Orthodox Christianity employs a Hierarchical approach to its clergy. There are 3 major orders of clergy, and 2 minor orders. We will cover the major orders in this article.
The Origins of Bishops and Priests
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 Apostle 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).
Initially, each local congregation in the Church had its own bishop. Eventually, as the Church grew, individual congregations no longer were served directly by a bishop. The bishop in a large city would appoint a presbyter to pastor the flock in each congregation, acting as his delegate.
The Origins of Deacons and the Standing Diaconite
Deacons began serving the church shortly after Pentecost. According to the Book of Acts in the New Testament, the first deacons in the church were selected by the Holy Apostles themselves to assist them with widows:
Now in those days when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, ‘It is not desirable that we should leave the world of God and serve tables.
Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business, but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.’ And the saying pleased the whole multitude. And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch, who they set before the apostles; and when they had prayer, they laid hands on them.
The seven chosen men became known as The Seven, and St. Stephen First Martyr is considered the prototype for the diaconate. With the Apostles’ recognition that they needed assistants to help with the growing church, the diaconate as a ministry in its own right was begun with the appointed Seven and continued to flourish and grow with the help of both dedicated men and women.
Interestingly, the deaconite is the only order of the clergy where women are chosen for ordination. Although the female deacon or deaconess, has fallen out of use, historically they served an important function within the life of the church, as evidenced by St. Paul extolling the ministry of St. Phoebe Equal to the Apostles, the prototype for women deacons, in Romans 16:1
“I commend to you Phoebe, our sister who is a deacon of the church in Cenchrea, that you may receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saint, and assist her in whatever business she has need of you; for indeed she has been a helper of many of myself also.”