Paul indicates that he became an apostle sometime after the original apostles were commissioned and hints that he may have been the last person in the church to hold that title (1 Cor. 15:8–10; Gal. 1:13-24).
The New Testament tells us that when the apostles planted churches they appointed elders to govern the congregations in their absence (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5; see also Acts 20:17; 2 John; 3 John 1). The Greek word for elder is presbyteros — literally, “an older person,” “a wise person,” “a leader.” It is the basis of the name of our church and its form of government. In the Old Testament an elder was one of a group of wise men who were elected or appointed to rule a city. The term is used in the New Testament as a title for Jewish leaders (see Matt. 15:2; 16:21; Mark 7:3, 5; Acts 4:5, 8, 23; 6:12; Heb. 11:2). Archaeologists have discovered benches outside excavated city gates in Israel where elders actually sat and made their rulings.
Although it is not certain what the elders’ responsibilities were in the early church, their position was clearly one of honor. 1 Timothy (5:17–22 and 6:3–19) indicates that they were worthy of being paid and were expected to exhibit the highest moral character. Elders were to be compassionate, humble, and eager to serve the congregation like a shepherd, following the example of Christ (1 Peter 5:1–10). They were often engaged in a healing ministry (James 5:13–18).
In the Presbyterian Church there traditionally have been two kinds of presbyters: the teaching elders or pastors, and the lay elders (ruling elders), who are elected members of sessions. Together, through shared powers and divided responsibilities, they govern the church. According to the “Historic Principles of Church Government” adopted by the General Assembly in 1797 (G-1.0400), the Presbyterian Church is a democratic one in which the representatives of the whole govern every part of the church, the majority rules, and decisions (based on “the collected wisdom and united voice of the whole Church”) are founded on the example of the apostles and the practice of the early church.
As Presbyterians, we believe that the Holy Spirit works best in our church through the will of the people as represented by its elders, rather than in a top-down fashion through the command of a priest or pastor or through the direction of an executive presbyter, superintendent, or bishop.
Even though the elders are given a great deal of power, a heavy responsibility is also laid on them. Elders must not be power hungry, petty, or vindictive but must be spiritually wise, committed primarily to following Jesus Christ as his servants, and of high moral character (G-6.0106, .0303). The session is not a training ground for new members or new Christians, for gossips or people who want to control others; elders must be those who are spiritually and psychologically mature and are more concerned for the health of the church and the work of God’s kingdom than they are for their own positions or reputations. Elders must be men and women who are not only committed to Presbyterian principles of government; they must also be those who are constantly open to change and the fresh breezes of the Holy Spirit, which give the church vitality and new opportunities to do God’s work.
Our Constitution tells us that church officers in general, and elders in particular, “should be persons of strong faith, dedicated discipleship, and love of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Their manner of life should be a demonstration of the Christian gospel in the church and in the world. They must have the approval of God’s people and the concurring judgment of a governing body of the church” (G-6.0106; also 6.0202 and .0303). Elders and deacons are particularly called upon to “perform by the law of love” (6.0304) and “be persons of spiritual character, honest repute, of exemplary lives, brotherly and sisterly love, warm sympathies and sound judgment” (6.0401).
Elders are elected to serve on the session for three-year terms, with the possibility of reelection to a second term, provided that the time of service does not exceed six years. The title of elder is retained even when a man or woman is no longer serving on the session (often referred to as service in perpetuity.) Therefore it is possible for one congregation to have many elders in the church, including those who were ordained in other congregations within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Since the session is the ruling body of the church, and because it is responsible for most of the decisions and policies that are made, members of the session are asked to perform a wide range of activities and the responsibilities of lay people elected as elders are clearly laid out in the Book of Order (G-6.0300, 10.0000ff., and 14.0200ff.). Elders on the session may make numerous decisions, such as: direct the evangelism program of the church; receive or transfer members; lead the congregation in mission; direct the circumstances of worship (including the development of new technology used in music, sermons, and the sharing of Scripture); provide for church growth; develop and supervise the church school; develop principles and programs of stewardship; establish and finalize the church budget and function as financial officers; lead the church in its mission to the world; participate in ecumenical and interfaith activities; instruct, examine, ordain, and install new elders and deacons; direct the employment policies of the church; provide for the management of the church; maintain relationships with higher governing bodies of the church and churches in other denominations; and keep an accurate roll of the membership of the church.
Clearly, as even this brief summary demonstrates, Presbyterians place great reliance on the leadership of their elders and have high expectations about the quality of their service in the name of Jesus Christ.
Earl S. Johnson Jr. is pastor of First Church in Johnstown, N.Y., and adjunct professor of religious studies at Siena College. Portions of this article are taken from his book, Selected to Serve, A Guide for Church Officers (Louisville: Geneva Press, 2000), and are used by permission of Westminster John Knox Press.