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


As the authority and influence of the bishops, after the accession of Constantine, increased, the lower clergy became more and more dependent upon them. The episcopate and the presbyterate were now rigidly distinguished. And yet the memory of their primitive identity lingered. Jerome, at the end of the fourth century, reminds the bishops that they owe their elevation above the presbyters, not so much to Divine institution as to ecclesiastical usage; for before the outbreak of controversies in the church there was no distinction between the two, except that presbyter is a term of age, and bishop a term of official dignity; but when men, at the instigation of Satan, erected parties and sects, and, instead of simply following Christ, named themselves of Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, all agreed to put one of the presbyters at the head of the rest, that by his universal supervision of the churches, he might kill the seeds of division.464464   Hieron. Comm. ad Tit. i. 7: “Idem est ergo presbyter qui episcopus, et antequam diaboli instinctu studia in religione fierent ... communi presbyterorum consilio ecclesiae gubernabantur,” etc. Comp. Epist. ad Evangelum presbyterum Ep. 146, ed. Vall. Opera, i. 1074 sqq.; Ep. 101, ed. Bened.), and Epist. ad Oceanum (Ep. 69, ed. Vall., Ep. 82, ed. Bened.). In the latter epistle he remarks: “Apud veteres iidem episcopi et presbyteri fuerunt, quia illud nomen dignitatis est, hoc aetatis.” The great commentators of the Greek church agree with Jerome in maintaining the original identity of bishops and presbyters in the New Testament.465465   Chrysostom, Hom. i. in Ep. ad Philipp. (Phil. i. 1, on the words συν ἐπισκόποις, which imply a number of bishops, i.e. presbyters in one and the same congregation), observes: τοὺς πρεσβυτέρου· οὕτως εκάλεσε· τότε γὰρ τέως ἐκοινώνουν τοῖς ὀνόμασι.. Of the same opinion are Theodoret, ad Phil. i. 1, and ad Tim. iii. 1; Ambrosiaster, ad Eph. iv. 11; and the author of the pseudo-Augustinian Questiones V. et N.T., qu. 101. Comp. on this whole subject of the original identity of ἐπίσκοποςand πρεσβύτερος, my History of the Apostolic Church, § 132 (Engl. translation, p. 522-531), and Rich. Rothe: Anfänge der christlichen Kirche, i. p. 207-217.

In the episcopal or cathedral churches the Presbyters still formed the council of the bishop. In town and country congregations, where no bishop officiated, they were more independent. Preaching, administration of the sacraments, and care of souls were their functions. In. North Africa they were for a long time not allowed to preach in the presence of the bishop; until Augustine was relieved by his bishop of this restriction. The seniores plebis in the African church of the fourth and fifth centuries were not clergymen, but civil personages and other prominent members of the congregation.466466   Optatus of Mileve calls them, indeed, ecclesiasticos viros; not, however, in the sense of clerici, from whom, on the contrary, he distinguishes them, but in the broad sense of catholic Christians as distinguished from heathens and heretics. Comp. on these seniores plebis, orlay elders, as they are called, the discussion of Dr. Rothe: Die Anfänge der christl. Kirche u. ihrer Verfassung, vol. i. p. 227 sqq.

In the fourth century arose the office of archpresbyter, whose duty it was to preside over the worship, and sometimes to take the place of the bishop in his absence or incapacity.

The Deacons, also called Levites, retained the same functions which they had held in the preceding period. In the West, they alone, not the lectors, were allowed to read in public worship the lessons from the Gospels; which, containing the words of the Lord, were placed above the Epistles, or the words of the apostles. They were also permitted to baptize and to preach. After the pattern of the church in Jerusalem, the number of deacons, even in large congregations, was limited to seven; though not rigidly, for the cathedral of Constantinople had, under Justinian I., besides sixty presbyters, a hundred deacons, forty deaconesses, ninety subdeacons, a hundred and ten lectors, twenty-five precentors, and a hundred janitors—a total of five hundred and twenty-five officers. Though subordinate to the presbyters, the deacons frequently stood in close relations with the bishop, and exerted a greater influence. Hence they not rarely looked upon ordination to the presbyterate as a degradation. After the beginning of the fourth century an archdeacon stood at the head of the college, the most confidential adviser of the bishop, his representative and legate, and not seldom his successor in office. Thus Athanasius first appears as archdeacon of Alexandria at the council of Nice, clothed with important influence; and upon the death of the latter he succeeds to the patriarchal chair of Alexandria.

The office of Deaconess, which, under the strict separation of the sexes in ancient times, and especially in Greece, was necessary to the completion of the diaconate, and which originated in the apostolic age,467467   Comp. Rom. xii. 1, 12, and my Hist. of the Apost. Church, § 135, p. 535 sqq. continued in the Eastern church down to the twelfth century. It was frequently occupied by the widows of clergymen or the wives of bishops, who were obliged to demit the married state before entering upon their sacred office. Its functions were the care of the female poor, sick, and imprisoned, assisting in the baptism of adult women, and, in the country churches of the East, perhaps also of the West, the preparation of women for baptism by private instruction.468468   Comp. Pelagius ad Rom. xvi. 1. Neander (iii. p. 314, note; Torrey’s transl. ii. p. 158) infers from a canon of the fourth council of Carthage, that the latter custom prevailed also in the West, since it is there required of “viduae quae ad ministerium baptizandarum mulierum eliguntur,” “ut possint apto et sano sermone docere imperitas et rusticas mulieres.” Formerly, from regard to the apostolic precept in 1 Tim. v. 9, the deaconesses were required to be sixty years of age.469469   Comp. Codex Theodos. 1. xvi., Tit. ii. lex 27: “Nulla nisi emensis 60 annis secundum praeceptum apostoli ad diaconissarum consortium transferatur.” The general council of Chalcedon, however, in 451, reduced the canonical age to forty years, and in the fifteenth canon ordered: “No female shall be consecrated deaconess before she is forty years old, and not then without careful probation. If, however, after having received consecration, and having been some time in the service, she marry, despising the grace of God, she with her husband shall be anathematized.” The usual ordination prayer in the consecration of deaconesses, according to the Apostolic Constitutions, runs thus: “Eternal God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Creator of man and woman, who didst fill Miriam and Deborah and Hannah and Huldah with the Spirit, and didst not disdain to suffer thine only-begotten Son to be born of a woman; who also in the tabernacle and the temple didst appoint women keepers of thine holy gates: look down now upon this thine handmaid, who is designated to the office of deacon, and grant her the Holy Ghost, and cleanse her from all filthiness of the flesh and of the spirit, that she may worthily execute the work intrusted to her, to thine honor and to the praise of thine Anointed; to whom with thee and the Holy Ghost be honor and adoration forever. Amen.”470470   Const. Apost. lib. viii. cap. 20. We have given the prayer in full. Neander (iii. p. 322, note) omits some passages. The custom of ordaining deaconesses is placed by this prayer and by the canon quoted from the council of Chalcedon beyond dispute. The 19th canon of the council of Nice, however, appears to conflict with this, in reckoning deaconesses among the laity, who have no consecration (χειροθεσία). Some therefore suppose that the ordination of deaconesses did not arise till after the Nicaenum (325), though the Apostolic Constitutions contradict this; while others (as Baronius, and recently Hefele, Concilien-Gesch. 1855, vol. i. p. 414) would resolve the contradiction by distinguishing between the properχειροθεσία and the simple benediction. But the consecration of the deaconesses was certainly accompanied with imposition of hands in presence of the whole clergy; since the Apost. Const., 1. viii. c. 19, expressly say to the bishop: Ἐπιθήσεις αὐτῃ τὰς χεῖρας, παρεστῶτος τοῦ πρεσβυτερίου καὶ τῶν διακόνων καὶ τῶν διακονισσῶν. The contradiction lies, however, in that Nicene canon itself; for (according to the Greek Codices) the deaconesses are immediately before counted among the clergy, if we do not, with the Latin translation, read deacons instead. Neander helps himself by a distinction between proper deaconesses and widows abusivè so called.

The noblest type of an apostolic deaconess, which has come down to us from this period, is Olympias, the friend of Chrysostom, and the recipient of seventeen beautiful epistles from him.471471   They are found in Montfaucon’s Bened. edition of Chrysostom, tom. iii. p. 524-604, and in Lomler’s edition of Joann. Chrysost. Opera praestantissima, 1840, p. 168-252. These seventeen epistles to Olympias are, in the judgment of Photius as quoted by Montfaucon (Op. iii. 524), of the epistles of Chrysostom, “longissimae, elegantissimae, omniumque utilissimae.” Compare also Montfaucon’s prefatory remarks on Olympias. She sprang from a respectable heathen family, but received a Christian education; was beautiful and wealthy; married in her seventeenth year (a.d. 384) the prefect of Constantinople, Nebridius; but in twenty months after was left a widow, and remained so in spite of the efforts of the emperor Theodosius to unite her with one of his own kindred. She became a deaconess; lived in rigid asceticism; devoted her goods to the poor; and found her greatest pleasure in doing good. When Chrysostom came to Constantinople, he became her pastor, and guided her lavish benefaction by wise counsel. She continued faithful to him in his misfortune; survived him by several years, and died in 420, lamented by all the poor and needy in the city and in the country around.

In the West, on the contrary, the office of deaconess was first shorn of its clerical character by a prohibition of ordination passed by the Gallic councils in the fifth and sixth centuries;472472   A mere benediction was appointed in place of ordination. The first synod of Orange (Arausicana i.), in 441, directed in the 26th canon: “Diaconae omnimodis non ordinandae [thus they had previously been ordained in Gaul also, and reckoned with the clergy]; si quae jam sunt, benedictioni, quae populo impenditur, capita submittant.” Likewise was the ordination of deaconesses forbidden by the council of Epaon in Burgundy, in 517, can. 21, and by the second council at Orleans, in 533, can. 17 and 18. and at last it was wholly abolished. The second synod of Orleans, in 533, ordained in its eighteenth canon: “No woman shall henceforth receive the benedictio diaconalis [which had been substituted for ordinatio], on account of the weakness of this sex.” The reason betrays the want of good deaconesses, and suggests the connection of this abolition of an apostolic institution with the introduction of the celibacy of the priesthood, which seemed to be endangered by every sort of female society. The adoption of the care of the poor and sick by the state, and the cessation of adult baptisms and of the custom of immersion, also made female assistance less needful. In modern times, the Catholic church, it is true, has special societies or orders of women, like the Sisters of Mercy, for the care of the sick and poor, the training of children, and other objects of practical charity; and in the bosom of Protestantism also similar benevolent associations have arisen, under the name of Deaconess Institutes, or Sisters’ Houses, though in the more free evangelical spirit, and without the bond of a vow.473473   The Deaconess House (Hutterhaus) at Kaiserswerth on the Rhine, founded in 1836; Bethany in Berlin, 1847; and similar evangelical hospitals in Dresden, 1842, Strasburg, 1842, Paris (institution des deaconess des églises evangéliques de France), 1841, London (institution of Nursing Sisters), 1840, New York (St. Luke’s Hopital), Pittsburg, 1849, Smyrna, Jerusalem, etc. But, though quite kindred in their object, these associations are not to be identified with the office of deaconess in the apostolic age and in the ancient church. That was a regular, standing office in every Christian congregation, corresponding to the office of deacon; and has never since the twelfth century been revived, though the local work of charity has never ceased.

To the ordinary clergy there were added in this period sundry extraordinary church offices, rendered necessary by the multiplication of religious functions in large cities and dioceses:

1. Stewards.474474   Οἰκόνομοι. Besides these there were also κειμηλιάρχαι, sacellarii, thesaurarii. These officers administered the church property under the supervision of the bishop, and were chosen in part from the clergy, in part from such of the laity as were versed in law. In Constantinople the “great steward” was a person of considerable rank, though not a clergyman. The council of Chalcedon enjoined upon every episcopal diocese the appointment of such officers, and the selection of them from the clergy, “that the economy of the church might not be irresponsible, and thereby the church property be exposed to waste and the clerical dignity be brought into ill repute.”475475   Conc. Chalced. can. 26. This canon also occurs twice in the Corp. jur. can. c. 21, C. xvi. q. 7, and c. 4, Dist. lxxix. For conducting the litigation of the church, sometimes a special advocate, called the e[kdiko”, or defensor, was appointed.

2. Secretaries,476476   ·Ταχυγράφοι, notarii, excerptores. for drawing the protocols in public ecclesiastical transactions (gesta ecclesiastica). They were usually clergymen, or such as had prepared themselves for the service of the church.

3. Nurses or Parabolani,477477   Parabolani, probably from παραβάλλειν τὴν ζωήν, to risk life; because in contagious diseases they often exposed themselves to the danger of death. especially in connection with the larger church hospitals. Their office was akin to that of the deacons, but had more reference to the bodily assistance than to the spiritual care of the sick. In Alexandria, by the fifth century, these officers formed a great guild of six hundred members, and were not rarely misemployed as a standing army of episcopal domination.478478   A perversion of a benevolent association to turbulent purposes similar to that of the firemen’s companies in the large cities of the United States. Hence, upon a complaint of the citizens of Alexandria against them, to the emperor Theodosius II., their number were reduced to five hundred. In the West they were never introduced.

4. Buriers of the Dead479479   78 Κοπιάται, copiattae, fossores, fossarii. likewise belonged among these ordines minores of the church. Under Theodosius II. there were more than a thousand of them in Constantinople.



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