aA
aA
aA
Early Years of Christianity: The Apostolic Era.
« Prev § II. Gifts and offices. Next »

§ II. Gifts and offices.

The universal priesthood was fully and practically realized in the apostolic Churches.382382See Baur's excellent observations. "Geschichte der drei erst. Jahrh.," pp. 248, 249. Composed of sincere believers, they, in no degree, acknowledged the too common distinction between active and passive members. All the Christians were required to contribute of their zeal and piety to the general good. There are special offices, but these are very far from absorbing the whole activity of the Church. They are of less importance at this stage than subsequently, when the gifts of the Holy Spirit have lost their miraculous character, and the supernatural is more closely blended with the natural in the elements of the Christian life. At this period organized forms are perpetually broken through by miraculous manifestations, as the banks of a brimming river are overflowed by its swelling, rushing tide. The line drawn between official service in the Church and the gifts bestowed on all believers is so indistinct that Paul places both in one category. "God hath set some in the Church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues." 1 Cor. xii, 28. Let us endeavor to distinguish the variety of gifts in this community of service characteristic of the apostolic age.

Christianity is the religion of grace. It teaches that every good and every perfect gift comes from God, who dispenses all by the same Spirit. James i, 17. The Holy Spirit not only renews the heart in conversion, but he also communicates to the believer the special aptitude he needs to enable him to glorify God. We err, however, if we imagine that there is any absolute incompatibility between the gifts of grace and the gifts of nature. The God of redemption is also the God of creation. Natural gifts are not annulled by the Holy Spirit; on the contrary, he accepts and appropriates them, while, at the same time, he purifies and communicates to them a heavenly virtue, by which they are made of true service to the Church.383383Διαιρέσεις δὲ χαρισμάτων εἰσίν, τὸ δὲ αὐτὸ Πνεῦμα. 1 Cor. xii, 4. They then become spiritual gifts. The proportion of the supernatural element may vary in these gifts; it may be more or less predominant. Sometimes the natural element seems completely absorbed. This was the case in the commencement of the apostolic era; but, as early as its second period, there was a sensible diminution of purely supernatural gifts; they were brought into subjection and subordination, while natural gifts, and aptitude sanctified by grace, acquired constantly increasing importance and prominence.384384Neander, "Pflanz.," i, 233, 235. Taking these general principles as our starting point, it is easy to show the distinction between the divers gifts enumerated by St. Paul.

The gift which is most distinctly miraculous is the gift of tongues.385385Γένη γλωσσῶν. 1 Cor. xii, 28. It assumed a modified form in this second period of the apostolic age. Those who spoke in strange languages at Pentecost were understood by their hearers. This was no longer the case in the time of St. Paul. The gift of tongues seems to have been at that period an inarticulate language, a mysterious psalmody, the strange manifestation of that state of ecstacy, in which thought, lost in the ineffable, submerged, as it were, beneath a flood of divine influence, became unutterable. Such is the impression given by Paul's description of the gift of tongues.386386"He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the Church." "Things without life giving sound, whether pipe or harp, except they give a distinction in the sounds, how shall it be known what is piped or harped?" 1 Cor. xiv, 7. Abandoning themselves without restraint to religious ecstacy, some Christians might reach a state of ever-cumulating excitement, and take pleasure in a psychological condition not free from peril, and leading to an extravagant use of that gift of tongues which had no useful purpose in the edification of the Church. St. Paul, therefore, urges that it be restrained within due limits. He desires that it be not indulged in, unless there be present in the assembly brethren capable of interpreting the unknown tongues. This gift of interpretation was one of the manifestations of the gift of prophecy, which was also of a miraculous character, although it did not reduce the recipient to a state of entire passivity, as did the gift of tongues. The prophet was the organ of divine inspiration; now he declared events in the future, (Acts xi, 28,) now he made manifest the secrets of the heart, (1 Cor. xiv, 25,) and appointed brethren to their office in the Church; (1 Tim. iv, 4;) again, he taught with a degree of power and efficiency which attested the special cooperation of the divine Spirit. The language of the prophet was not calm, connected, flowing, like the language of reflection. It did not bear the trace of meditation, or seem the labored effort of thought. It was impetuous and abrupt. These prophetic revelations were not to be received absolutely and without reason; St. Paul desires that they be tested by the Church, for it was possible for suggestions of the natural mind to be confounded with those of the Spirit. "Let the prophets speak," he says, "two or three, and let the others judge.387387Οἱ ἄλλοι διακρινέτωσαν. 1 Cor. xiv, 29. The gift of healing and of working miracles belong to the same category.388388Χαρίσματα ἰαμάτων . . . ἐνεργήματα δυνάμεων. 1 Cor. xii, 9, 10. The gift of faith, spoken of in 1 Cor. xii, 9, must be understood of this gift of miracles. It is evident that the word cannot bear in this passage its ordinary meaning. The faith which saves is not a special gift granted to some Christians; it is needful for all. It was largely bestowed on the early Churches, not on the Apostles alone, but indiscriminately among all Christians.

These peculiarly supernatural gifts abounded, for obvious reasons, in the early history of the Church—the period of creation and formation. They may reappear, but in a subordinate degree, in times which have some analogy with the first century; but these miraculous endowments must never be regarded as the necessary manifestations of the divine Spirit upon earth. The gifts which abide are not those of a specially miraculous character; they are those which blend in beautiful harmony, nature, and grace, the human element and the divine—the very gifts by which the Apostles were themselves pre-eminently distinguished. We place in this second category the gift of teaching, (Rom. xii, 7,) and that of government.389389Κυβερνήσεις. 1 Cor. xii, 28. The former is applied sometimes to the practical side of Christianity, and then it is called the word of wisdom; sometimes to the theoretical side, and then it is called the word of knowledge.390390Λόγος σοφίας, λόγος γνώσεῶς. 1 Cor. xii, 8. The gift of government must be accompanied by the gift of discernment of spirits;391391Διακρίσεις πνευμάτων. 1 Cor. xii, 10. for, at a period when the manifestations of the supernatural world were so frequent, it was of moment to discern between the true inspirations and the false. The gift of teaching, like that of government, obviously implied certain natural aptitudes, and could not be exercised without the concurrence of moral and intellectual activity.

Such were the principal gifts bestowed on the Church. They preceded the various offices; it is utterly false to pretend that they depended in any way on those offices, and were manifested only within the limits of a fixed organization. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and the Spirit of God never surrenders its sovereign freeness. The advocates of the hierarchy do not deny that the miraculous gifts were bestowed on the Christians generally; but they assert, on behalf of the ecclesiastics, a monopoly of the gift of teaching, the use of which must, they maintain, be regulated by official and sovereign authority, or doctrinal anarchy will inevitably follow.392392This is Thiersch's opinion. "Kirche im Apost. Zeit.," p. 154. This distinction, however, is wholly arbitrary. The synagogue already acknowledged, under certain limitations, the right of every pious Jew to teach.393393"Si nec senex sit nec sapiens, constituant aliquem spectatæ formæ integritatisqua virum." ("If there be neither elder nor teacher, let a respectable and upright man speak.") Vitringa, "De Synag. vetere," p. 705. It is not surprising that this right should have been extended by St. Paul to all Christians, with the exception of women, who were to be silent in public worship. "When ye come together," he says, "every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying."394394Διδαχὴν ἔχει ἑρμηνείαν ἔχει. 1 Cor. xiv, 26-35. This right was long acknowledged in the Church. We read in the eighth book of the "Apostolical Constitutions," "Let him who teaches, if he be a layman, be versed in the Word."395395Ὁ διδάσκων εἰ καὶ λαῖκος ῇ. "Const. Apost.," viii, 35, 1. It is impossible, then, to trace a clear line of demarkation between the gift of prophecy and that of teaching. The latter, like the former, belonged to the Church without distinction of clergy. It remains an established fact that all believers had the right to teach in public worship.396396See Ritschl, "Altcath. Kirche.," p. 365. All alike took some share in the government of the community. They were summoned, as we have seen, on the occasion of the conferences at Jerusalem, to take a part in important deliberations. The letters of the Apostles laid upon all the duty of caring for the great interests of the congregation. Discipline was an act of the community, not of the clergy. To the Corinthian Christians, Paul writes with reference to the man guilty of incest: "I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, concerning him that hath so done this deed, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of the Lord Jesus Christ."397397Συναχθέντων ὑμῶν καὶ τοῦ ἐμοῦ πνεύματος, σὺν τῃ̂ δυνάμει τοῦ Κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ. 1 Cor. v, 4. The entire Church is supposed to be assembled with the Apostle as a council of discipline, under the invisible. presidency of our Lord Jesus Christ. No distinction is made; all the believers are called together to pronounce, as a sovereign tribunal, the sentence of condemnation. The excommunication is spoken in their name. In the same manner, it is in their name that the repentant sinner is re-admitted into the Church. The Church, as a body, pardons the wrong he did to it by bringing dishonor upon it, and permits him to return to the communion of the brethren.2 Cor. ii, 6. The power of the keys thus belongs, according to St. Paul, to all Christians.

The sacraments are equally far from being a monopoly of the clergy. These principles were so deeply rooted in the Church that long after, at a time when it had undergone most important changes, they received striking testimony from the lips of St. Jerome. He says, "The right of the laity to baptize has often been recognized in cases of necessity, for every one may give that which he has received."398398"Quod enim accepit quis, ita et dare potest." St. Jerome, "Contr. Luciferianos," 4. We read in the "Commentaries" attributed to Ambrose, that "in the beginning all taught and all baptized on every opportunity."399399"Primum omnes docebant et omnes baptizabant quibuscumque diebus ut temporibus fuisset occasio." With reference to the Lord's Supper, Paul attributes to all Christians the breaking of the bread and the blessing of the cup. "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?"400400Τὸ ποτήριον ὃ εὐλογοῦμεν, τὸν ἄρτον ὃν κλῶμεν. 1 Cor. x, 16. Harnack, though a Lutheran, supports this interpretation. (See his book, "Christengemeinde Gottesdienst," p. 170. From all this, it follows that the idea of a sacerdotal order was altogether foreign to the Churches founded by Paul.401401See Ritschl, "Altcath. Kirche," p. 378.

In those Churches, however, we can discern the commencement of various ecclesiastical offices. These offices acquire gradually increasing importance, without, however, assuming any thing of a priestly character. Paul introduced into the Churches gathered out of heathenism the same simple organization, borrowed from the Jewish synagogues, which flourished in the Churches of Palestine. We find the same democratic constitution at Ephesus as at Jerusalem. A body of elders is nominated by the Church; these are rather its representatives and delegates than its rulers. This is no organization of a Levitical caste; to be convinced of this we need only read the Epistle to the Hebrews. Heb. vii, 26-28. Jesus Christ is there represented as the High Priest of the new covenant, living for evermore—the one Mediator between God and man. He transmits to none a priesthood which is perfect only because it is eternal. Those times foretold by the prophets had arrived, when the law was to be written in the hearts of all the faithful; when each one, being placed in direct communication with Heaven, would no more need authoritative teaching from his brother man.402402Heb. viii, 10, 11. "I will put my laws into their mind . . . And they shall not teach every man his neighbor." The ecclesiastical office, from this point of view, can be regarded only as a service, or ministering to the Church.403403Ἑαυτοὺς δὲ δούλους ὑμῶν διὰ Ἰησοῦν. 2 Cor. iv, 5; Rom. xii, 7. Those who are invested with it are not to be rulers over their brethren, but their servants. "We are your servants for Jesus' sake," says St. Paul to the Corinthians; showing by words so full of tender humility that, in his view, the apostolate bore no analogy to the ancient priesthood.

Let us bring before our minds the very simple mechanism of the institutions of a Church like that of Corinth or Ephesus. The ecclesiastical office already created elsewhere to meet actual necessities, and to maintain order in the midst of liberty, was there speedily called for. We find, in the epistles of Paul, valuable hints of the manner in which it sometimes originated. The Apostle speaks again and again of the Church in the house of a simple Christian. Rom. xvi, 5; 1 Cor. xvi, 9; Col. iv, 15; Philemon 2. Such a Church, or fraction of a Church, was nothing else than a pious family circle extended, and becoming a religious center for those around. Many believers, converted through the influence of this Christian family, gathered around its hearth, and worshiped beneath its hospitable roof. The master of the house presided, and thus became naturally the elder pastor of the little congregation. If, in the same town, Christianity made many conquests, these small domestic congregations ultimately combined, and, as a matter of course, when an important Church was formed, those elders and teachers were placed at its head, who, in their zeal, had voluntarily filled that office before being regularly appointed to it. Such cases must have been many in the apostolic age. The office grew out of the exercise of the pastoral gift which had preceded it, and which was still often used with perfect freedom side by side with it.

Episcopal pretensions have frequently been founded on the passages in Paul's epistles where the word bishop occurs. But an attentive examination of the texts shows that the two words elder and bishop are used interchangeably, and that, in the language of Paul, they are synonymous, representing one and the same office.404404Μετεκαλέσατο τοὺς πρεσβυτέρους τῆς ἐκκλησίας. Acts xx, 17. Compare with verse 28 in same chapter: Ὑμᾶς τὸ Πνευ̂μα τὸ ἅγιον ἔθετο ἐπισκόπους. See also Titus i, 5, 7; 1 Tim. iii, 1, 8. On this point we refer to the admirable argument of Rothe. "Anfänge," p. 174. He never mentions three degrees in the ecclesiastical hierarchy; he recognizes two only—the office of elder or bishop and that of deacon.4054051 Tim. iii, 1 and 13. See also Phil. i, 1: Πᾶσιν τοῖς ἁγίοις . . . σὺν ἐπισκόποις καὶ διακόνοις. It is equally clear that several bishops were found at once in the same Church, (see Phil. i, 1; Acts xx, 17; James v, 14,) which is incompatible with the notion of there being one bishop superior to the elders. St. Peter, in his first epistle, carries this identification of the bishop with the elder so far as to charge the latter to use well the episcopal office, taking watchful oversight of the flock.406406Πρεσβυτέρους παρακαλῶ . . . ποιμάνατε τὸ ποίμνιον τοῦ Θεοῦ ἐπισκοπου̂ντες. 1 Peter v, 1, 2.

This identity of the office of bishop with that of elder is so very apparent in the New Testament that it was admitted by the whole ancient Church, even at the time of the rise of the episcopate properly so-called. "The elder is identical with the bishop," said St. Jerome, "and before parties had so multiplied under diabolical influence, the Churches were governed by a council of elders."407407"Idem est ergo presbyter quam episcopus, et antequam diaboli instinctu studia in religione fuerent, communi presbyterorum consilio ecclesiæ gubernabantur." St. Jerome, "In Epist. Tit.," vol. iv. We read in the "Ambrosiast," "Primum presbyteri episcopi appellabantur." Comp. Chrysostum, "Homilia i, in Phil. i, 1." See also Theodoret, "Interpretat. ad Phil. iii," 445. Ἐπισκόπους δὲ τοὺς πρεσβυτέρους καλεῖ. "The two offices," he adds, "had the same name." The name of bishop was more frequently used in the Churches founded among the pagans, because the ancient Greeks were accustomed thus to designate the magistrates, whose functions in the State had some analogy with those of the elders in the Church, since it was their office to exercise vigilance over the interests of the republic.408408"Those who were sent by the Athenians," we read in the "Scholiast" of Aristophanes, "to exercise surveillance in the cities subject to their authority were called bishops and guardians." Ὁι παρ᾽ Ἀθηναίων εἰς τὰς ὑπηκοους πόλεις επισκέψασθαι τὰ παρ᾽ ἑκάστοις πεμπομενοι ἐπίσκοποι καὶ φύλακες ἐκαλοῦντο. Rothe, "Anfange," p. 219.

In the failure of the attempt to establish the episcopate upon the words of the Apostles, an effort has been made to uphold it, by giving an exaggerated significance to certain facts of an exceptional and transitory character in the primitive Church. Reference is made to the mission of organizing the Churches committed by Paul to Titus and Timothy; the part taken by James at Jerusalem is urged in confirmation of the same theory. But these facts, rightly understood, ought to tell against hierarchical notions, instead of lending them any support. With reference first to Timothy and Titus, they bear no likeness whatever to bishops governing a diocese; they are missionaries, or, as Paul calls them, evangelists,409409Ἔργον ποίησον εὐαγγελιστοῦ. 2 Tim. iv, 5. Comp. with Eph. iv, 11. whose mission it is to direct the first steps of young and inexperienced Churches; they exercise a truly apostolical power wherever that power is necessary. They derive their exceptional authority from an exceptional situation. They are no apostolical legates, invested with official dignity;410410This is Thiersch's view. they are simply the representatives of St. Paul, his friends and fellow-workers.411411Συνεργός. Rom. xvi, 21; 1 Thess. iii, 2;2 Cor. viii, 23. They do the work of missionaries. They exercise over the young Churches the vigilance indispensable in the period of creation and formation, but, as we shall observe, they never infringe the inalienable rights of Christian liberty. They are no more bishops than were the Apostles. They are, like them, the founders of Churches, nothing more and nothing less. Their claim rests on the important duties undertaken by them in connection with those Churches, or rather on the great love they bear them. Their authority is entirely moral, and is vindicated by its effects; it resolves itself into influence. The apostolic missionary cannot acquit himself faithfully of his task without using this authority; he must needs water that which he has planted, and cultivate and cherish that which he has helped to create. He feels bound to uphold the frail plant, which has not yet had time to gather strength to sustain itself unsupported against the shock of storms.

We have already stated our views of the ministry of James at Jerusalem. In spite of the assertions of the "Fathers," we maintain that it presents no analogy to the episcopate of subsequent ages.412412See Hegesippus in Eusebius, ii, 23, Ἰάκωβος Ἰεροσόλυμῶν ἐπίσκοπος. "Const. Apost.," Book VI, chap. xiv; Epiphan., "Hæres," lxxxviii, 7. "Jacobus, qui appellatur frater Domini, post passionem Domini, statim ab apostolis Hierosolymorum episcopus ordinatur." August., "Catal. script. eccles." All these testimonies are without weight, because we know that the "Fathers" transferred to the past the ecclesiastical constitution of their own time. He also is an apostle, and one of the most influential, though he can show no formal nomination to the office. He is an apostle, as Paul was, by right of his lofty piety and of the divine power manifested in him. His diocese extends as far as his influence and his word can reach. Thus, a careful examination of facts destroys all the chimeras of an episcopal organization in the first century.413413Bingham ("Origines," i, 69) regards the Apostles as the first bishops. The Catholic school falls into the same error, already refuted by us.

It is very difficult to determine precisely the functions of the elders or bishops. They formed a council414414Πρεσβυτερίου. 1 Tim. iv, 14. which occupied itself with the general interests of the Church; its authority was limited, and always exercised with a practical recognition of the universal priesthood. They were, according to the beautiful figure borrowed from Christ himself, the shepherds of the flock.415415"Feed the flock of God which is among you, not as being lords over God's heritage, but being ensamples to the flock." 1 Peter v, 2, 3; Acts xx, 28. The gift of teaching, freely used by all Christians, was not especially connected with the office of elders; the only gift required in them was that of government. In his Epistle to the Ephesians Paul names the teachers after the pastors.416416Ephes. iv, 1. Neander, "Pflanz.," i, 261. Calvin, and, following him, all the adherents of old Presbyterianism, recognize two orders of elders, some not teachers, and others whose office it is to teach, the latter holding a higher position than the former. This idea has no foundation in Scripture. Nowhere do we find such a line of demarkation between two orders of elders. The passage 1 Tim. v, 17 has no such bearing, It forms part of an epistle treating especially of false doctrines, and designed to set forth the great importance of the teaching of the truth. It contains no allusion to hierarchical orders. See Rothe, "Anfänge," 224. There is no trace of two orders of elders hierarchically constituted; it is probable, however, that it was soon found necessary to choose as elders men capable of teaching, since false doctrine was rife on every hand. St. Paul demands that the bishop hold fast the faithful word, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers.417417Titus i, 9; 1 Tim. iii, 2. Διδακτικός. Toward the end of this period, the office of elder or bishop shows a general tendency toward a more permanent character. Purely supernatural gifts decrease; the exercise of the gift of government and that of teaching becomes all the more necessary. Doctrinal and moral anarchy threatens the Churches. It is obviously wise to give them at such a crisis greater fixedness of organization, and by a definite constitution, and a stronger government, to place them in the condition of a society418418Comp. Hebrews xiii, 17. See Bunsen, "Ignatius und seine Zeit," p. 129. M. Reuss shows very clearly that the ecclesiastical constitution described in the pastoral epistles is not so complicated as has been asserted, with a view to deny their authority. It is in harmony with all we know of the apostolic age. capable of living and developing itself. We have no right, however, to suppose a substitution, at this period, of the monarchical for the democratic form of Church government; there is no trace of any such change. There is one single allusion to the ruling of assemblies, (Rom. xii, 28,) but it is too vague to sustain the inference that one of the elders presided permanently over the Council of the Church. Perhaps the presidency was taken by all the elders in turn. As the Churches increased in importance, and made larger claims upon the time of the pastors, it became needful to provide in part for their maintenance, that they might be able to attend, without distraction, on duties which grew daily wider and more weighty. St. Paul frequently insists on the duty of the Churches to contribute liberally to the support of their elders or bishops. 1 Cor. ix, 11, 13, 14; 1 Tim. v, 17. We see, however, no reason for supposing that these entirely gave up working with their own hands; they did not, at any rate, feel themselves bound to do so by any scruple of conscience, for the distinction between the sacred and the profane found no place in the lives of those who did all in the name of the Lord Jesus, and who had before their eyes the example of Paul, the tentmaker. The contributions of the Churches were perfectly free, no rule or measure of giving was laid down; the care of the poor was regarded as a more pressing claim than the maintenance of the pastors. The elder or bishop was under no more obligation to surrender family ties than any private Christian. Paul says distinctly that an apostle might be married, and might take his wife with him on his missionary journeys. The counsels of moderate asceticism which he gives to the Corinthians are intended for all the members of the Church without distinction. The bishop is to be the ensample of the flock, and is to keep himself with peculiar care from those immoral relations so common in the heathen world. Let him be the husband of one wife; let him show what is true Christian marriage; let him guide his family with firmness and discretion; he will then find in his own home a valuable school for the government of the Church.419419It is universally admitted that Peter was married. 1 Cor. ix, 5. Eusebius, following Clement of Alexandria, asserts that it was so. Πέτρος μὲν γὰρ καὶ Φιλιππος ἐπαιδοποίησαντο. Eusebius, "Hist. Eccles.," iii, 30. In spite of the opinion of several distinguished theologians, Reuss, among others, we cannot admit positively that the words "husband of one wife," μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρα, (1 Tim. iii, 2,) contain a prohibition of second marriages. The exhortation of the Apostle to perfect purity of life was always seasonable in Churches encompassed with heathen corruption, and some members of which might have continued in illicit relations which were hard to break. The condition imposed on widows who would be deaconesses not to have been twice married, (1 Tim. v, 9,) prevents us, however, rejecting peremptorily the sense given by the whole of the ancient Church to the passage. 1 Tim. iii, 2.

Next to the office of elders, we find, in all the Churches founded by St. Paul, the office of deacons. This carries us back to the appointment of the seven deacons at Jerusalem; but, like the whole of the ecclesiastical organization, it assumed, at this period, a more decided character. It received its proper name; it was called the diaconate.420420Rom. xii, 7. Διακονίᾳ. Phil. i, 1. Those who were intrusted with it do not seem to have taken part in the missionary work of the Apostles as directly as the first deacons, among whom were Stephen and Philip. They devoted themselves more exclusively to the care of the poor and the sick, and sought to exercise that beautiful gift of helping which St. Paul mentions in his Epistle to the Corinthians.421421Ἀντιλήψεις. 1 Cor. xii, 28. They were the representatives of the charity of the Church to its suffering and afflicted members. We know that the deacons at Jerusalem were chosen to serve tables. In the second period of the apostolic age there were no common feasts, except the agapæ, which were accompanied by the celebration of the Lord's Supper. The deacons were charged with all that related to this part of Christian worship; with their office of mercy was associated the care of all the outward details of public service.

The Churches of the first century also created an office for women, in order to employ for the good of the Church the special gifts bestowed by God upon them. What office could have been better suited to them than the diaconate, the merciful ministry of succor and consolation? It is difficult to ascertain exactly what these deaconesses of the primitive Church were. Rom. xvi, 1. They had, no doubt, their part in the distribution of alms, and in the visiting of the sick; doubtless, they also assisted in the arrangements for the agapæ, and lent their aid where-ever it was required by the deacons in matters relating to public worship. We know that the deaconesses of the second century were employed as helpers at the baptism of women.422422"Constit. Apostol.," iii, 16. This custom, so natural and so becoming, must have been introduced into the Church in the first century. The widows, above sixty years of age, whose names were in the Church books, and of whom Paul speaks in his first Epistle to Timothy, were probably deaconesses.423423Schaff, 534; Rothe, "Anfänge," p. 253. In the "Apostolical Constitutions," (iii, 1,) widows are raised to the rank of elders, πρεσβυτίδες. This is evidently an innovation of the second century. The prohibition of second marriages to the deaconesses is an ascetic rule which gives slight cause for surprise. It would be difficult to understand all the conditions required of them in that passage if nothing more than ordinary membership was in view. On the other hand, it is perfectly in harmony with the spirit of the apostolic Church to give employment to the activity of all its members, and to establish a holy relation between the generous gifts bestowed upon poverty and the valuable services which, in return, even poverty can render to the Church. The widow was far better adapted than the unmarried woman for the office of deaconess, for she had experience of human life; she knew its great sorrows, and her position gave her a special fitness for administering consolation.

From whatever point of view we regard it, the ecclesiastical office appears to us always as a ministry, as the service of the Church, not as a priesthood. It has an altogether different origin, it is bestowed by popular election, and thus preserves its representative character. This was the case (as we have seen) with the very first office which arose out of the apostolate. The seven deacons of the upper chamber were chosen by the Church at Jerusalem. "Choose you out seven men," such is the language of St. Peter, and it sanctions the abiding privilege of the Church.424424Ἐπισκέψασθε. Acts vi, 3. The nature of the office of elder also implied its being elective. The charge given by St. Paul to Timothy and Titus to appoint elders425425"Ἵνα καταστήσῃς πρεσβυτέρους. Titus i, 5; 1 Timothy iii, 1. contains no contradiction to this rule, for it is obvious that in a young and inexperienced Church the influence of the Apostle or of his representative would naturally preponderate. This influence, however, never assumed the form of despotic authority, and Luke shows us how it was exercised in harmony with the elective voice of the Church, when he tells us that Paul and Barnabas caused elders to be chosen in all the Churches.426426Χειροτονήσαντες δὲ αὐτοῖς πρεσβυτέρους κατ᾽ ἐκκλησίαν. Acts xiv, 23. We see (2 Cor. viii, 18-24) that the member of the Corinthian Church, intrusted to bear the offerings of the brethren into Palestine, was chosen by them. The Apostle presided over the election but did not suppress it. It is further certain that this right of election was preserved inviolate during more than two centuries. The Coptic Constitution of the Church of Alexandria witnesses to the continuance of the right of election into the middle of the second century.427427Ἐπίσκοπος χειροτονείσθω ὑπὸ παντὸς τοῦ λαοὺ εκλελεγμενός. "Constit. Copt.," canon ii, 31. Now, as it is incontestable that the second century did not originate the right, its tendency being on the contrary to weaken and depreciate it, it follows that it must be traced back to the first century, and is of apostolical institution.

The laying on of hands which was conferred on the deacons, elders, and evangelists, had not at all the character of ordination.428428See Ritschl, "Altcath. Kirche., 395. It was not used exclusively for the investiture of office in the Church. Christ laid his hands on the little children brought to him that he might bless them, (Matt. xix, 15,) and on the sick whom he was about to heal. Luke xiii, 13. The laying on of hands was regarded as a solemn benediction; coincidently with it there was sometimes the communication of the supernatural gifts peculiar to the apostolic age.429429This is the explanation of the famous passage 1 Timothy iv, 14, in which these supernatural gifts are referred to. Timothy received them in fulfillment of a prophetic revelation, like that which led to the dedication of Paul and Barnabas by the laying on of hands at Antioch. Acts xiii, 2, 3. We must not forget that Timothy had been temporarily invested with the office of an evangelist. Rothe, "Anfänge," 161. It was subsequently conferred in the ordinance of Baptism, in the celebration of the Lord's Supper, and on the occasion of the restoration to the Church of those who had been excommunicate.430430"Egressi de lavacro de hinc manus imponitur per benedictionem advocans Spiritum Sanctum." Tertull., "De Baptismo," 7, 8; Cyprian, "Epist.," lxxxiii, 1, 2. It was always accompanied with prayer.431431Acts vi, 6. Καὶ προσευξάμενοι ἐπέθηκαν αὐτοῖς τὰς χεῖρας. This first laying on of hands is the type of all the rest. St Augustine goes so far as to say, "What is the laying on of hands if not praying over a man?"432432"Quid est aliud manuum impositio, quam oratio?" Aug., "De Baptismo," iii, 49. Prayer was then the essential act. "The neophytes," says Cyprian,433433"Per nostram orationem ac manus impositionem Spiritum Sanctum consequantur." Cyprian, "Epist.," lxxxiii, 9. "receive the Holy Ghost through our prayer, and the laying on of hands." The latter had only a symbolic significance like baptism itself. It represented the grace communicated through prayer, and as all Christians stand in need of that grace, it was conferred on all. Nay, more. Prayer cannot, in any point of view, be regarded as a clerical act; it is the expression of the Christian feeling of the whole assembly; it follows that the laying on of hands could no more have a sacerdotal character than the prayer which constituted its essential virtue. It was bestowed in the name of the Church. Tertullian admitted that laymen had a right to baptize; they had, then, an equal right to perform the laying on of hands. We do not deny, however, that the laying on of hands had a special application when received by the deacons or elders. It was the solemn sign of their entry upon office, according to a custom of the synagogue, in the case of new rabbis.434434"Ordinatio autem non tantum fit manu sed etiam sermone solo, dicendo, ego te promoveo." Vitringa, "De Synag. vetere," p. 838. But between the imposition of hands in the synagogue and the same ceremonial in the church there was as wide a difference as between the two institutions themselves. It was, in truth, the prayer of the Church which gave value to the outward act; the Church thus took an active and direct part in the consecration of the man who was to be its minister and representative. It appears, also, to have been customary, from the times of the Apostles, for the individual thus set apart to make an explicit profession of his faith before the Church, which had a right to know with exactness the doctrine of those for whom, as its delegates, it was responsible. 1 Tim. vi, 12. The outward act was so far from being regarded as conferring a sacred and unalterable character, that the same man might receive the laying on of hands on several occasions.435435Acts xiii, 3. Paul and Barnabas had long been exercising their ministry in the Church when they received this laying on of hands. This unquestionable fact sets aside any superstitious notion with reference to it.

In a word, therefore, ecclesiastical offices did not constitute in this second period, any more than in the first, a new order of priesthood. They were not directly and authoritatively instituted by God, but were created one by one as the necessity for them arose in the Church. They are not, like the ancient priesthood, of immediate divine appointment, but they proceed from divine inspiration, and are according to the will of God. We must not, however, allow ourselves to imagine that the Churches of the apostolic age, though of so democratic an organization, suffered their liberty to degenerate into license. Revealed truth exerted a holy authority over them. Paul uses the bold and energetic language of an embassador of Jesus Christ speaking in the name of truth. He does not impose that truth; if the Churches reject it, there are no means to constrain to its reception and to obedience. But he declares that in rejecting the doctrine they reject not the messenger but the God who sent him; and he proves it. He desires also that this truth, once accepted in the Churches, should continue to be to them an infallible test and touchstone for heresy. If in the Christianity of the first century there is no organized external authority, there is nevertheless an authority which is effectual. We are quite free to admit, also, that while each Church has its own distinctive life and character, there is nothing in the primitive ecclesiastical organization adverse to an ulterior federation among the Churches, and a synodal government, provided only that the liberties of the individual assemblies be left intact. We have simply shown that as a matter of fact such a federal government did not exist in the first century. But the Church has the right—and sometimes the right becomes a duty—to modify its organization in course of time, and to depart in more than one point of detail from the type of the apostolic Churches, subject only to this condition—that it remains faithful to the general principles of their constitution; for those principles are unchangeable, and rest upon eternal truths.


« Prev § II. Gifts and offices. Next »

Advertisements


| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |