presbyter n : an elder in the Presbyterian Church
EtymologyLate Latin presbyter < πρεσβύτερος < πρέσβυς.
Presbyter in the New Testament refers to a leader in local Christian congregations, then a synonym of episkopos (which has now come to mean bishop). In modern usage, it is distinct from bishop and synonymous with priest, pastor, elder, or minister in various Christian denominations. Its literal meaning in Greek (presbyteros) is "elder."
HistoryThe 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 comentators 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.
The earliest post-apostolic writings, the Didache and Clement for example, show the church recognized two local church offices—elders (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 (1 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. This is best seen in the 2nd century writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch.
The bishop was understood mainly as the president of the council of presbyters, 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.
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", "presbytery", 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 generally true of United Methodists, who ordain elders as clergy (pastors) while affirming the priesthood of all believers. The Anglican Diocese of Sydney has abolished the use of the word "priest" for those ordained as such. They are now referred to as "presbyters".
The term father for presbyters is generally restricted to Catholic and Orthodox usage, though many Anglicans and even some Lutherans will use the term, as well. It is not generally thought of as a title, however, but simply as an affectionate term of address for the presbyter.
- Liddell & Scott, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon, pp. 301, 668
- The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, p. 2297
- The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (3rd ed.), p. 1322
presbyter in Czech: Presbyter
presbyter in Danish: Presbyter
presbyter in German: Presbyter
presbyter in Polish: Prezbiter
presbyter in Russian: Пресвитер
presbyter in Slovak: Presbyter
presbyter in Serbian: Презвитер
presbyter in Swedish: Presbyter