False understandings of the etymologies of words sometimes cause minor confusion or bad jokes. Only rarely does it cause significant problems, but one exception to this is the difficulty caused by some Christians who believe that only elderly men are qualified to be elders of churches. Not only does this mean that many capable men are excluded from leadership in the church for most of their lives, it also means that when some of them finally come into the pastoral ministry, they do this as older men, but still novices to the pastoral office. The purpose of this short essay is to show that this assumption is misguided, and that it mitigates against the very thing it wants to encourage, which is maturity in office.
Of course, the word prebyteros — usually translated elder — does carry the meaning “old man.” But this is not the only meaning it carries. It can also refer to those who hold a particular office — and where the office derived its name provides us with a good example of the etymological fallacy. Where a word came from and what a word means are two different things entirely. In earlier (tribal and patriarchal) times it would have been older men who overwhelmingly would have held that office, and so it was natural that such a name would be given. But once the office and name are established, a young man can certainly step into it.
We have an exact parallel to this in our use of the word senator. The word is related to the Latin senex which means old man. The root sen- indicates age, and we get the words senator, senile, and senior from it. And yet obviously, a young man can be elected to office and become a senator. According to the U.S. Constitution, a senator has to be at least just out of his twenties. “No person shall be a Senator who shall not have attained to the age of thirty years” [Art.I/Sec. 3]. Thirty is young, but thirty can be a senator.
Another variation is seen in how Thayer’s Greek/English Lexicon divides references to age signified by this word into at least three categories — the first is where two people are spoken of and one is the elder of the two (Luke 15:25). The elder brother (prebyteros) of the prodigal was still a young man. The second age reference is the obvious one under discussion — it refers to one advanced in life, a senior. And yet another usage is when what we would call forefathers are spoken of.
So we see that the word refers to the one who holds a particular “rank or office,” such as a member of the great council or Sandhedrin. The Sanhedrin was the body of elders for the nation of Israel. But there were local sanhedrins or courts as well.
In a few cases, other words are substituted for synedrion, e.g. presbyterion, ‘body of elders’ (Luke xxii. 66; Acts xxii.5), and gerousia, ‘senate’ (Acts v.21) . . . The councils (synedria) of Mt. v. 22, x. 17; Mk. xiii. 9, and the boulai of Jos., Ant. iv. 8. 14, etc. were local courts of at least seven elders, and in large towns up to twenty-three elders [J.D. Douglas, ed., New Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1962), p. 1142].
This form of local and broader government developed by the Jews was picked up and extended by the early Christian church. Christian churches are sometimes called synagogues (Jas.2:2), and they certainly followed the same pattern of government (Acts 14:23). The church council in Acts 15 was a Christian Sanhedrin (Acts 15: 2,4,6,22-23).
All this is relevant because we may note the age requirements the Jews had for such office, and we may see how the Christian church carried those requirements over. But to do so we have to piece some things together. The Jews required that a man be thirty years old before he could be a member of the Great Sanhedrin. But thirty is comparatively young. Paul shows his membership in that body when he tells us how he voted in the persecution of the church. “I verily thought with myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. Which thing I also did in Jerusalem: and many of the saints did I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them” (Acts 26:9-10). The literal rendering of “gave my voice” is “cast a pebble,” i.e. he is referring to his vote. Commenting on Acts 26:10, I. Howard Marshall says that the fact that Paul voted against the Christians indicated his membership in the great Sanhedrin. “Since, however, Paul is talking about his activity in Jerusalem, membership of the supreme Sanhedrin is no doubt indicated.” [I. Howard Marshall, Acts: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1980), p. 393].
The interesting thing here is that we know that Paul was a young man around this time. “And cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul” (Acts 7:58). How young? Paul was born a Roman citizen, as he put it (Acts 22:27). There were two acts by Rome which established registration of citizenry at birth. The first was lex Aelia Sentia in 4 A.D. and the second was lex Papia Poppaea in 9 A.D. [F.F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977), p. 40.] If Stephen was martyred around A.D. 30, then this meant that Paul was likely in his mid-twenties. If he had been born before 4 A.D., then his citizenship would not have been registered at birth, so a birth date between 4 and 9 A.D. is most likely.
Paul had made a mark on his people from the very beginning. “My manner of life from my youth, which was at the first among mine own nation at Jerusalem, know all the Jews; Which knew me from the beginning, if they would testify, that after the most straitest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee” (Acts 26:4-5). And so, although the Sandredrin limited membership to those who were at least thirty, there may have been an exception in Paul’s case. As he put it once:
For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews’ religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it: And profited in the Jews’ religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers (Gal. 1:13-14).
Not only did Paul serve the God of Israel before his conversion to Christ at a young age, but we must also note that it was in the middle of this youthful persecution of the Church that God made him an apostle. And Paul did not consider himself an anomaly in this, but was more than willing to follow the same pattern in how he trained others for ministry. The principal example of this is the case of Timothy.
The apostle Paul died around A.D. 67 at the hands of Nero. Just before his death, he wrote his second letter to Timothy. In that letter he told Timothy to guard against the sins of youth. “Flee also youthful lusts: but follow righteousness, faith, charity, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart” (2 Tim. 2:22). In 1 Timothy, the point is even more explicit.
These things command and teach. Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity. Till I come, give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine (1 Tim. 4:11-13).
Not only are we told that Timothy is a young man here, but we are further told that it is the duty of a young minister to keep people from despising that youth, which is a natural mistake for the people to make when a young man is an elder. But the meaning of the chronology here is that we must make this point even stronger. Paul is calling Timothy a young man, one whose youth might be despised, in the mid-sixties. But Timothy had joined Paul in ministry about twenty years before. The first missionary journey occurred in the mid-forties, and Paul had probably met Timothy in the mission to Lystra and Derbe. When he came back through on the second journey, he picked Timothy up as a lieutenant in ministry (Acts 16:1-3). This means that Timothy probably joined Paul in ministry while in his mid-teens.
Timothy is still a young man (in his thirties) twenty years later, but he was a significant authority in the church. One of his duties was to oversee the appointment of elders (1 Tim. 3:1-7), as well as handling charges that might be brought against such elders (1 Tim. 5:19). Of course, Timothy was charged to remember his youth in how he addressed and exhorted those who were his elders (1 Tim. 5:1), but he was still called upon to exhort them pastorally. In short, Timothy was given a significant ministerial charge while still a young man, and so we are not permitted to think that youth, by itself, presents an obstacle to ministry.
And so what should our application be? Those who are called to the ministry of the Word are often called to that vocation from their youth. Samuel first heard the word of the Lord as a boy, and in the Christian era, cases like Charles Spurgeon come to mind, who began preaching while still a teenager. My own forehead reddens to think that my first sermon was delivered in a Lutheran church when I was seventeen-years-old. Somebody should have been paying closer attention than they were, but the fact remains that the call of preaching has been a weight on me since I was a small boy. Now the fact that someone is called from his youth does not mean that he should hold office from his youth. But it does mean that older saints around such a person may bring him into ministry early, and nurture him in his calling.
And so there are three points of application that I would suggest. The first is that collective maturity on a session of elders is desirable. While a conservative approach is to be applauded, it is important that it not be wooden. Timothy is told not to be hasty in the laying on of hands (1 Tim. 5:22), and a neophyte in the faith can cause havoc (1 Tim. 3:6). But if a session has a good number of gray heads, and a wise, collective gravity, then to bring the strength and energy of qualified young men into the context of that kind of ministry is not a lesser good, but rather a higher good. An eldership without such young men is handicapped in some significant respects.
Second, the age of the children of elders should not be something we take into consideration by itself. This is because to do so is to go beyond the requirements of Scripture. We should see the unwieldiness of such extensions almost immediately. What about an older man with younger children? What about an older man with older daughters, and then a young son? What about a childless older man who becomes an elder, and then his wife conceives? We need to keep it simple. The Bible requires that if a man has a household, then it must be managed well, and the congregation should know that it is managed well. If a man cannot do this, then how can he manage the household of God (1 Tim. 3:5)? But this knowledge is not to be established after eighty years.
And third, we may do all this with confidence if we have the commitment to maintain a biblical standard of qualification for all elders — to become elders in the first place according to relevant scriptural criteria, and then to maintain their position as elders after the fact, also in accordance with the appropriate scriptural criteria. If those in ministry have the commitment to maintain their qualifications in all diligence, this means that they have the commitment to step down from ministry should disarray in their household make it evident that they must do so. When this happens, it is a cause of grief, but it is also healthy for the church, and for the younger elders. A young man with young children should never view his ordination as the one hurdle he must get past, and then he is settled in the ministry for life.
In all these things, we should never forget that in the days of the new covenant, God promised to do a marvelous thing.
And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams: And on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy (Acts 2:17-18).
So when we consider the godly maturity of a board of elders, age is obviously a factor. But it is not the only factor. Age by itself is not a guarantee of maturity, and youth does not guarantee immaturity. A young man can be wise beyond his years, and older men can be foolish. Age is a natural receptacle for wisdom and maturity, and we should desire such collective wisdom and maturity for our session of elders. But an essential part of this is learning how to bring young men into ministry in such a way that fifty years from now, we will not only have elders who are eighty-years-old, but also have elders who have been ministering to souls for fifty of those years. A sixty-year-old man who is made an elder may be wise in his household and business, but in the ministry he is still a novice.
If we want great wine decades from now, it is important to begin laying down the bottles now.