Video: Are Young Elders a Contradiction in Terms?

Today’s question: “What are your thoughts on ‘young elders’ in the church? Is there an age restriction for the office of elder?”

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About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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16 Responses to Video: Are Young Elders a Contradiction in Terms?

  1. Aaron Siver says:

    Could we perhaps turn your observations around and ask: Has the church in contemporary Western culture changed it’s understanding of what the ecclesiastical eldership is in such a way that it doesn’t reflect and function out of the natural reality you’ve described? Are we appointing elders to so something that’s not really eldership?

    • Examining the obverse claim as you suggest is important. And a loss of clear understanding of eldership and a reconception of what elders are appointed to is a significant dimension of the problem.

  2. David Reimer says:

    I confess that the position you advocate isn’t the one I was expecting — possibly because I’ve been conditioned by having heard pulpit apologia for “young elders”, never in my recollection the case you argue well here.

    I re-read Trollope’s Barchester Towers over the summer. It has two reflections on preaching in it, the first beginning with the memorable sentence: “There is, perhaps, at present no greater hardship inflicted on mankind in civilised and free countries, than the necessity of listening to sermons.” But it is the second that resonates with one aspect of your argument in this video. He is reflecting on “preachers” (or “ministers”) rather than elders per se, but here it is in any case:

    It often surprises us that very young men can muster courage to preach for the first time to a strange congregation. Men who are as yet but little more than boys, who have but just left, what indeed we may not call a school, but a seminary intended for their tuition as scholars, whose thoughts have been mostly of boating, cricketing, and wine parties, ascend a rostrum high above the heads of the submissive crowd, not that they may read God’s word to those below, but that they may preach their own word for the edification of their hearers. It seems strange to us that they are not stricken dumb by the new and awful solemnity of their position. How am I, just turned twenty-three, who have never yet passed ten thoughtful days since the power of thought first came to me, how am I to instruct these greybeards, who with the weary thinking of so many years have approached so near the grave? Can I teach them their duty? Can I explain to them that which I so imperfectly understand, that which years of study may have made so plain to them? Has my newly acquired privilege, as one of God’s ministers, imparted to me as yet any fitness for the wonderful work of a preacher?

    It must be supposed that such ideas do occur to young clergymen, and yet they overcome, apparently with ease, this difficulty which to us appears to be all but insurmountable. …

    There is a rule in our church which forbids the younger order of our clergymen to perform a certain portion of the service. The absolution must be read by a minister in priest’s orders. If there be no such minister present, the congregation can have the benefit of no absolution but that which each may succeed in administering to himself. The rule may be a good one, though the necessity for it hardly comes home to the general understanding. But this forbearance on the part of youth would be much more appreciated if it were extended likewise to sermons. The only danger would be that congregations would be too anxious to prevent their young clergymen from advancing themselves in the ranks of the ministry. Clergymen who could not preach would be such blessings that they would be bribed to adhere to their incompetence.



    • Great quotation!

      I would just note that having a younger man (40-50ish) leading a church under the guidance and authorization of elders is a rather different sort of situation, with certain benefits to it.

      • David Reimer says:

        Agreed! The situation Trollope is imagining doesn’t map wholly on to the possibilities you deal with in the video. I think you’ve pretty much nailed it. Quite counter-cultural (as your mention of “music” makes clear).

  3. cal says:

    One problem with your helpful approach is the confusion of grammar. For Presbyterianism, everything is an elder (teaching, ruling, lay), which dilutes the meaning. And if we lack grammar for what we’re describing in official terms, it becomes difficult to have people have a sense of themselves in the role their performing. It’s no longer the case that older men understand eldership or even aspire to it; they see themselves just as young men in broken-down bodies.

    Have you ever seen Alister Stewart’s work “The Original Bishops”? In it, he details how elderhood reflected an appointment from within the church of those older men who were to be respected and their opinion additionally weighted. Sometimes it was in terms of patronage (social or otherwise) networks, and sometimes it became a means to recognize an accomplished person, someone with wisdom beyond his age (so to speak). The elder was not an ‘office’ of the church (unlike episkopos or diakonos), but a recognition of informal power.

    Unless men aspire towards eldership, towards possessing the wisdom to guide and to council, we’ll have a boatload of old fools. Hopefully this element of reality placed within the church will push through despite the current epoch.

    • No, I haven’t seen that work, although it is an attractive proposal. In many respects, such elders would seem to be comparable to the widows of the early Church—certain people in a natural condition of life that are officially recognized and supported by the church as examples of maturity and service to emulate and wise guides from whom to learn.

  4. How would you respond to the idea that overseer, elder, and pastor are synonymous terms for the same NT office, since Scripture alternates between them in Acts 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5–7; 1 Pet 5:1–2? If this holds, then much of your reasoning would seem not to apply, or else not even pastors should be under the age of 50 or 60. Also if there are any books you’d recommend on church polity and offices, I’d be curious what you’ve found helpful.

    • I think Bavinck is likely correct in seeing the elders as a broader class than overseers, but with the overseers as persons chosen from among the elders for particular office. All overseers are elders, but not all elders are overseers.

      • So are both “elders” and “overseers” church offices, just with the latter being more particular? Or do you mean that all older men in the church are ipso facto elders, and then some of these are appointed to office–namely, that of overseer?

        I still struggle to see this fitting with Acts 20 and Titus 1. In Acts 20, Paul gathers the elders of the church of Ephesus, and says that God has made them overseers. This seems to indicate that all elders are overseers. Then, in Titus 1, Paul tells Timothy to appoint elders in every city, and grounds it by saying: “For an overseer must be blameless …”. The view that “elder” in such cases is a title for a particular church office, and that it is synonymous with overseer seems like the most natural reading of these texts. Furthermore, in 1 Tim 5:17, Paul says that some elders labor “in preaching and teaching.” This, I would think, describes what you mean by “pastor,” and categorizes even the pastor as one of the “elders.”

        I’ll check out Bavinck though, for sure. I’m just not seeing it as of now. His treatment of this is in his Dogmatics, I presume?

      • ‘Elders’ is sometimes used with reference to the overseers, but there is a broader body of ‘elders’, who aren’t appointed to formal office, but exercise an informal authority and oversight. The ordained overseers exercise a form of this authority in the name of Christ. This is similar to the way in which Israel already has elders prior to Exodus 18, but after that point, some of the elders are appointed to represent Moses’ rule over them (see also Numbers 11). So we have a general body of elders, a more particular body of elders who rule in the name of Moses, and a yet more particular body of elders who share in Moses’ spirit. Then we have Joshua, who personally acts in Moses’ name and authority.

        For Bavinck’s treatment, see 4:341ff.

      • cal says:

        Alistair Stewart’s treatment (archaeological and historical, though self-consciously not presenting it as theological or prescriptive) argues that in Acts 20, there is a single group referred to as *the* elders of Ephesus. The way he reconstructs this, based on cross-comparison of grammar and evidence of first century churches, is that *the* elders were a designation for all of the various overseers of congregations (usually house churches of about a dozen to three dozen at most) within the city. And within the letter to Titus, the word is used in conjunction with the office of overseer because the word ‘elder’ has contextually defining elements, but is not itself a technical term within the NT, referring to a more common phenomenon within associations and political bodies (though I’m sure with an eye to OT usage).

      • I’ve not done sufficient study on the question, but this seems sound to me.

  5. Michael Krahn says:

    What do you suggest when the case is that you simply do not have older, biblically qualified men as you describe who can serve as elders in the church?

    • In such a situation, we should begin by asking why we do not have older, biblically qualified men. In some situations, you may need to make do with younger men—deacon material—exercising some of the roles of an overseer, while being clear upon the non-ideal character of the situation and seeking to establish a healthier arrangement somehow.

  6. Michael Krahn says:

    Yes, that’s what we’ve done. We do not have older qualified men because in decades past there was little emphasis on teaching biblical doctrine. So we do have older men but the ones that are spiritually mature are not able to teach.

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