1 Tim 5:17 (ESV) Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.

1 Tim 3:2 (ESV) Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach... (emphasis added)

Based on 1 Tim 5:17, is there support for a distinction between elders that only rule and elders that rule and preach/teach?

PCUSA believes it is and I see some commentators support it (JFB; Robertson a la Expositor's Greek Testament; Enduring Word), but I also see the requirement of teaching in 1 Tim 3:2 along with the other qualifications which would indicate no distinction in offices. Matthew Henry is also in this latter camp.

  • Good question. Many Presbyterian denominations make this distinction (PCA, EPC, OPC). It would be interesting to trace the history of it. But I don't think the answer can be found in 1 Tim 5 alone as the theology of that distinction takes into account passages that show the office of pastor to be distinct.
    – P. TJ
    Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 21:50

1 Answer 1


The term in 1 Timothy 3:2 is ἐπίσκοπος (episkopos), whereas the term used in 1 Timothy 5:17 is πρεσβύτερος (presbyteros). The two offices continue to exist to the present day within the Greek Church the same names, with episkopos translated into English as "bishop" and presbyteros as "presbyter" or "priest".

I not sure one can infer anything conclusive about the roles and responsibilities at the time from a single verse. We do know that by the end of the 1st century there was a clearly defined clerical hierarchy consisting of episkopoi, presbyteroi, and a third office, diakonoi (deacons). All three are mentioned in the Praxapostolos of the New Testament, but there is not as clear a distinction in the roles of episkopoi and presbyteroi as emerged later. Ignatius of Antioch (35-108) wrote, for example,

Be ye subject to the bishop as to the Lord, for he watches for your souls, as one that shall give account to God [viz. Hebrews 13:17]. Wherefore also, ye appear to me to live not after the manner of men, but according to Jesus Christ, who died for us, in order that, by believing in His death, ye may by baptism be made partakers of His resurrection. It is therefore necessary, whatsoever things ye do, to do nothing without the bishop. And be ye subject also to the presbytery, as to the apostles of Jesus Christ, who is our hope, in whom, if we live, we shall be found in Him. It behoves you also, in every way, to please the deacons, who are [ministers] of the mysteries of Christ Jesus; for they are not ministers of meat and drink, but servants of the Church of God. They are bound, therefore, to avoid all grounds of accusation [against them], as they would a burning fire. Let them, then, prove themselves to be such.

Epistle to the Trallians, Chapter II

The Apostolic Canons (I and II) indicated that episkopoi were to be ordained by other episkopoi and that presbyteroi and diakonoi were to be ordained only by an episkopos.

A Russian Orthodox presbyter and theologian, Michael Pomazanski, provides a good overview, I think, of what the New Testament Scriptures tell us about the presbyteroi:

Presbyters (literally “elders”) were both in Apostolic times and in all subsequent times — and are today [in the Eastern Orthodox Church] — the second degree of the hierarchy. The Apostles Paul and Barnabas, as the book of Acts relates, going through Lystra, Antioch, and Iconium, ordained presbyters in each Church (Acts 14: 23). For the resolution of the question about circumcision, an embassy was sent to Jerusalem, to the Apostles and the presbyters at Jerusalem (Acts 15: 2). At the Council of the Apostles, the presbyters occupied a place together with the Apostles (Acts 15: 6).

Further, the Apostle James instructs: Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders (presbyters) of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord (James 5: 14). From the instruction of the Apostle James we see that (1) presbyters perform the Church’s sacred rites, and (2) in the early Church there could be several presbyters in each community, whereas only one bishop was appointed for a city and the region around it.

In the twenty-first chapter of the book of Acts, it is related that when the Apostle Paul returned to Jerusalem after his third Apostolic journey and visited the Apostle James, all the presbyters came, signifying that they made up a special Church rank. They repeated in the hearing of Paul the decree of the Apostolic Council concerning the noncircumcision of the pagans; but they asked him to perform the rite of his own purification, so as to avoid the reproach that he had renounced the name of Jew.

Orthodox Dogmatic Theology (3rd ed.), pp.253-254

Regarding the ambiguity between presbyteros and episkopos, he further writes:

In the Apostolic writings the two names of “bishop” and “presbyter” are not always distinguished. Thus, according to the book of Acts the Apostle Paul called to himself in Miletus the “presbyters of the Church” from Ephesus (Acts 20: 17), and instructing them he said, Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over which the Holy Spirit hath made you bishops (overseers), to feed the Church of God, which He hath purchased with His own blood (Acts 20: 28). However, from these and similar expressions one cannot conclude that in the age of the Apostles the two ranks — bishop and presbyter — were joined into one. This shows only that in the first century church terminology was not yet as standardized as it became later, and the word “bishop” was used in two meanings: sometimes in the special meaning of the highest hierarchical degree, and sometimes in the usual and general meaning of “overseer,” in accordance with the Greek usage of that time.

Ibid., p.254

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