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Two Roles or Three? Diakonoi, Presbuteroi, and Episkopoi Part II

February 13, 2012
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In the last article I mentioned that the roles of diaknoi, presbuteroi, and episkopoi are mentioned frequently within the writings of the early Church Fathers and that this information might help us determine how these roles played out in the New Testament Church.  The writers I will reference1 here are the unknown writer or writers of the Didache, the similarly anonymous author of the Shepherd of Hermas, Clement of Rome, Clement of Alexandria, Ignatius, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and fragments of the works of Papias.  The Didache is possibly the oldest of these works, as it may date within the first century.  Clement of Rome probably wrote in the 90s, while Ignatius wrote in the first or second decade of the second century.  Polycarp and Papias are somewhat later (and there is less agreement on the date of their writings), but they are followed by Justin Martyr in the middle of the second century.  Clement of Alexandria and Irenaeus close out the second century.  The Shepherd of Hermas is of dubious date, but is probably no later than 170 A.D.

Perhaps the first issue to determine is whether episkopoi and presbuteroi are the same thing.  In Titus 1 Paul begins to lay out the qualifications for presbuteroi.  Partway through this he suddenly says, “Since an episkopos manages God’s household…”  This is taken by some to indicate that presbuteroi and episkopoi are simply different words for the same thing.  However, it could also mean that one or the other term is inclusive of the other (for instance, perhaps all decision-makers are called presbuteroi, but some are also episkopoi) or that Paul has actually stopped discussing presbuteroi and switched to discussing episkopoi.  With one verse it is hard to argue much of anything either way (although there are also instances in which diakonoi and only one of the other titles are assembled, suggesting that there are only two groups of leaders).  However, with a larger body of writing perhaps something can be done.

In favor of grouping presbuteroi and episkopoi together are the following passages.  In 1 Clement Clement of Rome references obeying the presbuteroi in the first chapter without referencing the episkopoi at all.  In chapter 42 he references the appointment of episkopoi and diakonoi by the apostles but no presbuteroi.  In the 44th chapter he discusses the office which is shares a root word with episkopos (the episcopate) and calls those who fill it “presbuteroi”.  Similarly, the Didache speaks of diakonoi and episkopoi in chapter 15 without mentioning presbuteroi, unless the presbuteroi are taken to be the prophets or teachers mentioned.

Against this grouping are the writings of Ignatius which clearly separate the presbuteroi from the episkopoi (see, for instance, the second chapter of the Epistle to the Magnesians, the Epistle to the Philadelphians, and the Epistle to the Ephesians).  Somewhat later, Clement of Alexandria lists diakonoi, presbuteroi, and episkopoi as three offices of the church in Stromata, Book 6, Chapter 13.  Importantly, Ignatius’ writings, which come only a short time after Clement of Rome’s, assume that the churches he is writing to have established both episkopoi and presbuteroi (he greets some by name) and that they are familiar with the not-insignificant differences between the roles that Ignatius mentions.

Given this it would be hard to separate the competing hypotheses.  Perhaps Ignatius, who wrote to five locations in Asia Minor and to Rome itself, was familiar with a different set of rules than the Didache, which is probably from Israel or its near environs, and Clement of Rome who wrote to the Corinthians in Greece.  However, this would be a little odd as Ignatius, writing to Clement’s own city, has no issue referring to himself as the episkopos of Syria and notes that his journey to martyrdom (from which he writes these letters) leaves Syria without an episkopos.  This seems to presuppose some similarity between the governance of the church in Syria and Rome.  However, it would be possible to postulate some sort of temporal or spatial division between the churches that regard episkopoi and presbuteroi as separate and those that don’t.

However, the idea that episkopoi and presbuteroi are one and the same rests on two pieces of evidence: sometimes we expect both terms to be listed and only one is, and sometimes the same person is referred to by both terms.  The first requires that our expectations be correct.  The first and second might also be expected if, as is true in all modern churches with bishops, bishops (episkopoi) are ordained at the priest/pastor (presbuteros) level first.  If this was the case we would see authors who clearly separate episkopoi and presbuteroi from one another also occasionally using the terms interchangeably.  There is one case in which this occurs.  Clement of Alexandria recounts a story in “Who is the Rich Man that Shall be Saved?” in which the man introduced as an episkopos is also called a presbuteros.  Clement of Alexandria has, elsewhere, clearly divided these roles.  Moreover, Clement refers to the apostle John as a presbuteros in his commentary on 1 John.  Given Clement’s other comments on church polity this seems to be giving a rather low rank to John unless presbuteros is an acceptable title for anyone of that rank or above.

The Peshitta also provides some interesting commentary on this issue.  The Peshitta is a Syriac version of the Bible that was in wide circulation quite early.  Many scholars think it was translated within the second century.  The Peshitta was translated and used within Ignatius’ home turf, Syria.  Despite the fact that Ignatius attests to a solid tradition of separating episkopoi and presbuteroi as different roles the Peshitta uses the same word (Syriac for “elder”) for both.  This again suggests that it was considered acceptable to use presbuteros for both episkopoi and presbuteroi even when the roles were separated.

Ignatius is the Church Father who writes most extensively about church polity.  His letters show three levels of church government, diakonos, presbuteros, and episkopos, and assume that his readers (spread throughout Asia Minor) are already familiar with this system.  Against this, we have a reference from Clement of Rome and one from the Didache that might be lists of church officials but which skip mentioning the presbuteroi.  Finally, we have numerous references to individuals who are both presbuteroi and episkopoi – however, some of these references come from authors who believe that the roles of presbuteroi and episkopoi are different.  For these reasons I believe it makes most sense to regard presbuteroi and episkopoi as separate roles with presbuteros serving as a named role and also a generic term for respected decision-makers.

None of this, though, tells us what diakonoi, presbuteroi, or episkopoi do.  That will be the task of the next article in this series.


[1] In older translations diaknoi, presbuteroi, and episkopoi are routinely translated as deacons, presbyters, and bishops.  This simplifies finding these terms somewhat for an English-speaking audience.

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