Elders and Eldership - What's the Difference?

Churches with plural elders are far more common than they used to be.

Although this form of church leadership has existed within Presbyterianism since the Reformation (and was normative among the Plymouth Brethren in the C19), the new church movement of the 1970s-80s saw a major re-focus on the plurality of elders in local churches.

As these newer churches have developed, however, a subtle change appears to have taken place, expressed in a simple change in the language used. Whereas the New Testament primarily refers to "elders", it is increasingly common now to hear of "eldership." It's a subtle but important difference.

The word "elders" is simply the plural of "elder". If we know what an elder is, then it's reasonably straightforward to understand what is meant when the apostle Paul appointed "elders in each church" (Acts 14:23). It means he appointed several of them.

The term "eldership", however, is slightly more complicated. For a start, it's a collective noun - used when you want to talk about a group of people as one unit. In this sense, the word is similar to such terms as "team", "group", "board" or "management". The word "eldership" focuses our attention on the collective group in a way that the word "elders" does not.

Secondly, it's not a Bible word. The nearest we get to such a use is Paul's description of the time when "the body of elders" laid hands on Timothy, imparting a gift to him and prophesying over him (1 Tim 4:13-15). Apart from this one use, the New Testament prefers the more neutral term "elders".

Thirdly, "eldership" implies a particular model of local church life. As businesses have management boards, churches have eldership teams. The term suggests a corporate body who manage and make decisions. But as we have seen elsewhere in this blog, decision making was never the sole responsibility of a small leadership team in the early church. More importantly, the New Testament writers do not look to the business world for their model of local church.

The church of my dreams is lead by elders, but if you were to look for a model of how this works, I would suggest that the head of an extended family or clan is closer to the Biblical idea than the management board of a company.

More to follow......

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