Presbyter

(Gr. presbuteros, “an older person”). In the Septuagint the term was applied to “the elders” of Israel who carried out various governing and administrative functions in both civil and ecclesiastical government. In the NT they were those mature Christian men who were appointed to supervise the work of the church (Acts 14:23). In this respect they fulfilled an official function as bishops (episkopos)-(cf. Acts 20:17,28; Titus 1:5-9; 1 Pet. 5:1- 4), although the relationship between the use of the two terms is not always clear. Gradually one elder, probably the teaching member of the group (1 Tim. 5:17) assumed presidency to become in the second century the “bishop,” with special powers and privileges. During the Middle Ages the term “presbyter” was shortened to “priest,” while the presbyter-bishop assumed a superior position, often becoming a feudal lord. Although neither the Lutherans nor the Anabaptists stressed the presbyterate, John Calvin and his followers did, believing that there were in the NT four orders: pastors, doctors (teachers), deacons, and presbyters (elders), the last being primarily responsible for discipline-the admission of new members and the supervision of the individual and corporate lives of the congregation. The minister or pastor was a teaching elder. This view is still held by most Reformed and Presbyterian churches.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

1. Words Used in the New Testament:


2. Based on the Synagogue Plan:


3. Principle Found in the New Testament:

In the New Testament history and epistles it does not appear that the various churches of a district were already organized into an ecclesiastical body known as "the presbytery," having some basis of representation from the constituent churches. But the absence of such mention is far from being final proof that such district organizations did not exist; little dependence can be placed on mere negative arguments. Moreover, the council of apostles and elders in Jerusalem, to which Paul and Barnabas appealed (Ac 15), is positive evidence of the principle of representation and central authority. The various district organizations would quickly follow as administrative and judicial needs demanded; such development came early in the growth of the church, so early that it is unmistakably present in the post-apostolic age.

In Revelation the 24 elders occupy a conspicuous place in the ideal church (Re 4:4,10; 5:6, etc.), sitting for those they represent, as an exalted presbytery, close to the throne of the Eternal One. "The four and twenty elders occupying thrones (not seats) around the throne are to be regarded as representatives of the glorified church; and the number, twice twelve, seems to be obtained by combining the number of the patriarchs of the Old Testament with that of the apostles of the New Testament" (Milligan on Re 4:4 in the Expositor’s Bible).

4. In the Presbyterian Church:

Presbytery is the court, or representative body, in the Presbyterian Church next above the Session of the local church. The Session is composed of the ruling elders, elected by the membership of a particular church, with the minister as moderator or presiding officer. The Presbytery is composed of all the ordained ministers, or teaching elders, and one ruling elder from the Session of each church in a given district or community. To it now, as in New Testament times (1Ti 4:14), is committed the power of ordination; as also of installation and removal of ministers. It has supervision of the affairs which are general to the churches in its jurisdiction, and the power of review in all matters concerning the local churches (see Form of Government, Presbyterian Church in U.S.A., chapter x). The Presbytery elects the representatives composing the General Assembly, which is the highest court of the Presbyterian Church.

5. In Architecture:

In ecclesiastical architecture the presbytery is that part of the church structure which is set apart for the clergy, usually the space between altar and apse; sometimes used of the whole choir space, but ordinarily the word is more restricted in its meaning.

See further, BISHOP; CHURCH; ELDER; GOVERNMENT.