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Presbyter (from ancient Greek πρεσβύτερος presbýteros , German 'older' ) is the name of a leadership office of the early Christian communities. From this office the office of priest developed in the pre-Reformation churches as the second stage of the three-stage sacrament of consecration . The German word priester and its European equivalents emerged from the Greek word. In the Reformation churches (including the Anglican), based on Calvin's doctrine of four offices , a leadership office developed through connection with the New Testament office, which in some churches is denoted by the foreign word presbyter , while in others elders (or equivalents such as English elder , French ancien , Dutch ouderling ) is common. .. The presbyters, elders or the like, as elected representatives of the community form with the pastor or pastors parish line ; For this body in the German-speaking area, in addition to presbytery , the terms parish council, parish council, leadership group (especially in the evangelical area) or church council are used.

Origin of the office of elders

Elders already existed in the early days of Israel's history . In 4 MosEU , the princes of the twelve tribes, the heads of the families as well as the firstborn and tribe holders of the individual Israelite families are referred to as elders. Together they formed a kind of representation of the people and were at the same time the guardians of order in pre-state society. According to biblical statements, the Egyptians ( 1 Mos 50.7  EU ), the Ismaelites ( 1 Mos 25.16  EU ) and probably also the Edomites ( 1 Mos 36  EU ) and other ethnic groups of that time also had an office of elders of a similar form .

At first, the elders - hence the term - were really the elderly. The elderly received special respect from society. At the same time, growing old was seen as a special divine blessing and as a reward for a person's piety (for example Gen 15.15  EU ). This is where the elders' authority was rooted.

In addition to these elders, which the old patriarchal family order produced, we also find appointed and appointed elders in the Bible. The first biblical evidence for this is provided by Mos 18:13  EU : On the advice of his father-in-law Jethro , Moses appointed "honest people who fear God" as elders at Sinai - over a thousand, one hundred, fifty and ten people. This gave rise to a leadership position independent of the patriarchal order. The age of the elders proposed by the people and solemnly appointed by Moses was no longer the decisive criterion . During his stay in the desert, Moses calls a committee of the "Seventy" from the large crowd of elders, as "Federal Councilor" of the entire people and at the same time as Moses' assistant.

Further development of the office of elders in the history of Israel

After the conquest of the land , the elders of the people became more and more responsible as municipal administrators, judges and cadastral officials . They met for public meetings and negotiations at the gates of the city. Every now and then there are reports of meetings of the village and city elders in the form of a national committee ( 1 Sam 4,3  EU ; 8,4 EU ; 15,30 EU etc.). In the time of the kings , these national assemblies are interpreted as a kind of council of state that advised the king.

After the Babylonian exile , the elders and the priests formed the so-called High Council ( Ezra 10,8.4  EU ). This council had the highest authority in matters of religious and civil law. At the same time he had to watch over the keeping of the teaching.

In the Jewish diaspora, too, the office of elders was established after the Babylonian captivity. The elders here were the leaders of the Jewish diaspora communities.

Eldest in early Christianity

The New Testament congregation took over the office of elders in Israel, with particular orientation towards the leadership structure of the Jewish diaspora congregation. First we hear from Christian elders when the church in Antioch decides to send gifts to the brothers in Judea because of an upcoming famine ( Acts 11.30  EU ), later we also hear from elders in the early church in Jerusalem ( Acts 15.2.4  EU ; 21.18 EU ). They were called and installed by the apostles - probably with the consent of the community ( 2 Cor 8:19  EU ). It becomes clear that at the time of the New Testament there is never an elder alone leading the church, but always an elders quorum. The terms “elder” and “ bishop ” are used synonymously ( Acts 20.17.28  EU ; Tit 1.5.7  EU ; cf. Phil 1.1  EU ; 1 Tim 3.1.8  EU ).

The elders' duties included:

  • the supervision of the whole of the community (in contrast to the deacons who watched over parts of the community, Acts 6 : 1-7  EU )
  • the exercise of church discipline
  • overseeing the teaching of the community

In all powers, you should not be rulers but servants of all parishioners. New Testament requirements for assuming the office of an elder are according to Tit 1.5ff  EU :

  • a good repute
  • monogamy
  • orderly family relationships
  • emotional competence
  • hospitality
  • not dependent on drugs
  • Correspondence between teaching and life
  • gifted in pastoral care

The oldest in the various church structures

  • In the Roman Catholic Church , presbyter is the Latin name for the ecclesiastical official who is called a priest in German . Since late antiquity, the presbyters of the church have also been called sacerdotes , i.e. priests in the cultic sense. Together they form under the bishop , the “high priest”, the presbytery, i.e. the “council of elders” or the priestly college of the respective diocese . In the early Middle Ages, the German word priest emerged from the word presbyter , but its content is at least partially filled with the term sacerdos as a designation of a mediator between God and man.
  • In the Oriental Orthodox and the Byzantine Orthodox Church the same officials are also called ecclesiastical presbyters ; in addition, the liturgical and cultic designation is priest since the 4th / 5th. Century common.
  • In the Evangelical Lutheran , Reformed and United Churches, as well as in many free churches such as the Adventists , Baptists , Mennonites and Pentecostals , an elder or presbyter is an elected member in the leadership of the parish . The totality of the elders, together with the pastor or pastor, forms the presbytery or the group of elders and thus the church community leadership . The term presbyter for the lay people in the community leadership is used, for example, in the Evangelical Church of Westphalia and in the Evangelical Church in the Rhineland . If they have a special function in the presbytery or if they lead the committee, they are named church master . In other regional churches, the corresponding body is called the parish council (GKR), e.g. B. in Berlin-Brandenburg, Parish Council (KGR), for example in Württemberg, or Church Council (KV), so in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Saxony , designated. The heads of the committee are referred to there accordingly as GKR, KGR or KV chairmen. In many free churches, the pastor is assisted by a church leader from the group of elders.
  • In the Presbyterian churches the structures are the same, but in addition to the pastors, the elders (and deacons) are usually ordained as well . Because both offices are viewed as a continuation of the New Testament office of πρεσβὺτερoς, both are often referred to as elders (a distinction is made between teaching elders and ruling elders ). The governing body for a community of neighboring parishes (comparable to a district or deanery synod in the churches of the EKD) is called the presbytery , whereas the one at the parish level corresponding to the German presbytery is called session .
  • In the Methodist Church is Elder or elder ( English presbyter ) the official name of an ordained pastor or an ordained priest as opposed to a layman.
  • The New Apostolic Church knows two types of elders. The church elder leads larger churches. The district elders (district heads) lead a district or serve to support their bishop or apostle . Their tasks include discussing problems with the individual parish leaders, working meetings with priestly ministers and taking on the entire responsibility for the sub-district in pastoral and administrative matters.
  • Among the Jehovah's Witnesses , a college of men, the so-called body of elders, who have organizational tasks within the community, are called elders .
  • In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is an elder (Engl. Elder ) office in the priesthood .


  • Fritz Rienecker: oldest . In Bible Lexicon (New Testament use)

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