Since the greek word for elder means "an old man, an elder", is the office of elder reserved for believers who are older and advanced in years?
That's an excellent question.
First of all, we're dealing with the primitive church and its own descriptions of the offices of church leaders. In other words, in Titus and elsewhere in the NT when we read of "elders" we are seeing terms that the apostles and other leaders chose to describe the leadership offices. If this were the only datum, I would have to say that an elder should probably be an older person. But even so, what would constitute an older person? One would need to examine the ancient world view of age to get a clear picture on that. I believe that mortality rates in the first century AD were so great that the average lifespan was less than 40 years.
However, a large part of the reason for that was the many children who died young or even at birth or before. So, even armed with the lifespan information, would that mean that the average person viewed someone at age 38 as old? That's a hard thing to judge, but I think the evidence suggests otherwise.
Second, the Christian church adopted language both from the synagogue and, to a lesser extent, from the Greco-Roman world. The term quickly took on a technical nuance within the church, indicating an official leader. Thus, the original non-technical meaning of the term may have been rather quickly buried, with simply the notion of spiritual leader embedded in church usage. In other words, it is distinctly possible that the early church patterned itself in language after the synagogue without adopting as much all the meanings that were usually associated with that language.
Third, when we look at Acts 15 and 16, we see that the elders and apostles were the leaders of the early church. In Acts 15.2, the construction that joins apostles and elders is known as a TSKS construction (for "Article [THE]-substantive-KAI-substantive"). Although it does not fit the Granville Sharp rule since the words are plural, there is a strong likelihood that there was some overlap. This would mean that, most likely, the apostles were considered elders, though not all the elders in the Jerusalem church were apostles. Now, we already see from Acts 5 that the apostles were leading the young church. This would have been in the early 30s AD. By Acts 15 we are up to AD 49. Many scholars believe that John the apostle was but a teenager when Jesus called him to be one of his disciples. If so, then even by Acts 15 he would be, most likely, in his mid-30s (depending on the date of the crucifixion and the length of Jesus' ministry [I tentatively hold to a 33 crucifixion date and a 2 & a half year ministry]). And surely (again--assuming that he was a teenager when Jesus called him), John would be no older than in his 20s in Acts 5. The logical deduction I am making here is that if he is an apostle, then he is an elder. Although the apostles are not linked to the elders until Acts 15, the term "elder" is not used of Christian leaders much earlier than this period (it is first used of Christian leaders in Acts 11.30, just a little while before the Jerusalem Council met in Acts 15).
But perhaps John was an exception precisely because he was an apostle. Or perhaps we should not use the apostles as a template for LOCAL church leadership at all. I think that position could be overdrawn, since it seems quite evident that Acts 6, with the appointing of deacons (although the term is not used, the verb and abstract noun are used), is meant to indicate a pattern to be followed.
Further, we do have Paul's instructions to Timothy that "no one should despise your youth" (1 Tim 4.12). And Timothy was an apostolic delegate, sent to appoint elders and deacons in the church of Ephesus. How old was he at this time? I don't know. But if he was considered a youth, though he was sent to appoint elders ("bishop" in 1 Timothy, but clearly the same office as elders; see Knight's commentary on the pastorals), then it does at least seem that age was not an excluding qualification for the office of elder. In other words, a pattern seems to begin emerging--first with John and now with Timothy: even though these men were either apostles or apostolic delegates--even when they were relatively young, there seems to be no reason not to accept them as having the same authority as elders.
Finally, there is the issue of the clear teaching of scripture. Although the word "elder" is used, no where in scripture are we told that an age qualification is necessary for eldership. It would only be implied in the meaning of the term, which we have already seen may have been adopted from Judaism without carrying over its original sense. I am of the opinion that unless scripture clearly prohibits a matter, Christians are free to resolve the issues themselves. (The alternative, which some take, is that unless scripture clearly permits something, we should not do that thing.) However, having said all that, I still believe that there is much wisdom in seeking the voice of experience to be those who generally run the church. I would not myself prohibit someone from joining the elder board because he was young, but I would certainly take a hard and long look at such an individual. I have known elders who were in their 20s on elder boards who have been very wise and capable leaders, and I have known those in their 80s who are fools. But normally age does have some advantages as far as church leadership is concerned.
Ultimately, it's up to your conscience how to decide. Thanks for writing. I hope that this helps a bit.
Related Topics: Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry