Clement's bishops and deacons vs. Ignatius' bishops, presbyters, and deacons?

Clement of Rome, regarded as fourth Pope, and Ignatius of Antioch, also acknowledged as having some relation to Peter as bishop of Antioch, wrote about the same time. Ignatius wrote in early AD 100s, but Clement probably wrote a few decades earlier.

In Ignatius various letters, which he wrote to churches and individuals on his way to martyrdom in Rome, he was very clear about the local church’s structure: A singular bishop surrounded by presbyters and deacons. It seems obvious that he thought this was a universal structure, fundamental to the nature of the local church. Essential to unity and to a valid Eucharistic celebration.

However, Clement’s earlier letter speaks of only bishops and deacons. In one understanding, this would be referring to the same collection of leaders which could either be called bishops *or *presbyters, for the terms were fluid in the NT era church - only later to be more fixed.

NOTE: the English word “PRIEST” comes from presbyter.

How are we to understand this difference? Ignatius claims the three-part ordained ministry is both universal and essential to the church. Clement, writing earlier (though just a few decades earlier) mentions bishops and deacons only. Why?

Bishops, priests, and deacons are essential to the historical Christian understanding of the visible church, as a society headed by ordained ministers. It seems to be from the very beginning, but what about Clement?


“Through countryside and city [the apostles] preached, and they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers. Nor was this a novelty, for bishops and deacons had been written about a long time earlier. . . . Our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry” (Letter to the Corinthians 42:4–5, 44:1–3 [A.D. 80]).


“Now, therefore, it has been my privilege to see you in the person of your God-inspired bishop, Damas; and in the persons of your worthy presbyters, Bassus and Apollonius; and my fellow-servant, the deacon, Zotion. What a delight is his company! For he is subject to the bishop as to the grace of God, and to the presbytery as to the law of Jesus Christ” (Letter to the Magnesians 2 [A.D. 110]).

“Take care to do all things in harmony with God, with the bishop presiding in the place of God, and with the presbyters in the place of the council of the apostles, and with the deacons, who are most dear to me, entrusted with the business of Jesus Christ, who was with the Father from the beginning and is at last made manifest” (ibid., 6:1).

…so you’re arguing from a perspective of terms?

Did Jesus use the term Apostles?

Yet, you, and every other Christian believe in the Apostles–if you are Catholic, you believe in Apostolic Tradition and Apostolic Succession… yet, not once did Jesus uttered the term “Apostle” (though that is only going on what was written–not on what actually took place).

Other than having an actual explanation from these two cited writers, we can only ascertain that, from their perspective, they had a different definition or that the one who wrote later had a greater vocabulary from which to write–consider that a Priest who assist at Mass is called “Deacon” (at least that’s my understanding–though there are actual Deacons who assist Priest) during the celebration as the term actually means “servant” (The word “deacon” is derived from the Greek word diákonos (διάκονος),[1] which is a standard ancient Greek word meaning “servant”, “waiting-man”, “minister”, or “messenger”.[2]:

Maran atha!

PS: …also, have you considered that Deacons were first enlisted when the issue arose about the need of the widows? (Acts 6–the Church is organic!)

There is only one sacrament of Holy Orders, shared by deacons, priests, and bishops (who are also priests). Due to their role and the numbers of the faithful, bishops have had to delegate authority as they’ve seen fit. If there’s been any development in the role, this isn’t counter to Catholic and Orthodox tradition on the matter. That said, Clement switches from speaking of Bishops/overseers there and to presbyters/elders later. I don’t know all of Church history in this matter, but perhaps the local bishop had lost control of the various parishes united to him and their pastors (presbyters) had been supplanted. Clement and Ignatius were only writing a few decades apart. That Clement doesn’t spell out all three roles in the exact same manner that Ignatius did isn’t proof-positive that there weren’t such distinctions within the Church at his time, either.

You have to read Clement carefully, see Chapter 40 of his Epistle: Those, therefore, who present their offerings at the appointed times, are accepted and blessed; for inasmuch as they follow the laws of the Lord, they sin not. 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. The layman is bound by the laws that pertain to laymen.
Clement uses the model of the Old Testament. The high priest would correspond to Bishop, the priest to the ministerial priests, and the Levites would be the Deacons.

Even in the New Testament it is clear that some bishops were higher rank than others, for example at the Acts 15 Council we see James as the monoepiscopate of the Jerusalem congregation. And in 1 Timothy 5:19 we read Paul’s words to Timothy:Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.
Here we see that Timothy was a higher ranking bishop than the others, for Timothy had the ability to judge other bishops/priests. Not all bishops are equal.

Saint Jerome even said in Epistle 146: “When subsequently one presbyter was chosen to preside over the rest, this was done to remedy schism and to prevent each individual from rending the church of Christ by drawing it to himself. For even at Alexandria FROM THE TIME OF MARK THE EVANGELIST until the episcopates of Heraclas and Dionysius the presbyters always named as bishop one of their own number chosen by themselves and SET IN A MORE EXALTED POSITION, JUST AS AN ARMY ELECTS A GENERAL”
Jerome concludes that letter by ascribing those ecclesiastic distinctions of office to the apostles themselves:“In fact as if to tell us that the traditions handed down by the apostles were taken by them from the old testament, bishops, presbyters and deacons occupy in the church the same positions as those which were occupied by Aaron, his sons, and the Levites in the temple.”
One more thing, in Revelation 1-3, we see Jesus telling John to warn the Seven Churches, saying:
1:20 As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.
John is warning the “angels” of these churches to correct their moral character or else they will be cast down and destroyed. The Greek word for “angel” is a more generic term “messenger,” and in this case the “angels” are a symbolic name for the head bishops of these major cites. It makes no sense for John to warn a angelic being to stop sinning, so it only makes sense if these are monoepiscopate bishops in seven major cities.

Thanks for the help!!


Sorry if my reply is a little late.

Even though the office of priesthood is ancient and predate the times of Jesus, the order of priesthood (as distinct from the orders of bishops & deacons) developed later. During the time the Gospels were written, there were only the orders of bishops (started with the first 12 Apostles) and deacons (started with the first 7 deacons including Stephen etc).

The first Christian communities were centred around gathering (Church = Lat Ecclcesia = gathering) on the Lord’s Day to celebrate the liturgy, which commemorates the sacrifice of Jesus. Only the bishop would perform this rite reserved to the priesthood, as in all religions only a priest can invoke a sacrifice.

The early Christian communities were all based in the city (which is why until today the seat of a bishopric is always the main city in the diocese) and each Christian community had only one mass on Sunday. The congregation consists of the Christian communities from the nearby towns as well. The bishop is often assisted by (normally 7) deacons and (often) a council of elders, which consists of senior lay leaders in the community.

When the congregation gets too big, a self-sufficient community in the nearby large town/city would have its own mass centre by ordaining its own bishops. Normally, the new bishop would be sent from the mother bishopric, on which the new bishopric would still be depended on advice, resource and (in cases of dispute) judicial appeals. That is how archbishops and their dependent bishops (called suffragans) started.

Sometimes, the new mass centre is not self sufficient and will continue to depend on the bishop, who will still be responsible for the community there. This is often in rural areas or sometimes suburbs of the the town. A liturgy is then celebrated in the new mass centre by an assistant to the bishop. As the liturgy involves a sacrifice, the delegate of the bishop has to be called a priest. The liturgy remains the liturgy of the bishop and the priest is only a delegate. Which is why until today the bishop remains responsible for all liturgies in his diocese and the priests are considered delegated the authority on his ordination - the priest does not have any authority of his own without the bishop.

Also, the priests sent out to the rural areas often end up residing there to take care of the flock there. This save traveling, reducing time and more importantly risks (those were violent times, see the story of the Good Samaritan for risks of traveling). That is how the priest end up being called a pastor (pastoral = countryside).

All these evolved rather quickly. By the end of the first century, the triple order of bishops, priests and deacons were widespread if not universal. By early-to-mid second century, it certainly was universal. There is little documentation of those days but I think most Church historians agree with the dating.

You mentioned Clement did not mention priests. In Rome, there were a number of outlying mass centres, largely the 7 suburban bishoprics (of which 6 survives). I personally believe that there were priests to administer sacraments if not to celebrate mass for the large Christian community in Rome by the time of Clement. But then Rome has always been conservative and slow to change (which is why in those days it could always be relied on as a bishop of final appeal all over the Christian world).

I hope this is a clear explanation to a fascinating and interesting history of the Church that continue to affect us to this day.

Here’s an oldie from Catholic Answers:

Bishop, Priest and Deacon

The sacrament of holy orders is conferred in three ranks of clergy: bishops, priests, and deacons.

Bishops (episcopoi) have the care of multiple congregations and appoint, ordain, and discipline priests and deacons. They sometimes appear to be called “evangelists” in the New Testament. Examples of first-century bishops include Timothy and Titus (1 Tim. 5:19–22; 2 Tim. 4:5; Titus 1:5).

Priests (presbuteroi) are also known as “presbyters” or “elders.” In fact, the English term “priest” is simply a contraction of the Greek word presbuteros. They have the responsibility of teaching, governing, and providing the sacraments in a given congregation (1 Tim. 5:17; Jas. 5:14–15).

Deacons (diakonoi) are the assistants of the bishops and are responsible for teaching and administering certain Church tasks, such as the distribution of food (Acts 6:1–6).

In the apostolic age, the terms for these offices were still somewhat fluid. Sometimes a term would be used in a technical sense as the title for an office, sometimes not. This non-technical use of the terms even exists today, as when the term is used in many churches (both Protestant and Catholic) to refer to either ordained ministers (as in “My minister visited him”) or non-ordained individuals. (In a Protestant church one might hear “He is a worship minister,” while in a Catholic church one might hear “He is an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion.”)

Thus, in the apostolic age Paul sometimes described himself as a diakonos (“servant” or “minister”; cf. 2 Cor. 3:6, 6:4, 11:23; Eph. 3:7), even though he held an office much higher than that of a deacon, that of apostle.

Similarly, on one occasion Peter described himself as a “fellow elder,” [1 Pet. 5:1] even though he, being an apostle, also had a much higher office than that of an ordinary elder.

The term for bishop, episcopos (“overseer”), was also fluid in meaning. Sometimes it designated the overseer of an individual congregation (the priest), sometimes the person who was the overseer of all the congregations in a city or area (the bishop or evangelist), and sometimes simply the highest-ranking clergyman in the local church—who could be an apostle, if one were staying there at the time.

Although the terms “bishop,” “priest,” and “deacon” were somewhat fluid in the apostolic age, by the beginning of the second century they had achieved the fixed form in which they are used today to designate the three offices whose functions are clearly distinct in the New Testament.

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