PRESBYTER; PRESBYTERY [ISBE]
- prez'-bi-ter, pres'-bi-ter, prez'-bi-ter-i, pres'-bi-ter-i (presbuteros, presbuterion):
1. Words Used in the New Testament:
This latter word occurs in the New Testament once (1 Tim 4:14), so rendered in both the King James Version and the Revised Version (British and American). But the original Greek occurs also in Lk 22:66, in the Revised Version (British and American) translated "the assembly of the elders," in the King James Version simply "the elders"; and in Acts 22:5, translated in English Versions of the Bible "the estate of the elders"; in both of which occurrences the word might more accurately be translated "the presbytery," just as it is in 1 Tim 4:14. Besides these three occurrences of the neuter singular presbuterion, the masculine plural presbuteroi, always translated "elders," is often used to indicate the same organization or court as the former, being applied earlier in New Testament history to the Jewish Sanhedrin (Mt 27:1; 28:12; Lk 9:22; Acts 4:5,8), and later in the development of the church to its governing body, either in general (Acts 15:2,4,6,22 f), or locally (Acts 14:23; 16:4; 20:17; 1 Tim 5:17; Tit 1:5, etc.). It is sometimes used of the body, or succession, of religious teachers and leaders of the nation's past (Mt 15:2; Heb 11:2). The word "presbyter" has been contracted by later ecclesiastical usage into the title "priest," although in the New Testament they are by no means identical, but on the contrary are often explicitly distinguished (Mk 14:43; Acts 23:14).
2. Based on the Synagogue Plan:
The local synagogue of the Jewish church was under the care and control of a body of representative men called "the elders" (Lk 7:3). Naturally the Christian church, beginning at Jerusalem and formed on the lines of the synagogue, took over the eldership into its own organization (Acts 11:30; 15:2; 1 Pet 5:1, etc.); so also in all the cities in which the missionary activities of the apostles made church organization necessary, the local synagogues readily suggested and supplied a feasible plan for such organization (Acts 14:23; Tit 1:5). The mother-church at Jerusalem, formed after the pattern of the synagogue, might well have offered to the churches formed elsewhere under apostolic preaching the only conceivable plan. We do not know from the New Testament passages how these elders were selected; we must infer that they were elected by the membership of the churches, as under the synagogue plan; they were then installed into their office by apostles (Acts 14:23), or by apostolic helpers (Tit 1:5), or by "the presbytery" (1 Tim 4:14), or by both together (2 Tim 1:6; compare 1 Tim 4:14). So early as the Pauline letters the office of presbyter seems already to have borne the distinction of two functions: teaching and ruling (1 Tim 5:17; compare Acts 20:17,28; 1 Thess 5:12,13; 1 Pet 5:2).
3. Principle Found in the New Testament:
In the New Testament history and epistles it does not appear that the various churches of a district were already organized into an ecclesiastical body known as "the presbytery," having some basis of representation from the constituent churches. But the absence of such mention is far from being final proof that such district organizations did not exist; little dependence can be placed on mere negative arguments. Moreover, the council of apostles and elders in Jerusalem, to which Paul and Barnabas appealed (Acts 15), is positive evidence of the principle of representation and central authority. The various district organizations would quickly follow as administrative and judicial needs demanded; such development came early in the growth of the church, so early that it is unmistakably present in the post-apostolic age.
In Revelation the 24 elders occupy a conspicuous place in the ideal church (Rev 4:4,10; 5:6, etc.), sitting for those they represent, as an exalted presbytery, close to the throne of the Eternal One. "The four and twenty elders occupying thrones (not seats) around the throne are to be regarded as representatives of the glorified church; and the number, twice twelve, seems to be obtained by combining the number of the patriarchs of the Old Testament with that of the apostles of the New Testament" (Milligan on Rev 4:4 in the Expositor's Bible).
4. In the Presbyterian Church:
Presbytery is the court, or representative body, in the Presbyterian Church next above the Session of the local church. The Session is composed of the ruling elders, elected by the membership of a particular church, with the minister as moderator or presiding officer. The Presbytery is composed of all the ordained ministers, or teaching elders, and one ruling elder from the Session of each church in a given district or community. To it now, as in New Testament times (1 Tim 4:14), is committed the power of ordination; as also of installation and removal of ministers. It has supervision of the affairs which are general to the churches in its jurisdiction, and the power of review in all matters concerning the local churches (see Form of Government, Presbyterian Church in U.S.A., chapter x). The Presbytery elects the representatives composing the General Assembly, which is the highest court of the Presbyterian Church.
5. In Architecture:
In ecclesiastical architecture the presbytery is that part of the church structure which is set apart for the clergy, usually the space between altar and apse; sometimes used of the whole choir space, but ordinarily the word is more restricted in its meaning.
See further, BISHOP; CHURCH; ELDER; GOVERNMENT.