We’ve discussed installing some new elders. Some of the men under consideration are in their late 30s. Are they old enough to be elders? –A Christian from Indiana.
That is a great question that really needs to be discussed.
It was about eleven years ago when the knocking of a hand against my front door got my attention. Upon opening the door, I was faced with two Mormon boys who could not have been older than 19. I asked the customary question, “Can I help you?” Instead of answering the question, they proceeded to introduce themselves. “My name is Elder Bob, and this is Elder Joe.” Knowing that these boys had no idea what the word “elder” meant, I asked them a simple question. “How are your wife and kids?” The look of confusion across their face told me they also didn’t know what the Bible teaches about elders. Upon explaining that an elder was the husband of one wife and had believing children, I asked them the question again. They said “thank you” and shortly thereafter were on their way to the next house.
The word “elder” signifies, by its very definition, someone who is older. How old? Ask the members of the congregation what they consider to be an “older man” and you’ll have a pretty good guess. But let’s look at some of the other things the Bible says on this matter. There are certain “benchmarks” that also help us in determining a minimum age for an “elder.”
The first place to look is in the qualifications for elders which were laid out by the apostle Paul in I Timothy 3. The person desiring the office of bishop (elder) must be the husband of one wife. Literally, the wording is “a one-woman man.” This man must have proven himself to be faithful to his wife, a dedicated husband. Obviously this is not something a 19-year old can prove. This is something that is proven over a period of time. According to some sources, most men during the first century did not marry until they were in their 30’s. Imagine, then, the age at which these people would have been known as dedicated husbands by the rest of the congregation.
Also, the elder must have faithful children (Titus 1:6). Does this mean faithful to him or faithful to God? Skipping this question for a moment, let us look at the simple point that the man must have children who are old enough to show they are faithful. The children must be old enough to make decisions and show that they have been raised to make the right ones. They obey their father because they are in subjection to him (I Timothy 3:4). This does not describe children under the teenage years. If this means children who are faithful to God, it means that the children must be faithful Christians. If it means faithful to their father, this age of accountability would be about the same, wouldn’t you think? This man’s children must be known to be obedient. This again is something that takes time to prove, especially if it is referring to being a faithful Christian.
Looking at the likely age of marriage (say 30-35), adding the time it would take for their children to get to be teenagers (add another 15 or more years), as well as tacking on the time it would take for the children to prove themselves “faithful” once they reach the age of accountability, and you get someone who meets these first two qualifications for being an elder probably around age 50.
Let us also consider one last point. The apostle Peter, approximately 61-63 AD, said he was an elder of the Lord’s church (I Peter 5:1). If we accept that he was about Jesus’ age when he became a disciple of the Lord, then Peter would be about 65 years old when he wrote this. He commanded the elders to whom he wrote, using the fact that he was an elder as back-up for his commands (I Peter 5:1-4). This is not something that a newly-appointed elder would likely do, so Peter had likely been an elder at the church in Jerusalem for some time, perhaps a decade?
From a Biblical perspective, there is no way that a 19-year old could be an elder. It would be pushing it to say someone in their 40s would qualify as “older,” as the word “elder” necessitates. Though the Bible gives no specific age, it does give certain milestones (faithful husband and faithful children) which would be very difficult to reach and prove before their late 40s/early 50s.
Plus, unless you’re asking teenagers, no one considers a 40-year old to be an “older man.”
-Bradley S. Cobb