Where Did the Idea of Elders Come From?

John Piper

In the Judaism of Jesus’ day the elders of Israel were still dominant. The most frequent use of the word “elder” in the New Testament refers to the Jewish elders who opposed Jesus during his lifetime. Within the gospels and Acts “elders” are most often viewed as forming a closely knit group with the “chief priests.” Again and again we read of “the chief priests and elders of the people” (Matthew 21:23; Matthew 26:3, Matthew 26:47; Matthew 27:1, etc.). The term elder was probably very broad and would include members of the scribes as well as the Pharisees and Sadducees (cf. “traditions of the elders” Matthew 15:2; Acts 22:6).

Therefore it is evident that the Judaism out of which the early church emerged was one in which elders played a distinctive and well-known leadership role. This familiar role in Jewish society was no doubt where the early church got the title “elder.” But just what the character and function of the early Christian elder was can only be determined by studying the New Testament texts. It would be wrong to assume that the Jewish concept was taken over with no modifications, because the church is not simply a carbon copy of Judaism or of Old Testament Israel.

It is worth noting in passing that the office of priest, so prominent in the Old Testament, is not taken over by the early church. Prophets and elders (cf. Ezekiel 7:26) have their counterparts in the church and these titles are used. But there is no official counterpart to the priest, for, as the New Testament teaches, the whole church is a “holy priesthood” (1 Peter 2:5), or a “royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9). We who are in Christ have all “been made priests to his God” (Revelation 1:6). Each individual has access to the holy of holies, God’s throne of grace, because of the once-for-all atoning death of Christ. No officer in the church has the function of mediating between the believer and God.

Taken from "Christian Elders in the New Testament" by John Piper. © Desiring God. Website: desiringGod.org (used by permission).

Originally published September 07, 2010.

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