Last month, I spoke at the annual Preachers Conference in Cuba. Our general topic was 1 Timothy; one of my assigned topics was “Elders.”
Two years ago, the whole conference looked at the theme of elders, so I wasn’t too excited about looking at the same material we’d seen then. I decided to start with the Old Testament and look at elders there. The New Testament church drew the concept of an eldership from somewhere. Given the Jewish nature of the early church, it’s almost a given that this idea of elders came from Judaism.
In the Old Testament, we see that the elders were the heads of the tribes and the chief members of each family (See 1 Kings 8:1, for example). That’s why we don’t see elders among God’s people until the book of Exodus; Genesis principally deals with a single family.
Then in Exodus, we see Moses dealing with the elders of Israel (3:16; 4:29; 12:21). From that group, he selected 70 “special” elders (Exodus 24:9; Numbers 11:16-30). These were the recognized leaders of Israel, leaders of each family that made up the nation.
As time progressed, each town came to have its elders (Deuteronomy 16:18; Ezra 10:14). They would typically meet at the gate of the city to discuss important matters (Deuteronomy 25:7; Ruth 4:1-2; Proverbs 31:23). After the exile, they came to form part of the Sanhedrin, along with the chief priests and teachers of the Law. (That description of the Sanhedrin is found numerous times in the gospels)
Now here’s where I start speculating (I didn’t share this in Cuba). The elders were the patriarchs of each family. I think they were the men who were physically unable to work or serve in the military. Because of this, they had the time to sit around and act as a governing body. They were respected because of their age and experience.
Either way, when the church began, the idea of older men discussing important matters and making decisions was a natural one. It took no special prompting for the church to follow this system of organization which they knew so well.