Elder (Ältester)

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Elder (German, Ältester/Aeltester; Dutch, Oudste) is the name for the highest and most responsible office of the Mennonite ministry in a large number of Mennonite congregations and conferences. The origin of the word goes back to the Biblical times and is mentioned in Acts 14:23; 1 Timothy 5:17, etc. The New Testament equivalent is presbyter or bishop. In the early Anabaptist usage, the terms elder (Ältester, Oudste), Leeraar, and bishop were used interchangeably. Gradually, however, the term Oudste or Ältester became predominant until the usage of "bishop" disappeared in Europe with the possible exception of the Hutterites. At present, wherever this office is referred to in Europe, it is either Ältester, Pastor, or Dominee. In America, however, large groups, particularly those of Pennsylvania-German background, use the term bishop only. This article will deal mostly with the office and function of the elder (regarding the office and the function of a bishop, see the article Bishop).

It was a principle of the Anabaptists to have their congregations function in a democratic way in contrast to the large state churches, which had a somewhat episcopal form of church government, operating usually from the top down. It would, however, be misleading to assume that the early Anabaptists were able to develop and maintain a thoroughly congregational type of church government. This was impossible because of the very severe and lasting persecution under which the congregations originated and existed. In many instances, the congregations could only survive through strong leadership, which was either delegated or assumed. In principle, and also in practice compared to the state churches, the Anabaptist congregations were democratic. However, the above-mentioned emergency conditions necessitated and were conducive to the development of strong leadership. Capito, in a letter of July 31, 1528, to Zwingli, says, "There are among them 'principes' and leaders, whom they themselves call 'Vorsteher.' "

The office of a minister was twofold; some ministers were ordained to preach only (Diener am Wort -- servant of the Word, Dienaar, Vermaner Prediger). The elders or bishops (Oudste, Leeraar) were authorized to perform all functions (voller Dienst -- full service) of the church. In addition to this, of course, there were also deacons (Armendiener -- servants of the poor).

The Emden Protocol (1579) treats in detail the call and function of elders and ministers of the 16th century Anabaptists of Northwest Europe. Pieter van Ceulen states: "Bishops and preachers (Dienaren) are chosen by the congregations under God's guidance by a majority of the vote with fasting and prayer unto the Lord. Such ministers are ordained by the laying on of hands of the elders" (p. 229b). And again this is emphasized when Brixius Gerrits says "that the entire congregation must meet to elect elders or preachers" (Leeraers ofte Dienaren, 239a). The Protocol and Het beginsel en voortganck der geschillen refer to the elders as Leeraar, Oudste, and Biscop. The Protocol uses all of these terms, while Het beginsel consistently uses Leeraar only. The latter uses Dienaer and Vermaender for preacher. These usages are also found in "Oude Gemeente verordeningen" by de Hoop Scheffer (Doopsgezind Bijdragen, 1877).

Thus in the early days the Anabaptists of Northwest Europe spoke of their elders interchangeably as Oudste, Leeraar, and Biscop. Such functions as the administration of baptism and the Lord's Supper and the ordination of church officers could be performed only by holders of this office. They are also referred to as Leeraer in den vollen dienst (Het beginsel, p. 16). The Dienaar (servant, minister) or Vermaner (admonisher) held an office which entitled the holder to preaching only, mostly in his own congregation, while the elders were traveling extensively in the various congregations of their respective districts. An unusual example of the extensive work of such an elder is found in the list of persons who were baptized by Leenaert Bouwens, extending from Meenen to Emden.

In the beginning the number of elders was small. Those who were to practice the "full ministry" (voller Dienst) were usually selected from among preachers and were then ordained as elders or bishops by laying on of hands (Krahn, Menno Simons, 147). This ordination entitled the elder not only to preach and assume leadership in the congregation, but also to baptize, administer the Lord's Supper, and ordain preachers and elders, and exercise discipline, which functions the common preacher could not fulfill.

The early Anabaptist ministers quite often had to defend their calling in their disputes with Catholic, Lutheran, and the Reformed ministers, who, more or less, claimed that their call was based on the Apostolic Succession and denied that the Anabaptist elders and ministers had a proper calling (see Emden Protocol, "Van de Verkiesinge ende Beroepinge der Predicanten ofte Dienaers," pp. 229-45). This concerned the Anabaptist leaders very little. Since they did not find a "true apostolic church" anywhere, and since the Bible demanded it, they felt not only authorized but compelled to establish a congregation. Elders and preachers were not working in their own authority, but had received their calling from a congregation or directly from God. Menno Simons says, "Ministers of the Sacred Word are to be called in an orderly manner, either by the Lord Himself or through the God-fearing" (Works II, 342a). The Wismar Agreements (1554), however, state clearly that no one has the right to preach without being called by a congregation or ordained by an elder (Bibiotheca Reformatoria Neerlandica VII, 53).

The elders, and particularly the preachers, did not receive a fixed salary, partly because the early Anabaptists were opposed to the practices along these lines prevailing in the state church. The prevalent corruption and lack of integrity, religious convictions, and sincerity they linked to the practice of hiring and paying the ministry for its services. A voluntary church membership and a voluntary ministry with personal conviction and high moral integrity was the aim. This, however, did not mean that the elder was not to receive support and aid out of "the hand of the God-fearing disciples," so that the elder could take care of his spiritual duties (Menno's Works II, 31 ff., 341). In the Emden Protocol Brixius Gerrits states, "To the question whether a congregation should support the minister it has called in a Christian way, we say yes. But we do not know whether they [apostles] had a fixed income" (p. 233b).

Rues states (Aufrichtige Nachrichten, 27-30) that during the early 18th century the conservative groups of the Netherlands still adhered to the practices of the early days. The elder specially ordained for these functions was the only minister to baptize, administer the Lord's Supper, and ordain ministers. He was always the chairman of the church council and took the initiative in matters pertaining to the congregation. The conservative groups were, in principle, opposed to a specially trained ministry, basing their argument partly on statements of the early Anabaptists, while the more progressive Mennonites of Holland soon realized the necessity of a specially trained leadership. The latter probably found as much justification in the writings of the early Anabaptists as the former. Although the early Anabaptist leaders strongly denounced the misuse of learning among the theologically trained ministers of the state churches, they hardly ever said anything against training as such. On the contrary, they made full use of it (Krahn, Menno Simons, 109 ff.).

Among the Waterlanders the distinction between the elders (Oudste, Leeraar) and preachers (Dienaar, Vermaner) soon disappeared. In Rotterdam this distinction was given up in 1687, when the elder died and the three remaining ministers were authorized to perform all functions on equal terms (Kühler III, 11). Among the Groningen Old Flemish, where the old practice was adhered to longest, the elders were also known as Opzieners or Commissarissen (Blaupot t. C., Groningen, 132 ff.). The more progressive urban Mennonite congregations of Holland soon felt the need for a trained ministry, which they remedied by electing physicians or other educated members of the congregations into the ministry and eldership. These, in turn, promoted the establishment of a seminary for the training of ministers. With this change, the office of elder was considerably altered. Formerly the elder served several congregations, having a number of co-ministers as assistants. Congregations then chose the elder from among the preachers, who usually had been chosen out of the congregation. With the special theological training of young men interested in serving as ministers, the whole system was gradually altered and finally disappeared. The minister did not necessarily stay for life. Soon there was only one minister in each congregation, ordained at once as both preacher and elder and performing all functions in the congregation.

This new system, started as an accommodation to the need of the day, spread from Holland to the neighboring German congregations, such as Krefeld, Emden, Hamburg-Altona, and Danzig, and finally to the Palatinate. Needless to say there was often a difference of opinion regarding this new system, which sometimes caused splits in congregations (Danzig, Elbing). There was usually the intellectual urban wing urging the calling of a specially prepared minister, and a conservative rural population opposing this change. However, the unwillingness, and sometimes inability, of lay ministers to cope with the multiple and complex problems and responsibilities of urban congregations compelled congregations to accept this change. In Holland the majority of congregations accepted this change during the 18th century, while the neighboring German Mennonite congregations inaugurated it during the 19th century, often calling on trained Dutch Mennonite ministers. The Danzig Mennonite congregation elected Jacob van der Smissen in 1826 as its first theologically trained preacher, but he did not become the elder of the congregation. Later Elbing followed. However, most of the rural Prussian Mennonite congregations retained the traditional system to the end of their existence (1945). Preachers and particularly elders were usually of the well-to-do class with a fairly good education, who could afford to devote a considerable part of their time to their congregational duties. The elders were organized like those of the Verband group in South Germany in a council of elders (Ältestenrat). The elders and preachers together constituted the Lehrdienst or ministerial body.

With the above change, the title of the ministers also underwent a change. In Holland, the word for elder (Oudste) was changed to the title in general use in the state church, Dominee (abbreviated Ds.). The North German and Prussian elders with a theological training, serving the congregations on a salaried basis, are usually referred to as Pastor, but also as Ältester.

The Mennonite congregations of Poland never came to the point where the old practice regarding elders and preachers was affected. In Russia the matter of eldership caused considerable difficulties when the Chortitza settlement was established. No elders had joined the immigrants and the one appointed by letter by the home congregation in Prussia was not fully accepted. After the initial difficulties had been ironed out by visiting elders from Prussia, the traditional elder-minister practice functioned without great change into the 20th century. The elders and ministers were organized in a Kirchenkonvent, the equivalent of the Lehrdienst in West Prussia.

With the raising of the educational level and the introduction of secondary schools among the Russian Mennonites during the middle of the 19th century, the demand for specially trained preachers and elders increased. It gradually became the practice to elect preachers from the ranks of the teachers, who sometimes combined the two professions. Thus at the turn of the century most of the elders had secondary school training. With the interest in mission work and the training of missionaries in foreign theological schools came also the demand for the establishment of a theological school, and when this did not materialize, the training of some ministers and evangelists in Swiss and German Bible Schools and theological seminaries came about. Although there was a trend away from the older system in which the elder had charge of a number of other congregations and ministers in addition to his own, a radical change did not take place. Theologically trained and conference-appointed traveling evangelists received some remuneration, as did also some elders, but the system of the unsalaried ministry in general prevailed. On the whole, the development in this matter was about the same among all groups of Mennonites in Russia. The tradition and practice regarding elders and preachers among the Mennonite Brethren congregations was more or less the same.

In Russia, in accordance with an old Flemish regulation, only the elders, not the preachers, were ordained by the laying on of hands; this practice continued in some of the Flemish congregations until 1900.

The Mennonite immigrant congregations of Prussian, Polish, and Russian background of the prairie states (U.S.A.) and provinces (Canada) maintained the traditional office of an elder who was assisted by preachers and was possibly in charge of a number of congregations. For many years lay preachers were elected from the midst of the congregation. Gradually, with the advancement of secondary education and the felt need for an English-speaking, theologically trained ministry, the practice in the United States has been completely changed, very much after the pattern introduced in the Netherlands. This applies especially to the General Conference Mennonite congregations and the Mennonite Brethren. Most of their congregations are now served by men who voluntarily chose the work of a minister by majoring in Bible in college or attending a theological seminary or Bible school, and who have received a call from a congregation to serve full time on a contract basis. Most of these ministers are ordained at one and the same time as preachers and elders and thus perform all functions. Occasionally, in the process of changing, some of the old lay preachers also continue to preach. Thus, each congregation is served by a preacher-elder who performs all functions and can resign and accept the call of another congregation. This change is almost complete in all congregations of the above-mentioned background in the United States.

In Canada, where the more conservative element settled during the 1870s and where the more recent Mennonite immigrants from Russia are predominant, the old system still prevailed into the 1950s, although it was apparent that a change was coming. Elders of the Rosenort Mennonite Church, the Blumenort Mennonite Church, the Bergthal Mennonite Church, the Schönwiese Mennonite Church, and others still had charge of several congregations, assisted by a number of preachers, and were the only ones who administered baptism and the Lord's Supper and ordained ministers. However, in the Mennonite Brethren Church, where the office of elder had been completely dropped by the 1950s and the office of elected "leader" substituted, the minister is often in charge of one congregation only, and in some instances, has no assistant ministers. In the more conservative groups, such as the Old Colony Mennonites (Canada, Mexico), Sommerfelder (Canada, Mexico, Paraguay), and the immigrants from Russia and Prussia to South America, the old system of eldership   prevailed to the end of the 20th century.

With the change from the German language to the English, the title Ältester, which was the only form in use, has been translated "elder," although Canadian groups, particularly when dealing with the public and government, use the Anglican title "bishop." However, generally speaking, the title "elder" will probably disappear since the commonly used title, "The Reverend," in its abbreviated form "Rev.," was becoming predominant in the 1950s. When referring to the office of the minister-elect without the personal name, "minister" is the generally accepted term. "Preacher" is not used as a title preceding the name, as is common among the conservative groups of Pennsylvania-German background. An exception in using "Preacher" as a title is the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite.

The older method of electing an elder (and preacher) among the Dutch, Prussian, and Russian groups prior to the modern change was usually by majority vote. In some instances, however, the lot may have been used (Krahn, 144). References to it are extremely rare and the only known present practice is by vote. When at present a minister is to be called, the congregation has a committee to nominate candidates, one of whom is elected by a majority vote, possibly after the congregation has had occasion to become acquainted with the candidate.

The office of elder, both in the earlier times (16th-18th centuries) in Holland and North Germany and in the 19th-20th centuries in Russia, developed great prestige and considerable power. At times certain elders exercised this power in arbitrary and domineering ways, in effect "ruling over" their congregations or districts. In Holland such exercise of authority was a major factor in many of the schisms of the 16th and 17th centuries. In Russia the village type of settlement, the dominant religious concern, and the prestige of the elder tended to the development of a type of hierarchical theocracy in which at times the elders practically controlled both the civil and ecclesiastical life of the community. The village Schulze or mayor seldom acted in cultural matters without the counsel of the elder, and almost never acted against this counsel when it was received. However, there were men like Johann Cornies who successfully steered their own course, with the backing, to be sure, of the Russian governmental authorities. The Prussian and Russian Mennonite society was essentially patriarchal (as was generally the case in the Swiss-South German type also), in which the elder incorporated in his person in a sense both the familial and the ecclesiastical authority. This tradition continued among the conservative Old Colony Mennonites of Canada, Mexico, and Paraguay. The common Dutch and Low German title Oom (Ohm; i.e., Uncle) was applied to the elder symbolized and carried much of this feeling of high regard for the church authority.

Since the 1950s there have been some changes. The Ältester in the churches which continue to use the office is always a man, and is normally elected by the members of the congregation. In some churches in the Federal Republic of Germany, the Ältester is salaried. In Canada some Ältester were salaried during the transition to salaried ministry, however usually in the Soviet Union and in the Americas, the office is not salaried and is for life. The Ältester keeps the church's records, ordains ministers and deacons, administers baptism, serves communion, presides over membership meetings and meetings of ministers and deacons, and provides general direction, discipline, and pastoral care of the church.

The office of Ältester is used in the Mennonite churches in the Soviet Union and in the Federal Republic of Germany. Mennonite churches in the United States have generally discarded the office. The only exception is the Old Order Mennonite churches which refer to their deacon as Ältester. In Canada the Mennonite churches which have adopted conference structures have ceased using this office. The one exception is the Chortitzer Mennonite Church which has recently organized as a conference, and retains the office of Ältester. The other Canadian churches which continue to use the office of Ältester function as Gemeinden (congregations), and include the Old Colony, the Sommerfelder, the Saskatchewan Bergthaler, the Kleine Gemeinde, the Reinlander, and the Zion Mennonites.

In Mexico all churches use the office of Ältester including the General Conference, Old Colony, Sommerfelder, Kleine Gemeinde, and Reinlander. The Belize Old Colony and Kleine Gemeinde Mennonite churches continue to use the office as do the Old Colony, Reinlander, Bergthaler, and Sommerfelder Mennonites in Bolivia; the Bergthaler, Sommerfelder and Old Colony Mennonites in Paraguay; and the Old Colony Mennonites in Argentina

See also Ministry (Netherlands); Ministry (Prusso-Russian Background Mennonites); Ministry (Switzerland, South Germany, France, North America)


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Author(s) Cornelius Krahn
John J. Friesen
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Krahn, Cornelius and John J. Friesen. "Elder (Ältester)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 24 Jul 2024. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Elder_(%C3%84ltester)&oldid=144987.

APA style

Krahn, Cornelius and John J. Friesen. (1989). Elder (Ältester). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 24 July 2024, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Elder_(%C3%84ltester)&oldid=144987.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 178-181; vol. 5, pp. 267-268. All rights reserved.

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