June 23, 2013 Q & A

The office of elder


I have been thinking on the issue of the office of an elder and have heard much recently on “lay elders.” Is this biblical?


The terms “lay elder” and “ruling elder” are virtually synonymous in Presbyterian and Reformed circles. Other Christian groups may use the terms differently.

The concept of eldership is clearly established in the Bible. The tribal leaders of the nation of Israel were designated “elders.” Numbers 11:25 describes how certain of the tribal elders were endued with God’s Spirit and “prophesied,” that is, gave evidence of being controlled by the Spirit. In this fashion they were to lead the people after the manner of Moses.

In the New Testament the Apostles and their co-workers appointed elders in the churches. In Titus 1:5 the Apostle Paul says, “For this cause I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed you ...” These elders were charged to “rule” or direct the life of the local congregations.

Some elders were especially gifted in teaching the Word of God and were distinguished from other elders. 1 Timothy 5:17, “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine.”

Those who were set apart to “labor in the word” were ultimately given a status separate from the other ruling elders. In The Orthodox Presbyterian Church they are normally called “ministers.” “Teaching elder” is another frequently-employed term.

The other elders, who are not charged with preaching and teaching, are considered part of the laity (the people) as over against the clergy (learned ones) who teach the people. This is more of a utilitarian distinction than anything else. In any event “lay elders” are those elders who do not regularly handle the Scriptures in the manner of seminary-trained ministers.

In the Presbyterian churches both ruling and teaching elders are ordained, that is, they are specially set apart for holy duties. We believe in “parity” or equality of the eldership. Sometimes ruling elders do exhort the people from the Word and teaching elders regularly participate in governing the congregation.

The Form of Government of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (X.1) reads as follows:

Christ who has instituted government in his church has furnished some men, beside the ministers of the Word, with gifts for government, and with commission to execute the same when called thereto. Such officers, chosen by the people from among their number, are to join with the ministers in the government of the church, and are properly called ruling elders.



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