The image of priesthood with its ideal of priestly service has been shaped by the apostles, especially Paul, but the later form of priesthood differs in at least one significant way.
The apostle was a missionary figure founding communities, then moving on. Contact was maintained through letters, messengers and occasional visits. The priest who emerged in history was to be predominantly a residential figure living among the congregation for whom he cared.
The New Testament paradigm for this figure is a respected elder who, in the Pauline churches, seemed to combine the two identities of presbyter and bishop.
It is not until the writings of Ignatius of Antioch (ca 100CE) do we have a clear situation where there is a single bishop with presbyters as his helpers. These presbyters become what we call priests though originally the term referred to bishops. The presbyter-bishop had the responsibility of pastoral care of the churches and the NT writings (pastoral epistles, 1 Peter and Acts) give a picture of their activities in the 80s if not earlier.
These presbyter-bishops took up where the Pauline apostles left off being responsible for the continued care of churches founded by the apostles or which came on the scene later.
In the first and second letters to Timothy and the letter to Titus we find delegates of Paul (or, more likely, of followers of Paul) spelling out what is expected of the presbyter-bishops as to character and work.
The desired characteristics are the highly institutional ones we might expect of a group within the Roman empire intent on survival rather than drawing attention to itself as a suspect group.
The presbyter-bishops must be above reproach, temperate, sensible, dignified, hospitable, apt teachers, gentle and not quarrelsome (1 Tim 3:1-7; Titus 1:7-9). One wonders if Paul himself would have fitted such a list given his fiery temperament and the historical context of his mission. Giving birth to a child is a vastly different process from raising it!
They also serve
The apostle is a charismatic rather than an institutionalised figure. New frontiers and the adventure of spiritual conquest call Paul and his missionary followers; a more pedestrian pattern beckons the presbyter-bishop.
Yet Paul pays such a necessary role the deserved compliment of placing administration as a charism (1 Cor 12:28) along with apostleship, prophecy, teaching, healing, etc.
Later works in the Pauline tradition go on to speak of such leaders as being able to manage their own households well as this being ideal preparation for managing the household of God (1 Tim 3:4-5), a reminder that married clergy have a history as far back as the apostles and that a family household was the very foundation and context of the Christian movement.
The task facing the presbyter-bishop was that of organisation, stabilising and preventing dangerous innovation (Titus 1:9).
It might be tempting to join the anti-institutional bandwagon and find the apostle the more exciting and attractive figure when compared with the rather staid presbyter-bishop, but it is worth remembering that without the permanent institutional element the work of the apostle would soon have faded into history.
The pastoral picture
Some aspects of the NT portrait of the presbyter-bishop are of enduring interest as formative elements for the later priesthood. Certain requirements have to be met beyond virtuous character: he is not to be a recent convert (time is needed to mature in faith) nor is he to have been married twice (1 Tim 3:2, 6) – an indication that the church community needed evidence of competency in primary human relationships among those to whom one is most constantly and fully accountable.
It is clear that the early church did not follow Paul’s example as unmarried in ministry, but the church does have the right to make regulations regarding its own ministry. It would also be a timely and vitally necessary issue in our own day for this same church to determine why in some people celibacy has been a fruitful success and in others an unmitigated disaster.
Pastorals and presbyters
The presbyter-bishop in the Pastorals has the duty of correcting and censoring: ‘he must hold firm to the sure word as taught so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to refute those who contradict it,’ (Titus 1:9).
Whatever the structure set up “to amend what was defective” (v.5) that structure and the teaching of sound doctrine will be fruitful only if the church is constituted by church leaders and members who lead irreproachable lives.
The ideal is set up in Titus 1:7-8, ‘For an overseer as steward of God must be blameless; he must not be arrogant or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of goodness, master of himself, upright, holy and self-controlled.’
The office here is of ‘steward’, overseeing the labour of the household and its products. The steward also managed the outside assets of the household. For this reason, trustworthiness and honesty were essential qualifications.
So much of what has been described in the Pastorals complements the service of the apostle – censoring and correcting yet kindly and forbearing in his teaching with the duty of caring for the community finances.
Clearly, bishops and priests can be overly involved in administration (unlike Jesus and Paul), but the NT does show the presbyter-bishop (and, by implication, the later priests) as being both administrator and shepherd. The latter is beautifully expressed in Acts 20:28: ‘Care for the flock in which the Holy Spirit has made you episkopos (overseer, guardian, inspector) to feed the church of the Lord which he obtained with his own blood.’
Reference: Raymond E Brown: Priest and Bishop: Biblical Reflections.