January 18, 2009
A Presbyter is, in the Bible, a synonym for Bishop (episkopos), referring to a leader in local Church congregations. In modern usage, it is distinct from bishop and synonymous with priest. Its literal meaning in Greek (presbyteros) is "elder." A Presbyter in the Moravian Church is seen as one who has grown and matured spiritually and has gained the confidence and approval of the whole Church.
Consecration to the Presbyterate is performed by the bishop. But this requires the consent of the whole people of God, so at a point in the service, the Elder presenting the one to be Consecrated stands with him or her and declares: I testify before God and the Church that this man/woman as his/her words shall affirm, is sound in doctrine and faith, and that it is his/her sincere intention to serve Christ in loyalty with his/her brothers and sisters. The testimony is literally acclaiming that he/she is worthy.
It is Church doctrine that the Presbyter must strive to fulfill the grace given to them with the gift of the "laying on of hands" in the most perfect way they can. But the Church teaches that the reality and effectiveness of the Sacraments of the Church, ministered by the presbyters, do not depend upon personal virtue, but upon the presence of Christ who acts in his Church by the Holy Spirit. The same as with Bishops, it is Christ, through his chosen ministers, who act as teacher, good shepherd, forgiver, and healer. It is Christ remitting sins, and curing the physical, mental and spiritual ills of mankind. The Pastor is an icon of Christ.
The earliest organization of the Christian churches in Palestine was similar to that of Jewish Synagogues, who were governed by a council of elders (presbyteroi). In Acts 11:30 and 15:22, we see this collegiate system of government in Jerusalem, and in Acts 14:23, the Paul ordains elders in the churches he founded. Initially, these presbyters were apparently identical with the overseers (episkopoi, i.e., bishops), as such passages as Acts 20:17 and Titus 1:5, 7 indicate, and the terms were interchangeable.
Shortly after the New Testament period, with the death of the Apostles, there was a differentiation in the usage of the synonymous terms, giving rise to the appearance of two distinct offices, Bishop and Presbyter. The bishop was understood mainly as the president of the council of presbyters, and so the bishop came to be distinguished both in honor and in prerogative from the presbyters, who were seen as deriving their authority by means of delegation from the bishop. The distinction between presbyter and bishop is made fairly soon after the Apostolic period, as is seen in the 2nd century writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch, who uses the terms consistently and clearly to refer to two different offices, along with Deacon. As the Church grew, individual congregations no longer were served directly by a bishop. The bishop in a large city would appoint a presbyters and deacons to pastor the flock in each congregation, acting as his delegate.