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The State of the ancient Church, and the Mode of Government
practised before the Papacy. HITHERTO we have treated of the mode of government in the Church, as it has been delivered to us by the pure word of God, and of the offices in it, as they were instituted by Christ. Now, that all these things may be more clearly and familiarly displayed, and more deeply impressed upon our minds, it will be useful to examine what was the form of the ancient Church, in these particulars. It will place before our eyes an actual exemplification of the Divine institution. For though the bishops of those times published many canons, in which they seemed to express more than had been expressed in the Holy Scriptures; yet they were so cautious in framing their whole economy according to the sole standard of the word of God, that in this respect scarcely any thing can be detected among them inconsistent with that word. But though there might be something to be regretted in their regulations, yet because they directed their sincere and zealous efforts to preserve the institution of God, without deviating from it to any considerable extent, it will be highly useful in this place to give a brief sketch of what their practice was. As we have stated that there are three kinds of ministers recommended to us in the Scripture, so the ancient Church divided all the ministers it had into three orders. For from the order of presbyters, they chose some for pastors and teachers; the others presided over the discipline and corrections. To the deacons was committed the care of the poor and the distribution of the alms. Readers and Acoluthi were not names of certain offices, but young men, to whom they also gave the name of clergy; they were accustomed from their youth to certain exercises in the service of the Church, that they might better understand to what they were destined, and might enter upon their office better prepared for it in due time; as I shall soon shew more at large. Therefore Jerome, after having mentioned five orders of the Church, enumerates bishops, presbyters, deacons, the faithful, or believers at large, and catechumens, or persons who had not yet been baptized, but had applied for instruction in the Christian faith. Thus he assigns no particular place to the rest of the clergy and the monks.
II. All those to whom the office of teaching was assigned, were denominated presbyters. To guard against dissention, the general consequence of equality, the presbyters in each city chose one of their own number, whom they distinguished by the title of bishop. The bishop, however, was not so superior to the rest in honour and dignity, as to have any dominion over his colleagues, but the functions performed by a consul in the senate, such as, to propose things for consideration, to collect the votes, to preside over the rest in the exercise of advice, admonition, and exhortation, to regulate all the proceedings by his authority, and to carry into execution whatever had been decreed by the general voice;—such were the functions exercised by the bishop in the assembly of the presbyters. And that this arrangement was introduced by human agreement, on account of the necessity of the times, is acknowledged by the ancient writers themselves. Thus Jerome, in his Epistle to Titus, says; “A presbyter is the same as a bishop. And before dissentions in religion were produced by the instigation of the devil, and one said, I am of Paul, and another, I am of Cephas, the Churches were governed by a common council of presbyters. Afterwards, in order to destroy the seeds of dissentions, the whole charge was committed to one. Therefore, as the presbyters know that according to the custom of the Church they are subject to the bishop who presides over them; so let the bishops know that their superiority to the presbyters is more from custom than from the appointment of the Lord, and they ought to unite together in the government of the Church.” In another place, he shews the antiquity of this institution; for he says, that at Alexandria, even from Mark the Evangelist, to Heraclas and Dionysius, the presbyters always chose one of their body to preside over them, whom they called their bishop. Every city, therefore, had its college of
presbyters, who were pastors and teachers. For they all executed the duties of teaching, exhorting, and correcting, among the people, as Paul enjoins bishops to do; (c) and in order to leave successors behind them, they laboured in training young men, who had enlisted themselves in the sacred warfare. To every city was assigned a certain district, which received, presbyters from it, and was reckoned as a part of that Church. Every assembly, as I have stated, for the sole purpose of preserving order and peace, was under the direction of one bishop, who, while he had the precedence of all others in dignity, was himself subject to the assembly of the brethren. If the territory placed under his episcopate was too extensive to admit of his discharging all the duties of a bishop in every part of it, presbyters were appointed in certain stations, to act as his deputies in things of minor importance. These were called chorepiscopi, or country bishops, because in the country they represented the bishop.
III. But with respect to the office of which we are now treating, the bishops and presbyters were equally required to employ themselves in the dispensation of the word and sacraments. For at Alexandria only, because Arius had disturbed the Church there, it was ordained that no presbyter should preach to the people; as is asserted by Socrates in the ninth book of his Tripartite History, with which Jerome hesitates not to express his dissatisfaction. It would certainly have been regarded as a prodigy, if any man had claimed the character of a bishop, who had not shewn himself really such in his conduct. Such was the strictness of those times, that all ministers were constrained to discharge the duties which the Lord requires of them. I refer not to the custom of one age only; for even in the time of Gregory, when the Church was almost extinct, or at least had considerably degenerated from its ancient purity, it would not have been permitted for any bishop to abstain from preaching. Gregory somewhere says; “A priest dies, if his sound be not heard; (d) for he provokes the wrath of the invisible Judge against him, if he go without the sound of preaching."
(c) Titus i. 9. VOL. III.
(d) Exod. xxxviii. 35.
And in another place, “When Paul declares that he is pure from the blood of all,' (e) by this declaration, we, who are called priests, are convicted, confounded, and declared to be guilty, who to all our own crimes add the deaths of others; for we are chargeable with slaying all those who are daily beheld advancing to death, while we are indifferent and silent.” He calls himself and others silent, because they were less assiduous in their work than they ought to be. Since he spares not those who performed half of their duty, what is it probable he would have done, if any one had neglected it altogether? It was therefore long maintained in the Church, that the principal office of a bishop was to feed the people with the word of God, or to edify the Church both in public and private with sound doctrine.
IV. The establishment of one archbishop over all the bishops of each province, and the appointment of patriarchs at the Council of Nice, with rank and dignity superior to the archbishops, were regulations for the preservation of discipline. In this disquisition, however, what was of the least frequent use cannot be wholly omitted. The principal reason therefore for the institution of these orders was, that if any thing should take place in any Church which could not be settled by a few persons, it might be referred to a provincial synod. If the magnitude or difficulty of the case required a farther discussion, the patriarchs were called to unite with the synods, and from them there could be no appeal but to a general council. This constitution of government some called a hierarchy, a name, in my opinion, improper, and certainly not used in the Scriptures. For it has been the design of the Holy Spirit, in every thing relating to the government of the Church, to guard against any dreams of principality or dominion. But if we look at the thing, without regarding the term, we shall find that the ancient bishops had no intention of contriving a form of government for the Church, different from that which God hath prescribed in his word.
V. Nor was the situation of deacons at that time at all
(c) Acts xx. 26.
different from what it had been under the apostles. For they received the daily contributions of the faithful and the annual revenues of the Church, to apply them to their proper uses, that is, to distribute part to the ministers, and part for the support of the poor; subject, however, to the authority of the bishop, to whom they also rendered an account of their administration every year. For when the canons invariably represent the bishop as the dispenser of all the benefactions of the Church, it is not to be understood as if he executed that charge himself, but because it belonged to him to give directions to the deacon, who were to be entirely supported from the funds of the Church, to whom the remainder was to be distributed, and in what proportion to each person; and because he had the superintendance over the deacon, to examine whether he faithfully discharged his office. Thus the canons, ascribed to the apostles, contain the following injunction: “We ordain that the bishop do have the property of the Church in his own power. For if the souls of men, which are of superior value, have been entrusted to him; there is far greater propriety in his taking charge of the pecuniary concerns; so that all things may be distributed to the poor by his authority through the presbyters and deacons, and that they may be administered with reverence, and all concern.” And in the Council of
Antioch it was decreed, that those bishops should be censured, * who managed the pecuniary concerns of the Church without
the concurrence of the presbyters and deacons. But it is unnecessary to argue this point any farther, since it is evident from many epistles of Gregory, that even in his time, when the administration of the Church was in other respects become very corrupt, yet this custom was still retained, that the deacons were the stewards for the relief of the poor, under the authority of the bishop. It is probable, that subdeacons were at first attached to the deacons to assist them in transacting the business of the poor; but this distinction was soon lost. Archdeacons were first erected when the extent of the property required a new and more accurate mode of administration; though Jerome states that there were such offices even in his time. In their hands was placed the