Protestant Dr. Robert Godfrey says Catholics are wrong to have differences in priests and bishops. He says: “The Bible teaches that the office of bishop and presbyter are the same office…”
He cites Titus 1:5-7 For this reason I left you in Crete so that you might set right what remains to be done and appoint presbyters in every town, as I directed you, on condition that a man be blameless, married only once, with believing children who are not accused of licentiousness or rebellious. For a bishop as God’s steward must be blameless, not arrogant, not irritable, not a drunkard, not aggressive, not greedy for sordid gain…I have an idea how to respond to such a claim. What would you say?
There may have been very little to differentiate between the two offices in these early texts, but the differences became more and more apparent in the very early documents of the church fathers. If we read St. Ignatius of Antioch, we see that he sends letters to most of the churches in Asia Minor. His description of the hierarchical chain of command is unmistakable: Bishop presiding over priests, then the deacons. Every letter emphasises submission to the bishop as equivalent to submission to God.
On a further note, the bishop of Smyrna, Trallians, Ephesus, Magnesia, to name a few, all had the same structure. Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna, even sends copies of Ignatius’ letters to the Phillipians at their request.
My theory on this is that the authority of the bishops was eclipsed by the authority of the apostles, but after they left, the apostles made the bishop the central authority in each church. St. Clement of Rome describes this hand off of authority very well in his letter to the Corinthians.
In short, it would seem that Dr. Godfrey either does not accept the witness of these church fathers.
Peter calls himself both a Presbyter and an Apostle and here we see the same person referred to as both a Bishop and a Presbyter.
Since we know not all Bishops are Apostles but Apostles and Bishops are Presbyters and that the writer chose to use two different words to refer to the Bishop and those that he was going to appoint, Presbyters, can we conclude that not all Presbyters are Bishops as well?
Then is it fair to say that “Presbyter” is a term equally applicable to all 3 groups.
Just like Cardinals and Bishops are Priests but not all Priest are Cardinals or Bishops?
So “Presbyter” sounds a lot like a “priest” to me.
This is a really good point. And it also explains why no one complains when Ignatius writes his letters. If the bishops were really usurping authority over the priest, you’d think the priest would make some sort of fuss, or someone would have called foul.
I think an even stronger argument is the fact that St. Jerome explicitly acknowledges in the fourth century that bishops and presbyters were originally the same. This is one of the major reasons why I do not consider the bishop/presbyter distinction to be a necessary part of the structure of the Church (and why I could consider becoming a Methodist). I have never heard a satisfactory explanation from a Catholic/Anglo-Catholic/Orthodox point of view. It seems that a distinction between bishops and presbyters did develop quite early, and I have no problem with it, but I can’t rule out a twofold order as also legitimate and apostolic (I have a similar view about baptism in the name of Jesus alone, but that’s another issue, and a trickier one because it involves Trinitarian theology).