Presbyter is, in the Bible, a synonym for bishop (episkopos), referring to a leader in local Christian congregations. 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."
The earliest organization of the Christian Churches in Palestine 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. Initially, these presbyters were apparently identical with the overseers (episkopoi, i.e., bishops), as such passages as Acts 20:17 and Titus 1:5,7 indicate, and the terms were interchangeable.
Shortly after the New Testament period, with the death of the Apostles, there was a differentiation in the usage of the synonymous terms, giving rise to the appearance of two distinct offices, bishop and presbyter. 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. The distinction between presbyter and bishop is made fairly soon after the Apostolic period, as is seen in the 2nd century writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch, who uses the terms consistently and clearly to refer to two different offices (along with deacon).
Initially, each local congregation in the Church had its own bishop. 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 Reformed churches tend to use the term elder.
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).
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 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.
See also Presbyterianism, Methodism, Holy Orders
- 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