What Is an Elder?

When Moses saw the burning bush on Mount Horeb, God commanded him to return to Egypt and lead his people out of slavery. Moses was somewhat concerned about fulfilling this assignment alone. But God explained that he wouldn’t be alone:

Go, and gather the elders of Israel together, and say unto them, The Lord God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, appeared unto me…
And they shall hearken to thy voice: and thou shalt come, thou and the elders of Israel, unto the king of Egypt (Exodus 3:16-18).

Throughout the books of Moses, the Lord refers many times to the “elders of Israel,” the “elders of the congregation,” or the “elders of the people.”

When Lehi and his family left Jerusalem, elders played a significant role in the city. As Zoram followed Nephi out of the city at night, carrying the spiritual record contained on brass plates, he thought they were going to meet with “the elders of the Jews,” which he also called “the brethren of the church” (1 Nephi 4:22-27).

The word for “elder” in Hebrew is zaqen – זָקֵן. While it is usually translated “elder” in the King James Version of the Bible, it is also sometimes rendered “old man,” “aged,” or “ancient.” On one occasion, it is translated “senators,” referring to their role as wise leaders (Psalm 105:22).

In the New Testament, the term is a translation of the Greek word “presbuteros” (πρεσβύτερος), meaning “a mature man having seasoned judgment (experience).” As Paul and Barnabas preached the gospel, they “ordained them elders in every church” (Acts 14:23). Paul later counseled his associate Titus to “set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city” (Titus 1:5).

The apostles Peter and John both referred to themselves as “elders” (1 Peter 5:1, 2 John 1:1, 3 John 1:1).

In the Book of Mormon, “elder” is identified as a leadership role in the church along with “priests” and “teachers” (Alma 4:7).

Elders are mature and experienced leaders. When Alma resigned as chief judge to devote himself to the ministry, “he selected a wise man who was among the elders of the church” to be his successor (Alma 4:16).

The Book of Mormon identifies several responsibilities of elders:

  • Preside – Alma “ordained priests and elders, by laying on his hands according to the order of God, to preside and watch over the church” (Alma 6:1).
  • Select other leaders – Moroni tells us that the elders “ordained priests and teachers” (Moroni 3:1).
  • Bless the sacrament – Elders and priests administered “the flesh and blood of Christ unto the church” (Moroni 4:1).
  • Administer church discipline – “Whoso was found to commit iniquity, and three witnesses of the church did condemn them before the elders, and if they repented not, and confessed not, their names were blotted out, and they were not numbered among the people of Christ” (Moroni 6:7).

Moroni specifically notes that “elders, priests, and teachers were baptized” (Moroni 6:1). I interpret this as an affirmation that church leaders are also members, that they have made the same covenants as other members, and that they are therefore obligated to live by the same standards of conduct as every member of the church.

Elders feel a collective sense of responsibility for the church. When Alma began to see pride and contention among members of the church, not only was he troubled, but “many of the people whom [he] had consecrated to be teachers, and priests, and elders over the church…were sorely grieved for the wickedness which they saw had begun to be among their people” (Alma 4:7).

In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, all worthy adult men may be ordained as elders in the Melchizedek Priesthood. While they may not be very old at the time they are ordained, this title represents a level of maturity and wisdom which they are expected to demonstrate, given their responsibilities to preside, to administer priesthood ordinances, and to bless others in the name of Jesus Christ.

Today, I will be grateful for the trust God places in His children to lead and perform religious functions on His behalf. I will respect and honor the sacred trust placed in me and recommit to fulfill my church responsibilities with the wisdom and dignity appropriate to the title “elder.”

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