Historical Church Leadership - Priests/Bishops vs Pastors/Elders


I have a colleague/friend who is Reformed and we were talking about church government and whether it should be by pope, bishops or by lay pastor and elders.

Does anyone know when, how and why the Catholic Church went from leadership by married Elders (as set out in 1 and 2 Timothy and in Titus) to leadership by an unmarried clergy and bishops?

Thanks to anyone who can assist me.


Each diocese is headed by a bishop, who is the primary Shepherd and Pastor of all Catholics in that diocese. Priests share in the ministry of the bishop. They are ordained because by doing so they have been set apart by God for ministry to Him (a practice ordained by God that dates back to the Exodus and the ordination of Aaron and his sons).

The Church has always recognized the Pope as the head. Peter gave the first address on behalf of the Apostles in Acts 2. Paul spoke how he went to visit Peter and confirm his mission with him.

The married to unmarried in an insignificant detail. Celibacy of bishops is a very, very old discipline (probably from Pauline theology), while Eastern Catholic priests are still largely married (bishops are still celibate in the Eastern Church, which is why they are largely chosen from monks).


Christ Himself instituted all seven Sacraments, one of which is Holy Orders, which comes in three degrees: deacon, priest, bishop. Christ Himself ordained the first bishops while here on earth, the Twelve Apostles. Peter was given the Keys to the Kingdom, which made him what we now call “pope.”

The bishops eventually needed men to celebrate Mass, given that they couldn’t be everywhere at once, and so they ordained priests. The practice of a celibate priesthood is that, a practice, not a doctrine or dogma. In the West, all bishops and almost all priests are celibate. In the Eastern Churches, priests can marry and most do, but bishops must be celibate as well I believe.


A few things to add.

In the Books of 1 Timothy and Titus, the word that is commonly used in protestant bibles as “overseer” is translated as “bishop” in Catholic bibles. The word that is usually translated as “elder” in protestant bibles is translated as “presbyter” or “bishop” in Catholic bibles. The distinctions in the roles of bishops and presbyters (priests) developed in the first couple of centuries of the Catholic Church.

We like to say that Peter was the first bishop of Rome. And while that is true it we might also say he was the first Patriarch of the Roman Church while the other apostles and early leaders can be compared to the modern Patriarchs of the various Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

The bishop is the one who Catholics would properly call Pastor. American Catholics tend to think of a pastor as the head of a local parish but that is really an extension of the bishop’s role, as are all priestly functions.

Celibacy became the norm for bishops fairly early in Church history. It became the norm for priests in the Roman Church but not in other Churches.


This is very interesting. Thank you.

But was there not a time in the 1st or 2nd century when church leadership went from the sort of married pastors/elders that Paul and Timothy ordained/appointed to the model of unmarried bishops and priests?

In other words, how did we get from the New Testament church to the modern church?


The word priest has an etimology which ranges back to presbyteros… greek for Elder.

The word bishop comes from episkopos, which means “watcher or overseer”

So when you ask when the church moved from the elder and overseer model to priests and bishops, there isn’t really an answer: that was the model the church started with and uses to this day. It is the protestants who used MODERN meanings of words to reinterpret that structure and redefine its intended meaning, while the Catholics are the consistent ones since the days of Christ.


Elders (or presbyters) before did not have the priestly functions they have today. That is why they were not called priests then. Back then bishops do all the priestly functions. As the Church grew, bishops delegated more of their priestly functions to the presbyters as they are not enough bishops to go around and do Liturgies everywhere.

As with married vs. celibate, celibacy has been something that has been with the Church since the beginning. Jesus was celibate, St. John was celibate, and St. Paul advocated celibacy. But it wasn’t a general rule. In the 4th century, if I got my centuries right here, the entire Church decided to allow only monastics as bishops. And eventually the Roman Church extended this rule to all her clergy (deacons and priests). The East always had married deacons and priests, and then the Roman Church readmitted married men into the diaconate.


A lot of Christians are supposedly focused on being just like the early church and get caught up in words like pope and bishop not being used in the NT (except bishop is used in Catholic Bibles). Remember, Jesus Himself said that He would send the Paraclete (Holy Spirit) who would teach the apostles all things. He gave Peter the power to bind and loose and revelations about clean and unclean. The Church is pictured as branches on a vine - branches grow over time. I don’t think we should expect that the Church would look exactly the same and use the same terms forever. Jesus Himself gave the apostolic authority that allowed for formation and growth.


I have just found, on reading Acts, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus, that the early Church seems a decentralised and different Church. The leadership seems to have been married and to have also had another trade apart from pastoring. There must have been some definite date or period where the Church moved to the more formalised, Rome-centric structure we have now.

At present, I cannot really argue with my Reformed friend as I do not know how this occurred.


Why would you say the church leadership was married? Peter seems to have been a widower, Paul was certainly not married. No wifes of othe apostles were ever mentioned.

You should also consider that all ancient branches of Christianity share the same hierarchical structure: Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Coptics, and Armenian Orthodox. That is very telling as all of these 4 churches were established at time of apostles.


I say that because Paul seems to accept that an overseer/elder is married and has children and a household:

1 Timothy 3:1-5

1 The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. 2 Therefore an overseer[a] must be above reproach, the husband of one wife,** sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4 He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, 5 for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?**



This is a quotation from Bishop Ignatius, the second bishop of the church of Antioch:

**Since therefore I have, in the persons before mentioned, beheld the whole multitude of you in faith and love, I exhort you to study to do all things with a divine harmony, while 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, who was with the Father before the beginning of time, and in the end was revealed. Do all then, imitating the same divine conduct, pay respect to one another, and let no one look upon his neighbour after the flesh, but continually love each other in Jesus Christ. Let nothing exist among you that may divide you; but be united with your bishop, and those that preside over you, as a type and evidence of your immortality. **

Ignatius Epistle to the Magnesians, chapter 6.

Notice how the bishop ‘presides in the place of God’. This is the terminology used to describe the High Priest over the Israelites as found in the Torah.

Notice how the “presbyters in the place of the assembly of the apostles”. The assembly of the apostles elsewhere in the epistles of Ignatius are called the Sandhedrin. The Sanhedrin were the elders of Israel who gave scriptural counsel to the High Priest.

Notice how the 'deacons are entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ". The deacon was the eyes and ears of the Bishop, who as stated earlier, represented God the Father on earth. In like manner, as Jesus Christ ministered to the people according the will of his Father.

This pattern of Bishops, presbyters (Sanhedrin) and deacons is also more fully delineated in the Apostolic Constitutions. In this document, deaconesses ministered to women, and they represented the Holy Spirit. There were also readers, and also the virgins and widows who prayers represented the altar of incense, whose prayers were a sweet fragrance unto God.:

**The bishop, he is the minister of the word, the keeper of knowledge, the mediator between God and you in the several parts of your divine worship. He is the teacher of piety; and, next after God, he is your father, who has begotten you again to the adoption of sons by water and the Spirit. He is your ruler and governor; he is your king and potentate; he is, next after God, your earthly god, who has a right to be honoured by you. For concerning him, and such as he, it is that God pronounces, “I have said, You are gods; and you are all children of the Most High.” And, “You shall not speak evil of the gods.” Exodus 22:28 For let the bishop preside over you as one honoured with the authority of God, which he is to exercise over the clergy, and by which he is to govern all the people. But let the deacon minister to him, as Christ does to His Father; and let him serve him unblameably in all things, as Christ does nothing of Himself, but does always those things that please His Father. Let also the deaconess be honoured by you in the place of the Holy Ghost, and not do or say anything without the deacon; as neither does the Comforter say or do anything of Himself, but gives glory to Christ by waiting for His pleasure. And as we cannot believe in Christ without the teaching of the Spirit, so let not any woman address herself to the deacon or bishop without the deaconess. Let the presbyters be esteemed by you to represent us the apostles, and let them be the teachers of divine knowledge; since our Lord, when He sent us, said, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” Matthew 28:19 Let the widows and orphans be esteemed as representing the altar of burnt-offering; and let the virgins be honoured as representing the altar of incense, and the incense itself. **

The Constitutions of the Apostles, Book II, chapter XXVI

So the early church patterned themselves after the Levitical priesthood, and the way in which Jesus Christ and his apostles ministered to God and to the church in its beginning.
I think it is important to realize that the apostles were not described as bishops in the early church, but as the Sanhedrin. They appointed bishops over the various churches that had been evangelized and taught by them.

God’s peace.


Regardless if you call them pastor, or elder, or Father, or His Excellency, the office is the same, the function is the same. Restricting the offices to celibates does not and changing their titles does not change the offices, just as the use of Latin and Roman aesthetics does not change the Mass, and just as changing the common name for the Mass from “breaking of bread” to “Mass” doesn’t change what actually takes place.



Thank you so much. This is very helpful. I will “borrow” if I may!


I should add that this argument is sometimes difficult with “Bible Alone” Protestants who do not know any church history after John’s Revelation. If you speak of the Church Fathers, then it is just outside their frame of reference.

I really appreciate what has been passed on. My problem was/is that my Reformed friend could not understand how what seemed to be a pastor-deacon-elder church in Paul’s letters became a church of priests-bishops-pope.


Fr. Connor on EWTN on his latest show “The Sacraments throughout the Ages.” He mentioned that in the apostolic era, there were five orders:

The Twelve Apostles–self explanatory.
The Itinerate Apostles–like Paul and his companions who traveled the world spreading the word.
The Bishops and Presbyterate–the proto-form of today’s Episcopate and Presbyterate.
The Diaconate–the proto-form of today’s Diaconate.
The Prophets–who celebrated the Mass in places like Damascus.

Eventually, if I understood it correctly, with time, the orders consolidated into the Order of Bishops with the bishops delegating parts of their ministry to the Presbyterate and the Diaconate.


These writings of the early church fathers of course you need not borrow. It is generally agreed that the Constitutions of the Apostles were written much later than the time of Bishop Ignatius and his epistles.

However, the ecclesiastical structure mimics to an uncanny degree the Levitical pattern found in the Torah, and is not something one would expect in the third or fourth century Church.

It is compelling to know that the first martyr of the church was St. Stephen. He was one of the seven deacons who were chosen by and from the Jerusalem community of disciples, and then ordained by the twelve apostles who prayed and laid hands on them. The twelve apostles did not think it was right for themselves to neglect the word of God, to serve at the table. (They were fulfilling the duties of a Sanhedrin)
(Acts 6:1-6).

This pattern of the local community choosing from among themselves reputable men filled with the Spirit and wisdom, who were subsequently ordained by the bishop is also found in the Constitutions of the Apostles.

Other details are found in this document. Such as a bishop had to be at least 50 years old. Any clergy who were not married at the time of their ordination were to remain unmarried.

Nearly, two thousand years have passed, and it is not quite the same as then, but regardless, may God’s will be done.

God’s peace.



I hesitate to step into this, but . . .

The celibate episcopate, east and west, is a very early development that is a matter of preventing the inheritance of church property, which is held by the bishop (second century?)

This is happening at the same time as bishop’s are increasingly drawn (sometimes over their protests) from monestaries.

In the east, particularly Orthodox, it is still common to tonsure a priest into the monastery before consecrating him as bishop.

widowers were and remain episcopal candidates (yes, there is a hole in the logic here)

celibacy Slowly became the norm for the presbyterate in the west (but not mandatory until the 11th century (? My memory is happy, but it’s very late, long after it’s the norm [14th?])

even today, some orthodox don’t ordain unmarried men to the secular clergy, but only in monestaries.


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