Elder - Title or Function

Some time ago, I received an inquiry regarding the function of a local elder within the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Additionally, I was asked, “Should elders be addressed as elders or as brothers?” Accordingly, I seek to address the topic of identification, function and title pertaining to local elders.



Who Is a Local Elder?


Local elders are recognized as possessing strong spiritual leadership and good reputation both in the church and the community. In the absence of a pastor, they are the spiritual leaders. By precept and example, they seek to lead the church into a deeper and fuller Christian experience. It is expected that elders conduct the services of the church and minister in both word and doctrine when the assigned pastor is unavailable. However, the SDA Church Manual cautions against choosing elders “primarily because of social position or speaking ability.” Instead, elders should be chosen “because of their consecrated lives and leadership abilities.” Local elders should be ordained in order to participate in the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper, etc. While ordination is for life, “all things being equal,” so to speak, elders are required to be re-elected in order to function at the local church.



Function of an Elder


Given the aforementioned, one can appreciate why the church uses the term local elder. The term “local elder” refers to function as opposed to title in that the elder functions within the context of the local church. However, they are not addressed as local elders. Instead, they are commonly addressed as elders; and therein resides the basis for some confusion. How does a member differentiate between a local elder from a senior church administrator? In the December 12, 2012 edition of the Spectrum Magazine, it is observed that “Adventism has one of the most layered and complex hierarchies in all of Christianity.” The article continues, “but at the same time there is not (officially) an office with more authority than the local elder. Thus, even our General Conference president’s ecclesial title of address remains ‘Elder Wilson.’ This middle-ground which Adventism tries to occupy leaves us with ‘presidents’ that function like ‘bishops’ but who are called ‘elders.’ No wonder debates regarding ordination are so volatile.”

So to refer to a local elder, as “Brother” or “Sister” in no way diminishes his or her roles. The focus is on function and not title. Personally, I refer to my Division and General Conference leaders as elders. I picked this up from hearing local conference leaders refer to the same and the then Union president as Elder. To me, this is not so much an issue as much as a matter of respect. Interestingly, when they write me, they sign their names without any title. They are Israel and Ted. I am in no way suggesting that they be addressed by their first name, for in our culture that would be disrespectful. Again, I think it is safe to keep in mind function as opposed to title. “Brother” suggests respect and closeness in certain cultures. Nevertheless, there are times when occasions may require some official titles.



The Work of Elders Is Local

As the name suggests, the authority and work of elders are confined to the church in which their election has been made. It is not permissible for a conference committee by vote to confer on an elder the status that is granted to an ordained pastor to serve other churches as elder. If that need exists, the conference committee may recommend to the church needing an elder that it invite and elect the elder of a nearby church to serve. Thus by election one individual may, when necessary, serve more than one church. Such an arrangement should be made only in counsel with the conference committee. Authority to elect elders is inherent in the local church and not in the conference committee. The only way one may be qualified for serving the Church at large is by ordination to the gospel ministry (See Church Manual pp. 33, 72, 73.).

On the other hand, the work of the pastor is international, as his ordination allows for service throughout the world.