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August 24, 2016

A History of Eldership

There is renewed interest today in the idea of eldership. Eldership refers to a role a person takes within a group or larger community. This person is called an elder and is someone who exhibits certain qualities and traits that help another individual, group or larger community in time of need. The Hebrew zah-kehn, the Greek presbuteros and the Latin senex mean the same as the English senior, elder, or aged. The English word Sir or Sire, the Spanish Senor, the Italian Senior are derived from senex and show the respect the elder was attributed.

The Greek word presbuteros, from which is derived the word Presbyterian, refers in the Old Testament to age and experience translated to English as ‘elder’. Some biblical scholar contend that the word bishop, from the Greek episkopos, overseer, is used interchangeably with the word ‘elder’.

Eldership as a role and position within a human community started within the tribal traditions. There we find an emphasis on elders as guides and leaders. Among the Australian Aborigines men slowly move into the status of eldership once they show signs of age, such as gray hair. This indicates that they are experienced and wise and are fit to lead the tribe and teach the young. Elders in the tribe also guide the young with issues such as the selection of jobs for which they see them fit, whether someone has the ability and talent to be a good teacher or the skills to be a hunter. They also resolve tribal concerns and are expected to make final decisions about the direction the tribe will take on various issues.

In the Native American tradition, elders are placed in the highest position of honor and respect a tribe can offer its members. The traits generally associated with elders in this tradition are 1. knowledge, 2. wisdom, 3. counseling skills, 4. loving heart, 5. compassion, 6. willingness to teach, 7. even temperedness, 8. patience, 9. willingness to take on responsibility.

More recently, the term eldership is also found within the Old and New Testament. Within this religious context an elder was thought of as a helper, someone who assisted the priest with communal tasks and responsibilities. The traits of eldership were outlined quite specifically in this tradition. Elders were to be:
1. gentle, not violent
2. not greedy for money
3. respectable
4. loyal to their partner
5. temperate and self-controlled
6 hospitable
7. moderate with alcohol
8. parents who raise their children a believers
9. willing to lead others
10. willing to oversee others
11. not recently converted
12. those with a reputation with outsiders
13. those who love what is good
14. disciplined
15. those who held steady against false beliefs
16. those who led an exemplary life.

In the New Testament the concept of ‘elder’ was sometimes used interchangeably with bishop, overseer and pastor and shows the status an elder held in this tradition. Elders are described as teacher, leader, shepherd and ruler with qualities such as wisdom, maturity, knowledge, honor and balance. They were considered representatives of the people because they were ‘called by God’. The necessity of desire and joy in being an elder is stressed in biblical scripture. It emphasized that elders were elders not only because they were appointed but also because they themselves desired and enjoyed being an elder.

Another important aspect of eldership was that elders, though entrusted with the welfare of God’s people, were seen as humans. This meant that they were prone to errors and frailties as all other humans. They were not infallible. Additionally, scripture makes a distinction between elders who ‘rule’ and elders who ‘teach’. Though scholars have different opinions on this matter, some argue that this distinction was made because of the recognition that some elders were more qualified to rule whereas others were better teachers and preachers. The ability to rule and the ability to teach were seen as distinct qualities, that is they were not understood as complementary. Whereas little is mentioned about how ‘ruling’ elders were to practice for their task, ‘teaching’ elders were definitely called upon to prepare for their role:

“The one elder who, by the force of circumstances, is obliged to pass through a process of preparation to fit himself for his work, finds himself in a position different from the other elders; he has been subjected to a long course of intellectual and moral training; he adopts the pastoral work as the business and pleasure of his life. ”

This a very brief synopsis of the role elders held and in some important traditions and what qualities were generally associated with them. Even though there are expected differences within different cultures, the overall role and qualities of elders seems to transcend time and space.