1902 Encyclopedia > Presbyter


PRESBYTER. Towards the end of the 2d century the organization of the Christian congregations throughout the Roman empire, at least of all the greater ones, was identical. At the head of each was the bishop, whose function it was to conduct public worship, control the church funds, and keep watch over the manners of his flock. The free prophets and teachers having almost everywhere died out, the duty of religious instruction and edification also fell on him. In conducting the worship and in ministering to the wants of the poor he was assisted by- the deacons as his subordinates. The presbyters formed a college, whose business was that of advising the bishop. Of this college he was the president, and as such he was himself a presbyter, and conversely the presbytery, in-clusive of the bishop, formed the governing body of the community.1 Outside of .the presbytery the individual presbyter as such had no definite official duties. If lie baptized, celebrated the eucharist, preached, or the like, this \vas only as commissioned and deputed by the bishop.2 Such deputation was frequently necessary, and therefore the presbyter behoved as far as possible to be qualified to teach. As member of the college, which before everything had to do with jurisdiction and discipline, it was required of him that he should be of blameless life, that he should administer just judgment without respect of persons, and that in private life also Ile should as occasion offered exhort and admonish the faithful and set before them the law of God. The presbyters, who as a rule were expected to be men of advanced years, were, like the bishop and the deacons, chosen by the congregation. Their numbcr AVa3 unrestricted, but there were small communities in which they did not exeeod three or even two. In rank they were above the deacons, but below the bishop, yet in such a way- that the bishop could call them his " co-presbyters." As the bishop was not unfrequently chosen from among the deacons, even although in many congregations it may have been the case that the office was invariably bestowed on presbyters, and as the deacons stood in closer Per,sonal relation with the bishop than the presbyters, cases of invasion of the rights of the latter by the former began to occur from an early period. There can be no doubt that at the end of the 2d century all presbyters were elected office-bearers, but the way in which Irenauis speaks makes it quite clear that at an earlier date " presbyter " was also a title of honour borne by worthy and prominent persons in the congregations, who, in virtue of their advanced years, were witnesses for the purity- of tradition. Tremens, frequently speaking (as he does) of bishops simply as " presbyters," also proves that there must have been a time in which the bishop as member of the " synedrium " of the church cannot have held a higher position than the other members of this college.

Tracing the history- upwards from Tremens, we find in the Epistles of Ignatius, which may be assigned perhaps to about 140, the presbyters holding essentially the same position as they- have at the end of the century. With Ignatius also the presbyters come into account only as a college ; according to him they constitute a senate, as it were ; he compares them to the college of the apostles, but gives great prominence to their subordination under the bishop, whom he likens to our Lord Himself. Except in the Ignatian _Epistles, however, one finds the presbyters holding a different position within the Christian commu-nities of the period from 90 to 140. This is not at all surprising, for there was not at that time any rigid and uniform organization of the congregations at all ; as yet no one bishop stood at the head of each congregation, and as y-et the church constitution was not determined by the idea of office alone, that of charismata (spiritual gifts) still having wide scope alongside of the other. Church organization was still influenced by a variety of ways of looking at the question - way-s which sometimes crossed each other, and froni the combination of which it cannot be doubted that a variety of constitutions resulted. We are not in a position to give a complete view of these, the historical material being insufficient, but points of leading importance can be established. Before all it is of conse-quence to recognize that in the congregations a threefold organization had place. (1) The duty- of edifying and of preaching the gospel was not yet attached to an office but to a charisma. " Service in the word " was the business of apostles, prophets, and teachers who had been awakened by the Spirit and by the Spirit endowed. These were the ;7-yor,,u,evot in the congregations ; they alone in the first instance form the class of persons entitled to honour in Christendom ; they- never belonged to any- one congregation exclusively, but were held to be " organs of the Spirit," given by God to the whole church. (2) In so far as each local church embraced a system of higher and lower functions - each was indeed a little world to itself - it possessed a governing body (01.Kor,;;,uoi.). For the care of the poor, for worship, for correspondence, - in a word, for its " economy-," in the widest sense of that word, the con-gregation Deeded controlling officials. These were the bishop and the deacons, - the former for higher, the latter for inferior services ; they owed their official position to the congregation, and in the nature of their offices there was, strictly speaking, nothing which could have laid the foundation of any special rank or exaltation. Many of the functions discharged by them nevertheless had the result of making the post of a, bishop a very influential one (charge of the worship, control of the funds), and in so far as their service rested upon a charisma (xrino-itu 77/S dr7-cA.1)./.41pEws) a certain inner relation between them and the teachers endowed with the gift of the Spirit was established. (3) In so far as the individual congregation was an actual organism in which tbe varieties of age, of sex, of experience, of manner of life, and of ethical culture continued to exist and which had to be admonished, dis-ciplined, and heeded, it from the nature of the case divided itself into leaders and led, a distinction which would assert itself in every sphere of the congregatiOn's activities. The leaders were, as might be expected, the " elders " T-peo-- NTcpot), or, so to speak, the patrons ; the led. were the " younger " members (of veolTepot). Out of this distinction arose equally naturally - for it was impossible for all the "elders" to take part in the conduct of affairs - the separa-tion of an elected ruling college (:). 77p¤431.;rcoot ol 7rpoiAr-Titiocrot) from the 7rA150os (plebs, Am:is). Thus nal " order " (ordo) arose, placed over the congregation by the congrega-tion itself.' To the presbyters belonged a Ttp,,) naNuovo-a, - that is to say, the honour which naturally came from their position in life. In some congregations it may have been long before the elders were chosen-, in others this, may have conie very soon ; in some the sphere of the competency of the presbyters and patrons may have been quite indefinite and in others more precise. In some congregations, lastly, as in those of Asia Minor, the presbyters inay have enjoyed particular honour for the special reason that they had known apostles or disciples of apostles personally ; 2 in the majority- of congregations this was not the case. With the congregational administration, properly so called, in any case, they had nothing to do.

We may call the first-named organization the spiritual, the second the administrative, the third the patriarchal. It is obvious that from the first it was impossible they should coexist side by side without coining into contact. IIere two facts are of the highest importance. (1) If in any congregation prophets and tea,chers were wanting, then the administrative officials charged themselves with their function.3 (2) The bishops had as such a seat and a voice in the presbyters' college ; every bishop was at the same time a presbyter, whether old or young, but every presbyter was not necessarily- also a bishop. In many communities, indeed - as, for example, at Philippi,4 at Ephesus,5 and in Crete 6-all the presbyters may- possibly also have been bishops, although this is by no means cer-tain ; but in other cases - as, for example, in that of Rome, as we learn from the Pastor of Hermas - all presbyters were not also bishops. Thus it is not the case that origin-ally the bishops were simply identical with the presbyters', and that the one bishop was a gradual development out of the presbyters' college ; on the contrary, the attributes of presbyters and bishops were originally distinct. But, since the bishops had a seat and a voice in the college and exercised special functions of importance besides, they ultimately a,cquired a, higher place.

The office of presbyter was not during the oldest period (90-140) a spiritual one. The apostle, the pro-phet, the teacher, in a certain sense also even the old bishop and deacon, had a spiritual character, for they- pos-sessed a charisma. It was not so with the presbyters ; they had no charisma, and the respect in which they were held arose out of the natltral position which they took within the congregations. H.ence the newly-discovered At8a,v‘i 1-6.1v i'vroo-TOA.wv has nothing to say at all about presbyters, but only about apostles, prophets, teachers, bishops, and deacons. The design of that writing was to give those institutions of the apostles which are peculiar to the Christian community-. The system of leaders and led is, however, a matter of order ; it does not depend upon the special Christian charismata, and therefore does not impart to the Christian community its peculiar character. But, on the other hand, that the community is God's building is shown by- such marks as these, that the apostles spread the gospel by their inspired preaching, that prophets and teachers edify- the churches, that everywhere bishops and deacons are found at work in the churches, endowed with the gift of government and of loving service. Other communities also - towns, temples, synagogues, and the like - have presbyters, but they have no persons endowed with the gift of the Spirit. A sure proof of the correctness of the view just given is found in the cir-cumstance that before the time of Domitian we do not possess in Christian literature a single sure testimony to the existence of presbyters. In the genuine epistles of St Paul and in the Epistle to the Hebrews they are not mentioned. In 1 Cor. xii. 28 Paul says that God has given to the church apostles, prophets, teachers, miracles, gifts of healing, help, government ; but of presbyters lie has not a word to say. Even from passa-ges 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. I it is the bishops and deacons that lie mentions. In the Epistle of James, in the First Epistle of Peter, in the Acts of the Apostles, and in the pastoral epistles the presbyters certainly occur, but no one is able to show that any of these writings are earlier than the age of Domitian. Even Clement of Rome (Ad Con, 42, 4) does not say that the apostles had appointed presbyters in the congregation ; he speaks only of bishops and deacons. For this very reason is the statement in Acts xiv. 23 to be looked upon with suspicion. It would be much too pre-cipitate to assert that before the time of Domitian there were no presbyters in the Christian churches ; on the con-trary, it may be assumed that the distinction between


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