Theological Mistakes #7: “Presbyters” (continued)

In my last post I tried to show how the transliteration of the Greek word “episkopos” resulted in the English word “bishop” and obscured the meaning of this word. This church office, intended to be an “overseer” or “supervisor” in the church, was invested with authority beyond a local church and seen as carrying spiritual authority not warranted by the functional description of “episkopos.”

There are two other New Testament words in this category.

One is the Greek word presbyteros. In Greek, this is a comparative form. The –teros ending is like our -er ending for making a comparative word. For example, we can take the adjective “big” and turn it into a comparative word by adding “-er” (and another “g”) with the resultant word “bigger.” The root, “presbys” means “old.” The comparative form makes it mean “older.” We see this generic use in Luke 15:25 where the brother of the Prodigal is called the “older brother.” Thus a presbyteros is an older person or an “elder.” In the early church, it seems to me that this is the most common word used to describe the leaders of the congregations of the church. It also seems to me that this was a holdover from the pattern of the Jewish synagogues of the time, which were ruled by older (and presumably wiser) men. This group seems to have been self-selecting, not voted upon by the congregation, but with congregational consensus. I am sure there were disputes as to who should be an elder in these synagogues and in the early church, but discussion of that issue is not my point here.

The problem is that the Greek word presbyteros was scrunched and transliterated to become our English word “priest.” Therefore, in some church traditions the church officer category the New Testament calls “elders” becomes a specialized group called “priests.” A priest today may undergo a rigorous course of preparation, but being older is not a requirement. The idea behind this word is obscured, and rather than having a group of presbyteroses who are the older and wiser members of a congregation invested with leadership responsibilities, we end up with outsiders who come to a congregation to lead it, and who are given select authority in the sacraments of the church.

I realize the issue of priests and sacraments is far more complicated and involved many historical developments, but this transliteration issue has contributed to the confusion. What if all the people within the church who had the title “priest” began to be called “elder?” Would this change the way things are done? I think it would. It would clear up some theological mistakes having to do with the New Testament intent for church leaders.

There is one more word in this category, but I will save it for my next post.

Mark Krause


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