The Hierarchy of
the Church

Definition of Terms:

  • diakonoi: Greek word for “ministers”, etymological root of the English word deacon 
  • presbyteroi: Greek word for “Elders”, etymological root of the English word ‘priest’
  • episkopoi: Greek word for ‘overseers’, etymological root of the English word ‘bishop’

The church hierarchy developed gradually within the early Church, but it’s concept was still present even in it’s infancy and can be found in Scripture. Initially, the early Church founded by Christ was led by the apostles, who made up Jesus’ inner circle and held authority in matters of faith and practice (Matt. 16:18-19, 18:17, John 20:21, Matt. 28:18-19). St. Paul tells us this Church was built on “the foundation of the apostles” (Eph. 2:20) and is “the pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Tim. 3:15) and that we are to respect and obey this authority (1 Thess. 5:12, Hebrews 13:17). Paul also tells us the Church would have a hierarchy composed of deacons (1 Tim. 2:8-13); presbyters (1 Tim. 5:17); and bishops (1 Tim. 3:1-7).

This hierarchy of the Church reflects the Old Testament Kingdom of Israel. Jesus is “the King of kings and Lord of lords” of His kingdom (Rev. 19:16) and within His kingdom, He has established a hierarchy; “As my Father appointed a kingdom for me, so do I appoint a kingdom for you that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Luke 22:29-30). Because the Church is the fulfillment of the Old Testament Kingdom of Israel, it too would have a hierarchy. Only this hierarchy would be called to serve others, just as Christ had done (Matthew 20:20-28). It would also be given authority in matters of faith and practice as part of it’s service to the world. This authority would be passed on to future generations as the Apostles were given the authority to appoint successors (Acts 1:20). These successors were referred to as episkopoi, or ‘overseers’ (etymological root of the English word ‘bishop’), presbyteroi, or “Elders” (etymological root of the English word ‘priest’), and diakonoi, or “ministers” (etymological root of the English word deacon).

In the apostolic age, the terms for these offices were still somewhat fluid. Thus, 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 the office of apostle. Similarly, 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), and sometimes it referred to the person who was the overseer of all the congregations in a city or area (the bishop). As the Church grew, a structure began to emerge and by the beginning of the second century each office had developed the distinct functions that we recognize today. This fact can be seen in the writings of the Church Fathers, especially Irenaeus of Lyons, Ignatius of Antioch and Clement of Rome, each of whom was believed to have either personally known some of the Apostles, or was one generation removed from them.

The term “bishop” became restricted to those who oversaw regional congregations and were the primary leaders of the church. The bishop of Rome, in particular, eventually gained significant influence and became known as the Pope, claiming a special authority as the successor of the apostle Peter (see Papal Authority). Within each congregation, there were also elders (presbyters) who assisted the bishops in pastoral duties, spiritual guidance, and dispensing the Sacraments. The term “presbyter” would eventually evolve into “priest” in later centuries.
By the 2nd century, the role of deacons became more prominent. Deacons were appointed to serve the practical needs of the community, such as assisting the poor and distributing resources.

By the time of Irenaeus in the mid-second century, the centralizing role of the Bishop of Rome was already well established. From the second century on, the whole Church—from Ireland to North Africa and from Syria to Spain—affirmed the primacy of the Bishop of Rome as the successor of Peter. The need for unity was stressed both in the New Testament and by the early Church Fathers, who declared heresy and schism to be anathema. The only guarantee of unity was obedience to the hierarchical Church, which in turn served the needs of the laity.

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The Historical Development of Doctine:

Bible Verses:

1 Thes. 5:12-13
But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.

Heb. 13:7
Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with sighing—for that would be harmful to you.

1 Tim 5:17
Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching;

Phil. 1:1
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons:

1 Pet. 5:1-2
Now as an elder myself and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as one who shares in the glory to be revealed, I exhort the elders among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it—not for sordid gain but eagerly.

1 Tim 3:1
The saying is sure: whoever aspires to the office of bishop desires a noble task.

1 Cor. 12:12-27
“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body… Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it”

1 Peter 2:5-9
“like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ… But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.”

1 Tim. 2:1-4
“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone… This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

John 20:21-23
Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

2 Cor. 2:10
Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ.

2 Cor. 5:18
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation

Rom. 15:15-16
because of the grace given me by God 16 to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.

2 Cor. 5:20
So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

James 5:14
“Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.”

Acts 1:20
‘For it is written in the book of Psalms, “Let his homestead become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it”; and “Let another take his position of overseer.”


Church Father Quotes:

St. Ignatius of Antioch 

“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).

“Take care, therefore, to be confirmed in the decrees of the Lord and of the apostles, in order that in everything you do, you may prosper in body and in soul, in faith and in love, in Son and in Father and in Spirit, in beginning and in end, together with your most reverend bishop; and with that fittingly woven spiritual crown, the presbytery; and with the deacons, men of God” (ibid., 13:1–2).

“It is necessary, therefore—and such is your practice that you do nothing without the bishop, and that you be subject also to the presbytery, as to the apostles of Jesus Christ our hope, in whom we shall be found, if we live in him. It is necessary also that the deacons, the dispensers of the mysteries [sacraments] of Jesus Christ, be in every way pleasing to all men” (Letter to the Trallians 2:1–3 [A.D. 110]).

“In like manner let everyone respect the deacons as they would respect Jesus Christ, and just as they respect the bishop as a type of the Father, and the presbyters as the council of God and college of the apostles. Without these, it cannot be called a church” (ibid., 3:1–2).

“He that is within the sanctuary is pure; but he that is outside the sanctuary is not pure. In other words, anyone who acts without the bishop and the presbytery and the deacons does not have a clear conscience” (ibid., 7:2).

“I cried out while I was in your midst, I spoke with a loud voice, the voice of God: ‘Give heed to the bishop and the presbytery and the deacons.’ Some suspect me of saying this because I had previous knowledge of the division certain persons had caused; but he for whom I am in chains is my witness that I had no knowledge of this from any man. It was the Spirit who kept preaching these words, ‘Do nothing without the bishop, keep your body as the temple of God, love unity, flee from divisions, be imitators of Jesus Christ, as he was imitator of the Father’” (Letter to the Philadelphians 7:1–2 [A.D. 110]).

St. Clement of Alexandria

“A multitude of other pieces of advice to particular persons is written in the holy books: some for presbyters, some for bishops and deacons; and others for widows, of whom we shall have opportunity to speak elsewhere” (The Instructor of Children 3:12:97:2 [A.D. 191]).

“Even here in the Church the gradations of bishops, presbyters, and deacons happen to be imitations, in my opinion, of the angelic glory and of that arrangement which, the scriptures say, awaits those who have followed in the footsteps of the apostles and who have lived in complete righteousness according to the gospel” (Miscellanies 6:13:107:2 [A.D. 208]).

St. Hippolytus of Rome 

“When a deacon is to be ordained, he is chosen after the fashion of those things said above, the bishop alone in like manner imposing his hands upon him as we have prescribed. In the ordaining of a deacon, this is the reason why the bishop alone is to impose his hands upon him: he is not ordained to the priesthood, but to serve the bishop and to fulfill the bishop’s command. He has no part in the council of the clergy, but is to attend to his own duties and is to acquaint the bishop with such matters as are needful. . . .

“On a presbyter, however, let the presbyters impose their hands because of the common and like Spirit of the clergy. Even so, the presbyter has only the power to receive [the Spirit], and not the power to give [the Spirit]. That is why a presbyter does not ordain the clergy; for at the ordaining of a presbyter, he but seals while the bishop ordains” (The Apostolic Tradition 9 [A.D. 215]).

Origen of Alexandria 

“Not fornication only, but even marriages make us unfit for ecclesiastical honors; for neither a bishop, nor a presbyter, nor a deacon, nor a widow is able to be twice married” (Homilies on Luke17 [A.D. 234]).

The Council of Elvira

“Bishops, presbyters, and deacons may not leave their own places for the sake of commerce, nor are they to be traveling about the provinces, frequenting the markets for their own profit. Certainly for the procuring of their own necessities they can send a boy or a freedman or a hireling or a friend or whomever, but, if they wish to engage in business, let them do so within the province” (Canon 18 [A.D. 300]).

The Council of Nicaea I

“It has come to the knowledge of the holy and great synod that, in some districts and cities, the deacons administer the Eucharist to the presbyters [i.e., priests], whereas neither canon nor custom permits that they who have no right to offer [the Eucharistic sacrifice] should give the Body of Christ to them that do offer [it]. And this also has been made known, that certain deacons now touch the Eucharist even before the bishops. Let all such practices be utterly done away, and let the deacons remain within their own bounds, knowing that they are the ministers of the bishop and the inferiors of the presbyters. Let them receive the Eucharist according to their order, after the presbyters, and let either the bishop or the presbyter administer to them” (Canon 18 [A.D. 325]).

St. John Chrysostom

“[In Philippians 1:1 Paul says,] ‘To the co-bishops and deacons.’ What does this mean? Were there plural bishops of some city? Certainly not! It is the presbyters that [Paul] calls by this title; for these titles were then interchangeable, and the bishop is even called a deacon. That is why, when writing to Timothy, he says, ‘Fulfill your diaconate’ [2 Tim. 4:5], although Timothy was then a bishop. That he was in fact a bishop is clear when Paul says to him, ‘Lay hands on no man lightly’ [1 Tim. 5:22], and again, ‘Which was given you with the laying on of hands of the presbytery’ [1 Tim. 4:14], and presbyters would not have ordained a bishop” (Homilies on Philippians 1:1 [A.D. 402]).

St. Patrick of Ireland

“I, Patrick, the sinner, am the most rustic and the least of all the faithful . . . had for my father Calpornius, a deacon, a son of Potitus, a priest, who belonged to the village of Bannavem Taberniae. . . . At that time I was barely sixteen years of age . . . and I was led into captivity in Ireland with many thousands of persons, in accordance with our deserts, for we turned away from God, and kept not his commandments, and were not obedient to our priests, who were wont to admonish us for our salvation” (Confession of St. Patrick 1 [A.D. 452]).

“I, Patrick, the sinner, unlearned as everybody knows, avow that I have been established a bishop in Ireland. Most assuredly I believe that I have received from God what I am. And so I dwell in the midst of barbarous heaths, a stranger and an exile for the love of God” (Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus 1 [A.D. 452]).

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Non-Catholic Quotes:

Dr. James Allen Hewett, Pastor, PhD, University of Manchester

“This tense . . . occurs rarely in the [Greek New Testament], but the student will do well to be familiar with it. Consider Matthew 16:19 (two examples) and 18:18 (two examples): “Whatever you bind on the earth will have been bound [estai dedemenon] in heaven and whatever you loose on the earth will have been loosed [estai lelumenon] in heaven.” The construction declares that a completed heavenly action and its continuing results will come to exist on earth upon the completion of a future earthly event.” –New Testament Greek: A Beginning and Intermediate Grammar, 152

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