Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that there was no clergy-laity distinction in the early Church.
They say that the terms episkopos and presbyteros are synonymous in Scripture. Some verses given include Acts 20:17, 28 and Philippians 1:1.
Do we have any Scriptural argument against that claim?
As already provided, yes.
In the Acts of the Apostles (14:23) Saints Paul and Barnabas “appointed presbyters (=priests) for them in every church.” Paul and Barnabas were bishops who had received at ordination the power to ordain others. In Greek the words used were presbyteros for priest, elder, presbyter, and episcopos for bishop, overseer, supervisor, or guardian. By the time of St Ignatius of Antioch (d. 107) he speaks of the bishop as one who has “acquired his ministry, not from himself, nor through men”, and that he is to be regarded “as the Lord Himself.” (Ep. Ad Philad., 1; Ephes. 6).
St. Ignatius was the third bishop of Antioch and was martyred in Rome in approximately 107 A.D. His letter comes from about 96 A.D. Even at this early date, the threefold hierarchy of bishops, priests (presbyters in Greek), and deacons is present and the practice of celebrating the Holy Eucharist is clearly a long-established practice.
“The substance of the record contained in the Ignatian epistles is this:
While the Christian communities of this period (c.100-110) have many presbyters and deacons, they have only one bishop….there are bishops and the faithful are to obey both the bishops and the presbyters.” The New Biblical Theorists, Msgr George A Kelly, Servant Books, 1983, p 78].
“It is a matter of seeing not simply words as such, but the facts, the realities: seeing the Church live – and as far back as the New Testament.”
Cardinal Lawrence Shehan says that the NT is not a book of neat linguistics. He cites the New American Bible, Hinds, Noble and Eldredge’s Greek English Dictionary, the English Jerusalem Bible, Goodspeed’s translation of the Chicago Bible, Kleist-Lilly, Joseph Fitzmer, SJ, and Fr Andre Feuillet’s *The Priesthood of Christ and His Ministers *as all acknowledging priests or priesthood in the NT under a variety of terms – presbuteroi, leitourgos, hierourgos, Leitourgon, Leitourgon hierougounta. “The absence of the use of the one term hierus is evidence merely that this one term was not used, not that priest or priesthood are unacknowledged in the NT.” [See *The New Biblical Theorists, Servant Books, 1983, by Msgr George A Kelly, p 84].
Pope Clement I writing to the Church of Corinth reminds the rebels at Corinth that the apostles ordained bishops and deacons, and unquestionably expects them to respect men: “who had been appointed by the apostles or afterward by other eminent men……The apostles are from Christ…they appointed their first fruits – after having tested them through the Spirit – to be the bishops and deacons of the future believers.” The New Biblical Theorists, Msgr George A Kelly, Servant Books, 1983, p 97-98].