Elder Does Not Mean Old, What Then Does it Mean?

Elder is a word with a rich history in the Bible. In the Old Testament an elder served in civic governance, liturgical leadership, and in advisory capacities to religious leaders like Moses. In the New Testament there are two words that are generally translated as “elder”: presbuteros from which we get our word “presbyter”, and episcopos which denotes the role of an “overseer” of God’s people. Though the term does have a connotation of wisdom acquired through age and life experience, there is no specific age qualification for being an elder given in Scripture. At Intown, we’ve had elders in their early 30’s, which oddly enough would be considered kind of old in New Testament times because people didn’t live nearly as long as they do today.

But, having gotten the age discrimination out of the way, what does qualify one to be an elder? In many churches we would immediately begin by eliminating half of the adult population because women are frequently disqualified from serving in this role. Not at Intown, and not in the RCA. (Click here for more on that.) Though we do not currently have any women elders (actually we only have one elder period!) we certainly hope that multiple women will be nominated.

Having set aside age and gender, how should you go about deciding who to nominate to this office? Well, I would submit that there are both biblical and Intown-specific guidelines.

Biblical: There are two lists in the New Testament that outline the kind of character that a person should possess before being elected. You can read those lists here and here. Broadly speaking, s/he should be above reproach, temperate, prudent (having self-control), hospitable, not addicted to wine (or other substances), not violent, but gentle, not contentious, free from the love of money, having one’s home in order (personal life is not characterized by chaos), a commitment to marital fidelity, respectable (enjoying a good reputation with those in AND outside the church), free from an over-eagerness or inordinate desire for power or position.

Local: Paul certainly didn’t mean these lists to be exhaustive and he would likely have written the list a little differently if he were writing to a church other than Ephesus. So, it’s certainly proper for Intown to have a secondary list of characteristics and aptitudes that we would hope would be present in all of our leaders.

An elder should love not only the larger church wherever it exists but have a particular love for Intown Church. They should be enthusiastic about our local mission and we shouldn’t be surprised that they show up regularly for Intown events and bring others because they are excited to connect more people to our community. And, we are looking for people who take initiative in the spiritual lives of others and pursue opportunities to lead people toward Jesus.

In other words, elders are leaders, leaders who cultivate trust and actively serve others in the name of Christ. While a person may need a formalized role to truly flourish as a leader, and a person can and should grow in leadership capacity while in office, we shouldn’t expect the office to create a leader. Nominees should already have some evidence of leadership capacity and we should be able to discern the presence of ministerial fruit in their lives - remembering of course that fruit of this kind comes in all shapes and sizes. Maybe this could be determined by asking “does this person serve our community in tangible ways?” Additionally, because this person is expected to serve a term of three years with the likelihood that s/he would serve additional terms, I encourage you to nominate persons who lives are reasonably settled in the Portland area and thus could be expected to be at Intown for the foreseeable future.

That’s probably enough to consider for now, but please be thinking and praying about persons who you feel might exhibit these qualifications and characteristics so that you can be prepared to nominate on Sunday the 11th.