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CHURCH POLITY

CHAPTER X
IDENTITY OF BISHOPS AND ELDERS

In examining the arrangements which Christ has made for the external development of his kingdom, we have seen that he has instituted only two officers in a Christian Church. In opposition to this, it has been maintained that bishops and elders (presbyters or priests) are different officers, that deacons are preachers of the Gospel, and hence that the christian ministry is composed of three orders: bishops, priests and deacons. This is the episcopal scheme. The nature of the deacon?s office is shown in its appropriate place. It is my object in this chapter to prove that the Scriptures make no official distinction between bishops and elders, that these are only different appellations for the same officers. The position is sustained,

1. By the import of the terms, and their interchange by the sacred writers.

The term elder is of Jewish origin, and imports the wisdom and dignity of age, while the other term bishop, which was borrowed from Grecian usage, designates the object for which the office was instituted. "This name," says Robinson, "was, originally, simply the Greek term equivalent to elder, which latter was derived from the Jewish polity."139 That this statement is correct, is evident from the usage of the sacred writers.

One of the most unequivocal passages relating to this subject is found in Acts 20: 17, compared with v. 28. The apostle Paul, in his interview with the elders of Ephesus, addresses them in the following words:?"Take heed to yourselves, and to all the flock over which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, (or bishops,) to feed the church of God which he hath purchased with his own blood." Here the appellations are used interchangeably, the term bishop indicating the nature of the office to which elders are called.

Another passage equally clear occurs in the first chapter of Paul?s epistle to Titus. "For this cause I left thee in Crete, that thou shouldst set in order the things that are wanting, [to the complete organization of the churches] and ordain elders in every city as I had appointed thee." Then in enumerating the qualifications of elders, he continues, (as if to show that elders and bishops were the same officers,) "For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God."140

This position is still further confirmed by 1 Pet. 5: 1?4. "The elders which are among you, I exhort, who also am an elder. Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, i. e. acting the part of a bishop."

The scriptural use of these terms is so clear that it has been conceded even by Episcopalians. "The name bishop, which now designates the highest grade of the ministry, is not appropriated to that office in Scripture. That name is given to the middle order, or Presbyters."141 Every elder is, therefore, a bishop; and "were it not," as Milton has said, "that the tyranny of prelates under the name of bishops had made our ears tender and startling, we might call every good minister a bishop, as every bishop, yea the apostles themselves, are called ministers, and the angels, ministering spirits, and the ministers again angels."142

2. No intermediate officer is mentioned between bishops and deacons. The apostle, in his instruction to Timothy, 1 Tim. 3: 1?7, after specifying the qualifications of a bishop, proceeds, immediately, to those of deacons. That this omission was not accidental, is evident from the fact that he afterwards alludes to the presbytery, 4: 14. If these had constituted a separate grade in the ministry, he would certainly have given directions with respect to their qualifications. His omission to do so proves that, in his view, they were identical with bishops.

3. The qualifications of bishops and elders are the same.

In proof of this, it is merely necessary to consult 1 Tim. 3: 2-7; Tit. 1: 6?10. The matter was so understood as late as Jerome; for in speaking of these epistles, he remarks?"In both epistles, whether bishops or presbyters are to be elected (for with the ancients, bishops and elders were the same, the one being descriptive of rank, the other of age) they are required each to be the husband of one wife."143

4. Their rights and duties are the same.

If the terms, bishop and elder, are applied indiscriminately to the same person, it follows, of course, that whatever is ascribed in the Scriptures to the one, appertains also to the other. But there is here an independent source of proof. The sacred writers, in describing the rights and duties of bishops in some passages, and of elders in others, employ language which shows that these were not different officers, but one and the same. Heb. 13: 7, 17; 1 Thess. 5: 12; 1 Tim. 5: 17 ; 1 Tim 4: 14; 2 Tim. 1: 6, etc.144

There is scarcely a subject on which the testimony of antiquity is more uniform and explicit than the original equality of bishops and elders. A well known passage from Jerome has already been cited; and many others might be referred to. It will be sufficient, however, to quote a few of them:

"It were a grevious sin to reject those who have faithfully fulfilled the duties of their episcopal office. Blessed are those presbyters (or elders) who have finished their course, &c." Clem. Epist. ad Cor. ?44.

"Elders who, with the succession of the episcopat, received the gift of truth." Irenaeus contr. haeres. IV., 26, ?2.

"There is no difference between a bishop and an elder." Aetius. ap. Epiphan. haeres. LXXV., p. 906.

To the same effect might be cited the testimony of Justin Martyr, Chrysostom, and others, but the limits of this work forbid it. The reader will find the passages in the works to which reference has been made above.

The best ecclesiastical historians and critics concur in the view which has been taken of the equality of bishops and elders.

"I can discover no other difference between the elders and bishops in the apostolic age, than that the first signifies the rank, the second the duties of the office, whether the reference is to one or more. " Neander, Apost. Church, B. III ch. 5, p. 92. Comp. Gieseler, I. ?29.

"The official designations, bishop and elder, had, in primitive times, the same signification." Hullmann, Kirchenverfassung, S. 17.

"It is most manifest that both terms are promiscuously used in the N. T. of one and the same class of persons." Mosheim, Church History, 1, p. 82.

To this view the Reformers were led, with great unanimity, by the study of the Scriptures. Even in England, Wickliffe and a host of others contended for the original equality of bishops and elders.145 Dr. John Reynolds, an Episcopal divine, who, according to Calamy, "was universally reckoned the wonder of his age," asserted, in the year 1588, "that they who, for these five hundred years, have been industrious in reforming the Church, have thought that all pastors, whether called bishops or presbyters, have, according to the word of God, like power and authority."146

The perfect parity of all the ministers of the Gospel, derives strong confirmation from the spirit which our divine Master enjoined upon his disciples. On that memorable occasion, when the weakness of a mother?s partiality menaced the fraternal union of the chosen band, by a request, which, springing from unhallowed ambition, sought to exalt the sons of Zebedee to a position above their brethren, he interposed his counsel and authority, and taught them that the path to real greatness and glory lay through humility and self-abasement. He refused to recognize any distinction among his followers, except that which arises from their personal devotion to him and his servants. "Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant. Even as the son of man came, not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many." He thus rebuked all aspirations after rank and power among his followers, summoned them to laborious and self-denying service as the only criterion of greatness in his kingdom, and incited them to the pursuit of substantial honor and influence, by his own spotless example.

 
 
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