It may seem odd to have an elder who is younger than you. If you have ever wondered why the UMC calls preachers elders, have I got the blog post for you.
Elder is a translation of the greek word, ‘presbyter’, which is both the root word of Presbyterian and priest. Greek has a word for priest as well that the early Christians chose not to use. When the book of Hebrews calls Jesus the great high priest, it is ἀρχιερέα. It points to the priest in the Greek tradition, not presbyter. A priest makes a sacrifice and Jesus offers the sacrifice and is the sacrifice as the lamb of God.
Okay, it gets pretty complicated pretty quickly once we get going in the greek, but I want us to pull on back to the English and talk about the word, Elder. An elder is usually someone who is older, but it is always some who is wise and experienced in certain things. Think about the elders of a community. In the ancient world, elders were people who had survived life. That is praise enough in a world with such a sky high mortality rate.
In the UMC, “Elders are ordained to a lifetime ministry of Word, Sacrament, Order, and Service.” (¶332). The discipline goes on:
“Elders are ordained ministers who, by God’s grace, have completed their formal preparation and have been commissioned and served as a provisional member, have been found by the Church to be of sound learning, of Christian character, possessing the necessary gifts and evidence off God’s grace, and whose call by God to ordination has been confirmed by the church” (ibid).
The UMC has an itinerate polity. I will explain this strange term in more detail soon, but for the time being, the basics of itineracy is that elders are appointed by a bishop and move around. Elders are sent. Churches receive. Some elders you as a church receive are loved by all. Some are not. The point of an elder is not to be loved but to be ordered for this life of ministry.
Elder is a biblical term. In Paul’s letter to Timothy, he even says elders deserve a double honor, but there is a catch at the end.
“The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For Scripture says, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.” Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. But those elders who are sinning you are to reprove before everyone, so that the others may take warning.” (1 Timothy 5:17-20, NIV)
Because elders are set apart, they are accountable to the whole body of the church. Elders are held to a higher standard of behavior in the scriptures and in the UMC. Pragmatically, elders can administer the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. All Christians are ministers of Jesus Christ, Elders (like the other group that is ordained, the deacons) are set apart in specific ways for specific reasons following the tradition of the church since the time of the Apostles.
Next week, we’ll look at the second order, the deacons, who they are, what they do, and why the UMC is so much richer as a church because of them.