Apostolic Succession (2): Presbyterian Ordination?

Felix Cirlot argues in Apostolic Succession: Is It True? that there are no clear cases in primitive Christianity of Presbyterian ordination. Instead, every instance of ordination in the first few hundred years of Christianity fits into the hypothesis that only the third tier of ministry can ordain; in other words, only monarchical bishops and Apostles can appoint new officers in the Church. Each example, says Cirlot, fits one of three categories. The first category of texts is those that teach ordination by monarchical bishops and Apostles, but do not state or imply that only bishops and Apostles can ordain. There are many clear cases of appointment and ordination of new officers in the Church by someone in the third tier of ministry (an Apostle or a monarchical bishop). Numerous biblical texts can be offered that involve Apostolic ordination, and perhaps even texts that teach monarchical bishops can ordain (though that will not be the subject of this post). Early in the post-Apostolic era we see St. Clement of Rome attesting to the practice of appointment (presumably by the laying on of hands, as was the scriptural practice) by monarchical bishops (circa 90 AD). St. Irenaeus supplements this testimony (writing circa 180 AD, though his views in Against Heresies probably represent his beliefs at an earlier age, closer to 160 AD). And at the beginning of the third century, Tertullian speaks of the ordination of bishops by Apostles.

The second category is texts that state or imply only bishops and Apostles can ordain. Early in Church history we have writers like St. Clement of Alexandria (at around 190 AD) that imply an exclusive ordination by bishops and Apostles. Additionally, there is St. Hippolytus who in his On the Apostolic Tradition (around 217 AD) explicitly states that only bishops can ordain. It is noteworthy that as a liturgical and theological conservative, Hippolytus’ views probably did not change much over the course of twenty years; so we have attestation of exclusive ordination by bishops that stretches back to before the end of the second century. This evidence will be treated in more detail in a later post.

The third category of texts is those that are consistent with the idea that only bishops and Apostles can ordain. Though some have argued that the canons of the Council of Ancyra, or a quotation from Jerome about the presbyterate in Alexandria, or numerous other patristic citations show that members of the second tier of ordination had the power to ordain, it is not so. These citations, upon examination, either fail to establish the intended point, or ironically show an implicit belief that only the bishop ordains.

But there is one last refuge for proponents of Presbyterianism about church government: 1 Timothy 4:14. The verse in its surrounding context reads as follows:

(12) Let no one despise you because of your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity. (13) Till I come, give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine. (14) Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you by prophecy with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery. (15) Meditate on these things; give yourself entirely to them, that your progress may be evident to all. (16) Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you.

Here it seems we have a problem for the idea that only members of the third tier of ministry can ordain. For Paul says that Timothy’s ordination came “with the laying-on of hands of the presbytery”. This seems to mean that a group of leaders in the second tier of Christian ministry assembled together, laid hands on Timothy, and gave him his spiritual gift of office. Is this not a clear case of ordination by someone other than an Apostle or a monarchical bishop?

1. The first problem with the idea that this verse is an example of Presbyterian ordination is that the word “presbyter” does not mean “member of the second tier of ministry”. As I argued here, a “presbyter” in the New Testament parlance (and the language of some Church Fathers who did not adopt Ignatius’ terminology) is just a minister, a Church leader. There is no specification in the word “presbyter” of whether or not someone is in the first, second, or third tier of ministry. Some presbyters are “elders” as we now commonly understand them, members of the second tier of ministry (called bishops in the New Testament); but some presbyters were Apostles, and possibly some were deacons. Having clarified the language, we can now see that here we have a case of Christian ministers ordaining. But this is consistent with saying the ministers that ordained Timothy were either Apostles or monarchical bishops. After all, an Apostle can be called “presbyter” in Scripture. Nothing in the text favors the idea that these presbyters are specifically local congregational rulers in the second tier of ministry. The presbytery could have been elders as we now understand them, or Apostles, or monarchical bishops.

2. A second problem arises when we try to synthesize this instance of ordination with Paul’s ordination of Timothy in 2 Timothy 1:6. Paul writes to Timothy saying “Therefore I remind you to stir up the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands.” This verse is either talking about the same event as 1 Timothy 4:14, or a different event. If it is talking about the same event, then the presbyters of 1 Timothy 4:14 included at least one Apostle—Paul. This would be problematic for Presbyterian understandings of office, because at most this verse could show that presbyters can ordain when someone in the third tier of ministry is present. It would not show that presbyters can ordain in the absence of someone in the third tier of ministry.

If we say that the two verses are recounting different events, then we have a different problem for the Presbyterian hypothesis. For assuming 1 Timothy 4:14 is talking about Timothy being ordained as an elder, 2 Timothy 1:6 would have to be talking about Timothy being ordained to something other than a Presbyter. Given Timothy’s administrative role and its connection to the grace of God that Paul speaks of in 1:6, it seems unlikely that Paul is talking in 2 Timothy 1:6 about Timothy’s ordination to the diaconate. So if we assume two different ordinations of Timothy are being spoken of here, then we have a case of ordination of Timothy by (what might be) elders to become an elder in the second tier of ministry. But then in 2 Timothy 1:6 we also have an example of Timothy probably being ordained to the third tier of ministry. Although this does not square neatly with the hypothesis that only bishops can ordain, it does not square with Presbyterianism either. After all, Presbyterianism does not think that there is a third tier of ministry occupied by non-Apostles. If such a tier exists, then even if Episcopal ordination is not the only way to get Church office, it is much harder to say deny that the Episcopate is necessary to be the Church. The usual argument for only needing elders and deacons is that when the Apostles died, the third tier of ministry died with them. But if there were people in the New Testament era who were members of the third tier of ministry, but not Apostles (people who had seen the risen Christ and been appointed to the third tier of ministry by Him), then in order to have a properly biblical Church, you still probably need a third tier of ministry.

3. The third reason that 1 Timothy 4:14 does not imply ordination by mere elders is that the phrase “with the laying on of hands” uses the preposition “meta”. The word “with” implies correlation, simultaneous occurrence, or one thing happening alongside another. But it does not commonly mean “through” or “by means of”, which would imply a causal relationship. The word “dia”, used in 2 Timothy 1:6 to describe Paul’s imparting the gift of office “by the laying on of hands” implies causality or instrumentality, ie. that it was by means of the laying on of hands that the gift entered Timothy. Why is this important? Though the difference between “alongside” and “by means of” may seem minor, it was part of the early Church’s liturgical theology that elders should be involved in a highly specific way in the ordination of another elder. A group of elders participated by approaching the presbyter and laying their hands on him, while a bishop laid his own hands on the elder that was getting ordained. But the involvement of the other elders was not the same as that of the bishop. Whereas the bishop actually conferred the gift of office, the presbyters merely “sealed” the bishop’s action. The bishop ordained, the presbyters showed their acceptance and approval. St. Hippolytus says


When an elder is ordained, the bishop places his hand upon his head, along with the other elders, and says according to that which was said above for the bishop, praying and saying:
2God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
look upon your servant here,
and impart the spirit of grace and the wisdom of eldersa,
that he may help and guide your people with a pure heart,
3just as you looked upon your chosen people,
and commanded Moses to choose elders,
whom you filled with your spirit
which you gave to your attendant.

4Now, Lord, unceasingly preserving in us the spirit of your grace,
make us worthy, so that being filled
we may minister to you in singlenessb of heart,
praising you,
5through your son Christ Jesus,
through whom to you be glory and might,
Father and Son
with the Holy Spirit,
in your Holy Church,
now and throughout the ages of the ages.


…6Upon the elders, the other elders place their hands because of a common spirit and similar duty. 7Indeed, the elder has only the authority to receive this, but he has no authority to give it. 8Therefore he does not ordain to the clergy. Upon the ordination of the elder he seals; the bishop ordains.

It is interesting, then, that St. Paul says Timothy was ordained “with” the laying on of hands of the presbytery. Even if these were elders in the way we now understand them, their role could have been something other than ordination. They could have been sealing their new brother, acknowledging and accepting him into the status of his office. Because Paul is a master rhetorician and careful in his language, the difference between “with the laying on of hands” and “by the laying on of hands” should be considered significant, and probably implies a difference in meaning. Even on the assumption that the writer of the pastoral epistles is not St. Paul, the author(s)’ different language is still significant, given that the word “dia” is used in this section to describe prophecy’s causal role in bringing Timothy to be ordained. Whereas it was “by” prophetic calling (1 Timothy 1:18) that Timothy got ordained, it was merely “with” the laying on of hands of the presbytery. The use of two different prepositions in the same context supports a specific meaning for “with”.

Cirlot concludes his investigation of 1 Timothy 4:14 by saying the following:

To the present writer, then, it would seem considerable of an under-statement to say 1 Timothy 4:14 easily admits of an interpretation in harmony with the great body of the evidence, even though it does not favor that interpretation, and if it stood alone ought to be interpreted the way our Presbyterian friends interpret it. pg 468

Given these three objections, there does not seem to be any positive evidence for Presbyterian ordination in this passage. And although it is possible that this passage teaches Presbyterian ordination, it is unlikely that such is Paul’s meaning, especially when we note that there are no other cases of primitive Presbyterian ordination that we know of, all the known cases of ordination in the first few hundred years of Church history conform to the “bishop only” pattern, and there are early witnesses to the idea that only the bishop can ordain. In later posts, I will examine the biblical evidence for exclusive ordination by the third tier of ministry, including evidence from the pastoral epistles. If this evidence is strong, it would further support the conviction that 1 Timothy 4:14 does not teach ordination of elders by elders.


  1. Doug,

    This thread is on Apostolic Succesion and not on the question of the canon.

    Second, Patton’s article is confused and somewhat superficial. He confuses questions of knowledge with normativity. Everyone may begin from the same position with respect to knowledge but that is irrelevant to the question of whether everyone’s judgments are equally normative. A maigsterium is about normativity and not knowledge per se.

    He also dismisses the problem without really engaging it, that of a continually revisionary belief system being seemingly inconsistent with a once for all revealed body of doctrine. Added to that is the implicit Pelagianism of seeing doctrine as a purely human reconstruction project. There are other mistakes like confusing certainty with knowledge, which has nothing to do with knowledge. If you know, you do not have to be certain and if you are certain you may not know, since certainty is a psychological disposition.


  2. Perry, I apologize for being off topic. I think the other threads specifically on this subject are closed for comment.

    I was hoping you’d open a thread up based on the article since it’s one of the few I’ve seen which actually engages your position (even if poorly so in your view). If you open one, then I’d enjoy tackling the subject. The “ownership” of the canon is definitely a subject that Orthodox apologists claim to have a strong argument in debate with Protestants.


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