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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.



The word presbyter derives from Greek πρεσβύτερος (presbyteros), the comparative form of πρέσβυς (presbus), "elder"[1].


The earliest organization of the Christian churches in Judea was similar to that of Jewish synagogues, which 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.[2][3] 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 2nd 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.

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