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) and Bishop (or Overseer, Superintendent) 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.
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.
b. The same officers of the church of Ephesus are alternately called presbyters 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.
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.
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.|
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.
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.| 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.
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.
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. 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.
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.| 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.
The presbyters always formed a college or corporation, a presbytery; as at Jerusalem, at Ephesus, at Philippi, and at the ordination of Timothy. 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. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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. 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.