Nota Bene: with this post Pseudepigrapha welcomes Quiet George as a member and contributor to the site. That’s right — I won’t always be the author from this point forward, so be sure to check, if for no other reason than to know where to lob the verbal tomatoes…


Bishop Sabutis and Pastor Darius Petkūnis in Palanga, Lithuania. Photo credit: Albert Collver

Bishops: A simple understanding

1. What does the word “priest” denote in common usage?

In the common usage, the term “priest” is used to denote those who hold the central and most foundational order of the holy ministry. They are those who care for a local congregation, administer baptisms and the Eucharist, hear confessions, grant absolutions, offer guidance, and care for souls. The term is generally synonymous with “pastor” or “curate”.

2. Whence does the Church derive its usage?

From the Greek word πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros], meaning “one who is old.” It is used in Lk 15:25 to differentiate the young and old generation; in Hellenic Jewish writing to denote town council leaders, officers within a synagogue, and members of the Sanhedrin; in Christian writing, as a member of the holy ministry; those who succeed the apostles in their public ministry, as in Titus 1:5.

3. What does the term “bishop” mean in common usage?

In the common usage, the term “bishop” is used to refer to those who, along with the priest, share the sacerdotal office of administering the sacraments, but are higher in authority, and truly succeed the apostles. According to Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox doctrine, the priest is essentially the vicar of his presiding bishop, on whose behalf he exercises the functions of his office.

4. Whence does the Church derive its usage?

From the Greek word ἐπίσκοπος [episkopos]. In pre-Christian usage, it meant “guardian”, “overseer”, “task-master”. During the Hellenic era, the term came to mean anyone in an official position of authority over others.  It is found used by Christians in the New Testament in Titus 1:7; 1 Tim. 3 etc. to refer to those who “guard” the apostolic tradition.

5. Is the office of bishop rightly viewed as being higher in authority than the office of priest, according to the Scriptures?

By no means.

Is it right, however, to think of the office of bishop and the office of priest as essentially separate?

By no means, for it is evident from the Scriptures that the terms are used interchangeably in both pastoral epistles (that is, First Timothy and Titus). According to 1 Tim. 3, the ordering of the church is twofold; that is, divided into bishops and deacons. There is no mention of presbyters at all; likely because the term “presbyter/elder” and “bishop” were at the time used interchangeably. In accordance with this, the first chapter of the epistle to Titus seems to use the terms “bishop” and “elder/presbyter” without distinction:

For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you—if a man is blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of dissipation or insubordination. For a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not given to wine, not violent…” [Tts. 5-7].

Furthermore, Paul addresses the “overseers and deacons” of the church in Phil. 1, making no mention of presbyters, likely because they were included under the title “overseer.” In Acts 20:17, Paul calls for the presbyters of Ephesus to meet him, but then refers to them collectively as “overseers” and “shepherds.”

7. So are these, then, two words for the same office?

It is best to assume so.

8. How then are we to understand the reason for the use of these two terms, if they are synonymous?

The terms are not to be thought of as synonymous, nor are the holy authors of the Scriptures to be thought of as multiplying terms and fomenting confusion for the sake of vanity or witlessness. Rather, we should understand the use of the terms in the following manner: that both have as their referent those who hold the one office of the holy ministry; yet each term emphasizes a different aspect of that same ministry. The term “presbyter” demonstrates the minister’s eminence among the people (as in the elder of a tribe), his pastoral role, and his sacramental and hortatory vocation. The term “bishop” emphasizes the minister’s role as a guardian of the apostolic teachings as well as a keeper of the church. Such a use of titles can be easily understood from the similar dual-use of the terms “professor” and “doctor” to refer to those who have acquired a high academic degree.

9. Whence, then, does the idea of two separate offices, one of bishop, and one of presbyter, arise?

It seems to have been commonly held by those in the earliest days of the church. Eminent among those who espouse this opinion is St. Ignatius of Antioch, who in his Epistle to the Magnesians, clearly delineates between the elders, and a seemingly higher or more authoritative office of “bishop.”  Similarly, the Stromata of Clement of Alexandria likens the hierarchy of church orders to the hierarchy of angels in heaven, therefore assuming that the ecclesiastical ranks are of a divine origin. He writes: “According to my opinion, the grades here in the Church, of bishops, presbyters, deacons, are imitations of the angelic glory[…]” Many other Church Fathers, proceeding into the Nicene and Post-Nicene periods, went on the affirm the divine origin of the dual sacerdotal offices. In time, for the sake of securing order and orthodoxy during a tumultuous period, this opinion concerning the divine primacy of bishops was affirmed: that the workings of the Church should not be entrusted to those hastily appointed by heterodox clergy or uneducated laymen. Such is the opinion of Irenaeus, who writes that the custom of granting bishops alone the right to ordain was formed for the sake of ensuring that the apostolic tradition be faithfully transmitted.

10. Do we then deny the venerable authority of the Church fathers by asserting that both the terms refer to but one office?

Not at all, for there are also many equally eminent writings from the holy fathers and martyrs which support the scriptural opinion noted above, that there is but one sacerdotal office, recognized by two descriptors.  The Didache, the earliest and most telling of all patristic texts, recognizes only two offices within the ecclesiastical hierarchy, the bishop and the deacon, the former being a generic term inclusive of both presbyters and overseers. Similarly, Clement of Rome in his First Epistle of the Corinthians (Ch. 44) uses the two terms interchangeably, as does Tertullian. Jerome writes as follows concerning the distinction between the two offices in his commentary on Titus 1: “With the ancients, presbyters and bishops were one and the same.” He goes on to write:

Before, by an impulse of the devil, a zeal in religion developed and it was said among the people, “I belong to Paul; I to Apollos; I to Cephas,” the churches were governed by the common counsel of presbyters. But after everyone thought that those whom he had baptized were his, not Christ’s, it was decreed that in the whole city one who was elected from among the presbyters should be placed over the rest, to whom the care of the whole church should belong, and the seeds of schisms would be removed.

In his Letter to Evagrius, he writes similarly:

However, that later on one was elected who was placed over the rest, this was done as a remedy against schisms, lest everyone draw the church of Christ to himself and split it. For also at Alexandria, from the time of Mark the Evangelist until Dionysius, the presbyters always chose one from among themselves and placed him in a higher rank. Him they called episkopos, just as if the army would make a commander-in-chief for itself.

He also describes the origin of the ecclesiastical hierarchy in these terms:

Therefore as the presbyters know, that, from the custom of the church, they are subject to the one who has been placed over them, so the bishops should know that they are greater than the presbyter more by custom than by the truth of an arrangement of the Lord, and that they ought to govern the church in common.

This opinion is followed by St. Ambrose of Milan, as well as by the Venerable Bede in his commentary of Philippians, and Isidore, dist. 21, Ch. Cleros. St. John Chrysostom himself, who held to the lofty character of the episcopate, readily admits along with Jerome that the bishop does nothing that the presbyter cannot already do on his own, save ordain, which is entrusted to the bishop alone by custom of the church, for the sake of saving her from fanatics and schisms.

11. Is the distinction between “bishop” and “presbyter” therefore to be abolished?

Not necessarily, for just as the apostles established the order of deacons for the sake of good order, so the apostolic ministry which is maintained in the church has the authority to establish and abolish orders and offices as it sees fit for the maintenance of harmony. Therefore, it is allowable to have bishops; however, it must be recognized that the authority of the bishops flows forth from the divine authority entrusted to the holy minister (the presbyter) by Christ himself, and therefore the bishop cannot do anything without the compliance and consent of the ministers, as well as the church as a whole, as the Fourth Council of Carthage itself declares when saying: “When the person examined shall have been found fully instructed […] then he shall with the whole consent of the clerics and the laity, and with the agreement of the bishops of the whole province […] be ordained a bishop.” And: “The bishop shall not ordain clerics without the consent of his clerics, in order that he may seek the testimony of the citizens.” Furthermore, it is shown in the third canon of the same council that authority does not flow downwards from the bishop, but upwards from the church immediately or mediately through the clergy: “No cleric shall be ordained unless he has been tested either by examination of bishops, or by the testimony of the people.”

Such an opinion not only agrees with the words of the Evangelist in Acts 1:26, wherein Matthias and Joseph were chosen by vote of the elders, as well as those in Acts 6, wherein the church is asked to choose seven among themselves to lead, but also with the witness of Origen, who writes: “You are not to consecrate bishops through Emilion except after election or consent of the clergy and the people.” That the people had the authority to ordain presbyters from among themselves is given historical witness by the admonishment of Jerome in Ad Rusticum monachum: “So live in the monastery, that you may deserve to be a priest. When you shall have arrived at a mature age, and either the people, or a bishop, elect you to the priesthood, then perform the duties of a priest.” St. Ambrose speaks similarly when he writes in his 82nd Letter: “He has deservedly become a great man whom the whole church has chosen, and it is rightly believed that he whom all the people requested has been elected according to the judgment of God.” From this statement of Ambrose, it is clear that Christ’s body is one, and that His will is represented not by an ecclesiastical elite, but by all who comprise the body.

It is therefore to be understood, according to the traditions of the church, that authority is placed in Christ alone to call and ordain, and that this calling is executed by His mystical body as a whole, and not by any one part. Therefore, it is a good and holy thing when laity and clergy together in harmonious accord choose and jointly ordain their ministers.

 Where is such a doctrine affirmed within the Evangelical symbolical writings?

It is affirmed succinctly in several places: firstly, in the Augsburg Confession, Article V, wherein but one ministry and office is said to be ordered by God for the sake of teaching the Gospel, granting faith, and administering the sacraments. Secondly, the 10th Article of the Smalcald Articles affirms, by the witness of “the ancient Church and the fathers,” that the congregation of Christians which comprise the church are able to choose for themselves and approve ministers without the consent of the Pope or any bishop. It is further noted that, even according to Catholic Law, such ministers ordained without the consent of a Roman bishop are truly ministers and priests, in accordance with the opinions handed down to all orthodox and catholic Christians by Augustine and the Fathers in response to the Donatist heresy, a heresy which stated that the validity of a priestly office could be nullified by either sinful living or heterodox (though not heretical) affiliation.

This doctrine is further affirmed by Francis Pieper, who writes in De Ministerio Ecclesiastico, Ch. 9:

The fundamental truth that Christ is the one and only Master in the Church regulates also the relations and servants of the Church to one another. As the servants of the Church are not lords of the congregations, so neither of one another. Superiority or subordination among them is not a divine, but a human arrangement.

And in Ch. 10: “Luther often calls the public ministry the highest office in the Church.”

Luther does not deny the validity of the differentiation of offices, which is evident from his observation: “Now, these are the men who should supervise all offices, that the teachers tend to their office, are not negligent, that the deacons distribute the gifts fairly and are not remiss” etc.. He does, however, affirm that though many offices rightly exist according to apostolic authority (that is, the authority of the church), only one exists by divine command and according to divine authority — that is, the preaching office. He writes: “To whomever the office of preaching is committed, to him the highest office in Christendom is committed: he may then also baptize, celebrate Mass, and perform all the cure of souls.”

The Evangelical doctrine of the calling and work of those to and in the holy ministry is expounded in detail in the first chapter of the Enchiridion of Martin Chemnitz, wherein he affirms that “the right and administration of the call are to be ascribed to the individual persons of the Trinity.” And that “all things are of the Church [that is, the body of Christ], both the ministry and the ministers.” And that the Trinity calls through the means of the Church as a whole its ministers.

13. Why should one trust the Evangelical Doctrine concerning this matter, along with its witnesses from the Fathers against the doctrines espoused by those more ancient and venerable churches, with their witnesses and traditions?

First, it must be noted that no church is more ancient than another, for there is but one Church, as there is but one body of Christ. Therefore, if a Romanist is to say “ah! But our Church is more ancient than yours, and so her doctrines preferable!” he commits two mistakes: the first, assuming that if something is old, it is true; and second, that assuming that whatsoever is outside the bishop of Rome is in no way connected to Christ’s body, which is to say, the true Church, the mystical communion of Saints. This second admission is both distasteful to most Romanists and contradicted by their own doctrines, which state that those not under the ecclesiastical hegemony of the bishop of Rome may still be within Christ, and therefore within the Church. These things we call churches are best understood as highly formalized bishoprics under the leadership of the one Christ.

With this said, the following rule is to be followed:

One should not entrust oneself to the pretense of age or of influence when it comes to sacred doctrines, but to the Word of God alone, as it has always been understood by the purer antiquity. It is surely a dangerous thing to interpret a passage in any way without support of those who were close to the Apostles. However, when it is evident that, even among the Fathers, discord existed, it is best to hold to that doctrine which most simply and without artifice understands the apparent words of Scripture.

Therefore, though it is sure that there was no universally attested opinion in the early church concerning the differentiation of bishops and presbyters, there does exist an opinion, widely held by holy and learned men, which agrees in every detail, without contrivance, with the clear word of Scripture. Such is the doctrine held by the Evangelical catholic churches, which has been, in varying degrees, rejected by those under the care of the bishop of Rome, those under the patriarchs of the East, and the English churches.

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A Brief Explanation of the Term “Purer Antiquity” and
of the Use of Tradition

During the Scholastic Period of the Middle Ages, it was common to refer to the “purer antiquity” when attempting to draw upon the authority of the Church Fathers. Though the term is now difficult to define, and its usage was often rather fluid, one can still discern a proper sense of the term through the following understanding: 

“Purer Antiquity” refers to those works of Patristic authors which have shown themselves historically to be more in accord with the rule of faith and express less influence from non-Christian sources. With this conception, it should not be held that all statements of the Fathers are equally authoritative, or even that every work of the same Father is to be viewed as similarly binding. Rather, those works founded upon the Scriptures as understood by the rule of faith, without deviation and contrivance, are to considered of greater weight than those which show both the imprint of pagan philosophies and of personal opinions. Therefore, St. Augustine’s Contra Donatistes and St. Athanasius’ De Incarnatione are considered part of the “purer antiquity” whereas by a common agreement, St. Clement of Alexandria’s Stromata and St. Augustine’s Retractions are not. The question, then, becomes not “Who has the more numerous witnesses among the patristic writings?” but “Who has the greater writings as his witness?”

Though it is a bit of an academic differentiation, it is of great use to the theologian, as it allows the quality and orthodoxy of the lesser to be held favorably against the pious speculations and often impious heterodoxy of the greater. It is a distinction made between various patristic writings similar to the distinctions made between the homolegoumena and the antilegomena of the New Testament.  — Q.G.



Quiet George