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  • Fr. Paul A. F. Castellano

Bishops AND Presbyters; NOT Bishops/Presbyters

I have been seeing posts of late that cite past scholars speaking of the connection and identification of presbuteros and episkopos or "elder" and "Bishop;" even citing a few Anglicans along the way.


While I can’t duplicate the entire chapter of my book that deals with this issue, after reading the continuous comments that appear to resign themselves to the accuracy and correctness of this assertion, I will provide a snapshot of the material in the hope that more investigation will take place and we can finally move this discussion to the place it belongs – outdated, historical arguments that have been disproved.

First things first. The term, “presbuteros,” in the first four centuries of the church was NEVER understood to be an ordained office. The term, etymologically, simply means “elder, old man, one with a grey beard.” In essence, the word “describes” the character of a man with dignity, integrity, and, if you will, gravitas.


During the nascent period of the early church, it was NOT and NEVER WAS, used to refer to an “office,” especially an ordained office. It was referring to the quality of a man necessary to HOLD an office.


Second, Emil Shurer, Heinrich Graetz, and even Edersheim to a lesser degree, all prove conclusively that presbuteros was not an ordained, ecclesiastically ordained ministerial office. Shurer is especially thorough and devastating in this regard. He points out, as one element of his argument, that in the synagogue, there were numerous other terms to designate ministerial offices, to include the “higher” offices such as Archisynagogeis, and Gerousia.


“Presbuteros” never fit into this category in the period of the early church. Given that the Church ultimately grew out of the synagogue after the destruction of the temple and that the synagogue borrowed its liturgy and symbolism from the temple, the content and pattern of “presbuteros” was carried over into early church ecclesiastics. Therefore, even as the church began to slowly distinguish herself from Judaism and separate herself from direct identification with Judaism, she began to see "presbuteros” in the same manner, as a description of the characteristics necessary for one to be ordained. In other words, presbuteros describes a type of man, with very specific qualities. Think of it in these terms, you’re looking for a CEO.


This man (in this case) must be experienced, intelligent, a leader, gifted communicator, with intuitive creativity. Now, that describes person “A.” Does that automatically make person “A” the CEO? NO! There has to be a hiring process. The analogy applies equally to “prebuteros.” For one to be “ordained” he must “possess” the qualities of a presbuteros, but merely having the qualities of a presbuteros doesn’t mean he’s ordained.


Third, once again, Shurer demonstrates that the idea of “presbuteros” as an ordained office wasn’t a reality until the 4th century A.D.! This is quite significant when discussing the early church and what we need to emulate from that church. The claim that presbuteros, or elder rule, extends all the way back to the nascent church is patently false. Shurer points out that, the idea of presbuteros as an official ordained office doesn’t materialize until the late 200’s early 300s A.D. And it was instituted by the JEWS NOT THE CHURCH!


They were feeling threatened by the success and advancement of Christianity and needed something, at least as one argument, to combat Christianity’s success. So, since the church did use the term presbuteros to identify those qualified for ministry in general, the Jews took the next step and simply made that an ordained office in the hopes of forestalling the bleeding off of qualified males for ordination.


Fourth, while the church didn’t understand presubteros as an ordained office it did have a means of identifying men that fell into the category of ministerial office which comes between “episkopos” and “diakonos;” they used the terms “hiereus” and “sacerdos.” This might comes as a shock to many, but, Dr. Bryan Stewart in his book, “Priests of My People,” documents this exhaustively. I commend this book to you. For those who are chaffing at the thought of “sacerdos,” he points out that the meaning from “material” sacrifice to spiritual/sacramental is in play. Don’t immediately fall to the default, “OH! He’s just a Papist in Anglican garb!” Dr. Stewart is not a Papist.


Therefore, what all of this amounts to is, in the early church, for one to be an ordained clergy of any office, episkopos, sacerdos/hiereus, or diakonos, they had to be presbuteros. When one considers how this then plays out in practical application it would mean any man ordained or consecrated to any of the 3 ministerial offices – bishop, priest, deacon – MUST be a presbuteros; BUT, BUT, BUT merely being presbuteros doesn’t make one a bishop, priest, or deacon. This is one reason why the terms are so closely linked. This is why we see the Church Fathers using the term presbuteros when speaking of the 3 orders of minister. For them, when speaking of bishop, “presbuteros” (all those of mature, dignity who are “elder-s”, therefore either priests or qualified to be priests) and deacons, they are speaking of all the “elders” who are qualified to hold office.


Also remember, though elders, especially in the Old Covenant, didn’t hold ecclesiastical office (serve as one of the 3 officers in Tabernacle/Temple liturgy), they did have administrative duties within Israel. This then would make perfect sense when considering Paul’s admonitions in Act when speaking to “the elders.” Once again, the bishop, priest, deacon must be presbuteros (elder), but the presbuteros (elder) isn’t automatically a clergyman. Think of it in this way: all husbands and fathers are men, but not all men are husbands and fathers. This is the relationship between presbuteros and episkopos, elder and bishop.


Fifth, once this historical, Biblical, linguistic, and theological distinction between the two terms is recognized, it ends, plain and simple, the argument for what is termed by many “elder rule.” The concept derived from this of a “teaching elder” vs. a “ruling elder” is simply not warranted by any proper understanding of the terms involved and, therefore, is totally and thoroughly UNBIBLICAL!


I need to stop here but this demonstrates why those who advocate a synonymity between presbuteros and episkopos are historically, linguistically, Biblically, and theologically wrong. There’s really no debate when one considers all of the material relevant to this matter.


I couldn’t devote all of the time I wanted to, to this topic in my book because, to unpack everything I’ve summarized here and then address the point at which our understanding that presbuteros DID begin to morph into an ordained office, would have added at least another 100 pages (or more) to the book and made the price prohibitive for purchase; especially for a book written as a “popular” treatment.


If nothing else, I hope this stimulates further investigation into this in order to, once and for all, put rest this outdated and fallacious argument. This egregiously erroneous argument has even infected Anglicanism. I have clergy in my own jurisdiction that propagates this weak, fallacious, and unfortunately unbiblical argument. Whether it’s due to laziness, sloppy scholarship, or sheer ideological entrenchment, I can’t say.


There seems to be a desire to continually invoke the hackneyed argument that, well, so-and-so Anglican Divine believed this (Richard Hooker is used as one example). As if this appeal to authority ends the discussion.


While, as Anglicans, we respect and follow our "fathers" in their positions, we also must be good students of Scripture and 'love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, strength, and MIND.' That means recognizing that, even though we respect what our fathers taught and believed, they are not infallible and, with the addition of new information, better scholarship, and more effective and complete understanding of theology, Scripture, and history, we can correct them where they are out of date. After all, Bishop Ussher, one we all respect, believed the Earth was created in 4004 B.C. based upon a flawed understanding of the genealogies listed in Scripture - particularly Chronicles. The Holy Spirit continues to illumine us when we submit to God's word. Theology in general and knowledge, in particular, is not ossified and entrenched; we are capable of "progressively" growing in grace, understanding, and yes, knowledge of Scripture.


I pray that there would be diligent further study, from Anglicans as well as everyone else, in order for us to settle this antiquated argument and move on to other significant matters for which the Church must contend.

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