Bishops and Priests

I was asked this morning by a friend, how it is that we have bishops and priests in the Orthodox Church, and how we should understand this structure in the Church from a Scriptural perspective. It is a good question. Most Protestant groups have neither bishops nor priests, and when Protestants read the Scriptures they do not find bishops and priests in the pages of the New Testament. In this article intend to consider the Scriptures, and see how the earliest Church was organised, and when it was that bishops and priests appeared.

The translation of the Bible into English always requires that a judgement is made about how terms are rendered in English from the Greek originals. It is possible to make a translation or paraphrase that obscures some important elements and emphasises others. This is natural and doesn’t require deliberate bias. It is unavoidable. Whatever a translator already believes about Christianity will be expressed in his translation. In actual fact the office of bishop and priest are found clearly in the New Testament, but most modern, and Protestant, translations have chosen not to make this clear.

If we begin with the Bishop. In Greek this is the word episkopos. We still speak about the Church of England as being an Episcopal Church, and indeed the Anglican Church in Scotland is called the Episcopal Church. The Greek word episkopos is used in the English language. If we look at it we can see that the middle section e-piskop-os, is the same word that we use, with our own English pronunciation of course. Piskop is the same word as Bishop. So there is a well established translation into English of the word episkopos, and it is Bishop.

The King James version of the Bible used this ordinary translation of episkopos, but most modern and Protestant translations have chosen to obscure the word. So we find that in St Paul’s first letter to Timothy, 1 Tim 3:1, in the New King James version,

This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work.

It is very clear here that the Greek word, episkopos, is translated as bishop. And that is how it had always been translated into English. In the Old English language of the Anglo-Saxons in England, the word episkopos was translated as biscop. And so we have used this translation for almost 1500 years. Other translations of this verse say things such as,

NIV: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task.

CEV: This saying is reliable: if anyone has a goal to be a supervisor in the church, they want a good thing.

NLT: If someone aspires to be a church leader, he desires an honorable position.

The problem with all of these translations is that they have deliberately chosen to avoid using the English translation of episkopos, which is bishop, because they are produced by groups of people who reject the office of bishop in the Church. And it is because of these deliberate choices that many Protestants are unaware that St Paul speaks clearly about bishops in the Church. Of course the Greek word episkopos does have the meaning of supervisor or overseer, but that does not mean that we can just ignore the ancient office of bishop because we do not like it, especially when the translation of episkopos into English is not overseer, but bishop.

It would be like insisting that when we go to the GP for some medical problem, we insist on calling him Teacher because the original meaning of Doctor in Latin is teacher. Yes, that is the etymology, or word origin, but it is not the meaning of the word, and if we called a doctor, Teacher, we would in fact be failing to communicate properly and would not be making ourselves clear. In the same way the translation of episkopos is not Overseer, but is Bishop.

The New Testament uses the word Bishop, or episkopos, in several other passages.

In Titus 1:7-9 we read,

For a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but hospitable, a lover of what is good, sober-minded, just, holy, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict.

And in Phillipians 1:1, St Paul writes,

To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons.

So it is not the case that Bishops are not found in the Bible. Indeed, they are clearly an important group of people and have responsibility in the Church. And we can find them mentioned in the earliest writings of the first Christians. One of the first and most famous of these early church leaders was St Ignatius, the Bishop of Antioch. Antioch was where St Peter and St Paul and been Apostles in the Church. We read in the first History of the Church,

At this time Ignatius was known as the second bishop of Antioch, Evodius having been the first. Symeon likewise was at that time the second ruler of the church of Jerusalem, the brother of our Saviour having been the first.

This early work of history describes Evodius as being the first bishop, or episkopos, in Antioch, after the Apostles, and the second bishop is named as Ignatius. St Ignatius has left us a collection of letters. He was arrested in one of the persecutions and was sent to Rome, where he was martyred about 107 AD. He was born in about 35 AD, and so had known the Apostles and a great many people who had seen and heard the Lord Jesus. He speaks about the role of Bishop in the Church in the first century, an experience gained during the long life of the Apostle St John, who had reposed in 100 AD.

As he was taken to Rome through Asia Minor he wrote to the Churches on his route. In his letter to the Church in Smyrna he says,

See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as ye would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is administered either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude of the people  also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid.

And a little later he says,

He who honours the bishop has been honoured by God; he who does anything without the knowledge of the bishop, does in reality serve the devil.

In his letter to the Church of the Philadelphians he writes,

Jesus Christ, is our eternal and enduring joy, especially if men are in unity with the bishop, the presbyters, and the deacons, who have been appointed according to the mind of Jesus Christ, whom He has established in security, after His own will, and by His Holy Spirit.

And a little later he writes,

Your bishop, I know, obtained the ministry which pertains to the common good, not of himself, neither by men, nor through vainglory, but by the love of God the Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ; at whose meekness I am struck with admiration, and who by his silence is able to accomplish more than those who vainly talk.

And in the letter to the Church of the Ephesians he says,

Now the more any one sees the bishop keeping silence, the more ought he to revere him. For we ought to receive every one whom the Master of the house sends to be over His household, as we would do Him that sent him. It is manifest, therefore, that we should look upon the bishop even as we would upon the Lord Himself. And indeed Onesimus himself greatly commends your good order in God.

These are just a few excerpts from several of the letters which were written in about 107 AD. In this last letter we find that the bishop of Ephesus at this time is named as Onesimus. We must remember that St Ignatius was born in the time just after the death and resurrection of Christ, and all of his life he had known some of the Apostles, and many of those who had known the Apostles and had seen the Lord Jesus. He was the second bishop of one of the largest and most important cities in the Roman Empire. There is no sense at all that bishops had just been introduced in the previous few years. Indeed he had been bishop of Antioch since 67 AD, and Evodius had preceded him. There had been bishops from the beginning, just as the New Testament speaks of bishops.

But St Ignatius does not only mention Onesimus as another bishop by name. He had written to the bishop of Smyrna himself, another very famous figure and a martyr, the bishop St Polycarp. He begins his letter saying,

Ignatius, who is also Theophorus, to Polycarp who is bishop of the church of the Smyrnaeans.

In his letter, filled with useful advice, to the younger bishop Polycarp, he also has some words for the congregation in his care, writing to them,

Give heed to the bishop, that God also may give heed to you. My soul be for theirs that are submissive to the bishop, to the presbyters, and to the deacons.

What can we say? It is that at the very beginning of the Church, just as St Paul commends those who might become bishops, so there were indeed men who became bishops, as we would expect. They became the local representatives of the Apostolic ministry. And we find them everywhere. The history of the Church of Alexandria is recorded by Eusebius the earliest Church historian who says that,

In the 8th year of the reign of the Emperor Nero, Anianus was the first after Mark the Evangelist to have the care of the diocese of Alexandria.

And in the writings of St Irenaeus, who had been taught by St Polycarp whom we have just mentioned, we find that he remembers,

For while I was still a boy I knew you in lower Asia in Polycarp’s house when you were a man of rank in the royal hall and endeavoring to stand well with him. I remember the events of those days more clearly than those which happened recently, for what we learn as children grows up with the soul and is united to it, so that I can speak even of the place in which the blessed Polycarp sat and disputed, how he came in and went out, the character of his life, the appearance of his body, the discourses which he made to people, how he reported his intercourse with John and with the others who had seen the Lord, how he remembered their words, and what were the things concerning the Lord which he had heard from them, and about their miracles, and about their teaching, and how Polycarp had received them from the eyewitnesses of the word of life, and reported all things in agreement with the Scriptures. I listened eagerly even then to these things through the mercy of God which was given me, and made notes of them, not on paper but in my heart, and ever by the grace of God do I truly ruminate on them.

We find here that St Irenaeus remembers all that he learned as a disciple of St Polycarp, and that St Polycarp taught those things which he had learned from the Apostle John and with others who had seen the Lord Jesus. In this Church, filled with eyewitnesses, and even the personal presence of the Apostles, we find that bishops have been established to care for the Churches.

The Church of the city of Rome was already famous in these earliest times and we find the names of their earliest bishops recorded and reported. When false teachers and false teachings arose in the second century, it became necessary to ask how the faithful and Orthodox communities of the Church could be distinguished from those which had sprung up in recent times to teach error. St Irenaeus, born in about 130 AD and the disciple of St Polycarp, who had been taught by the Apostle John as we have seen, writes about this issue. He says,

It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and to demonstrate the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these heretics rave about.

What does he mean? It is that it was easy enough in his own time, to consider where the bishops in every place had come from, and to see that they preserved a succession from the Apostles. Not only where they in an unbroken chain of one bishop after another from the Apostles, but everywhere the same Apostolic Tradition was taught by these men. It was those who taught error, new ideas that were not part of the Apostolic preaching, who had no connection with the Apostles and who did not teach what was everywhere acknowledged as the Apostolic message. He explains what he means in the case of the Church of Rome, and having visited Rome in 177 AD he was well informed about the history of the Christian community there. He says,

The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric. This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing in his ears, and their traditions before his eyes. Nor was he alone in this, for there were many still remaining who had received instructions from the apostles. To this Clement there succeeded Evaristus. Alexander followed Evaristus; then, sixth from the apostles, Sixtus was appointed; after him, Telephorus, who was gloriously martyred; then Hyginus; after him, Pius; then after him, Anicetus. Soter having succeeded Anicetus, Eleutherius does now, in the twelfth place from the apostles, hold the inheritance of the episcopate. In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth.

By the time that St Irenaeus was writing, there had been 12 bishops of the Church of Rome after the Apostles. St Irenaeus himself became bishop of Lyons in modern France, after the first bishop, Pothinus, was martyred. He lived in a church which was governed and shepherded by bishops, and he knew of no other church, and history does not show us any other such church. After speaking of the Church in Rome, he cannot help but speak of St Polycarp, his own mentor and father in Christ, saying,

But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried on earth a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true.

St Polycarp was born into the Apostolic Age. He was taught by the Apostles and those who had seen Jesus Christ himself, and he was made a bishop of the Church in Smyrna by the Apostles. More than that, with the other bishops that St Irenaeus has known and heard of, he taught only what he had learned from the Apostles and which the whole Church, led by men who had been made bishops by the Apostles, continued to teach. It was those who had come up with new and distorted ideas, teachings that had not been passed down from the Apostles, who had no connection to the Apostles, and did not belong to the succession of Apostolic bishops.

The question that the earliest Church asked was not, why do you have bishops? There were none of the Apostolic Churches, the Churches that belonged to the communion of the Apostolic Church, which did not have bishops. The question was, why do you not have a bishop? or how is your bishop connected to the authoritative succession of bishops in every place?

It was the very fact of the succession of known bishops in every place, going back to the Apostles, and preaching the same Apostolic truths, which defended the Church from error and false teachers. They were able to say, You have no connection to the Church, you have just sprung into existence, how can you have suddenly learned some new truth that the Apostles never taught? It was this very fact of history which struck me as I began to be interested in Orthodoxy. My own Evangelical group had come into existence in 1829, and had taught that the Church had fallen into apostasy and error at the beginning, so that everything in Christian history was error and offensive to God. But as I looked into history that made no sense at all. It would be possible for some groups to fall into error, indeed it might be possible for most groups or congregations to fall into error, but it was absolutely impossible that every group would fall into error in exactly the same way, and it would require the whole Church to fall into complete error by the time of the first bishops, back in the middle of the first century. This would require that not only had all the early Christians fallen into error, but the Apostles had also taught great error even while they were alive. That makes no sense at all. Every Christian fell into error, including the Apostles, and taught the same error in every place and for hundreds of years. That is what is required if we are to deny the fact that the early Church as shepherded by bishops who had been appointed by the Apostles, and who taught the Apostolic message and doctrine in all the Apostolic Churches from the furthest East to the furthest West.

Perhaps that is enough in this brief article about bishops, about the New Testament episkopos who became the early Christian successor to the Apostles in every place. What about the priest? Where does this word and office in the Church come from. We should not be surprised that the word priest is also found in the New Testament. Of course in the Greek text it is the word presbyteros, which has the sense of an elder. But the translation of this word presbyteros into English has always been priest. The Greek word presbyteros was received into the Latin language although they had their own word for an older person, senex. But presbyteros was more than an adjective in the Church, it had become a ministry already. In the common Latin, prebyteros became prester, and as the Church developed in England, the Anglo-Saxons in Old English, used the form preost. So just as the translation of episkopos into English had always been bishop, so the translation of presbyter had been priest.

We find the word presbyteros many times in the New Testament. It is used in a variety of circumstances. In one sense it referred to older men.When St Peter is speaking to the crowd on the day of Pentecost, he quotes from the Old Testament and says,

And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God,
That I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh;
Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
Your young men shall see visions,
Your old men shall dream dreams.

In this use of the word presbyteros it refers to those who are elders by virtue of their advanced age. But already at the time the New Testament was written it was already used of the members of the Jewish Sanhedrin. In Matthew 16:21 we read,

From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day.

In this verse the word presbyteros is being used to refer to the members of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council. This is a little similar to calling those responsible for the Government of an American city the city fathers. Those who were the leading men of the Jewish people were usually drawn from among those who were of an older age, but they were known as the Elders because they also had a particular office in the community.

We know that in the early Church there were those who also had a similar leadership responsibility and these were also called presbyteros. In Acts 11:29-30 we read,

Then the disciples, each according to his ability, determined to send relief to the brethren dwelling in Judea. This they also did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.

The Church in Judea clearly had those who were in a similar office to the members of the Sanhedrin and so were addressed in the same way as Elders. But at the same time we know that the Church in Jerusalem was under the care of the Apostles and that the first bishop there was James, the brother of the Lord Jesus. The Church histories of the earliest centuries tell us,

James, the brother of the Lord, to whom the episcopal seat at Jerusalem had been entrusted by the apostles.

Therefore, when we read of the Elders in Judea and Jerusalem, we must understand that all of those in leadership there are being included. The Elders included those of the Apostles and Seventy still present in Jerusalem, as well as James, the bishop, and the other men with responsibility. What does this mean? It is that the bishops are also elders, but that they have a particular ministry among all the other elders. In the same way, in the Coptic Orthodox Church, bishops and priests are all called Father. But this does not mean that there is no difference between bishops and priests.

We read in Acts 14:23,

So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.

This should not be taken to exclude the office of bishop, since we know the names of so many men who were appointed as bishops by the Apostles. But it might also indicate that in some places, and in the period in which Churches were being planted for the first time, the Apostles might also not have immediately made one of the elders a bishop. Timothy, for instance, was left at Ephesus by St Paul as the first bishop of that city, but a Christian community had been in existence there for a few years. It is interesting that writing to St Timothy, St Paul gives him all the advice that a bishop and pastor would require, speaking both of the qualities St Paul expects in a bishop, and how he should teach the various categories of members of the Church.  It was to St Timothy, as bishop of Ephesus, that St Paul writes,

If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work.

But outside the New Testament, and in the earliest writings, things become clearer. There were certainly bishops very early in the Apostolic Age, in the middle of the first century and earlier. And these were the senior members of the body of elders in each place. But by 107 AD, and much earlier, since St Ignatius never speaks as though this was something unusual, we find in his letters to the Churches in Asia Minor,

See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God.


I salute your most worthy bishop, and your very venerable presbytery, and your deacons.


Be in unity with the bishop, the presbyters, and the deacons, who have been appointed according to the mind of Jesus Christ, whom He has established in security, after His own will, and by His Holy Spirit.


Your bishop presides in the place of God, and your presbyters in the place of the assembly of the apostles, along with your deacons, who are most dear to me, and are entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ.

These are just a few passages from the letters of St Ignatius. Certainly in his experience, over about 30 years as a bishop in Antioch, and with personal contact with the Apostles and their disciples, the structure of the local Church was described as a bishop with his presbyters or priests around him, and the deacons leading the service of the community.

We can turn to the letter of St Polycarp which he wrote to the Church in Phillipi, saying,

Polycarp and the presbyters that are with him unto the Church of God which sojourns at Philippi.

In his own Church in Smyrna we see that he was a bishop with the community of presbyters serving with him. And in Rome we see something similar. Clement, one of the early bishops of Rome, had to write to the Church in Corinth, when it had returned to its old problems of division. He describes the order which should be found in the worship of the Church and uses the language of the Old Testament worship in the Temple to describe what happens in the Christian services. He says,

For his own peculiar services are assigned to the high priest, and their own proper place is prescribed to the priests, and their own special ministrations devolve on the Levites.

Here we see that there is a high priest in the local church, the bishop. And there are priests who are the presbyters, and there are deacons, who continue the ministry of the Levites. But Clement also recognises that the bishop is himself one of the presbyters, though the senior one, and with a special ministry. We see this when he speaks of those whom the Corinthians have forced out of their episcopate and says of them,

Blessed are those presbyters who, having finished their course before now, have obtained a fruitful and perfect departure from this world.

We can see that again, the presbyters include the bishop, but not all presbyters are bishops, and the role of the bishop is different to that of the other presbyters who support him.

What conclusions can we draw? In the very first decades of the Christian age there were already me being appointed as presbyters to lead the congregations established by the Apostles. Very quickly one of these presbyters was appointed by the Apostles as a bishop, and we have the names of many of these first bishops, including St Timothy. At first the community of Christians in a city or town would all worship together, but as the Christian population increased presbyters would be sent from the bishop’s Church to the other meetings around the city. Very soon, because of the growth of the Church, it was normal for the bishop to celebrate the Eucharist in the main Church in his city or town, while presbyters/priests served the other church celebrations that were being established.

We see many presbyters/priests in the cities and towns, but we don’t see several bishops, because from the beginning it was understood that there should be one bishop being supported by many priests. Bishops and priests celebrating the Eucharist (a topic for another post) have been an established aspect of the Apostolic Church from the very beginning. When a community was first established and while leaders were being tested in ministry there might be presbyters with no bishop, but the first bishops were all established and appointed by the Apostles themselves, and the episcopal nature of the Church was understood and described by the first Christian writers, those who had been taught by the Apostles themselves. How could St Ignatius have been in error, when he was appointed bishop by the Apostles in the middle of the first century, and succeeded a bishop who had led the Church for many years already. How could St Polycarp have been in error when he had learned his faith from the Apostle St John, and from many others who had heard the Lord Jesus.

This is what the Apostolic Church, the Christian Church, looks like. Congregations and Priests gathered around their Bishop. An historic and unbroken continuity with the first Bishops and the Apostles, and the same Apostolic faith being taught in every place and every generation.

One Response to "Bishops and Priests"

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.