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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Bishop, Elder, Presbyter


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The origin of the episcopate is, and is likely to remain, unknown. All the available evidence has been carefully collected, sifted, and estimated, and it is insufficient. Equally honest and equally capable critics infer different theories of the episcopate from it, and no solution of the problem can claim demonstration. We may hold, and perhaps be able to convince others, that one solution is more probable than another, but we cannot prove that it is the true one. All conclusions are tentative.

The problem is an old one, and as early as the 4th cent. there were two leading theories respecting the origin of the episcopate-that of Theodore of Mopsuestia and that of Jerome-but they are theories and no more. These two writers drew inferences from facts, or what they believed to be facts; they did not know more about the origin than we do. And they both start from the same fact, viz. that in the NT ‘bishop’ and ‘presbyter’ (or ‘elder’) are synonyms; they are two names for the same official. This is so generally recognized that there is no need to repeat the evidence. The two names are still synonymous in Clement of Rome (Cor. 42, 44), and by implication in Polycarp (Philippians 1) and the Didache (15), which we may date about a.d. 130-150. Ignatius is the earliest writer known to us who clearly separates ‘bishop’ from ‘elder’; with him ‘bishop’ means the monarchical ruler of a local church, distinct from, and superior to, the ‘presbyters’ or ‘elders.’

Starting from the original identity of ‘bishop’ and ‘presbyter,’ Theodore (on 1 Timothy 3:1-8) infers that episcopacy existed from the first. The first bishops, among whom were Timothy and Titus, were consecrated by apostles, governed whole provinces, and were sometimes called ‘apostles.’ Theodore erroneously supposed that ‘laying on of the hands of the presbytery’ (1 Timothy 4:14) meant consecration of Timothy by some of the Twelve. He was consecrated by St. Paul with certain elders (2 Timothy 1:6). ‘The presbytery,’ which in Luke 22:66 and Acts 22:5 means the body of elders in the Sanhedrin, here means a body of Christian elders. The details of Theodore’s theory need not detain us; the central point in it is the proposition that the apostles instituted a distinct class of officials to be their successors. But did they? The question admits of no secure answer. It must be remembered that we have no evidence that either Christ or the apostles ever prescribed any particular form of government for the society which they founded; and there is the improbability that men who believed that Christ would very soon return would think it worth while to devise and prescribe a particular form of government for the increasing number of Christian communities. On the other hand, it is probable that, as the apostles passed away, and the Lord still did not appear, the communities would be driven to devise some form of government for themselves.

Jerome (Ep. 146, ad Evangelum) answers the question in the negative. The apostles did not institute distinct officials to be their successors. Churches were governed by a council of presbyters. But when presbyters began to form parties, and each presbyter thought that those whom he baptized belonged to him, it was decreed throughout the world that one of them should be elected and set over the others, and that on him should rest the general supervision of the Church. On Titus 1:5 he says that it is ‘by custom rather than by the Lord’s arrangement that bishops are a higher order.

There is no need to assume that party spirit was in all cases, or even in most, the chief reason for setting one presbyter above the rest. The more usual reasons would be the obvious advantage of having one person to whom doubtful matters might be referred, and the fact that in most colleges of presbyters there was one who was manifestly more capable than the others. When once a particular presbyter had been either formally elected, or allowed more and more to take the lead, his special functions would be likely to grow. The dignity of bishops appears to have developed rapidly. They led their congregations in public worship, regulating liturgical forms and the distribution of the alms. They also regulated the congregation’s power of punishing and forgiving offenders. They represented their congregations in all relations, Godward and manward. They gradually absorbed the functions of the expiring charismatic ministry, and were at once prophets and teachers, and they conducted the correspondence with other local churches. The frequent appearance of questionable doctrines greatly augmented the importance of bishops, who came to be regarded as teaching with unique authority. Montanism was a revolt against this official episcopacy-an attempt to restore the charismatic ministry of the prophets, and when it failed, the triumph of episcopacy wag complete. And it deserved to fail, not merely because of its extravagances, but because of its rebellion against external forms. In one sense, forms are unessential; the realities which the forms express are the things which matter. But it is only by continuity in the forms that the realities can be preserved; ‘formlessness inspired by enthusiasm melts away.… The elaboration of a close hierarchical organization and the setting up of a fixed dogmatic teaching were proved to be the necessary means of self-preservation, if the Gospel itself was not to be lost in the vortex of Gnosticism’ (Dobschütz, Apostol. Age, Eng. translation , London, 1909, pp. 122, 141). The bishops were witnesses to the deposit of faith, and as such decided as to the soundness of doctrines.

Probably the first function that was assigned to the bishop was that of being leader and guide in public worship. But we know very little about the beginnings of this worship. The influence of the synagogue in determining the form was considerable, and it is possible that certain heathen mysteries exercised some influence, but the latter point has been exaggerated. Clement’s Epistle shows that the trouble at Corinth was about persons-whether certain presbyters had been rightly deposed; not about principles-whether government by presbyters could be rightly maintained. Clement himself was not a bishop in the later sense: he was president of the college of presbyters in Rome. But such a president would be likely to develop into a monarchical bishop. Clement is the first Christian writer to take the fateful first step of interpreting the nature of office in the Church by reference to Jewish institutions, for which, to a certain extent, the way is prepared in 1 Corinthians 9:9 and 1 Timothy 5:18 (Harnack, Constitution and Law of the Church, London, 1910, p. 72). He draws a parallel between the Jewish priest and Levite and the Christian priest and deacon, and bases an argument from analogy on the resemblance (Cor., ch. 40). It is doubtful whether the mention of the high priest has any reference to a monarchical episcopate.

In James, the brother of the Lord, we seem to have the first instance of a monarchical ruler in a Christian community. But it is improbable that in connexion with him the idea of one ruler for the whole Church arose, and still more improbable that Matthew 16:18 was written as a protest against any such claim being made for one who was not one of the Twelve. It was not in Jerusalem, but in Asia Minor, that the monarchical episcopate as a permanent Christian institution had its rise, owing to causes which are unknown to us.

There are three possibilities with regard to the origin of both bishops and elders, and what is true of one need not be true of the other. Each may be (1) copied from Jewish synagogue officials, or (2) copied from Gentile municipal officials, or (3) due to spontaneous production. On the whole, it is probable that elders or presbyters were adopted from the synagogue, and that bishops arose spontaneously. But here we must carefully distinguish between origin and subsequent development. It is possible in both cases, and probable in the case of bishops, that the development of the office was influenced by secular municipal institutions.

In neither case does the word give us any definite information. By ‘elders’ (πρεσβύτεροι) may be meant either (1) seniors in age, or (2) people to be honoured for personal excellence, or (3) members of a council. The term ‘bishop’ (ἐπίσκοπος) denotes a supervisor or inspector, but tells us nothing of what he supervises or inspects. It may be buildings, or business, or men. In the NT it means an overseer of men in reference to their spiritual life, and is closely connected with the idea of shepherding; ‘the shepherd (ποιμήν) and overseer (ἐπίσκοπος) of your souls’ (1 Peter 2:25); ‘the flock (ποίμνιον) in the which the Holy Ghost had made you overseers (ἐπίσκοποι) to tend (ποιμαίνειν) the Church (ἐκκλησία) of God’ (Acts 20:28). Only once in the NT is ‘shepherd’ or ‘pastor’ used of Christian ministers (Ephesians 4:11); but it is used of Christ in Hebrews 13:20, 1 Peter 2:25; 1 Peter 5:4; cf. John 10:11; John 10:14.

The term ‘overseer’ or ‘bishop’ (ἐπίσκοπος) having been used of Christ as ‘the Overseer of souls,’ it would be natural to use it of those of His ministers who in a special way continued this work; and it is more probable that the Christian use of the title arose in this way than that it was adopted in imitation of the secular ἐπίσκοπος in a city. As the specially gifted persons known as ‘apostles, prophets, and teachers’ became less common, their functions would be transferred to the permanent local officials, especially to the highest of them, viz. the bishops (Didache, 15.1, 2). Neither bishops, elders, nor deacons appear in the lists of ministers and ministerial gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:28-30, Romans 12:6-8, Ephesians 4:11. But this does not prove that St. Paul did not know or care about such officials. Where these officials existed, they were as yet only local ministers, and there was no need to mention them in speaking of gifts to the Church as a whole.

Timothy and Titus were not monarchical bishops. They were temporary delegates or representatives of St. Paul at Ephesus or in Crete; they were forerunners of the monarchical bishops, not the first examples of them. Nor can the ‘angels’ of the Seven Churches (Revelation 1-3) be regarded as the bishops of those Churches. ‘The invariable practice’ of the writer of that book ‘forbids such an interpretation’ (Swete on Revelation 1:20), Excepting James, and perhaps ‘the Elder’ in 3 Jn., there is no instance of the monarchical episcopate in the NT; but it was established in Asia Minor before a.d. 100, and had become wide-spread in Christendom by 150.

Literature.-J. B. Lightfoot, Philippians, London, 1891 ed., pp. 95-99, 181-269, Dissertations, do. 1892, pp. 137-246 (which contains additional notes to the essay in Philippians); M. R. Vincent, Philippians, Edinburgh, 1897, pp. 36-51; J. H. Bernard, Pastoral Epistles, Cambridge, 1899, pp. lvi-lxxv; Priesthood and Sacrifice, a conference ed. by W. Sanday, Oxford, 1900; A. Deissmann, Bible Studies, translation Grieve, Edinburgh, 1901, pp. 154-157, 230; A. Harnack, Mission and Expansion of Christianity, Eng. translation 2, London, 1908, i. 445-482; P. Batiffol, L’église naissante3, Paris, 1909, pp. 115-152 (Eng. translation , Primitive Catholicism, London, 1911, pp. 97-163). See also works mentioned under Church Government.

Alfred Plummer.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Bishop, Elder, Presbyter'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/b/bishop-elder-presbyter.html. 1906-1918.

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