What Is a “Presbyter”?

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In this article, the author, himself an Episcopal clergyperson, chooses to use the word presbyter because other terms are loaded with the bitter history of controversy between denominations. The English presbyter stands for the Greek presbuteros, the standard New Testament word that designates a senior person (an elder) who shows wisdom and exercises authority. Elders were appointed in the first churches (Acts 14:23, 15:2, 20:17, 21:18), with shepherding the flock as their task (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2–4): that is, instruction and direction (1 Tim. 5:17). The authoritative leaders of Hebrews 13:17 were evidently presbyters. In the history of the church, presbyter came to refer to the person or persons (usually professional clergy) officially charged with the oversight of a local congregation.
Presbyter, of course, reminds us of Presbyterians, who build their polity around elders—ruling elders and teaching elders. Episcopalians (like Orthodox, Catholics, Lutherans, and Methodists) organize their polity around the office of the episcopos (the overseer or bishop); but they, too, have presbyters. While Episcopalians (Anglicans) are likely to use the word priest in conversation, they recognized from their sixteenth-century new start that priest is a contraction of presbyter—a fact reflected in their official ordination service.
In other traditions, elders may be either professional clergy or lay people, but they are, in any case, persons of experience whose spiritual authority has been recognized by the church.

Elton Trueblood enjoys telling his guests that he has been alive every day of the twentieth century. Those who know this 91-year-old Quaker Christian do not doubt it. His gait has slowed, his age shows in the sags and lines ...

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