1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Presbyter

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PRESBYTER (Gr. πρεσβύτερος, elder, the comparative of πρέσβυς, an old man), the title borne from very early times by certain officers or ministers of the Christian Church intermediate between "bishops " and "deacons." The specialized use of the word as implying not only age, but consequently wisdom and authority, is analogous to that of "senate" (from senior), of "gerousia" (from γέρων), and of "elder." It is the original form of priest (q.v.). The word is not found in pre-Christian writings except in the Septuagint, though as Deissmann has shown it is found on the Papyri as an official title for the village magistrates of Egypt and the members of the γερουσία, or senate, of many towns in Asia Minor. The office is, however, closely analogous to, and perhaps founded on, a similar office in the Jewish synagogue organization among the officials of which were the zekenim, or elders, sometimes identified with the archisynagogues. In the New Testament the Greek word is used both for the ancient Jewish official and for the Christian elder. On Jewish tombstones of the Hellenistic period the title is frequently found, sometimes applied to women. The head official of the English Jews prior to their expulsion bore the title of Presbyter judaeorum; opinions differ as to whether this officer was ecclesiastical or had merely the secular duty of supervising the exchequer of the Jews (see further The Jewish Encyclopedia, 1905, x. 190, 191).

The history of presbyteral government as opposed to episcopacy and pure congregationalism is not known in detail. After the Reformation, however, it was adopted by Calvin and his followers, who created that system which has ever since been known as Presbyterianism (q.v.). There are many theories as to the origin of the office of presbyter in the Christian Church. (1) Some connect it with the appointment of the seven recorded in Acts vi. This is the view taken by Boehmer,[1] Ritschl[2] and Lindsay.[3] It is urged that the traditional view which regards the seven as deacons is untenable because the term "deacon" is never used in the narrative, and there is no reference to the office in the Acts. On the other hand the officials of the Jerusalem church are always called "elders" and when they are first introduced (Acts xi. 30) appear to be discharging the functions for which "the seven" were specially set apart. (2) The view adopted by the majority of English scholars is, while refusing to accept the connexion between the presbyters and the seven, to regard the office as distinctly primitive and say that it was taken over by the earliest Christian community at Jerusalem from the Jewish synagogue.[4] (3) Harnack and a few other modern scholars[5] maintain that the office of presbyter did not come into existence till the 2nd century. During the last quarter of the 1st century, a three-fold organization is found in the Church: (a) a spiritual organization composed of "apostles, prophets and teachers who had been awakened by the spirit and by the spirit endowed"; (b) an administrative organization, "For the care of the poor, for worship, for correspondence, the congregation needed controlling officials. These were the bishop and the deacons, the former for higher, the latter for inferior services"; (c) a patriarchal organization based upon the natural deference of the younger to the older members of the Church. The senior members of the community, by virtue of their age and experience, watched over the conduct and guided the action of the younger and less experienced portion of the Church, though they held no official position and were not appointed for any particular work like the bishops and deacons. In the 2nd century the patriarchal element in the organization was merged in the administrative, and the presbyters became a definite order in the ministry. The time at which the change occurred cannot be definitely fixed. "In some congregations," as Harnack says, "it may have been long before the elders were chosen, in others this may have come very soon; in some the sphere of the competency of the presbyters and patrons may have been quite indefinite and in others more precise." Harnack's theory is based upon the following arguments: (a) The silence of the genuine Epistles of St Paul and the Epistle to the Hebrews. In 1 Cor. xii. 28 Paul says that God has given to the Church apostles, prophets, teachers, miracles, gifts of healing, helps, governments; but of presbyters he has not a word to say. Even from passages where he is speaking of the jurisdiction of the congregation, as for example in 1 Cor. v., vi., the presbyters are absent, while in Phil. i. 1 it is the bishops and deacons that he mentions. (b) The documents in which presbyters are mentioned in an official sense, viz. the Epistle of James, the first Epistle of Peter, the Acts of the Apostles and the Pastoral Epistles belong to a later age and reflect the customs of their own day rather than those of the primitive Church. (c) Even Clement of Rome does not say that the apostles had appointed presbyters in the congregation, he speaks only of bishop sand deacons. For this reason the statement in Acts xiv. 23 is to be looked upon with suspicion. These arguments, however, are not absolutely decisive. It is true that presbyters are not mentioned in the genuine Epistles of St Paul, but there are hints that similar officers existed in some of the churches founded by the apostle. There is a reference in 1 Thess. v. 12 to "those who rule over you" (προϊστάμενοι), and the same word occurs in Rom. xii. 8.[6] The term "governments" (κυβερνήσεις) in 1 Cor. xiv. 28 obviously refers to men who discharged the same functions as presbyters. If too, as seems most probable, bishops and presbyters were practically identical, there is of course a specific reference to them in Phil. i. 1. The "leaders" who are mentioned three times in Hebrews xiii. were also probably "presbyters" under another name. Harnack's second argument depends for its validity upon certain conclusions with regard to the date of James and 1 Peter, which are not universally accepted. Few English scholars, for instance, would accept as late a date as 120-140 for James, and 1 Peter may be as early as 65, as Harnack himself admits, though he prefers a date in the reign of Domitian. If this possibility in regard to 1 Peter is granted, it is fatal to the theory, because at the time when the epistle was written official presbyters were so well established that abuse and degeneration had already begun to creep in and some of the elders were already guilty of "lording it over their heritage" and making a profit out of their office (1 Pet. v. 1-4). With regard to the testimony of Acts, the only question, since Harnack admits the Lucan authorship,[7]is whether Luke is describing the organization of the Church as it existed at the time of the events recorded or reflecting the arrangements which prevailed at the time when the book was written. It is difficult to see how Luke can have been wrong with regard to the "Ephesian elders" who came to meet Paul at Miletus since he was present on the occasion (xx. 15-17). The only mistake that seems possible is that he may have conferred a later title upon the emissaries of the Church of Ephesus. This is not likely, but, at all events, it would only prove that the office under another name existed at Ephesus, for otherwise Luke could not possibly have put into the mouth of Paul the address which follows. Neither is there prima facie ground for objecting to the statements with regard to the presbyters of Jerusalem. If the Church at Jerusalem had any officials, it is highly probable that those officials bore the name and took over the functions of the elders of the synagogue. The statement in Acts xiv. 23, that Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in the churches of South Galatia, is more open to objection perhaps, owing to the silence of the Epistle to the Galatians. With regard to the evidence of the Epistle of Clement, Harnack seems to be incorrect in his conclusions. Scholars of such opposite schools of thought as Schmiedel[8] and Lindsay[9] maintain that the epistle contains the most explicit references to presbyters of the official type. The crucial passage (xliv. 4-6) seems to bear out their contention. "It will be no light sin for us if we thrust out of the oversight (ἐπισκοπή) those who have offered the gifts unblameably and holily. Blessed are those presbyters who have gone before for they have no fear lest any one should remove them from their appointed place" (ἀπὸ τοῦ ἱδρυμένου τόπου). There is an equally specific reference in liv. 2: "Only let the flock of Christ keep peace with its duly-appointed presbyters" (μετὰ τῶν καθισταμένων πρεσβυτέρων).

The conclusions which we seem to reach are as follows: (1) In the earliest stage (between 30 and 60) there is no uniform organization in the Christian Church. Presbyters are found in Jerusalem from primitive times. In the Pauline churches the name is not found except at Ephesus and possibly in south Galatia, though there are traces of the office, at any rate in germ, under different titles in other churches. (2) In the second stage (between 60 and 100) there is an increasing tendency towards uniformity. The office is found definitely mentioned in connexion with the churches of Asia Minor (1 Pet. i. 1), Corinth (Epistle of Clement) and Crete (Titus). The officials were called by two names, "elders" and "bishops," the former denoting the office, the latter the function (exercising the oversight). The substantial identity of the two titles cannot be doubted in the light of such passages as Acts xx. 17, 28.; 1 Pet. v. 1, 2; 1 Tim. iii. 1-7, v. 17-19 and Titus i. 5-7.

There is far less controversy with regard to the later history of the presbyters. The third stage of the development of the office is marked by the rise of the single episcopus as the head of the individual church (see Bishop; Episcopacy). The first trace of this is to be found in the Epistles of Ignatius which prove that by the year 115 "the three orders" as they were afterwards called—bishop, presbyters and deacons—already existed, not indeed universally, but in a large proportion of the churches. The presbyters occupied an intermediate position between the bishop and the deacons. They constituted "the council of the bishop." It was some time before the threefold ministry became universal. The Didache knows nothing of the presbyters; bishops and deacons are mentioned, but there is no reference to the second order. The Shepherd of Hermas knows nothing of the single bishop; the churches are under the control of a body of presbyter-bishops. Before the close of the 2nd century however the three orders were established almost everywhere. The sources of the Apostolic Canons (which date between 140-180) lay down the rule that even the smallest community of Christians, though it contain only twelve members, must have its bishop and its presbyters. The original equality of bishops and presbyters was still however theoretically maintained. The Canons of Hippolytus which belong to the end of the 2nd century distinctly lay it down that "at the ordination of a presbyter everything is to be done as in the case of a bishop, save that he does not seat himself upon the throne. The same prayer shall also be said as for a bishop, the name of the bishop only being left out. The presbyter shall in all things be equal with the bishop, save in the matter of presiding and ordaining, for the power to ordain is not given him." The presbyters formed the governing body of the church. It was their duty to maintain order, exercise discipline, and superintend the affairs of the Church. At the beginning of the 3rd century, if we are to believe Tertullian, they had no spiritual authority of their own, at any rate as far as the sacraments are concerned. The right to baptize and celebrate the communion was delegated to them by the bishop.[10]

In the fourth stage we find the presbyters, like the bishops, becoming endowed with special sacerdotal powers and functions. Up to the end of the 2nd century the universal priesthood of all believers was the accepted doctrine of the Church. It was not till the middle of the 3rd century that the priesthood was restricted to the clergy. Cyprian is largely responsible for the change, though traces of it are found during the previous half century. Cyprian bestows the highest sacerdotal terms upon the bishops of course, but his references to the priestly character of the office of presbyter are also most definite.[11] Henceforth presbyters are recognized as the secundum sacerdotium in the Church.

With the rise of the diocesan bishops the position of the presbyters became more important. The charge of the individual church was entrusted to them and gradually they took the place of the local bishops of earlier days, so that in the 5th and 6th centuries an organization was reached which approximated in general outline to the system which prevails in the Anglican Church to-day.

See Hatch, Organization of the Early Christian Churches (2nd ed., 1882), and Harnack's "excursus" in the German edition of this work (1883); Harnack, Die Lehre der zwölf Apostel (1884); Loening, Die Gemeindeverfassung des Urchristentums (1889); Sohm, Kirchenrecht (1892); an article by Loofs, in Studien und Kritiken, for 1890 (pp. 619-658); Lindsay, The Church and the Ministry in the Early Centuries (1902); Schmiedel, article "Ministry," in Enc. Bib. (H. T. A.) 

  1. Diss. jur. eccl. p. 373.
  2. Entstehung der altkatholischen Kirche, 2nd ed. p. 355.
  3. The Church and the Ministry, p. 116; cf. also Brown, Apostolical Succession, p. 144.
  4. Lightfoot, Ep. to the Philippians, p. 192.
  5. E.g. Sohm, Kirchenrecht, 92; Weizsäcker, Apostolic Age (Eng. trans. ii. 330); Allen, Christian Institutions, p. 38; A. C. McGiffert, Apostolic Age, p. 663 (1897).
  6. Hort translates προϊστάμενοι "those who care for you," but 1 Tim. iii. 12 and v. 17 seem to be against this. In Justin Martyr, Apol. i. 67, προεστώς evidently refers to "the president of the church," and in a recently discovered papyrus which Ramsay dates 303 a certain bishop is described as λαοῦ προϊστάμενον, Studies in Roman Provinces, pp. 125-126.
  7. Lukas der Arzt (1906), cap. 1.
  8. Ency. Bib. p. 3134 sqq.
  9. The Church and the Ministry, p. 160. Cf. also Loening, Die Gemeindeverfassung des Urchristentums, p. 58.
  10. Tertull. De bapt, 17: "Baptismi dandi habet jus summus sacerdos qui est episcopus; dehinc presbytery . . . . non tamen sine episcopi auctoritate."
  11. Cf. Ep. 58: "Presbyteri cum episcopo sacerdotali honore conjuncti."