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Updated on October 22, 2010

An Elder, in ancient Judaism and in many Christian churches, is one of a body of officers charged with executive, judicial, and pastoral responsibilities. Selection to the office has always depended more upon experience and competence than upon age. Hebrew communities in pre-exilic times were supervised by elders (Judges 8:14; I Samuel 8:4; II Kings 10:1). Traditionally the institution is ascribed to Moses (Numbers 11:16-17), and from him the succession is traced through the prophets and the scribes of the time of Ezra. In the New Testament period the elders were members of the supreme court, or Sanhedrin, at Jerusalem (Matthew 26:3; Acts 4:5), and in each Jewish community there was a local Sanhedrin that was responsible for the interpretation and enforcement of the Old Testament law. Vacancies were filled by vote of the existing members, and new members were ordained by the laying on of hands.

The early Christian churches adopted the office and function of elders, who, in association with the Apostles, governed the church (Acts 11:30, 14:23, 15:6, 20:17). By 150 A.D., the elders (Greek presbyteroi) formed the second order of ministry in the threefold hierarchy of bishops, priests, and deacons. This arrangement of ministerial orders still exists in the Orthodox Eastern, Roman Catholic, and Anglican churches. The Presbyterian churches, following John Calvin's view that there was originally parity between bishops and elders, are governed by presbyteries consisting of two types of elders: (1) teaching elders, who are ordained pastors, and (2) ruling elders, who are laymen associated with the pastors in the discipline of local churches. Among the Methodists, the term "elder" is used of ordained clergymen. In the Mormon Church, the elders comprise the various orders of the priesthood of Melchizedek.


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