form of Presbyterian address. When a man speaks in the presbytery, he addresses the assembly as “fathers and brethren,” showing that some of the men are indeed much older and should be accorded more respect and their words given greater weight.

Further Biblical Confirmation

The Bible places a tremendous emphasis on growing up and becoming mature, aged, and wise. When we see this, we realize how Satanic the “sixties” were, with their slogan: “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.” Let’s briefly review the Biblical evidence.

1. Adam and Eve were created physically mature, but infants in wisdom. That is why the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was forbidden to them. This tree bestowed an investiture with rulership and judgeship, and they were not ready for it. When they seized the fruit, they seized the robe of the elder and judge, a heavy robe that crushed them. For more information on this subject, see my essay, “The Dominion Trap,” in Biblical Horizons No. 15. Also consider the following passages: 2 Samuel 14;17, 20; 2 Samuel 19:27; 1 Kings 3:9; Deuteronomy 1:39; 2 Samuel 19:35; which show that the phrase “knowledge of good and evil” means the ability and right to pass judgment.

2. Passing judgment requires that we have experience and have acquired wisdom. Hebrews 5:14 says, “Solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves in the knowledge of good and evil.”

3. In Israel, God set out certain ages for certain stages of responsibility. A man remained a “child,” under-age and under his parents’ authority, until the age of 20. At that time, he was enrolled as a separate member of the Kingdom (Num. 1:3). A list of the stages of life, for official purposes, is given in Leviticus 27:3-7, to wit:

1 month to 5 years – infant

5 years to 20 years – youth

20 years to 60 years – adult

Over 60 years – elder

4. A Levite might take up certain preliminary responsibilities at the age of 25 (Num. 8:24).

5. Levites and priests were not to enter into full service until the age of 30 (Num. 4:3). This is an important age in the Bible. We are told pointedly that Joseph did not become vice-regent of Egypt until he was 30. David did not become vice-regent of Israel (under God and under God’s prophet Nathan) until 30. Jesus did not begin His work until He was 30. (Gen. 41:46; 2 Sam. 5:4; Lk. 3:23).

6. But clearly, a 30-year old man is not an elder. “Elder” means old man. The Bible refers to the hoary head. John in Revelation 1 sees Jesus as an old man, with white hair.

7. Numbers 4:3-47 and 8:25 tell us that Levites were to retire from the work of carrying the heavy furniture of the Tabernacle at the age of 50. If this is merely a practical requirement, because the men are getting old, it is superfluous. “All Scripture is profitable for doctrine…for instruction in righteousness…for good works.” It seems clear that at the age of 50 the Levites became elders, wise men, ready to engage in the oversight of the spiritual life of Israel. Since the priests were Levites, we should draw from this that Levites continued in religious work after the age of 50, but of a more doctrinal and judicial sort, just as the priests continued to teach and minister after the age of 50.

8. The Jews challenged Jesus, “You are not yet 50, yet you claim to have seen Abraham” (John 8:57). I submit that it was obvious to the eye that Jesus was in His early 30s. His hair and beard were still black. Why, then, the reference to 50? I think it is because the Jews saw that Jesus claimed to be a teacher, but it was not normal for a man to be a teacher, in the way Jesus was, before the age of 50.

9. Paul tells Timothy not to let men despise his youth (1 Tim. 4:12). By this time Timothy was probably close to 40, yet is still considered a youth.

10. Finally, consider Leviticus 27:7 again: Here the age of eldership is 60. Thus, it seems that a man might start his eldering tasks at 50, but not really be considered a full elder until 60.

Now, how do we put all this together? In the past, I have written, because it seemed so to me, that men should not be ordained as elders in the Church before the age of 30. From our study that much is obvious. Now, however, I believe that 30 is too young for the eldership. As a man of 45 I can assure you that men are not elders before they are at least 50!

Let’s notice something important about those entering service in their 30s. They did exercise rule, yes, but only under authority. Joseph was second to Pharaoh. David was second to Yahweh, and Yahweh spoke through the prophets, like Nathan. (Indeed, the great condition of the Kingdom was that the King must always harken to the High King, who spoke through the prophets. Saul did not do so; David did.) The laboring Levites were under the authority of the elder Levites. Timothy was under Paul. And Jesus stresses, right in John 8, that He spoke and did only what the Father commanded Him (Jn. 8:28). In other words, Jesus was not acting as an elder during His earthly ministry.

What about the apostles? They were about Jesus’ age, and therefore not elders when they began their work in Acts 2. This is quite true, but the New Testament stresses that the Holy Spirit worked with these men in a direct, miraculous way. Thus, before ad 70 the church was under the higher oversight of the Elder Spirit in a special way. It is only as we move along in the New Testament that we find men called “elders” and set aside as “overseers.” (Some of these men, of course, were old men who had been Godly elders and overseers in the synagogue before moving over into the Church.)

I submit that only when a king became an older man, an elder, did he begin to have the moral right to become more independent. This perhaps is why we sometimes see older kings put their sons on the throne with them as co-regents.

The Bible associates elders with overseers, those who watch over the Church. Thus, overseers should be at least 50 years old.

Let me summarize what I think the Bible is teaching us, as we have considered it thus far:

1. Nobody should become a voting member of the Church before the age of 20.

2. Nobody should become a deacon, in the sense of an assistant and apprentice, before the age of 25.

3. Nobody should be ordained as a teacher, under the authority of elders, before the age of 30.

4. Nobody should be made a ruling elder in a local church, or a teaching “bishop” overseeing several churches, before the age of 50. The rule of thumb should be 60, but no one should become an elder before 50.

(to be concluded)