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Who does what? Diakonoi, Presbuteroi, and Episkopoi Part III

February 27, 2012
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In the last article we set the stage to ask what the roles of diaknoi, presbuteroi, and episkopoi were in the early (before 200 AD) church.  One useful piece of information is the hierarchy of the three roles.  In several places (Ignatius to the Trallians, Chapters 3 and 7; Ignatius to the Philadelphians, Chapter 7) the laity are enjoined to obey all three groups, which are then clearly in some sort of leadership position.  Within the three roles diakonoi are lowest and episkopoi are highest.  Ignatius (Magnesians, Chapter 2) tells the diakonoi to obey the other two roles.  In his letter to the Philadelphians (Chapter 4) he lays out the whole hierarchy and compares it to various other roles.  Interestingly, in the process of describing who should listen to whom he places the episkopoi at the very top of the human hierarchy, just under Christ (who obeys God), and above Caesar.  Clement of Alexandria (Stromata, Book 6, Chapter 13) also lists the three roles as grades, and lists them as “episkopoi, presbuteroi, and diakonoi” as would be expected if he follows the same ordering as Ignatius.

This hierarchy is probably also reflected in the number of each role in a given church.  Ignatius is, as always, the most prolific source, frequently attesting to the fact that there is one episkopos per church (Ignatius to the Magnesians 4, Ignatius to the Trallians 3, Ignatius to the Philadelphians 4, Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans 12).  However, both Clement of Rome (First Epistle to the Corinthians 54) and Polycarp (Epistle to the Philippians 5) attest to multiple individuals of the other roles in the same church.  If Justin’s προεστωτος (First Apology 65) is an episkopos this would also attest to a single episkopos per congregation.  However, it is possible that Justin is not indicating a specific person but rather one who presides over the service.

Justin’s comments about Christian worship (First Apology 65 and 67) provide several useful clues about the roles played by episkopoi, presbuteroi, and diakonoi.  Justin says that the προεστωτος (proestotos) of the assembly blesses the Eucharistic meal, collects money for charitable works, and instructs the congregation after the reading of Scripture.  The diakonoi, meanwhile, distribute the bread and wine and save some for those who are absent.  Ignatius also reports on the Eucharistic meal, saying (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 8) that the episkopos or someone appointed by the episkopos must preside over the Eucharist, baptisms, and love-feasts.  This would fit well with what Justin says, although Justin never mentions who performs baptisms in his discussion of this rite.  Ignatius also says that those who marry should consult the episkopos (Epistle to Polycarp 5).  It appears that this consultation is for the purpose of producing good Christian marriages and it is unclear whether the episkopos actually presides over a wedding ceremony.  The only other role for episkopoi that is clearly mentioned is that of preserving doctrine.  Ireneaus (Against Heresies, Book 4, Chapter 33) says that it was the episkopoi who passed down church doctrine from the apostles.  However, Ireneaus also says (Against Heresies Book 3, Chapter 2) that this was something the presbuteroi did.  I find it unlikely that Ireneaus is confused on the issue.  Instead, he is probably using presbuteroi more generally and later, in Book 4, emphasizing that the more select group of episkopoi were involved in the careful preservation of doctrine.

The role of the presbuteroi specifically is somewhat obscured by this potential general usage of the term.  Clement of Rome (First Epistle to the Corinthians 54) says that the presbuteroi set the “terms of peace”, presumably the rules for the congregation that prevent conflict and schism.  Polycarp (Epistle to the Philippians 6) lists the duties of a presbuteros along with qualifications that may be drawn more or less directly from Paul.  For Polycarp, the duties of a presbuteros include care for the poor, the sick, the orphans, the widows, and those who stray from the faith.  This last one certainly indicates a teaching role as the presbuteros are enjoined to bring the wanderer back.  Moreover, Polycarp seems to be fairly concerned that a presbuteros might be overly severe in judgment.  This concern probably indicates some sort of role for a presbuteros in ecclesiastical discipline.  Polycarp’s list is unlikely to be comprehensive and so more functions for a presbuteros could emerge in other writings.

In chapter 11 of the same epistle Polycarp discusses Valens, a heretical presbuteros.  Given Polycarp’s concern for Valens’ wife it seems likely that at this date, at least, presbuteroi were allowed to marry, something that eventually ended in the West.  Ignatius notes in his Epistle to the Trallians (chapter 12) that the presbuteroi are of special importance in aiding the episkopos.  Presumably this indicates some commonality of function, since if the aid were tasks such as helping him get dinner anyone could do this.  Clement of Alexandria adds some other useful data.  In The Instructor, Book 3, Chapter 11 he notes in passing that the presbuteros lays his hands on people’s heads.  This is presumably part of blessing or healing, given Biblical context for such an act.  It is noteworthy that presbuteroi are singled out for this act, suggesting they have a special role or charge in this.

Both Clement and Ireneaus note that presbuteroi teach or preserve doctrine.  Clement says that the true presbuteros does and teaches what is right (Stromata, Book 6, Chapter 13) while Ireneaus is immensely fond of citing doctrine as coming from a presbuteros.  Ireneaus also attacks heresy as calling into question the knowledge of the presbuteroi (Against Heresies Book 5, Chapter 20), something he clearly thinks is ridiculous.  Finally, in the Shepherd of Hermas (First Vision, 4) Hermas is instructed to give the book in which his visions are recorded to the presbuteroi to be read.  Given the wide applicability of Hermas’ vision I suspect this indicates public reading, and it makes most sense to assume that the presbuteroi would read in public because their normal function involves public reading and teaching.  Finally, Clement of Alexandria’s commentary on 1 John (fragmentary) calls the apostle John presbuteros.  This suggests that presbuteroi did something similar enough to what John did that it is not simply flatly insulting to call John presbuteros rather than apostle.

The role of diakonoi is less commented-upon.  Justin indicates that they serve the Eucharistic elements to the congregation.  Ireneaus mentions a married deacon (Against Heresies, Book 1, Chapter 13) and calls Stephen the first deacon (Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 12).  Stephen’s appointed role (Acts 6) was to make sure that the widows in the Hellenist community received their allotment of bread.  However, part of the selection criteria for Stephen was wisdom, and Stephen is most notable for performing signs and wonders, and debating with the Jewish groups who eventually managed to turn him into the first Christian martyr.  Support for some sort of teaching role for diakonoi also appears in Clement of Alexandria, who says that the person who does and teaches what is the Lord’s is a true presbuteros and a diakonos of the will of God.  It is possible, though, that this usage should be read as “servant” and not as a title.

The last issue that we can address from the early Church Fathers is the manner in which diakonoi, presbuteroi, and episkopoi were appointed.  The Didache (Chapter 15) seems to indicate that diakonoi and episkopoi were elected by the church.  Ignatius (Magnesians 4) speaks of those who call someone bishop but do not listen to them.  It is unclear to me whether this means that they acknowledge that someone is bishop or that they appoint a bishop who they then ignore1.  Ignatius also speaks of electing a diakonos to be an ambassador to Antioch (Philadelphians 10) but this almost certainly means “elect someone from among the existing diakonoi” and not “make someone a diakonos by election and then send them”.  Meanwhile, Clement of Rome (1 Corinthians 42) says the apostles appointed episkopoi and diakonoi.  Ireneaus certainly seems to agree that the apostles appointed episkopoi (Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 3).    Ireneaus encourages his readers to ignore false presbuteroi (Against Heresies Book 4, Chapter 26), and Clement of Rome (1 Corinthians 44) discusses how some presbuteroi have been removed from their office wrongly.  Taken together, this suggests that the congregation has some role in the functioning of some of these offices, although it seems likely that all or many of them are appointed by those already in the office.

Our final article will return to the New Testament to see whether any of this additional information clarifies the information found there.


[1] The word used seems to be capable of meaning both “call by name” or “name”.

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