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History of the Christian Church, Volume I: Apostolic Christianity. A.D. 1-100.
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§ 61. Presbyters or Bishops. The Angels of the Seven Churches. James of Jerusalem.


We proceed to the officers of local congregations who were charged with carrying forward in particular places the work begun by the apostles and their delegates. These were of two kinds, Presbyters or Bishops, and Deacons or Helpers. They multiplied in proportion as Christianity extended, while the number of the apostles diminished by death, and could, in the nature of the case, not be filled up by witnesses of the life and resurrection of Christ. The extraordinary officers were necessary for the founding and being of the church, the ordinary officers for its preservation and well-being.

The terms Presbyter (or Elder)706706    The πρεσβύτεροι correspond to the Jewish zekenim; see above, § 51. It was originally a term of age, and then of dignity, like Senators, Sennatus, γερουσία (comp. our " Senate," "Alderman"), for the members of the governing body of a municipality or state. Aged and experienced men were generally chosen for office, but not without exceptions. Timothy was comparatively young when he was ordained (1 Tim. 4:12). The Roman Senate consisted originally of venerable men, but after the time of Augustus the aetas senatoria was reduced to twenty-five. The use of presbyter in the sense ofsacerdos, ἱερεύς, priest, dates from the time of Cyprian, and became common from the fifth century onward to the Reformation. In the New Test. there is no trace of any special sacerdotal office or caste. and Bishop (or Overseer, Superintendent)707707    The term ἐπίσκοποςoccurs about a dozen times in the Septuagint for various Hebrew words meaning " inspector," "taskmaster," "captain," "president" (see Trommius, Concord. Gr. 492 LXX. Interpr. sub verbo, and also sub ἐπισκοπή and ἐπισκοπέω). It was used in Egypt of the officers of a temple, in Greece of overseers or guardians in general, or of municipal and financial officers. In Athens the commissioners to regulate colonies and subject states were called ἐπίσκοποι. The Spartans sent ἐπιμεληταί in the same capacity. The term was not only applied to permanent officers, but also to the governing body, or a committee of the governing body. The feminine ἐπισκοπή is not classical, but passed from the Sept. into the Greek Test. (Acts 1:20; 1 Tim. 3:1) and patristic usage with the meaning: the work or office of a bishop (inspectio, visitatio). See Lightfoot, Philippians, 93 sqq., Gebhardt and Harnack, Patr. Apost. Op. p. 5; Hatch, l.c., 37 sqq., and Hatch, art. "Priest" in Smith and Cheetham, II. 1698 sqq. denote in the New Testament one and the same office, with this difference only, that the first is borrowed from the Synagogue, the second from the Greek communities; and that the one signifies the dignity, the other the duty.708708    The distinction between them, as two separate orders of ministers, dates from the second century, and is made a dogma in the Greek and Roman churches. The Council of Trent (Sess. XXIII., cap. 4, and can. vii. de sacramento ordinis) declares bishops to be successor of the apostles, and pronounces the anathema on those who affirm "that bishops are not superior to priests (presbyters)." Yet there are Roman Catholic historians who are learned and candid enough to admit the original identity. So Probst, Sacramente, p. 215; Döllinger (before his secession), First Age of the Church, Engl. transl. II. 111; and Kraus, Real-Encykl. der christl. Alterthümer (1880), I. 62. Kraus says: "Anfangs werden beide Termini [ἐπίσκοπος and πρεσβύτερος] vielfach mit demselben Werthe angewendet (Act 20:17, 28; Tit. 1:5; Clem. ad Cor. I. 42, 44, 47). Noch im zweiten Jahrh. findet man die Bischöfe auch Gr. presbuteroi genannt, nicht aber umgekeht. Sofort fixirt sich dann der Sprachgebrauch: der B. ist der Vorsteher der παροικία, διοίκησις ,als Nachfolger der Apostel; ihm unterstehen Volk und Geistlichkeit; ihm wohnt die Fülle der priesterlichen Gewalt inne."The sacerdotal idea, however, does not synchronize with the elevation of the episcopate, but came in a little later.

1. The identity of these officers is very evident from the following facts:

a. They appear always as a plurality or as a college in one and the same congregation, even in smaller cities) as Philippi.709709    The only apparent exceptions are 1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:7, but there the definite article before ἐπίσκοποςis generic.

b. The same officers of the church of Ephesus are alternately called presbyters710710    Acts 20:17 (presbyters), 28 (bishops). In the English version the argument of the identity is obscured by the exceptional translation "overseers," instead of the usual "bishops." The Revised Version of 1881 has mended this defect by adopting "elders" and "bishops" in the text, and "presbyters" and "overseers" in the margin. The perversion of the passage, under the unconscious influence of a later distinction, began with Irenaeus, who says (Adv. Haer. III. 14, 2): "The bishops and presbyters were called together (convocatis episcopis et presbyter) at Miletus from Ephesus, and the other neighboring cities (et a reliquis proximis civitatibus)."The last addition was necessary to justify the plurality of bishops as distinct from presbyters. The latter alone are mentioned, Acts 20:17. and bishops.

c. Paul sends greetings to the "bishops" and "deacons" of Philippi, but omits the presbyters because they were included in the first term; as also the plural indicates.711711    Phil. 1:1: πᾶσιν τοῖς ἁγίοις ... σύν ἐπισκόποις καὶ διακόνοις

d. In the Pastoral Epistles, where Paul intends to give the qualifications for all church officers, he again mentions only two, bishops and deacons, but uses the term presbyter afterwards for bishop.712712    1 Tim. 3:1-13; 5:17-19; Tit. 1:5-7.

Peter urges the "presbyters" to "tend the flock of God," and to "fulfil the office of bishops" with disinterested devotion and without "lording it over the charge allotted to them."713713    1 Pet. 5:1, 2: πρεσβυτέρους ... παρακαλῶ ὁ συνπρεσβύτερος; ποιμάνατε τὸ ἐν ὑμῖν ποίμνιον τοῦ θεοῦ, ἐπισκοποῦντες … The last word is omitted by א and B. Tischendorf (8th ed.), Westcott and Hort, but ποιμάνατε implies the episcopal function, the oversight of the flock.

e. The interchange of terms continued in use to the close of the first century, as is evident from the Epistle of Clement of Rome (about 95), and the Didache, and still lingered towards the close of the second.714714    Clem., Ad Cor. c. 42 ("bishops and deacons "), c. 44 ("bishopric ... the presbyters"). The Didache (ch. 15) knows only bishops and deacons, as local officers, the former being identical with presbyters. Irenaeus still occasionally calls the bishops "presbyters," and uses sussiones episcoporum and successiones presbyterorum synonymously, but he evidently recognized the episcopal constitution. The higher office includes the lower, but not conversely.

With the beginning of the second century, from Ignatius onward, the two terms are distinguished and designate two offices; the bishop being regarded first as the head of a congregation surrounded by a council of presbyters, and afterwards as the head of a diocese and successor of the apostles. The episcopate grew out of the presidency of the presbytery, or, as Bishop Lightfoot well expresses it: "The episcopate was formed, not out of the apostolic order by localization, but out of the presbyteral by elevation; and the title, which originally was common to all, came at length to be appropriated to the chief among them."715715    L. c., p. 194. He illustrates this usage by a parallel instance from the Athenian institutions. Neander has the same view of the origin of the episcopate. It dates, in fact, from Jerome. Nevertheless, a recollection of the original identity was preserved by the best biblical scholars among the fathers, such as Jerome (who taught that the episcopate rose from the presbyterate as a safeguard against schism), Chrysostom, and Theodoret.716716    See the patristic quotations in my Hist. of the Ap. Ch. pp. 524 sq. Even Pope Urban II. (a.d. 1091) says that the primitive church knew only two orders, the deaconate and the presbyterate. The original identity of presbyter and bishop is not only insisted on by Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Congregationalists, but freely conceded also by Episcopal commentators, as Whitby, Bloomfield, Conybeare and Howson, Alford, Ellicott, Lightfoot, Stanley, and others. It is also conceded by purely critical historians, as Rothe, Ritschl, Baur (K Gesch I. 270), and Renan (Les Evangiles, p. 332). Renan calls the history of the ecclesiastical hierarchy the history of a triple abdication: first the community of believers committed their power to the presbyters, then the corps of presbyters abdicated to the bishop, and, last, the bishops to the pope (in the Vatican council). "La création de l’épiscopat est l’aeuvre du IIe siècle. L’absorption de l’Eglise par lespresbyteriest un fait accompli avant la fin du premier. Dans l’èpître de Clément Romain, etc., ce n’est pas encore l’épiscopat, c’est le presbytérat qui est en cause. On n’y trouve pas trace d’un ’presbyteros’’supérieur aux autres et devant détrôner les autres. Mais l’auteur proclame hautement que le presbytérat, to clergé, est antérieur au peuple." Comp. also Renan’s Saint Paul, 238 sq., and L’Eglise Chrétienne, ch. VI. p. 85 sqq. This subject then may be regarded as finally settled among scholars. At the same time it should in all fairness be admitted that the tendency toward an episcopal concentration of presbyteral power may be traced to the close of the apostolic age.

The reason why the title bishop (and not presbyter) was given afterwards to the superior officer, may be explained from the fact that it signified, according to monumental inscriptions recently discovered, financial officers of the temples, and that the bishops had the charge of all the funds of the churches, which were largely charitable institutions for the support of widows and orphans, strangers and travellers, aged and infirm people in an age of extreme riches and extreme poverty.717717    See Hatch, Organiz. Lect. II. and IV., and his art. "Priest" in Smith and Cheetham, II. 1700. Hatch makes large use of the inscriptions found at Salkhad, in the Haurân, at Thera, and elsewhere. He advances the new theory that the bishops were originally a higher order of deacons and supreme almoners of the sovereign congregation, while the presbyters had charge of the discipline. He admits that bishops and presbyters were equals in rank, and their names interchangeable, but that their relations differed in different churches during the first two centuries, and that the chief function of the bishop originally was the care and disposition of the charitable funds. Hence the stress laid by Paul on the necessity of a bishop being ἀφιλάργυρος and φιλόζενος . In the long series of ecclesiastical canons and imperial edicts, the bishops are represented especially in the light of trustees of church property.

2. The origin of the presbytero-episcopal office is not recorded in the New Testament, but when it is first mentioned in the congregation at Jerusalem, a.d. 44, it appears already as a settled institution.718718    Acts 11:30, at the time of the famine when the church of Antioch sent a collection to the elders for their brethren in Judaea. As every Jewish synagogue was ruled by elders, it was very natural that every Jewish Christian congregation should at once adopt this form of government; this may be the reason why the writer of the Acts finds it unnecessary to give an account of the origin; while he reports the origin of the deaconate which arose from a special emergency and had no precise analogy in the organization of the synagogue. The Gentile churches followed the example, choosing the already familiar term bishop. The first thing which Paul and Barnabas did after preaching the gospel in Asia Minor was to organize churches by the appointment of elders.719719    Acts 14:23; comp. Tit. 1:5.

3. The office of the presbyter-bishops was to teach and to rule the particular congregation committed to their charge. They were the regular "pastors and teachers."720720    ποιμένες καὶ διδάσκαλοι, Eph. 4:11. To them belonged the direction of public worship, the administration of discipline, the care of souls, and the management of church property. They were usually chosen from the first converts, and appointed by the apostles or their delegates, with the approval of the congregation, or by the congregation itself, which supported them by voluntary contributions. They were solemnly introduced into their office by the apostles or by their fellow presbyters through prayers and the laying on of hands.721721    Acts 14:23; Tit. 1:5; 1 Tim. 5:22; 4:14; 2 Tim. 1:6. On the election, ordination and support of ministers, see my Hist. Ap. Ch. pp. 500-506.

The presbyters always formed a college or corporation, a presbytery; as at Jerusalem, at Ephesus, at Philippi, and at the ordination of Timothy.722722    Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2, 4, 6, 23; 16:4; 20:17, 28; 21:18; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim 4:14; James 5: 14; 1 Pet. 5: 1. They no doubt maintained a relation of fraternal equality. The New Testament gives us no information about the division of labor among them, or the nature and term of a presidency. It is quite probable that the members of the presbyteral college distributed the various duties of their office among themselves according to their respective talents, tastes, experience, and convenience. Possibly, too, the president, whether temporary or permanent, was styled distinctively the bishop; and from this the subsequent separation of the episcopate from the presbyterate may easily have arisen. But so long as the general government of the church was in the hands of the apostles and their delegates, the bishops were limited in their jurisdiction either to one congregation or to a small circle of congregations.

The distinction of "teaching presbyters" or ministers proper, and "ruling presbyters" or lay-elders, is a convenient arrangement of Reformed churches, but can hardly claim apostolic sanction, since the one passage on which it rests only speaks of two functions in the same office.723723    1 Tim. 5:17: "Let the elders that rule well (οἱ καλῶς προεστῶτες πρεσβύτεροι) be counted of double honor ( διπλῆς τιμῆς), especially those who labor in the word and in teaching (ἐν λόγῳ καὶ διδασκαλίᾳ)." Some commentators emphasize καλῶς, some refer the " double honor" to higher rank and position, others to better remuneration, still others to both. Whatever may have been the distribution and rotation of duties, Paul expressly mentions ability to teach among the regular requisites for the episcopal or presbyteral office.724724    1 Tim. 3:2: "The bishop must be ... apt to teach (διδακτικόν)." The same is implied in Tit. 1:9; Act 20:28; and Heb. 13:17. Lightfoot takes the right view (p. 192): "Though government was probably the first conception of the office, yet the work of teaching must have fallen to the presbyters from the very first and have assumed greater prominence as time went on." On the question of teaching and ruling elders, compare, besides other treatises, Peter Colin Campbell: The Theory of Ruling Eldership (Edinb. and London, 1866), and two able articles by Dr. R. D. Hitchcock and Dr. E. F. Hatfield (both Presbyterians) in the "American Presbyterian Review" for April and October, 1868. All these writers dissent from Calvin’s interpretation of 1 Tim. 5:17, as teaching two kinds of presbyters: (1) those who both taught and ruled, and (2) those who ruled only; but Campbell pleads from 1 Cor. 12:28; Rom. 12:8; and Acts 15:22, 25 for what he calls "Lay Assessors." Dr. Hitchcock holds that the primitive presbyters were empowered and expected both to teach and to rule. Dr. Hatfield tries to prove that the Christian presbyters, like the Jewish elders, were only to rule; the office of teaching having been committed to the apostles, evangelists, and other missionaries. The last was also the view of Dr. Thornwell, of South Carolina (on Ruling Elders), and is advocated in a modified form by an Oxford scholar of great ability, Vice-Principal Hatch (l.c. Lecture III. pp. 35 sqq., and art ."Priest" in Smith and Cheetham, II. 1700). He holds that the Christian presbyters, like the Jewish, were at first chiefly officers of discipline, not of worship, and that the fitness for teaching and soundness in the faith were altogether subordinate to the moral qualities which are necessary to a governor. He also remarks (p. 1707) that neither Clement nor Ignatius makes any mention of presbyters in connection with teaching, and that teaching was a delegated function committed to the wiser presbyters.

4. The Angels of the Seven Churches in Asia Minor must be regarded as identical with the presbyter-bishops or local pastors. They represent the presiding presbyters, or the corps of regular officers, as the responsible messengers of God to the congregation.725725    Other interpretations of the apocalyptic angels: 1. Heavenly messengers, guardian angels of the several churches. Origen. Jerome, De Wette, Alford, Bishop Lightfoot. 2. Deputies or clerks of the churches, corresponding to the shelichai of the synagogues. Vitringa, John Lightfoot, Bengel, Winer. 3. Figurative personifications of the churches. Arethas, Salmasius. 4. Bishops proper. See my Hist. of the Ap Ch. pp. 537 sqq. At the death of Paul and Peter, under Nero, the congregations were ruled by a college of elders, and if the Apocalypse, as the majority of critical commentators now hold, was written before the year 70, there was too little time for a radical change of the organization from a republican to a monarchical form. Even if we regard the "angels" as single persons, they were evidently confined to a single church, and subject to St. John; hence, not successors of the apostles, as the latter diocesan bishops claim to be. The most that can be said is that the angels were congregational, as distinct from diocesan bishops, and mark one step from the primitive presbyters to the Ignatian bishops, who were likewise congregational officers, but in a monarchical sense as the heads of the presbytery, bearing a patriarchal relation to the congregation and being eminently responsible for its spiritual condition.726726    Rothe, Bunsen, Thiersch, and Bishop Lightfoot trace the institution of episcopacy to the Gentile churches in Asia Minor, and claim for it some sanction of the surviving apostle John during the mysterious period between a.d. 70 and 100. Neander, Baur, and Ritschl opposed Rothe’s theory (which created considerable sensation in learned circles at the time). Rothe was not an Episcopalian, but regarded episcopacy as a temporary historical necessity in the ancient church.

5. The nearest approach to the idea of the ancient catholic episcopate may be found in the unique position of James, the Brother of the Lord. Unlike the apostles, he confined his labors to the mother church of Jerusalem. In the Jewish Christian traditions of the second century he appears both as bishop and pope of the church universal.727727    See §27, pp. 264 sqq. But in fact he was only primus inter pares. In his last visit to Jerusalem, Paul was received by the body of the presbyters, and to them he gave an account of his missionary labors.728728    Acts 21:18 comp, 11:30; 12:17; and Acts 15 Moreover, this authority of James, who was not an apostle, was exceptional and due chiefly to his close relationship with the Lord, and his personal sanctity, which won the respect even of the unconverted Jews.

The institution of episcopacy proper cannot be traced to the apostolic age, so far as documentary evidence goes, but is very apparent and well-nigh universal about the middle of the second century. Its origin and growth will claim our attention in the next period.



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