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§ I. General Principles of Ecclesiastical Organization.
WHILE, during the first period of the apostolic age, the predominance of the miraculous prevents the Church from assuming a definitely organized form, we are able, in this second period, to discern the essential features of its constitution. The first broad outline is shaded and filled up. The thought embodied in the existence of the Church finds fresh and fuller expression. Christians, while they were still held in the bonds of Jewish exclusiveness, did not clearly comprehend that they were called to form a religious society differing altogether from the ancient theocracy. They were conscious of a new and special relation established between those who had been baptized in the name of Christ; but they regarded themselves rather as the true Israel than as the Christian Church. As Christianity extended its conquests among the heathen, their ideas widened, and, as we have seen in the theology of St. Paul, the true conception of the Church, the idea of a willing people gathered out of the whole world, of a regenerated race formed anew in Christ Jesus, was one of the most precious results of the mission of the Apostles. The Church, no longer shut up within a single city, but spreading beyond the gates of Jerusalem far and wide over the Gentile world, could not any more be regarded as identified with any purely local or external conditions. The spiritual reality was disengaging itself from the material form, and through and beyond the visible Churches came the dawning recognition of that invisible Church, the abiding type and ideal of them all.
It is this invisible Church which Paul beholds with the eye of faith when he speaks of the bride of Christ, without blemish and without spot, (Ephes. v, 23-27;) it alone possesses in perfection that unity of love, so often marred by failure and sin in the various visible Churches. Ephes. iv, 4, 5. The Apostle assuredly knew only too well the unhappy contentions in those Churches; he, who had probed their wounds with so unshrinking a hand, would not hold forth any one of them as the glorious, irreproachable Church of which he speaks to the Ephesian Christians. He, who so clearly saw and so strongly rebuked the evils in the Church of Corinth and that of Colosse, while, at the same time, he did not withhold from them the sacred name, evidently recognized the distinction between the visible and the invisible Church. The invisible Church formed, in his view, "the body of Christ, indissolubly united in all its parts, and drawing its nourishment from the divine head." In Churches in which he found divisions and strife, he could not recognize this mystical body in its normal constitution. When writing to the Church at Corinth in rebuke of its contentions, he says, "Is Christ divided?"379379Μεμέρισται ὁ Χριστός. 1 Cor. i, 13. Such a Church could not be to him the faithful image of that ideal society in which love is the bond of perfectness. He distinguished, therefore, the invisible Church from the particular Churches in which its characteristics were so imperfectly reproduced. The former was to him the Church of Jesus Christ, the true exponent of his mind and will; it exists upon earth just in the measure in which true faith and charity exist. The invisible is the bright, celestial side of the Church visible. It follows that the invisible Church is found in various degrees in every particular Church, but it is not to be absolutely identified with any.
According to these principles, so simple and so plain, it is obviously a grave error to regard the primitive Church as a vast hierarchical establishment, like the Church of the fourth century. It is no Mother Church—Mater Ecclesia—laying the yoke of its external unity on each individual Church. Such an idea is altogether alien to the apostolic age. The one invisible Church is realized or embodied in the particular Churches. These Churches form their own organizations, on the same substantial basis indeed, but with notable differences in all secondary matters. They are united among themselves, but the bond thus formed is purely spiritual; it is never a chain. Each of the Churches is a small republic, a society of believers, an association of Christians, which governs itself without seeking direction or inspiration from any of its sister Churches. Paul never appeals at Corinth, at Ephesus, or in Galatia, to the authority of the Church as a whole. The questions raised are decided fully and finally within each particular Church, and each is considered competent to its own absolute self-government, subject only to the sovereignty of truth. The conferences held at Jerusalem are no violation of this rule. It was necessary that the Apostles should understand each other on questions of such moment. Moreover, we have already shown that the so-called Council did not issue any thing like positive decrees; it confined itself to recommending a compromise which had no obligatory character.
It is impossible to find in the whole of this period any traces of a general organization of the Churches tending to external unity. There are no general and periodical assemblies; more significant still, there is no center of unity. Those who regard Rome as having been such a center are guilty of a strange anachronism. We have seen, also, how little prominence really attaches in this period to the part of that Apostle who has been made the head of the pretended ecclesiastical monarchy. If the Churches had sought at this time, as subsequently they did, a religious center, they would unquestionably have chosen Jerusalem, the glorious birthplace of Christianity. But the Church in that city, so far from exerting a wide influence on the development of Christian thought during the period of St. Paul, only followed afar off the movement led by the great Apostle. The Churches founded in the midst of paganism departed without scruple from the customs of Moses; they felt themselves under no constraint to preserve, for the sake of uniformity, the same form of Jewish worship as was observed by the Christians at Jerusalem; but these minor differences did not prevent the existence of substantial oneness. The theologians, therefore, who assert that these differences took the form of actual opposition and declared hostility, are not less at fault than the advocates of the hierarchy. We have a touching proof of the unity prevailing among the Churches of Asia Minor and Greece and those of Palestine in the generous collections made at the urgent and repeated instance of Paul, even as far as Galatia and Corinth, for the poor brethren in Judæa. The Churches of Asia Minor, of Macedonia, and Achaia, sent messengers to Jerusalem to carry thither their offerings, and, with their gifts, the assurance of their brotherly affection. Never was unity more real than in these times, when it rested on the perfect law of liberty. The harmony which reigned among the Apostles helped to maintain it. Peter writes to the Churches founded by St. Paul in Asia Minor, as Apollos, the disciple of Paul, writes to the Christians at Jerusalem. Thus we have in the first century a true Christianity based upon a common faith, but exercising no constraint but the constraint of love upon the individual Churches, each of which had its distinct and special characteristics. The fiction had not yet arisen of an impersonal Church, distinct from the various local Churches in combination and from the free association of believers, divinely endowed with arbitrary power to rule the people of God, and established and built up by some other means than individual faith. The particular Church or congregation united by a living link to all Christians throughout the world—such is the visible Church in the age of the Apostles. The grand and holy image of the invisible Church is discerned through the medium of the various local Churches, as the sun through intervening clouds; to behold it in its beauty, the soul must rise above the mists of sin and imperfection which cleave to the earthly embodiment of the heavenly idea. The particular Church or congregation is the only form of the visible Church recognized by the Apostles.380380"Die Kirchenverfassung war wesentlich Gemeindeverfassung." Bunsen, "Hippolytus," ii, 152.
Thus understood, the Church must be regarded simply as a community composed of Christians. Its gates were opened only to believers, or to those, at least, who professed the true faith. It could not prevent false Christians from creeping in surreptitiously, but, in principle, it owned as members only those who confessed with the mouth the Lord Jesus, and with the heart believed unto righteousness. We cannot doubt, as we read the epistles written by the Apostles to the various Churches, that they were addressed, not to a mixed multitude, among whom indifference and even unbelief found place side by side with piety and living faith, but to an association of Christians—to a self-governing religious society. There is no recognition whatever of the existence in that society of two classes of members—the converted and the unconverted. Serious evils might arise and compromise it; hypocrites might be found among the faithful; but, as we read the epistles, we feel that, as a whole, these Churches were Christian societies. If it was otherwise, what mean the salutations with which the letters commence? "To all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints." "Unto the Church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints." "To the saints which are at Ephesus, and to the faithful in Christ Jesus." Rom. i, 7; 1 Cor. i, 2; Eph. i, 1. The general tone of the epistles, the subjects they treat, the discussions they contain of the most delicate points of Christian practice, all absolutely forbid the supposition that such Churches were merely institutions for religious instruction, designed to impose the faith by authority upon men. They are missionary Churches, true centers of evangelization, spreading light all around them. The idea of a mere school into which the unconverted were free to enter is excluded by such words as these: "Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unjust and not before the saints?" 1 Cor. vi, 1.
That conception of the Church which regards it as the community of believers arises naturally out of the general views of St. Paul on the relation of the two covenants. While the old economy was a theocracy associated with outward and material facts, the new is essentially spiritual. Before the cross distinctions of nationality or of birth are done away. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, but Christ is all and in all." Col. iii, 11. In other words, the new birth or personal faith alone gives admission to the Church. Paul, by his energetic opposition to the false teachers, who desired to make circumcision compulsory on the Christians, repudiated altogether the idea of an impersonal and traditional religion, dependent on outward circumstances and transmitted by birth. He did not reject circumcision mainly because it was a form and ceremony belonging to Judaism; his protest was against the principle involved in it—that of a national and theocratic religion descending by right of inheritance from generation to generation. To inherit without accepting is of no avail in the Christian Church, while to accept without having inherited suffices for salvation. In a word; personal adherence, that is, faith, is every thing.
Not only did every Church in the apostolic age require a positive and personal act of adherence from all who sought a place among its members, but it was also enjoined to cast out of its midst any impure elements which might have crept into it; and which, coming within the scope of the judgment of man, might be distinguished and expelled. "Purge out the old leaven," wrote the Apostle to the Corinthians, alluding to the notorious sinners who had insinuated themselves into the ranks of the Christians.3813811 Cor. v, 7. We shall recur to the subject of apostolical discipline when we come to speak of the Lord's Supper.
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