In previous articles we have seen that the office of elder is the office of the rule of Christ in Christ’s church. We turn our attention now to the history of the office of elder in Christ’s church.
The church of Jesus Christ “hath been from the beginning of the world” (Belgic Confession, Art. 27). Pentecost was not the birthday of the church; rather, the Spirit’s outpouring on Pentecost marked the church coming to maturity. Nor did the church begin at Sinai; there God formed Israel as His special nation, and designated her as the one in and through whom His church would be gathered. The church of Jesus Christ began at creation, and was more clearly manifested as the object of God’s grace when Adam fell.
Accordingly, in tracing the history of the office of elder in Christ’s church, we must begin in the Old Testament. Since the time of Adam, the patriarchs, and national Israel, the office has changed in its form and scope. Nevertheless, the office of elder in the New Testament church has its origins in the office of elder in the Old Testament, both before Israel was a nation and during her existence as a nation.
The first elder in the church of Christ served all alone, rather than in conjunction with a body of men. His office had no term limit to it—he served in it for life. Nor was his office called that of elder at the time he lived. Nevertheless, Adam was the first elder in the church of Christ. As the first historical type of Christ, Adam was king (as well as prophet and priest) in God’s covenant. As king, he was elder.
The organized, public worship of believers began soon after Enos was born to Seth. We read in Genesis 4:26: “And to Seth, to him also there was born a son; and he called his name Enos: then began men to call upon the name of the Lord.” As men had called upon Jehovah’s name privately or in their families to this point (Abel’s sacrifice is an instance of this), Genesis 4:26c refers to the beginning of the organized, communal worship of Jehovah by believers.¹ We read of no elders that oversaw such worship, but no doubt the heads of families functioned in such a capacity.
The first mention of a body of elders among God’s covenant people is in Exodus 3:16, 18. These verses record God speaking to Moses out of the burning bush, commanding Moses to go to Egypt, speak to Pharaoh, and work for Israel’s deliverance. God told Moses to let the Israelites know that God called him to this work. But the Israelites are a multitude of people—how is Moses to tell them all? By telling the elders: “Go, and gather the elders of Israel together, and say unto them…” (v. 16).
When this body of elders had developed, we do not know; but that such a body existed “indicates that in Israel authority lay with the elders—i.e. the heads of the families, clans, and tribes.”² It is noteworthy that this body of elders existed before Israel was officially organized as a nation at Mount Sinai (Ex. 19:5ff.). The covenant people themselves recognized their need for elders and government. While every church institute (organized congregation) needs elders, so does a body of believers who have not officially organized. It is right both that our mission fellowships have steering committees of men from within the group to help direct the work of the mission, and that “Places where as yet no consistory can be constituted shall be placed under the care of a neighboring consistory” (Art. 39, Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches).
From this time on, Scripture refers to the elders as a body of men, and indicates that this body does its work in close connection with the office of prophet in the church, which office Moses held. For Moses gathered the elders to teach them God’s will regarding the Passover (Ex. 12:21), to witness him smiting the rock to provide water (Ex. 17:5-6), and to eat with Jethro (Ex. 18:12); and Moses took seventy elders with himself, Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu into the mountain, where “they saw the God of Israel…and did eat and drink” (Ex. 24:9-11). When Moses went to Dathan and Abiram to pronounce God’s judgment on them, “the elders of Israel followed him” (Num. 16:25). This “close connection” between the offices involved Moses teaching the elders the will of God, so that the elders could enforce this will within the congregation, and involved the elders witnessing the evidences of Jehovah’s power, and the authority He gave to Moses as His prophet.
Another development in the office that took place while Israel was in the wilderness was that these elders became, by God’s direction, assistants to Moses. Two events underscored the need for Moses to have such assistants, and the fact that God appointed the elders of Israel as such. First, Jethro pronounced it not good that Moses judged the people alone, and he gave this advice: “Moreover thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness, and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens: And let them judge the people at all seasons: and it shall be, that every great matter they shall bring unto thee, but every small matter they shall judge: so shall it be easier for thyself, and they shall bear the burden with thee” (Ex. 18:21-22). Second, when Moses said to God that he was not able to bear the burden of the people alone, God told Moses to gather seventy elders of Israel to the tabernacle, and He gave this promise: “And I will come down and talk with thee there: and I will take of the spirit which is upon thee, and will put it upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with thee, that thou bear it not thyself alone” (Num. 11:16-17).
Every Reformed pastor must view his elders as his assistants. The Form for Ordination of Elders and Deacons says: “Thus we see that these sorts of ministers (ruling elders, DJK) are added to the others who preach the gospel, to aid and assist them…notwithstanding the offices always remained distinct one from the other.” And later: “…therefore it is also the duty of the elders…to be assistant with their good counsel and advice to the ministers of the Word….”³ This assistance that the elders render the pastor is not that of doing whatever the pastor assigns them to do, as if the elders are his subordinates; rather, it is assistance both in providing personal counsel to the pastor, and in caring for the spiritual needs of the flock.
Once Israel was settled in the promised land, the primary development in the office of elder was that the office was found at every level of government. Every walled city had its elders who judged matters pertaining to that city and its suburbs; every tribe had its elders; and the nation as a whole had its elders. Cornelis Van Dam writes:
On a national level, elders functioned as “elders of Israel”, e.g.,
on a tribal level as elders of the tribes,
or of a particular tribe, such as “elders of Judah”,
and more locally as elders of a clan, such as “elders of Gilead”,
or of a city, like “the elders of Jabesh”,
I Sam. 16:4. 4
The elders were not always faithful in their work, nor were they always faithful in their personal lives. The inspired Asaph penned Psalm 82 to expose the wickedness of judges in Israel, and to remind them that God was their judge. By appointing judges in the fenced cities throughout Judah, and a “supreme court” in Jerusalem, King Jehoshaphat both saw that the office continued in the southern kingdom of Judah, and reformed it according to the pattern that Moses laid down (Ex. 18; Deut. 1). When the Jews returned from captivity, the office of elder was again manifest in the promised land. According to Ezra 5 and Exra 6, the elders of the Jews led the way in the rebuilding of the temple.
The authority of Israel’s elders did not rest on their being chosen by the people.
We do not deny that the people indeed chose their elders. When Jethro advised Moses to appoint rulers of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, Moses said to Israel: “Take you wise men, and understanding, and known among your tribes, and I will make them rulers over you” (Deut. 1:13). In other words, Moses appointed those whom Israel chose. By choosing their elders, the Israelites indicated they understood these men to have authority, and would be willingly subject to that authority. Believing members of congregations today indicate the same by choosing their elders.
However, the authority of the elders did not rest on their being chosen by the people. Israel was a monarchy, a theocracy—the nation of God, ruled by God; therefore, the authority of the elders was derived from God Himself.
Through Moses (Ex. 18:25; Deut. 1:15) and Jehoshaphat (II Chron. 19), God put these men in their office. Only God could equip these men with His Spirit—and He did, in giving the seventy elders of the spirit that was upon Moses (Num. 11:17, 25).
The elders’ authority was from God; it was the authority of Christ Himself. Through the godly, faithful elders, Christ ruled His people in Israel—just as He rules believers today through the elders of the church. For this reason, Jehoshaphat could say to the judges whom he set up in Judah, “Take heed what ye do: for ye judge not for man, but for the Lord, who is with you in the judgment” (II Chron. 19:6).
Because the authority of the elders was that of God and Christ, the elders were not a law unto themselves. They were themselves under authority.
They were under the authority of God through His prophets. Faithful prophets rebuked wicked elders—think of Asaph’s words in Psalm 82. Elders who appreciated godly prophets remained faithful to their tasks. Joshua 24:31 mentions that “Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders that overlived Joshua” (see also Judg. 2:7). Samuel’s visit to Bethlehem had the effect that “the elders of the town trembled at his coming, and said, Comest thou peaceably?” (1 Samuel 16:4).
The elders were also under the authority of kings. Godly kings affected the elders for good. Solomon gathered the elders of Israel to bring the ark of Jehovah’s covenant to Jerusalem (I Kings 8:1, 3); and no doubt, the elders who heard Jehoshaphat’s charge (II Chron. 19:6ff.) took it seriously, at least at first.
At the same time, wicked kings and queens influenced the elders of the city to do wickedly. In the northern ten tribes of Israel, this was demonstrated by Jezebel’s instruction to the elders and nobles of Samaria regarding Naboth (I Kings 21:8ff.). In the kingdom of Judah, the king Joash demonstrated this too. Faithful and godly during the days of Jehoiada the high priest, Joash turned to wickedness when Jehoiada died, and the princes of Judah came to him to persuade him to permit them to sin as they pleased (II Chron. 24:17ff.).
Likewise today, every individual elder is subject to the body as a whole; and the body of elders is subject to God’s Word, and to Christ who is the King of the church. When elders bow before the Christ to whom they are subject, they often find that many of the members of the church are ready to bow before Him as well, and seek the true spiritual blessings that only He gives. But elders who despise Christ, and seek to govern the church according to their own desires, will find that there are also many in the church who willingly follow them to ruin.
An organized and comprehensive list of qualifications for the office of elder, such as is found in I Timothy 3 orTitus 1, one does not find in the Old Testament. Nevertheless, the Israelites were not ignorant of God’s will regarding what kind of men hold this office.
Jethro prescribed that Moses seek out “able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness” (Ex. 18:21). They were to be spiritually strong men (“able”), faithful men (“men of truth”), men who in hating covetousness both hated sin in all its forms and were not personally motivated by a desire for greed or personal glory.
Jehoshaphat charged the judges that they be God-fearing, and that they remember that Jehovah did not respect persons or take gifts (II Chron. 19:7). Once they are appointed to office, we do well to remind our elders what kind of men they must be.
The prophets were sent with a word of judgment not only on the wicked nation of Judah but also on her wicked princes— Jeremiah 1:18; Ezekiel 14:1ff. and Ezekiel 20:1ff.; Hosea 5:10; Micah 3:1; and Zephaniah 3:3 are just a few instances of this.
The point is that in the Old Testament, just as in the New, the chief qualification of the elders was that they were to be God-fearing, believing men.
Such men Israel was to look out from among her midst, when she chose her elders, just as the church of Jesus Christ is to do today. Through such men, God works graciously in His church, and causes His blessing to rest on the congregation.
Israel’s elders administered and enforced God’s law.
At times they did this by making decrees and prescribing penalties for violating these decrees. These decrees were intended to help the people obey God’s law. For example, during the time of Ezra a proclamation was made that all the returned captives should gather in Jerusalem, and “that whosoever would not come within three days, according to the counsel of the princes and the elders, all his substance should be forfeited, and himself separated from the congregation of those that had been carried away” (Ezra 10:8).
Primarily, however, they administered and enforced God’s law by judging those who transgressed. In his last speech to Israel, recorded in Deuteronomy, Moses gave detailed instruction regarding how the elders were to administer the law in the case of one who intentionally killed another and fled to the city of refuge (Deut. 19:11-13); unsolved murders (Deut. 21:1-9); stubborn and rebellious children who did not turn from their way although chastened by their parents (Deut. 21:18-21); a husband who alleged that his wife was not a virgin at the time of their marriage (Deut. 22:13-21); and the case of the man who refused to marry his brother’s widow in order to raise up children for his brother (Deut. 25:5-10; see also Ruth 4:1-12).
Still today, the work of elders is to administer the law of God, pronouncing upon penitent sinners the word of forgiveness and grace that God pronounces, and upon impenitent sinners the word of judgment that God Himself speaks.
¹ Such is the common interpretation of Genesis 4:26c. Robert C. Harbach, for example, writes: “The idea is that from the earliest antiquity men regularly worshiped God in the communion of saints” (Studies in the Book of Genesis [Jenison, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1986], p. 108). Also, C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch write: “We have here an account of the commencement of that worship of God which consists in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving, or in the acknowledgment and celebration of the mercy and help of Jehovah” (Commentary on the Old Testament, transl. James Martin [Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, May 1986 reprint], vol. 1, p. 120).
² W. H. Gispen, Exodus, transl. Ed van der Maas (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982), p. 56.
³ The Confessions and the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches (Grandville, MI: Protestant Reformed Churches in America, 2005), pp. 290, 291.
4 Cornelis Van Dam, The Elder: Today’s Ministry Rooted in All of Scripture (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2009), p. 32.