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History of the Christian Church, Volume III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 311-600.
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§ 15. Support of the Clergy.


3. The better support of the clergy was another advantage connected with the new position of Christianity in the empire.

Hitherto the clergy had been entirely dependent on the voluntary contributions of the Christians, and the Christians were for the most part poor. Now they received a fixed income from the church funds and from imperial and municipal treasuries. To this was added the contribution of first-fruits and tithes, which, though not as yet legally enforced, arose as a voluntary custom at a very early period, and probably in churches of Jewish origin existed from the first, after the example of the Jewish law.149149   Lev. xxvii. 30-33; Nu. xviii. 20-24; Deut. xiv. 22 sqq. 2 Chron. xxxi. 4 sqq. Where these means of support were not sufficient, the clergy turned to agriculture or some other occupation; and so late as the fifth century many synods recommended this means of subsistence, although the Apostolical Canons prohibited the engagement of the clergy in secular callings under penalty of deposition.150150   . Constit. Apost. lib. viii. cap. 47, can. 6 (p. 239, ed. Ueltzen): Ἐπίσκοπος ἢ πρεσβύτερος ἢ διάκονος κοσμικὰς φροντίδας μὴ ἀναλαμβανέτο· εἰ δὲ μὴ, καθαιρείσθω.

This improvement, also, in the external condition of the clergy was often attended with a proportional degeneracy in their moral character. It raised them above oppressive and distracting cares for livelihood, made them independent, and permitted them to devote their whole strength to the duties of their office; but it also favored ease and luxury, allured a host of unworthy persons into the service of the church, and checked the exercise of free giving among the people. The better bishops, like Athanasius, the two Gregories, Basil, Chrysosotom, Theodoret, Ambrose, Augustine, lived in ascetic simplicity, and used their revenues for the public good; while others indulged their vanity, their love of magnificence, and their voluptuousness. The heathen historian Ammianus gives the country clergy in general the credit of simplicity, temperance, and virtue, while he represents the Roman hierarchy, greatly enriched by the gifts of matrons, as extreme in the luxury of their dress and their more than royal banquets;151151   Lib. xxvii. c. 3. and St. Jerome agrees with him.152152   Hieron. Ep. 34 (al. 2) et passim. The distinguished heathen prefect, Praetextatus, said to Pope Damasus, that for the price of the bishopric of Rome he himself might become a Christian at once. The bishops of Constantinople, according to the account of Gregory Nazianzen,153153   Orat. 32. who himself held that see for a short time, were not behind their Roman colleagues in this extravagance, and vied with the most honorable functionaries of the state in pomp and sumptuous diet. The cathedrals of Constantinople and Carthage had hundreds of priests, deacons, deaconesses, subdeacons, prelectors, singers, and janitors.154154   The cathedral of Constantinople fell under censure for the excessive number of its clergy and subordinate officers, so that Justinian reduced it to five hundred and twenty-five, of which probably more than half were useless. Comp. Iust. Novell. ciii.

It is worthy of notice, that, as we have already intimated, the two greatest church fathers gave the preference in principle to the voluntary system in the support of the church and the ministry, which prevailed before the Nicene era, and which has been restored in modern times in the United States of America. Chrysostom no doubt perceived that under existing circumstances the wants of the church could not well be otherwise supplied, but he was decidedly averse to the accumulation of treasure by the church, and said to his hearers in Antioch: “The treasure of the church should be with you all, and it is only your hardness of heart that requires her to hold earthly property and to deal in houses and lands. Ye are unfruitful in good works, and so the ministers of God must meddle in a thousand matters foreign to their office. In the days of the apostles people might likewise have given them houses and lands; why did they prefer to sell the houses and lands and give the proceeds? Because this was without doubt the better way. Your fathers would have preferred that you should give alms of your incomes, but they feared that your avarice might leave the poor to hunger; hence the present order of things.”155155   Homil. 85 in Matt. (vii. 808 sq.). Hom. 21 in 1 Cor. 7 (x. 190). Comp. also De sacerdot. l. iii. c. 16. Augustine desired that his people in Hippo should take back the church property and support the clergy and the poor by free gifts.156156   Possidius, in Vita Aug. c. 23: “Alloquebatur plebem Dei, malle se ex collationibus plebes Dei vivere quam illarum possessionum curam vel gubernationem pati, et paratum se esse illis cedere, ut eo modo omnes Dei servi et ministri viverent.”



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