The earliest organization of the Church in Jerusalem was according to most scholars similar to that of Jewish synagogues, but it had a council or college of ordained presbyters (Greek: πρεσβύτεροι elders, priests). In Acts 11:30 and Acts 15:22, we see a collegiate system of government in Jerusalem though headed by James, according to tradition the first bishop of the city. In Acts 14:23, the Apostle Paul ordains presbyters in the churches he founded.
The term presbyter was often not yet clearly distinguished from the term overseer (ἐπίσκοποι episkopoi, later exclusively used as meaning bishop), as in Acts 20:17, Titus 1:5,7 and 1 Peter 5:1. The earliest writings of the Apostolic Fathers, the Didache and the First Epistle of Clement for example, show the church used two terms for local church offices—presbyters (seen by many as an interchangeable term with episcopos or overseer) and deacon.
This does not mean that the episcopate, in the sense of the holder of the order or office of bishop, must have developed only later, or have been plural, because in each church the college or presbyter-overseers (also called "presbyter-bishops") did not exercise an independent supreme power; it was subject to the Apostles or to their delegates. An explanation suggests that the delegates were bishops in the actual sense of the term, but that they did not possess fixed sees nor had they a special title. Since they were essentially itinerant, they confided to the care of some of the better educated and highly respected converts the fixed necessary functions relating to the daily life of the community.
In Timothy and Titus in the New Testament a more clearly defined episcopate can be seen. We are told that Paul had left Timothy in Ephesus and Titus in Crete to oversee the local church (1Tim 1:3 and Titus 1:5). Paul commands them to ordain presbyters/bishops and to exercise general oversight, telling Titus to "rebuke with all authority" (Titus 2:15).
Early sources are not clear but various groups of Christian communities would have had a group of college or presbyter-overseers functioning as leaders of the local churches. Eventually the head or "monarchic" bishop came to rule more clearly, and all local churches would eventually follow the example of the other churches and structure themselves after the model of the others with the one bishop in clearer charge, though the role of the body of priests remained important.
From the 2nd century, it is certain that the offices of bishop and presbyter were clearly distinguished, the bishop was understood as the president of the council of presbyters, and so the bishop was distinguished both in honor and in prerogative from the presbyters, who were seen as deriving their authority by means of delegation from the bishop. Each Episcopal see had its own bishop and his presence was necessary to consecrate any gathering of the church.
Eventually, as Christendom grew, individual congregations were no longer directly served by a bishop. The bishop in a large city (the Metropolitan bishop) would appoint a priest to pastor the flock in each congregation, acting as his delegate.
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