My first thought was to do a search for occurrences of the term. It turns out the word 'elder' shows up 194 times.
So my first observation is this:
Most of the 194 references to the term elder come from the Old Testament. When people use Scripture to support the way they define elders, do they ever look to the examples in the OT?
Did the elders in the OT hold a religious office? Or did the term elder simply refer to older wise men who were well respected in the community? I believe their culture had a role for elders to play within the family and community, but they were not necessarily viewed as their spiritual leaders.
Here are a few examples to consider:
Exodus 3:18 (NIV)
"The elders of Israel will listen to you. Then you and the elders are to go to the king of Egypt and say to him, 'The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us. Let us take a three-day journey into the desert to offer sacrifices to the LORD our God.'Leviticus 9:1-4 (NIV)
The Priests Begin Their Ministry
On the eighth day Moses summoned Aaron and his sons and the elders of Israel. He said to Aaron, "Take a bull calf for your sin offering and a ram for your burnt offering, both without defect, and present them before the LORD. Then say to the Israelites: 'Take a male goat for a sin offering, a calf and a lamb—both a year old and without defect—for a burnt offering, 4 and an ox and a ram for a fellowship offering to sacrifice before the LORD, together with a grain offering mixed with oil. For today the LORD will appear to you.' "
Deuteronomy 31:9 (NIV)
[ The Reading of the Law ] So Moses wrote down this law and gave it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD, and to all the elders of Israel.Joshua 8:33 (NIV)
All Israel, aliens and citizens alike, with their elders, officials and judges, were standing on both sides of the ark of the covenant of the LORD, facing those who carried it—the priests, who were Levites. Half of the people stood in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal, as Moses the servant of the LORD had formerly commanded when he gave instructions to bless the people of Israel.2 Samuel 19:11 (NIV)
King David sent this message to Zadok and Abiathar, the priests: "Ask the elders of Judah, 'Why should you be the last to bring the king back to his palace, since what is being said throughout Israel has reached the king at his quarters?1 Kings 8:3 (NIV)
When all the elders of Israel had arrived, the priests took up the ark,Ezra 6:14 (NIV)
So the elders of the Jews continued to build and prosper under the preaching of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah, a descendant of Iddo. They finished building the temple according to the command of the God of Israel and the decrees of Cyrus, Darius and Artaxerxes, kings of Persia.
Jeremiah 29:1 (NIV)
[ A Letter to the Exiles ] This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.Ezekiel 7:26 (NIV)
Calamity upon calamity will come, and rumor upon rumor. They will try to get a vision from the prophet; the teaching of the law by the priest will be lost, as will the counsel of the elders.(And also many NT examples outside of Christ's church like this)
Matthew 27:41 (NIV)
In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him.
There is a consistent distinction between elders and the religious leaders. I think the elders were simply older wise men who were well respected in their families and community. People in the community naturally looked to them for guidance and leadership. It was how their society functioned.
This concept is a bit lost in North American society, but we know there are still some cultures that function this way.
When we switch to the New Testament church, why do we think the term should support our practice of assigning a job title and job description to selected members for specific terms of service?
What do you think? Is there a link between the term 'elder' in the Old Testament with the term in the New Testament? Is it describing the same type of person? If so, why don't we look to the Old Testament as a model to how the elders functioned in the community, and not so much as a 'church' office or title.
OK, I plan to do more study on this topic soon.