It was a bright Sabbath morning. The sun rose majestically over the mountains and cast its rays across the city. A young couple in their late twenties made their way to church to participate in the worship service, and what an appropriate day for worshiping the Creator it was. Communion service was to be held that day along with the ordination of new elders in the church. It was a calling that was taken with grave responsibility, for the young man was to be one of the elders ordained that morning. With reverence he sat in the front of the church awaiting the time of ordination. He prayed for the Lord's strength and for His wisdom as he contemplated the many responsibilities that such an office held. The ordination took place and immediately he was asked to assist the pastor of the church in the communion service. After the service was over, he stood outside the sanctuary and spoke with church members as they were leaving. Many were positive and encouraging, but not a few would make other remarks, such as, "Well, kind of young, but I suppose you will do." A newly baptized church member just a few years older than he remarked, "Aren't you too young to be an Elder? You are younger than I am!" The newly ordained elder, not knowing what to say, simply chuckled and attempted a kind reply. Yet it bothered him and he concentrated to study God's Word concerning this issue.
Perhaps you have met with similar situations in your own experience, or at times may have wondered, can relatively young individuals be called to positions of local elder in the church? What does the Bible say about young leaders in the church? What does it say specifically concerning elders? Is not an elder just that, someone who is older?
THE ELDER IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
There are several terms used for "elder" in the New Testament. Each has a slightly different function and meaning and must be studied in context. The Jews often referred to their own elders which were called presbuteros, "an individual person older of two, or the men of old, our ancestors" (Luke 15:25; 1 Peter 5:5).1 This term was also used to denote the members of local councils (Luke 7:3) or members of a group among the Sanhedrin (Matt. 16:21; 26:3; Mark 8:31; 11:27; 14:43, 53; 15:1; Luke 9:22; 20:1). Elders of the Christian church were called by this name as well (Acts 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5-9).
These elders were also referred to as bishops. In this case, the Greek terms episkopos and episkop can also mean "overseer, superintendent, or guardian" and refer to a person who has "a definite function or fixed office within a group" (the Church). 2 Thus Paul makes a distinction in some passages between the Greek terms and uses a term that is not limited in meaning to age. Both terms (episkopos and episkop) are used in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 where the fourteen specific qualifications of the elder are given. Age is also not listed among the fourteen requirements of an elder or bishop (see 1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). In his letter to Titus, however, both presbutas and episkopon are used interchangeably in describing the characteristics that such a person should hold. This is also true in Acts 20:17, 28 where both terms are used again. Why use two terms then? It has been suggested that both words designate the same activity with different extended meanings. The word presbuteros refers to the title of the office which implies a position of respect. On the other hand, episkopos or episkop is used to name the function of the office. 3 It seems clear then that while the position is one that demands respect the function of the office itself does not necessarily require a certain chronological age.
It is also made clear from several of the qualifications that the elder must be a spiritually mature individual. An elder is not to be "a new convert, lest he become conceited and fall into the condemnation of the devil" (1 Tim. 3:6). Likewise, the elder must "be above reproach" (1 Tim. 3:2) and "have a good reputation with those outside the church (1 Tim. 3:7). Here spiritual integrity and maturity are emphasized as qualities of the elder.
YOUNG LEADERS CHOSEN BY GOD
Young leaders have been important in the Lord's work throughout history. In the Old Testament it was Samuel who was called by God at an early age (1 Sam. 3:10-19). David was anointed king by Samuel while he was still a young man herding sheep. He was the youngest of his brothers. Other young rulers in Israel followed including such reformers as Hezekiah andjosiah (2 Kings 18, 22, and 23). Paul writes to young Timothy in the New Testament giving him wise counsel in his dealings as a pastor among his church members (1 Tim. 5).
THE WORK OF YOUNG ELDERS IN THE CHURCH
Young elders, humble and dedicated to the Lord, are needed today in our churches. As a young elder you can bring a new sense of urgency and a vibrant energy to the leadership of the church. You can provide a fresh perspective which, together with humble prayer and study, may bring important growth and generate new hope in the church. There are several counsels that could apply to the young elder in the church.
Do not take your calling and the responsibilities of an elder lightly. Remain close to the Lord in all your endeavors. Keep faithful your devotional time daily with Him and spend much time in Bible study and prayer. As an elder you must be "able to teach" (1 Tim. 3:2) which means that you must remain knowledgeable in spiritual matters and stay in close tune with the Scriptures.
Be Christlike in your dealings with others. Always be loving and kind toward your fellow member. Paul urged Timothy, a young pastor, "Do not sharply rebuke an older man, but rather appeal to him as a father, to the younger men as brothers, the old women as mothers, the younger women as sisters, in all purity" (1 Tim. 5:1-2). This applies to the younger elder as well. With a humble heart, learn from older, more experienced church members and if something is done which needs rebuke, speak to your pastor first and seek counsel concerning the matter. Continue to speak in love and in wisdom with that individual. Be slow to speak and quick to listen. With young women especially, be cautious (this concerns unmarried elders in particular) so that your actions may not be misinterpreted. This is what Paul means when he counsels "in all purity".
As an elder you have a responsibility to maintain your reputation "with those outside the church" (1 Tim. 3:7) as well as those within. Be wise, therefore, in your actions. Always remember that people are watching you and you are a witness for the church no matter where you are.
There are tremendous ways in which you can benefit the church through your leadership. As a young person you have a connection with a large segment of the church which the older elders may no longer hold. Take advantage of these and work as the Lord guides you. A few suggestions would be:
1 Begin a Bible study group with young people in the church and meet sometime during the week. There are many areas that can be studied, but perhaps many of them have questions concerning issues which face them in their present life situation. Study from the Scriptures and develop solid principles concerning entertainment, dating, and some social issues that they may be interested in.
2 Plan to involve the young people in some social activities in addition to serious study time. Plan a Sabbath afternoon hike or perhaps go out on Saturday night and spend some time getting to know one another on a social level. Young people are looking for wholesome activities.
3 Get involved with Pathfinders and if your church does not have a Pathfinders club, contact your local conference to find out what is required to start one. This is a tremendous opportunity and outreach for the youth of our churches.
4 As an elder and church leader you may wish to involve other young people in the church service. Discuss this with your pastor or church board. It gives church members encouragement and hope to see the youth involved in the service and makes the youth feel needed and important to the church. Appropriate ways in which they could be involved would be for special music, scripture reading, invocations or benedictions, and calling up the offering.
5 just because you are young does not mean that you cannot minister to older and elderly church members. Schedule regular visitation time with church members. Become acquainted with them. Assess and address their needs. If there are those who are hospitalized or must remain at home due to illness be sure to visit with them.
6 As an elder in the church be encouraging to all "members. Be friendly and go out of your way to greet them every Sabbath. Have a cheerful and willing attitude. If someone needs help do not hesitate to step in. If someone is missing who was to teach Sabbath School or participate in the church service be ready to teach or participate in their place.
If God has called you as an elder He surely has a purpose for you in the church. As a young person do not hesitate, but pray and study for the Lord's will in your life. If God convicts you, step forward into the challenge that He presents to you for He has promised that He will guide you and give you strength. With so many of our youth drifting from our churches today, perhaps God has called you especially to minister to their needs. Study with them. Encourage them. As others see your work they may be encouraged and find new hope as well in the leadership of a younger generation. It may be through your work and example, as God gives you the strength and wisdom, that others may be nurtured and strengthened through Christ's redemptive power.
Bible texts in this article are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977.
1W. F. Amdt and F. W. Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (4th edition. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1957), 706-707.
3Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, Vol. 6 (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publ., 1980), 38.
Michael G. Hasel is an elder at the Midvale Park SDA Church in Tucson where he is completing a doctorate in biblical archaeology and biblical studies at the University of Arizona.