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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary

Presbyterians

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are those that affirm there is no order in the church, as established by Christ and his Apostles, superior to that of presbyters; that all ministers, being ambassadors, are equal by their commission; and that elder, or presbyter, and bishop, are the same in name and office, and the terms synonymous. Their arguments against the Episcopalians are as follows:—With respect to the successors of the Apostles, they seem to have been placed on a footing of perfect equality, the διακονοι , 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 πρεσβυτεροι , or presbyters, at other times επισκοποι , or bishops; but the two appellations were indiscriminately applied to all the pastors who were the instructers 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," Acts 20:17 ; Acts 20:28 . 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 allusion to the existence of any other επισκοπος , or bishop, superior to those επισκοποι , or bishops, to whom he gives the moving charge now recorded. In his epistle to Titus, St. 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," Titus 1:5 ; Titus 1:7 . It is quite plain that the epithet 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 instructers 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, ο συμπρεσβυτερος , and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight of it, επισκοπουντες , being bishops of it, not by constraint but willingly," 1 Peter 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 every thing requisite for the comfort and the edification of Christians; and he accordingly expresses this by the word επισκοπουντες , 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.

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 επισκοποι and the πρεσβυτεροι were the same class of instructers; 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 respired 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 laying on of the hands of those who were denominated presbyters or bishops. But although all the parts of the ministerial duty had been intrusted 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. 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 that, founding their denial upon these evangelists not having resided within the bounds, or been limited to the administration of any one church, being 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 afterward 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. 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 may 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 nought by the testimonies and assertions of a set of writers, who, although honoured 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 labours; because if we admit the contrary, we must also admit that the inspired writers, instead of properly ingulating 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 instructers 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 every thing, even the most minute, in relation to the priesthood, the New only alludes 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 make 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 labours 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 Saviour came into the world.

The form of church government among the Scotch Presbyterians is as follows:—The kirk session, consisting of the minister and lay elders of the congregation, is the lowest ecclesiastical judicature. The next is the presbytery, which consists of all the pastors within a certain district, and one ruling elder from each parish. The provincial synods, of which there are fifteen, meet twice in the year, and are composed of the members of the several presbyteries within the respective provinces. From the kirk sessions appeal lies to the presbyteries, from these to the synods, and from them to the general assembly, which meets annually, and is the highest ecclesiastical authority in the kingdom. This is composed of delegates from each presbytery, from every royal borough, and from each of the Scotch universities; and the king presides by a commission of his own appointment. The Scotch ordain by the "laying on of the hands of the presbytery," before which persons may be licensed to preach as probationers, but cannot administer the sacraments. The clergy are maintained by the state, and nominated to livings by patrons, as in other establishments. Those properly called the English Presbyterians, have no connection with the Scotch kirk. They are now indeed broken into separate churches, and follow the same from of church government as the Congregationalists or Independents. The name Presbyterian, therefore, is now inapplicable to them although retained. So Dr. Doddridge: "Those who hold every pastor to be so a bishop or overseer of his own congregation, as that no other person or body of men have, by divine institution, a power to exercise any superior or pastoral office in it, may, properly speaking, be called, so far at least, congregational; and it is by a vulgar mistake that any such are called Presbyterians." See EPISCOPALIANS .


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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Presbyterians'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/wtd/p/presbyterians.html. 1831-2.

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