Were Early Churches Ruled by Elders or a Single Bishop?

Thanks to everyone here for your answers to the various questions I have posed. I am sorry I have not been able to interact like I would want to. Life is keeping me busy.

This question is, again, something I would hear in fundamentalist churches about church government. They believed the early church was congregation run. Others, believed it was Elder run.

This is my understanding Bishops(Elders) ran the church. Some believe that there is one bishop above the rest. Some believe that there were 5 head bishops, and other still yet believe that no one bishop was higher than another. I am not a big history buff so I am not going to rule on this subject. Some chruches call there elders presbyters mainly presbyterians.

All the places where Bishop: is in the bible: Acts 20:28, Phil 1:1, 1Tim 3:1-8, Titus 1:7, 1Pet 2:25 . Most times this the word that is used is overseer in these passages but bishop and overseer are interchangeable.

All the places where Elder shows up biblehub.com/greek/4245.htm if you look under Thayer’s Greek Lexicon part b it shows what I have said.

On other websites I have seen it stated, by some Protestants, that the Greek words episkopos (overseer) and presbyteros (elder) were alternative designations for the same Church official. I don’t know whether the question has been conclusively answered either way.

Usually, it seems, the posters who engage in this argument are mainly concerned to point out that hiereus (priest) is never used in the NT in connection with the Christian Church, only for the Jewish priesthood and possibly also the Greek and Roman pagan priesthood. From this observation about the Greek language they claim to deduce that there should properly be no priests in the Christian Church. I have sometimes tried to point out, though it’s hardly worth the effort, that their observations about Greek vocabulary do not support their conclusion about our English vocabulary, since the English word “priest” is derived from presbyteros, not from hiereus.

Yes, and also there is one place where hiereus is connected to the Catholic leadership: Romans 15:16.

“* a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles, ministering as a priest the gospel of God.”
“εἶναί με λειτουργὸν Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ εἰς τὰ ἔθνη, ἱερουργοῦντα τὸ εὐαγγέλιον τοῦ Θεοῦ.”

The underlined Greek word is hierourgounta, which I believe is a verb form of hiereus.*

I think the evidence suggests that local congregations were headed by elders, who were appointed by bishops, who had a headquarters in Jerusalem (later Rome). I think the evidence also suggests that the local churches took instructions from the headquarters and supported it through financial offerings.

Local congregations headed by elders: Titus 1:5, 1 Timothy 5:17, Acts 14:23

Elders appointed by bishops: Titus 1:5, Acts 14:23, 3 John 1:9-12

Headquarters in Jerusalem: Acts 15:2, Acts 16:4, Acts 8:1, Acts 8:14, Acts 9:26-28, Acts 11:1-2, Acts 11:22, Acts 15:25-26, Gal. 2:1-2, Gal. 2:6-10, Gal. 1:17-19, 2 Cor. 9, 1 Cor. 16:3, Romans 15:25-26

All of this suggests to me that the early Church had a corporate structure, not unlike a modern corporation like Starbucks: we find individual branches (the local churches) with store managers (the elders) and a regional manager in charge of them (the local bishop or a nearby Apostle), who reports to Starbucks HQ for instructions (the Apostles in Jerusalem) and gives a portion of local earnings (tithes) so that the whole operation can be financed from HQ. They even had a CEO in St. Peter, who appears as leader of the Apostles at HQ in Acts 15:7 and Galatians 1:17-19, not to mention the Gospel passages that place him at the head.

Looks very much like the Catholic Church’s structure, to me.

In my opinion this is another case of much todo about nothing.
Consider in Acts where the Apostles appointed others to help.
This is simply the first of a very long line of people appointed to help by various titles, roles and responsibilities.
However - the apostles appointing these men did not in any way reduce the authority of the Apostles…or those who succeeded them.
Every group will have many who are involved in running it. Yet almost every group will have a single leader at the top.

So my question to people who seek to make an issue of this is - - why all the fuss? :shrug:


It might be helpful to take the lesson our Lord gave to us before the Last Supper. Be the servant. Jesus came to serve others and so gave us the path to salvation. He didn’t come as a “ruler”, “king”, or “high priest”; He came as the son of a simple carpenter and holy mother, was born in a manger, grew up in a backwater town, and died the most horrible death devised by the Roman Empire. He didn’t come to wear a title or crown; He came to serve.



So is presbyter derived from presbyteros.

The word derivation for priest may not be as important as the function. The problem is when the function seems to be more OT than NT, in regards as intermediary to graces, sacraments, forgiveness and sacrifice offerings(eucharist).

Also I think bishop and presbyter were interchangeable early on.


The term “presbyteros” in Greek has a more general meaning than the term “hiereus” and can include it within its range of meanings. Presbyteros, in the first century, referred to religious leaders in general; hiereus referred specifically to those who offer sacrifice. To call someone a presbyteros did not therefore automatically mean that they are not a hiereus; it meant they were a religious leader, of which one kind was the hiereus.

The Church has used the term “presbyteros” to refer to its leaders from the beginning, and in fact continues to do so. Whenever the Sacrament of Ordination is conferred, it is to one of three orders, the order of the episcopate, the order of the diaconate, or the order of the presbyterate. Those who are ordained to the presbyterate are the ones we call “priests” in English, and in fact our word “priest” is a contraction of presbyter, since that word came into the Germanic languages as prestar.

The real question is why the word “priest” became attached to the Greek word “hiereus” when it more properly belongs to the word “prebyteros.” The Wycliffe bible uses the word “priest” for both presbyteros and hiereus, even in editions from before its Catholic revisions. Perhaps English, in Wycliffe’s time, had no other word that meant hiereus, and so Wycliffe decided to use it for both words. But I think part of the explanation for this goes back to the medieval period, when Latin-speaking Christians began calling their priests “sacerdoti” more often than “presteri.” “Sacerdoti” was the term that was also used for the ancient Jewish priests, and Christians have compared the Christian “presteri” (Gk: “presbyteroi”) to the Jewish “sacerdoti” (Gk: “hiereis”) from the beginning – Romans 15:16 is an example of this.

Perhaps as a result of this change in usage, the Latin words presteri and sacerdoti came to be synonymous, and in early English, which had the word prestar as the equivalent for presteri but did not have an equivalent synonym for sacerdoti, they just used prestar for both words. Then, “prestar” became “priest” in pre-Reformation English, and the issue of what to do in Bible translation became an issue when the Protestant Reformation came along denying that Christianity had a ministry equivalent to the Jewish priesthood. We still have records of the scuffles over words that happened during this period; English-speaking Catholics wanted to continue using “priest” for both “hiereus” and “presbyteros,” and this attitude shows up in the Douay-Rheims Bible, but English-speaking Protestants wanted to identify “priest” with “hiereus” and use “elder” for “presbyteros,” and this attitude shows up in the Tyndale and KJV bibles. But I think “priest” should have been kept for presbyteros, and perhaps some other word, officiate maybe, should have been used for hiereus.

Anyway that’s my thinking on the matter, and I hope it’s got some merit. God bless!

When one reads the Bible, I believe you can see that “hiereus” is always used to identify Priests as we would identify the Priests of the Old Testament.

The tricky thing here is that the word is constantly used for Jesus in Hebrews, and is also used to describe all believers within Christianity. We are “a royal Priesthood.” So it seems that all Christians are Priests in the way that Priests were Priests in OT times; at least in some way.

So it’s strange to some Christians, and myself included that the Catholic Church has given the title “Priest” to the ones who give the Sacraments, considering it seems they’re taking the place of the “Priests” or “hierius” in the OT, when the NT uses different words for what Priests now call themselves.

Every time Jesus refers to the Priests in the synagogue it’s the hierius word, and I believe that has been passed onto all believers, has it not?

Great discussion by the way. I’ve looked into this in the past and it’s very interesting.

Yes presbyter can be bishop also which is more than “general”.

Presbyteros, in the first century, referred to religious leaders in general; hiereus referred specifically to those who offer sacrifice.

Only if first century folk were referring to OT priest, or the Christ (melchizadek) or the body of believers. I believe that there was no more sacrifice in early church, except the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.

To call someone a presbyteros did not therefore automatically mean that they are not a hiereus

I think what you mean is that a heirus (in OT) was a sort of presbyter besides an intermediary and sacrificer. However the flip is not true, that a NT presbyter is a sacrificer. They are two distinct words and I would not blur the reason for leaders not being referred to as heirus in NT anymore.

The Church has used the term “presbyteros” to refer to its leaders from the beginning, and in fact continues to do so.

yes, good. .

Those who are ordained to the presbyterate are the ones we call “priests” in English, and in fact our word “priest” is a contraction of presbyter, since that word came into the Germanic languages as prestar.

yes understand. Not sure why the CC would use German, the language of many reformers, to choose derivative when none may have been needed.
But thank you for the info. Have not studied it much.


The Catholic church, as in the early church is an apostolic church. Which means it teaches the teaching of the Apostles. Consistency with the teachings of the Apostles tend to be the main criteria for validity for most things in the Church.

The first bishops were the Apostles, headed by Peter. As the Church expanded, the numbers of apostles expanded as the Apostles appointed more by laying their hands on them. These were also the bishops of the Church (we often use the term apostles to also mean the 1st & 2nd generation leaders who personally knew Jesus or the 12 Apostles; like many words in the English language, we use the same word to refer to slightly different meanings).

In fact all bishops in the Catholic world today (all 5000 of them) are derived from the line of the Apostles. Each one of them became a bishop when 3 bishops laid their hands on him. Those 3 bishops in turn also became bishops when 3 bishops laid their hands on them … until you have bishops who became bishops when the Apostles laid their hands on them, who were made bishops by Jesus himself. This is called the Apostolic Succession and is very important to us and the Orthodox churches because it means our bishops all teach the same teaching as the Apostles through this unbroken line. This line is real not theoretical: every diocese in the world today can trace the name of every bishop since its very first one, with the date of when he was made bishop and the name of the 3 consecrating bishops.

So, back to your question. When the church expanded, the Apostles consecrated new bishops and sent them to evangelise the next town. As the church in that town grew, new bishops were consecrated. So, the bishops were always the head of the church in that town.

Many of the churches had a group of elders to help the bishop govern the church in that town. However, the church was very loosely regulated in those days (I am referring to the first century), practices vary. Elders were usually lay-leaders, but may include deacons where there were deacons. The order of bishops at that time had not yet split into bishops and priests; so the bishops were also the priests in those days (there is only one mass in each town under one bishop on Sundays). Often, the elders choose among themselves when the incumbent bishop die/incapacitated/etc. Or if no suitable candidate, they may invite the neighbouring bishops (later, the metropolitan, the bishop in the dominant city in the area) to nominate someone.

The idea of church government in those days were very very tied up with the celebration of the liturgy, which is the pre-eminent re-enactment of the sacrifice of Jesus every Sunday. And since only the bishop can perform the rites, he is the leader of the church. The two roles of performing the rites and governing the church is inseparable.

So, really the Church has always been monarchial, a benevolent monarchy but still a monarchy. So the formal head of the Church has always been the local bishop. He is assisted by a group of local lay-leaders (later clergy) & deacons. I hope it answers the question.

Hey Ben,
I agree it’s an interesting question. Here is a thought:

The “priesthood” of the Catholic Church, which is “set apart” or ordained and so distinguished from the general Priesthood of all Baptized Christians, is NOT the same as the OT priesthood because it is for ministering.

Consider the OT Bread of the Presence, the Priests ONLY were able to eat of it. Now, the Priest ministers/serves/offers the Bread and Cup of the New Covenant.

Jesus was very clear about Apostolic Succession which flows from the mandate given by Christ to Peter and expressed clearly in the Apostolic College at the Council of Jerusalem at which Peter as head of the Church stated the charter of the Church’s universality, giving his decision.

From the N.T. we know that Christ promised that His Church would last until the end of time, which would mean the constitutional permanence of the office of head of His Church which He had bestowed on Peter alone. (Mt 16:18).

Refer to early Church history: e.g. St Irenaeus, taught by St Polycarp who had been a disciple of St John the Apostle, wrote in his great work *Adversus Haeres *in Bk 3, Sect 2 “The blessed Apostles, after founding and building up the Church (in Rome), handed over to Linus the office of Bishop.”

It certainly was as the Apostles left bishops as their successors with “their own position of teaching authority.” [St Irenaeus, *Adv haeres. 3,3,1. See CCC # 77].

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].

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].

The First Epistle of Pope Clement (1 Clem) confirms “The apostles are from Christ …they appointed their first fruits – after having tested them though the Spirit – to be the bishops and deacons of the future believers.” ‘Apostolic succession thereby is confirmed in New Testament times by a non-New Testament source.’ The New Biblical Theorists, Msgr George A Kelly, Servant Books, 1982, p77-78].

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].

I don’t think it is terribly clear. In Titus, Paul uses bishop and presbyter interchangeably when giving the qualifications for the office. Philippians is the only letter of Paul that includes the clergy in the salutation and it refers to only bishops (plural) and deacons.

In some places Jerome indicates that presbyters and bishops were the same with the church being governed by a council of presbyters. Subsequently one was chosen to preside over the others.

For when the apostle clearly teaches that presbyters are the same as bishops… And lest any should in a spirit of contention argue that there must then have been more bishops than one in a single church, there is the following passage which clearly proves a bishop and a presbyter to be the same. Writing to Titus the apostle says: “For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain presbyters in every city, as I had appointed thee… 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.

Jerome (Letter 146)

Paul is speaking here to bishops who have the power of placing presbyters in the individual towns so that they would hear clearly by what kind of rule correct church order should be maintained. …Originally the churches were governed by a common council of presbyters. But after one of their number began to think that those whom he had baptized were his and not Christ’s, it was universally decreed that one of the presbyters should be elected to preside over the others, to whom the care of the whole church should pertain , that the seeds of schism might be alleviated.

Jerome (Commentary on Titus , Peter Gorday ed., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament IX (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000) p. 285)

Theodore of Mopsuestia wrote similairly.

Paul here shows that at this time “elders” and “bishops” were interchangeable and that some were put in charge of towns, some of whole regions. These latter became the bishops of later times.

Theodore of Mopsuestia (Commentary on Titus, Peter Gorday ed., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament IX (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), p. 287.)

The Didache refers to churches appointing bishops and deacons for themselves.

Appoint, therefore, for yourselves, bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men meek, and not lovers of money, and truthful and proved; for they also render to you the service of prophets and teachers

Didache, Chapter 15

SyCarl #17
I don’t think it is terribly clear.

It is clear.

St Irenaeus:
“The tradition of the Apostles, which has been maintained throughout the world, can be examined by all who want to see the truth. We can enumerate the bishops instituted by the Apostles in the Churches, and their successors down to our own day.”
Adversus Haereses,Book III.1,SI-p 80.].
[SI = *The Scandal of the Incarnation, Irenaeus Against The Heresies, Ignatius Press, San Francisco; Reference: Trial, Tribulation and Triumph, Desmond A. Birch, 1996, Queenship Publishing Company, California, p 28-29].

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