Presbyter (Gr. πρεσβύτερος) is the title of an office or dignity in the Jewish synagogue (זקן). It was introduced into the Christian Church, and designated an officer whose functions in the apostolic period are disputed by different ecclesiastical bodies. In the Roman Catholic and in the English hierarchy, the title has been the occasion of a protracted controversy as to the respective claims of the bishop (q.v.) and the presbyter. Those who maintain the presbyter as on equality with the episcopes argue as follows: With respect to the successors of the apostles, they seem to have been placed on a footing of perfect equality, the διάκονοι, or deacons, not being included among the teachers. They were inferior officers, whose province it originally was to care for the poor, and to discharge those secular duties arising out of the formation of Christian communities which could not be discharged by the ministers without interfering with the much higher duties which they had to perform. These ministers are sometimes in the New Testament styled πρεσβύτεροι, or presbyters, at other times ἐπίσκοποι, or bishops; but the two appellations were indiscriminately applied to all the pastors who were the instructors of the different churches. Of this various examples may be given from the sacred writings. The apostle Paul, upon a very affecting occasion, when he was convinced that he could never again have an opportunity of addressing them, sent for the elders, or presbyters, of Ephesus the persons to whom the ministry in that Church had been committed; and after mentioning all that he had done, and intimating to them the sufferings which awaited him, he addressed to them what may be considered as his dying advice, and as comprehending in it all that he judged it most essential for them to do: "Take heed, therefore, unto yourselves, and to all the flock over which the Holy Ghost hath made you bishops or overseers, to feed the Church of God" (Ac 20:17,28). Here they whose duty it was to feed the Church of God, as having been set apart through the Holy Spirit for that interesting work, are termed by the apostle presbyters and bishops, and there is not the slightest reference to the existence of any other ἐπίσκοπος, or bishop, superior to those ἐπισκοποι, or bishops, to whom he gives the moving charge now recorded. In his epistle to Titus, Paul thus writes: "For this purpose I left thee in Crete," where, as yet, it is probable that no teachers had been appointed," that thou shouldest ordain elders, or presbyters, in every city." He then points out the class of men from which the presbyters were to be selected, adding, as the reason of this, "for a bishop must be blameless as the steward of God" (Tit 1:5,7). It is quite plain that the term bishop is here applicable to the same persons who were a little before styled elders, and both are declared to be the stewards of God, the guardians and instructors of his Church. The apostle Peter, in his first epistle addressed to the Jewish converts, has these words: "The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, ὁ συμπρεσβύτερος , and a witness of the sufferings of Christ: feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight of it, ἐπισκοποῦντες, being bishops of it, not by constraint, but willingly" (1Pe 5:1-2). This passage is a very strong one. The apostle speaks of himself in his extraordinary capacity, a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and in his ordinary capacity as a teacher; showing, by the use of a very significant term, that as to it he was on a footing of equality with the other pastors or presbyters. He gives it in charge to them to feed the flock of God; the charge which, under most particular and affecting circumstances, he had received from the Lord after the Resurrection, and which includes in it the performance of everything requisite for the comfort and the edification of Christians; and he accordingly expresses this by the word ἐπισκοποῦντες, being bishops over them. It cannot, with any shadow of reason, be supposed that the apostle would exhort the elders, or presbyters, to take to themselves the office, and to perform the duties, of a bishop, if that term really marked out a distinct and higher order; or that he would have considered the presbyters as fitted for the discharge of the whole ministerial office, if there were parts of that office which he knew that it was not lawful for them to exercise. SEE ELDER.
It seems, by the passages that have been quoted, to be placed beyond a doubt, that, in what the apostles said respecting the ministers of Christ's religion, they taught that the ἐπίσκοποι and the πρεσβύτεροι were the same class of instructors; and that there were, in fact, only two orders pointed out by them, bishops or presbyters, and deacons. This being the case, even although it should appear that there were bishops, in the common sense of that term, recognized in the apostolic age, all that could be deduced from the fact would be, that the equality at first instituted among the teachers had, for prudential reasons, or under peculiar circumstances, been interrupted; but it would not follow either that the positive and general declarations on the subject by the inspired writers were not true, or that it was incumbent at all times, and upon all Christians, to disregard them. It has been strenuously contended that there were such bishops in the infancy of the Church, and that allusion is made to them in Scripture; but, without directly opposing the assertion, this much must be admitted, that the proof of it is less clear than that bishops and presbyters were represented as the same in rank and in authority. Indeed, there does not appear to have been any occasion for this higher order. To presbyters was actually committed the most important charge of feeding the Church of God, that is, of promoting the spiritual improvement of mankind; and it is remarkable that their privilege of separating from the people by ordination the ministers of religion is explicitly acknowledged in the case of Timothy, whom the apostle admonishes not to neglect the gift that was in him, and which had been given by prophecy, and by the laying-on of the hands of the presbytery; by which can be meant only the imposition of the hands of those who were denominated presbyters or bishops. But although all the parts of the ministerial duty had been entrusted to presbyters, it is still contended that the New Testament indicates the existence of bishops as a higher order. There has, however, been much diversity of opinion in relation to this point by those who contend for the divine institution of EPISCOPACY SEE EPISCOPACY (q.v.). Some of them maintain that the apostles, while they lived, were the bishops of the Christian Church; but this, and upon irrefragable grounds, is denied by others. Some urge that Timothy and Titus were, in what they call the true sense of the term, bishops; but many deny this, founding their denial upon the fact that these evangelists did not reside within the bounds, and were not limited to the administration, of any one church, but were sent wherever it was resolved to bring men to the knowledge of divine truth. Many conceive that the question is settled by the epistles in the book of Revelation being addressed to the angels of the respective churches named by the apostle. But it is far from being obvious what is implied under the appellation angel. There has been much dispute about this point, and it is certainly a deviation from all the usual rules by which we are guided in interpreting Scripture to bring an obscure and doubtful passage in illustration of one about the import of which, if we attend to the language used, there can be no doubt.
It may, therefore, be safely affirmed that there is nothing clear and specific in the writings of the New Testament which qualifies the positive declarations that bishops and presbyters were the same officers; that the ground upon which the distinction between them is placed is, at least, far from obviously supporting it; and that there is not the slightest intimation that the observance of such a distinction is at all important, much less absolutely essential, to a true Christian Church, insomuch that where it is disregarded the ordinances of divine appointment cannot be properly dispensed. If, therefore, it be established-and some of the most learned and zealous advocates for the hierarchy which afterwards arose have been compelled to admit it — that Scripture has not recognized any difference of rank or order between the ordinary teachers of the Gospel, all other means of maintaining this difference should be with Protestants of no force. Says Coleman, "Even the most zealous advocates of the episcopal system in the Greek, Roman, and English Church are constrained to recognize and admit the identity of the terms ἐπίσκοπος and πρεσβύτερος, according to the usus loquendi of the ancient Church. They are constrained to admit that the distinction between the office of bishop and presbyter, which prevailed about the 3rd and 4th centuries, and to a period still later, was unknown in the first two centuries." It may be shown that the admission of the distinction is not incompatible with the great ends for which a ministry was appointed, and even in particular cases may tend to promote them; but still it is merely a matter of human regulation, not binding upon Christians, and not in any way connected with the vital influence of the Gospel dispensation. The whole of the writers of antiquity might be urged in support of it, if that could be done; and, after all, every private Christian would be entitled to judge for himself, and to be directed by his own judgment, unless it be maintained that where Scripture has affirmed the existence of equality, this is to be counteracted and set at naught by the testimonies and assertions of a set of writers who, although honored with the name of fathers, are very far, indeed, from being infallible, and who have, in fact, often delivered sentiments which even they who, upon a particular emergency, cling to them must confess to be directly at variance with all that is sound in reason or venerable and sublime in religion. It also follows, from the Scriptural identity of bishops and presbyters, that no Church in which this identity is preserved can on that account be considered as having departed from the apostolic model, or its ministers be viewed, at least with any good reason, as having less ground to hope for the blessing of God upon their spiritual labors; because if we admit the contrary, we must also admit that the inspired writers, instead of properly regulating the Church, betrayed it into error by omitting to make a distinction closely allied with the essence of religion. What is this but to say that it is safer to follow the erring direction of frail mortals than to follow the admonitions of those who, it is universally allowed, were inspired by the Holy Spirit, or commissioned by him to be the instructors of the world? It is to be observed, however, that although bishops and presbyters were the same when the epistles of the New Testament were written, it would be going too far to contend that no departure from this should ever take place; because, to justify such a position, it would be requisite that a positive injunction should have been given that equality must at all times be carefully preserved. There is, however, no such injunction. Unlike the Old Testament, which specified everything, even the most minute, in relation to the priesthood, the New only refers in general terms, and very seldom, to the ministry; and the reason probably is, that, being intended for all nations, it left Christians at liberty to snake such modifications in the ecclesiastical constitution as in their peculiar situation appeared best adapted for religious edification. The simple test to be applied to the varying or varied forms of Church government is that indicated by our Lord himself: "By their fruits ye shall know them." Wherever the regulations respecting the ministry are such as to divert it from the purposes for which it was destined, to separate those who form it from the flock of Christ, to relax their diligence in teaching, and to destroy the connection between them and their people, so as to render their exertions of little or of no use, there we find a Church not apostolical. But wherever the blessed fruits of Gospel teaching are in abundance produced, where the people and the ministers are cordially united and where every regulation is calculated to give efficacy to the labors of those who have entered into the vineyard, we have an apostolical Church, or, to speak more properly, a Church of Christ built upon a rock, because devoted to the beneficent objects for, which our Savior came into the world.
Schaff, in his Hist. of the Christian Church (1, 418 sq.), adduces, in favor of the view which denies the apostolic origin of the episcopate as a separate office or order, the following facts:
"1. The undeniable identity of presbyters and bishops in the New Testament, conceded even by the best interpreters among the Church fathers, by Jerome, Chrysostom, and Theodoret.
2. Later, in the 2nd century, the two terms are still used in like manner for the same office. The Roman bishop Clement, in his first epistle to the Corinthians, says that the apostles, in the newly founded churches, appointed the first fruits of the faith, i.e. the first converts. ἐπισκόπους καὶ διακονους. He here omits the πρεσβύτεροι, as Paul does in Php 1; Php 1, for the simple reason that they are in his view iden. tical with ἐπίσκοποι; while, conversely, in ch. 57, he enjoins subjection to presbyters, without mentioning bishops. Clement of Alexandria distinguishes, it is true, the deaconate, the presbyterate, and the episcopate; but he supposes only a twofold official character, that of presbyters and that of deacons-a view which found advocates so late as the Middle Ages, even in pope Urban II, A.D. 1091. Lastly, Irenseus, towards the close of the 2nd century, though himself a bishop, makes only a relative difference between episcopi and presbyteri; speaks of successions of the one in the same sense as of the other; terms the office of the latter episcopatus; and calls the bishops of Rome πρεσβύτεροι. Sometimes, it is true, he appears to use the term πρεσβύτεροι, in a more general sense, for the old men, the fathers. But, in any case, his language shows that the distinction between the two offices was at that time still relative and indefinite.
3. The express testimony of the learned Jerome is that the churches originally, before divisions arose through the instigation of Satan, were governed by the common council of the presbyters, and not till a later period was one of the presbyters placed at the head to watch over the Church and suppress schisms. He traces the difference of the office simply to ecclesiastical custom as distinct from divine institution.
4. The custom of the Church of Alexandria was, from the evangelist Mark down to the middle of the 3rd century, that the twelve presbyters elected one of their number president and called him bishop. "This fact rests on the authority of Jerome, and is confirmed independently by the Annals of the Alexandrian patriarch Eutychius of the 10th century." Killen, in his Ancient Church, asserts: "Though the senior presbyter presided in the meetings of his brethren, and was soon known by the name of bishop, it does not appear that he originally possessed any superior authority. He held his place for life; but as he was sinking under the weight of years when he succeeded to it, he could not venture to anticipate an extended career of official distinction. In all matters relating either to discipline or the general interests of the brotherhood, he was expected to carry out the decisions of the eldership; so that, under his presidential rule, the Church was still substantially governed by 'the common council of the presbyters.' The allegation that presbyterial government existed in all its integrity towards the end of the 2nd century does not rest on the foundation of obscure intimations or doubtful inferences. It can be established by direct and conclusive testimony. Evidence has already been adduced to show that the senior presbyter of Smyrna continued to preside until the days of Irenaus, and there is also documentary proof that meanwhile he possessed no autocratical authority. The supreme power was still vested in the council of the elders. This point is attested by Hippolytus, who was now just entering on his ecclesiastical career, and who, in one of his works, a fragment of which has been preserved, describes the manner in which the rulers of the Church dealt with the heretic Noetus. The transaction probably occurred about A.D. 190." It shows that the presbyters then exercised episcopal functions, even to excommunication.
Says Dr. Blakie (The Presbyterian Churches throughout the World [Edinb. 1877], p. 1): "It is admitted even by many Episcopalians that, so far as Scripture indicates, the primitive Church constituted under the apostles was governed by elders. The office of apostle was temporary, and some other temporary arrangements were resorted to in the peculiar circumstances of the Church. But everywhere in settled churches there was a body of presbyters or elders; the terms presbyter and bishop were applied freely to the same individuals; and when the presbyters were addressed together, as those of Ephesus were addressed at Miletus, there was no hint of one of them having authority over the rest; they were called equally to feed and care for the Church over which the Holy Ghost had made them overseers." The offices of presbyter and bishop, according to the Roman Catholic theory, belong both, though in different degrees, to what Roman Catholics regard as the priesthood of the New Law. They teach that the presbyter is, in the sacerdotal order, an intermediate degree between the deacon and the highest functionary of the hierarchy, the episcopos. They also maintain stoutly that Scripture and tradition attest alike the divine institution of the presbyteriate. "Besides the apostles, the Lord marked out of the troop of his followers seventy (according to the Vulg. seventy-two), whom he sent out before him, two by two, into the cities and towns he intended to visit, with the mission of healing the sick and proclaiming the kingdom of God. These seventy men were, in consequence, the assistants of the apostles, but subordinated to them. Soon their number proved insufficient, and the apostles established in every city of some importance, at the foundation of the community, or when it had reached a certain degree of development, besides the bishop, whom they intended for their permanent representative and successor, a number of presbyters, who assisted the bishop in his functions." The Roman Catholic Church, as she considers the bishops the successors of the apostles, so she holds the presbyters to be the successors of the seventy assistants chosen by Christ himself. Inasmuch as they are entitled to perform the highest function of the priesthood, the administration of the Eucharist, they are called also sacerdos (ιΕπΕ'χ); yet this denomination, if not specified, applies only to the bishop: therefore we find frequently the summus sacerdos, or sacerdos primi ordinis. i.e. the bishop, thus distinguished from the simple priest, who is sacerdos secundi ordinis. The presbyters of an episcopal church had a share in the government, not individually, but as a college, presided over by the bishop; they had no jurisdiction of their own, and were merely assistants to the bishop. The bishop took their advice on the admission of higher clerical functionaries, on the management of discipline, especially of penitence, etc. They were themselves amenable to the spiritual jurisdiction of the bishop, and depended on him in the discharge of their duties as teachers and as priests. According to Roman Catholics, the bishop alone possesses the priesthood in its fullness, while the presbyter possesses it only in part. The functions, however, which belong to that part are discharged alike by the bishop and the presbyter. What those functions are will be detailed under the head PRIEST SEE PRIEST (q.v.). It is, of course, an easy matter for the prelatical churchmen to prove that by the end of the 2nd century the bishop was above the presbyter. Even before the end of the 2nd century the Church had departed from her early simplicity, and soon the episcopacy became the only prevalent government of the Church, although in some cases, as among the Culdees or the Waldenses, government by presbyters continued to prevail during the Middle Ages. The Church fathers of the 3rd and 4th centuries point to the superiority of the episcopos. Thus Clement of Rome points out clearly three different hierarchical degrees; bishops, priests, and deacons; and Ignatius of Antioch lays particular stress on the superior power of the bishops (Epist. ad Magnes. c. 6; Smyrn. c. 8, etc.). Affirmations of the same kind are given by Tertullian, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Cyprian, etc. "It is true," say the Romanists, "that the bishops, in the fathers as well as in Scripture, are sometimes called merely priests, but there is not one passage in which a simple priest is called bishop." Those who accept the authority of St. Jerome for the equality of the bishop and presbyter because he says (Comment. on the Epistle to Titus), "Noverint episcopi, se magis consuetudine quam dispositione Dominica presbyteris esse majores, et in commune debere ecclesiam regere, imitantes Moysen, qui cum haberet solus praeesse populo Israel, septuaginta elegit, cum quibus populum judicaret," are replied to by Romanists that (1) "even this parallel between Moses and his seventy, and the bishop and his presbyters, implies the pre-eminence of the bishop," and (2) that, "in the passage in question, St. Jerome is upbraiding a number of deacons who, in several places, and especially at Rome, had committed several encroachments on the rights of the presbyters in the administration of the ecclesiastical possessions. He, on this occasion, exalts the presbyters as much as he can, and in such cases where an abuse is to be eradicated, it frequently happens to this father to fall into the opposite extreme, as he does in his treatise De Virginitate adv. Jovinianum, in which, as an encomiast of virginity, he deems fit to treat matrimony with the most cruel contempt. He shows in other places his sense of the superiority of the episcopate: 'Quod Aaron et filii ejus atque Levitoe in temple, hoc sibi episcopi et presbvteri et diaconi vindicant.' The bishops have the same authority over priests and deacons that Aaron had over his sons and Levites. He speaks still more pointedly in his work against the Luciferians: 'Ecclesiae salus in summi sacerdotis (i.e. episcopi) dignitate pendet, cui si non exsors qubedam et ab omnibus eminens detur potestas, tot in ecclesiis efficientur schismata, quot sacerdotes.' But even if Jerome's opinion were contrary to the episcopal supremacy, what could it avail against the uninterrupted and unanimous tradition of so many fathers and ecclesiastical writers of the early centuries? If really the episcopate had not been originally distinct from the presbyteriate, we should then have to understand that a sudden and uniform change in the constitution of the Church took place in the whole extent of its expansion-that in all the communities, and at the same time, some ambitious and proud individualities set themselves above their colleagues." "But how," ask Romanists, "could this have come to pass without a long and desperate struggle; and how could this struggle, if it did take place, end so uniformly, in all the churches without exception, with the victory of the usurpers? History does not mention the least fact that anything of that kind ever took place. When several presbyters were attached to a single church, of which there were some instances, one of the number received the title of proto- presbyter, or arch-presbyter; but it is quite certain that this office bore no analogy to that of the bishop." To these arguments of Roman Catholics it is readily replied that the New Testament (as above seen) does explicitly refer to the original equality of presbyters and bishops, and that history contains not a few nor obscure indications of the usurpation of exclusive prerogatives by the latter. See, for Roman Catholic views, Wetzer u. Welte, Kirchen-Lexikon; for High Church Anglican views, Blunt, Dict. Hist. Theol.; for Low-Church views, Herzog, Real-Encyklop., the authorities already quoted, and the Lond. Quar. Rev. Jan. 1878, art. 5; Princeton Rev. Jan. 1878, art. 4. SEE PRELACY.