Church Government: New Testament & After

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In The New Testament: 

The word "Presbyter" in the New Testament refers to a leader in local Christian congregations, then perhaps a synonym of episkopos (bishop).  In modern usage, it is distinct from bishop and synonymous with priest, pastor (shepherd), elder, or minister in various Christian denominations.  Its literal meaning in Greek (presbyteros) is "elder."

The earliest organization of the Christian Churches in Judea was similar to that of Jewish synagogues, who were governed by a council of elders (presbyteroi).  In Acts 11:30 and 15:22, we see this collegiate system of government in Jerusalem, and in Acts 14:23, the Apostle Paul ordains elders in the churches he founded.  Some modern commentators believe that these presbyters may have been identical to the overseers (episkopoi, i.e., bishops) and cite such passages as Acts 20:17, Titus 1:5,7 and 1 Peter 5:1 to support this claim.

In the Early Church - After the New Testament:

The earliest post-apostolic writings, the Didache and Clement for example, show the church recognized two local church officesóelders (interchangeable term with overseer) and deacon.  The beginnings of a single ruling bishop can perhaps be traced to the offices occupied by Timothy and Titus in the New Testament.  We are told that Paul had left Timothy in Ephesus and Titus in Crete to oversee the local church (I Tim. 1:3 and Titus 1:5).  Paul commands them to ordain presybters/bishops and to exercise general oversight, telling Titus to "rebuke with all authority" (Titus 2:15).  It is certain that the office of bishop and presbyter were clearly distinguished by the second century, as the church was facing the dual pressures of persecution and internal schism, resulting in three distinct local offices: bishop, elder (presbyter) and deacon.

The bishop was understood mainly as the president of the council of presbyters (this office was present in the Jewish synagogue, also), and so the bishop came to be distinguished both in honor and in prerogative from the presbyters, who were seen as deriving their authority by means of delegation from the bishop.  Each church had its own bishop and his presence was necessary to consecrate any gathering of the church.

Eventually, as the Church grew, individual congregations no longer were served directly by a bishop.  The bishop in a large city would appoint a presbyter to pastor the flock in each congregation, acting as his delegate.

In Presbyterian churches, the office of bishop was abolished in the 16th-17th centuries, the heads of local congregations using the name minister.  In this arrangement, the ministers' leadership is shared with presbyters (also called elders, usually elected by the local congregations), who help them shepherd the church while keeping their secular professions.  In these traditions, the term presbyter is generally restricted to the Presbyterian churches, while other Reformed churches tend to use the term elder.

In Modern Times:

The Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, the Anglican/Episcopal Communion and other groups often refer to presbyters in English as priests (priest is etymologically derived from the Greek presbyteros via the Latin presbyter).  Collectively, however, their "college" is referred to as the "presbyterium" or "presbyterate."

This usage is seen by some Protestant Christians as stripping the laity of its rightful priestly status, while those who use the term defend its usage by saying that, while they do believe in the priesthood of all believers, they do not believe in the eldership of all believers.  This is also generally true of Methodists, who ordain elders as clergy (pastors) while affirming the priesthood of all believers.

The term Father for presbyters is used by Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, though most Anglicans/Episcopalians and even some Lutherans use the term, as well.  It is not generally thought of as a title, but simply as an affectionate term of address for the presbyter. ___________________________________________________________

Source: Wikipedia: "Presbyter" ___________________________________________________________

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Christian History  FEATURES

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Our Comments:

There are four types of church government generally in use today:

1.) Episcopal: Bishop, Priests/Ministers, Deacons (top down authority);

2.) Presbyterian: Representative Democracy - Congregation elects presbyters/elders/Board of Directors;

3.) Pure Democracy: Congregation votes on everything (Baptist; based on "the priesthood of all believers");

4.) Consensus: (Quaker/Friends) universal agreement required before any action is taken. ________

An Opinion: Church government, by changing somewhat within only 50 years of the final writing of the New Testament, apparently in response to its growth in numbers, seems to have not been regarded by the early Christians as something where one form was solely authorized or commanded, but rather to be an area where the Christian's "freedom in Christ" (subject to the leading of the Holy Spirit) is applicable.

As J. Vernon McGee cogently points out, what is truly important is the quality, spirituality, and doctrinal soundness of the individual Christians involved.  

That all of the forms of church government "work" when good Christians are involved --- and that none of them "work" when the opposite is true. ________________