ELDER , the name given at different times to a ruler or officer in certain political and ecclesiastical systems of government.

1. The office of elder is in its origin political and is a relic of the old patriarchal system. The unit of primitive society is always the family; the only tie that binds men together is that of kinship. "The eldest male parent," to quote Sir Henry Maine, [1] "is absolutely supreme in his household. His dominion extends to life and death and is as unqualified over his children and their houses as over his slaves." The tribe, which is a later development, is always an aggregate of families or clans, not a collection of individuals. "The union of several clans for common political action," as Robertson Smith says, "was produced by the pressure of practical necessity, and always tended towards dissolution when this practical pressure was withdrawn. The only organization for common action was that the leading men of the clans consulted together in time of need, and their influence led the masses with them. Out of these conferences arose the senates of elders found in the ancient states of Semitic and Aryan antiquity alike." [2] With the development of civilization there came a time when age ceased to be an indispensable condition of leadership. The old title was, however, generally retained, e.g. the so often mentioned in Homer, the of the Dorian states, the senatus and the patres conscripti of Rome, the sheikh or elder of Arabia, the alderman of an English borough, the seigneur (Lat. senior) of feudal France.

2. It was through the influence of Judaism that the originally political office of elder passed over into the Christian Church and became ecclesiastical. The Israelites inherited the office from their Semitic ancestors (just as did the Moabites and the Midianites, of whose elders we read in Numbers xxii. 7), and traces of it are found throughout their history. Mention is made in Judges viii. 14 of the elders of Succoth whom "Gideon taught with thorns of the wilderness and with briers." It was to the elders of Israel in Egypt that Moses communicated the plan of Yahweh for the redemption of the people (Exodus iii. 16). During the sojourn in the wilderness the elders were the intermediaries between Moses and the people, and it was out of the ranks of these elders that Moses chose a council of seventy "to bear with him the burden of the people" (Numbers xi. 16). The elders were the governors of the people and the administrators of justice. There are frequent references to their work in the latter capacity in the book of Deuteronomy, especially in relation to the following crimes - the disobedience of sons; slander against a wife; the refusal of levirate marriage; manslaughter; and blood-revenge. Their powers were gradually curtailed by (a) the development of the monarchy, to which of course they were in subjection, and which became the court of appeal in questions of law; [3] (b) the appointment of special judges, probably chosen from amongst the elders themselves, though their appointment meant the loss of privilege to the general body; (c) the rise of the priestly orders, which usurped many of the prerogatives that originally belonged to the elders. But in spite of the rise of new authorities, the elders still retained a large amount of influence. We hear of them frequently in the Persian, Greek and Roman periods. In the New Testament the members of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem are very frequently termed "elders" or , and from them the name was taken over by the Church.

3. The name "elder" was probably the first title bestowed upon the officers of the Christian Church - since the word deacon does not occur in connexion with the appointment of the Seven in Acts vi. Its universal adoption is due not only to its currency amongst the Jews, but also to the fact that it was frequently used as the title of magistrates in the cities and villages of Asia Minor. For the history of the office of elder in the early Church and the relation between elders and bishops see Presbyter.

4. In modern times the use of the term is almost entirely confined to the Presbyterian church, the officers of which are always called elders. According to the Presbyterian theory of church government there are two classes of elders - "teaching elders," or those specially set apart to the pastoral office, and "ruling elders," who are laymen, chosen generally by the congregation and set apart by ordination to be associated with the pastor in the oversight and government of the church. When the word is used without any qualification it is understood to apply to the latter class alone. For an account of the duties, qualifications and powers of elders in the Presbyterian Church see Presbyterianism.

See W.R. Smith, History of the Semites; H. Maine, Ancient Law; E. Schürer, The Jewish People in the Time of Christ; J. Wellhausen, History of Israel and Judah; G.A. Deissmann, Bible Studies, p. 154.

[1] Ancient Law, p. 126.

[2] Religion of the Semites, p. 34.

[3] There is a hint at this even in the Pentateuch, "every great matter they shall bring unto thee, but every small matter they shall judge themselves."

Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

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