The following is from a correspondence I had with some area pastors over the question, Must those who hold the office of elder (aka: pastors, overseers) be old. Or, in other words, can they be young? Does the term “elder” necessitate a certain age criteria?
On the age of elders:
The word undoubtedly comes from the Jewish context, in which it refers to the leadership office within the Jewish community. The term seems to originate from the fact that those leaders were generally the aged and experienced men in the community.
However, the word seems to come to serve as something of a technical term for that leadership office, not necessarily implying in any absolute way a certain age requirement. (We want to avoid the etymological fallacy here of equating etymological origin with meaning.) This seems to be the type of use that is carried over into the New Testament church context, where it serves as a technical term for the leadership office.
But don’t hear me wrong. The terms used for the office seem to convey something of the meaning and nature of the office. So, for example, the parallel term “overseer” implies that this office is one of oversight. Likewise, designating the office as “elder” implies a certain wisdom and experience. (So, whereas the terms “overseer” and “pastor” seems to designate something of the function of the office, “elder” seems to designate a qualification to the office.) And no doubt (cf. 1 Pet 5:5) this sort of wisdom and experience implied by the term “elder” often does come with age (although age does not guarantee this maturity any more than youth makes this impossible). So I don’t think it’s entirely moot or irrelevant to consider the age of potential elders.
But, especially when we note the context of the church as a “spiritual” community, it becomes clearer that the sort of wisdom and experience in view here is likely that of one’s Christian faith. So for example, an older man who newly coverts would not qualify, even if he is an “elder” in terms of his physical age. This is made clear when Paul says that an elder cannot be a recent convert (1 Tim 3:6), which seems to show that it is a candidate’s “spiritual” experience that is in view in the idea of “elder.”
On the other hand, this implies that a young man may be qualified if particularly wise and experienced “spiritually.” Paul seems to assume this when he tells Timothy not much to allow anyone to look down on him for his youth (1 Tim 4:12). He also assumes this when he gives instruction to elders on how they are to relate to those who are much older than them (1 Tim 5:1ff), which implies these elders must be relatively young, or at least much younger than many of their congregants (so not the “elders” of this community as far as physical age).
Again, this is not to say that age is not a relevant factor. Often times experience does come with age. But I would hold that the Bible does not outline age as an absolute requirement (or qualification for that matter), given the sort of maturity in view — primarily “spiritual.”
Doug Wilson wrote a good article on this here.
One thought on “Must Elders Be Old? (Or, Can Elders Be Young?)”
Helpful. You captured a good balance between recognizing the word’s status as a terminus technicus and eliminating the primary reference of a commonly used word. I’ve wondered, too, if the average lifespans of people in Paul’s day ought to be considered.
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