SermonIndex Audio Sermons
Promoting Genuine Biblical Revival.
Looking for free sermon messages?

The Ancient Church by William Dool Killen


It has been already stated that, except in a few great cities where there were several Christian congregations, the introduction of Episcopacy produced a very slight change in the appearance of the ecclesiastical community. In towns and villages, where the disciples constituted but a single flock, they had commonly only one teaching elder; and as, in accordance with apostolic rule, [575:1] this labourer in the word and doctrine was deemed worthy of double honour, he was already the most prominent and influential member of the brotherhood. The new arrangement merely clothed him with the name of bishop, and somewhat augmented his authority. Having the funds of the Church at his disposal, he had special influence; and though he could not well act without the sanction of his elders, he could easily contrive to negative any of their resolutions which did not meet his approval.

It is abundantly clear that this primitive dignitary was ordinarily the pastor of only a single congregation. |If, before the multitude increase, there should be a place having a few faithful men in it, to the extent of twelve, who shall be able to make a dedication to pious uses for a bishop, let them write to the Churches round about the place,| says an ancient canon, |that three chosen men.... may come to examine with diligence him who has been thought worthy of this degree.... If he has not a wife, it is a good thing; but if he has married a wife, having children, let him abide with her, continuing steadfast in every doctrine, able to explain the Scriptures well.| [576:1] This humble functionary was assisted in the management of his little flock by two or three elders. |If the bishop has attended to the knowledge and patience of the love of God,| says another regulation, |let him ordain two presbyters, when he has examined them, or rather three.| [576:2] The bishop, the elders, and the deacons, all assembled in one place every Lord's day for congregational worship. An old ecclesiastical law accordingly prescribes the following arrangement -- |Let the seat of the bishop be placed in the midst, and let the presbyters sit on each side of him, and let the deacons stand by them,... and let it be their care that the people sit a with all quietness and order in the other part of the church.| [576:3] Thus, except in the case of a few large towns, the primitive bishop was simply the parochial minister. Towards the close of the second century, the bishop and the teacher were designations of the same import. Speaking of those at the head of the Churches, Irenaeus describes them as distinguished by their superior or inferior ability in sermonizing; [576:4] and a well-informed writer, who flourished as late as the fourth century, mentions preaching as the bishop's peculiar function. [576:5] In the apostolic age every one who had popular gifts was permitted to edify the congregation by their exercise; [576:6] and, long afterwards, any elder, who was qualified to speak in the Church, was at liberty to address his fellow-worshippers. When Origen, prior to his ordination as a presbyter, ventured to expound the Scriptures publicly at the request of the bishops of Palestine, Demetrius, his own ecclesiastical superior, denounced his conduct as irregular; but the parties, by whom the learned Alexandrian had been invited to lecture, boldly vindicated the proceeding. He (Demetrius) has asserted, said they, |that this was never before either heard or done, that laymen should deliver discourses in the presence of bishops. We know not how it happens that he is here evidently so far from the truth. For, indeed, wherever there are found those qualified to benefit the brethren, they are exhorted by the holy bishops to address the people.| [577:1] But still the bishop himself was the stated and ordinary preacher; and when he was sick or absent, the flock could seldom expect a sermon. When present, he always administered the Lord's Supper with his own hands, and dispensed in person the rite of baptism. He also occupied the chair at the meetings of the presbytery, and presided at the ordination of the elders and deacons of his congregation.

Though Christians formed but a fraction, and often but a small fraction of the population, their bishops were thickly planted. Thus, Cenchrea, the port of Corinth, had an episcopal overseer, [577:2] as well as Corinth itself; the bishop of Portus and the bishop of Ostia were only two miles asunder; [577:3] and, of the eighty-seven bishops who met at Carthage, about A.D.256, to discuss the question of the rebaptism of heretics, many, such as Mannulus, Polianus, Dativus, and Secundinus, [577:4] were located in small towns or villages. Though, probably, some of these pastors had not the care of more than twenty or thirty Christian families, each had the same rank and authority as the bishop of Carthage. |It remains,| said Cyprian at the opening of the council, |that we severally declare our opinion on this same subject, judging no one, nor depriving any one of the right of communion if he differ from us. For no one of us sets himself up as a bishop of bishops, or by tyrannical terror forces his colleagues to a necessity of obeying; inasmuch as every bishop in the free use of his liberty and power has the right of forming his own judgment.| [578:1] In other quarters of the Church its episcopal guardians were equally numerous. Hence it is said of the famous Paul of Samosata, bishop of Antioch, that, to sustain his reputation, he instigated |the bishops of the adjacent rural districts and towns| to praise him in their addresses to the people. [578:2] Even so late as the middle of the third century, the jurisdiction of the greatest bishops was extremely limited. Cyprian of Carthage, in point of position the second prelate in the Western Church, presided over only eight or nine presbyters; [578:3] and Cornelius of Rome, confessedly the most influential ecclesiastic in Christendom, had the charge of probably not more than fourteen congregations. [578:4]

There were commonly several elders and deacons connected with every worshipping society, and though these, as well as the bishops, began, towards the close of the second century, to be called clergymen, [578:5] and were thus taught to cherish the idea that the Lord was their inheritance, it would be quite a mistake to infer that they all subsisted on their official income. Not a few of them probably derived their maintenance from secular employments, some of them being tradesmen or artizans, and others in stations of greater prominence. Hyacinthus, an elder of the Church of Rome in the time of bishop Victor, appears to have held a situation in the Imperial household, [579:1] and Tertullian complains that persons engaged in trades directly connected with the support of idolatry were promoted to ecclesiastical offices. [579:2] There was a time when even an apostle laboured as a tent-maker, but as the hierarchical spirit acquired strength, and as the Church increased in wealth and numbers, there was a growing impression that all its office-bearers were degraded by such services. Cyprian speaks with extreme bitterness of a deceased elder who had appointed a brother elder the executor of his will, declaring that the clergy |should in no way be called off from their holy ministrations nor tied down by secular troubles and business.| [579:3] But the common sense of the Church revolted against such high-flown spiritualism, as in many districts where the disciples were still few and indigent, they could not afford a suitable support for all entrusted with the performance of ecclesiastical duties. Hence, before the recognition of Christianity by Constantine, even bishops in some countries were permitted by trade to eke out a scanty maintenance. |Let not bishops, elders, and deacons leave their places for the sake of trading,| says a council held in the beginning of the fourth century, |nor travelling about the provinces let them be found dealing in fairs. However, to provide a living for themselves, let them send either a son, or a freedman, or a servant, or a friend, or any one else: and if they wish to trade, let them do so within their province.| [580:1]

It is clear, from the New Testament, that, in the apostolic age, ordination was performed by |the laying on of the hands of the presbytery,| and this mode of designation to the ministry appears to have continued until some time in the third century. We are informed by the most learned of the fathers, in a passage to which the attention of the reader has already been invited, [580:2] that |even at Alexandria, from Mark the Evangelist until Heraclas and Dionysius the bishops, the presbyters were always in the habit of naming bishop one chosen from among themselves and placed in a higher degree, in the same manner as if an army should make an emperor, or the deacons choose from among themselves one whom they knew to be industrious and call him archdeacon.| [580:3] As Jerome here mentions various important facts of which we might have otherwise remained ignorant, and as this statement throws much light upon the ecclesiastical history of the early Church, it is entitled to special notice.

In the letter where this passage occurs the writer is extolling the dignity of presbyters, and is endeavouring to shew that they are very little inferior to bishops. He admits, indeed, that, in his own days, they had ceased to ordain; but he intimates that they once possessed the right, and that they retained it in all its integrity until the former part of the preceding century. Some have thought that Jerome has here expressed himself indefinitely, and that he did not know the exact date at which the arrangement he describes ceased at Alexandria. But his testimony, when fairly analysed, can scarcely be said to want precision; for he obviously speaks of Heraclas and Dionysius as bishops by anticipation, alleging that a custom which anciently existed among the elders of the Egyptian metropolis was maintained until the time when these ecclesiastics, who afterwards successively occupied the episcopal chair, sat together in the presbytery. The period, thus pointed out, can be easily ascertained. Demetrius, bishop of Alexandria, after a long official life of forty-three years, died about A.D.232, [581:1] and it is well known that Heraclas and Dionysius were both members of his presbytery towards the close of his episcopal administration. It was, therefore, shortly before his demise that the new system was introduced. In certain parts of the Church the arrangement mentioned by Jerome probably continued somewhat longer. Cyprian apparently hints at such cases of exception when he says that in |almost all the provinces,| [581:2] the neighbouring bishops assembled, on the occasion of an episcopal vacancy, at the new election and ordination. It may have been that, in a few of the more considerable towns, the elders still continued to nominate their president.

When the erudite Roman presbyter informs us that |even at Alexandria| [581:3] the elders formerly made their own bishop, his language obviously implies that such a mode of creating the chief pastor was not confined to the Church of the metropolis of Egypt. It existed wherever Christianity had gained a footing, and he mentions this particular see, partly, because of its importance -- being, in point of rank, the second in the Empire -- and partly, perhaps, because the remarkable circumstances in its history, leading to the alteration which he specifies, were known to all his well-informed contemporaries. Jerome does not say that the Alexandrian presbyters inducted their bishop by imposition of hands, [582:1] or set him apart to his office by any formal ordination. His words apparently indicate that they did not recognize the necessity of any special rite of investiture; that they made the bishop by election; and that, when once acknowledged as the object of their choice, he was at liberty to enter forthwith on the performance of his episcopal duties. When the Roman soldiers made an emperor they appointed him by acclamation, and the cheers which issued from their ranks as he stood up before the legions and as he was clothed with the purple by one of themselves, constituted the ceremony of his inauguration. The ancient archdeacon was still one of the deacons; [582:2] as he was the chief almoner of the Church, he required to possess tact, discernment, and activity; and, in the fourth century, he was nominated to his office by his fellow-deacons. Jerome assures us that, until the time of Heraclas and Dionysius, the elders made a bishop just in the same way as in his own day the soldiers made an emperor, or as the deacons chose one whom they knew to be industrious, and made him an archdeacon.

In one of the letters purporting to have been written by Pius, bishop of Rome, to Justus of Vienne, shortly after the middle of the second century, there is a passage which supplies a singularly striking confirmation of the testimony of Jerome. Even were we to admit that the genuineness of this epistle cannot be satisfactorily established, it must still be acknowledged to be a very ancient document, and were it of somewhat later date than its title indicates, it should at least be received as representing the traditions which prevailed respecting the ecclesiastical arrangements of an early antiquity. In this communication Pius speaks of his episcopal correspondent of Vienne as |constituted by the brethren and clothed with the dress of the bishops.| [583:1] By |the brethren,| as is plain from another part of the letter, [583:2] he understands the presbytery. And as the soldiers made a sovereign by saluting him emperor, and arraying him in the purple; so the elders made a president by clothing him with a certain piece of dress, and calling him bishop. Thus, the statement of Jerome is exactly corroborated by the evidence of this witness.

We may infer from the letter of Pius that in Gaul and Italy, as well as in Egypt, the elders were in the habit of making their own bishop. [583:3] There is not a particle of evidence to shew that any other arrangement originally existed. The declaration of so competent an authority as Jerome backed by the attestation of this ancient epistle may be regarded as perfectly conclusive. [583:4] But other proofs of the same fact are not wanting. For a long period the bishop continued to be known by the title of |the elder who presides|-a designation which obviously implies that he was still only one of the presbyters. When the Paschal controversy created such excitement, and when Victor of Rome threatened to renounce the communion of those who held views different from his own, Irenaeus of Lyons wrote a letter of remonstrance to the haughty churchman in which he broadly reminded him of his ecclesiastical position. |Those, presbyters before Soter who governed the Church over which you now preside, I mean,| said he, |Anicetus, and Pius, Hyginus with Telesphorus and Xystus, neither did themselves observe, nor did they permit those after them to observe it.... But those very presbyters before you who did not observe it, sent the Eucharist to those of Churches which did.| [584:1] Irenaeus here endeavours to teach the bishop of Rome a lesson of humility by reminding him repeatedly that he and his predecessors were but presbyters.

The pastor of Lyons speaks even still more distinctly respecting the status of the bishops who flourished in his generation. Thus, he says -- |We should obey those presbyters in the Church who have the succession from the apostles, and who, with the succession of the episcopate, have received the certain gift of truth according to the good pleasure of the Father: but we should hold as suspected or as heretics and of bad sentiments the rest who depart from the principal succession, and meet together wherever they please.... From all such we must keep aloof, but we must adhere to those who both preserve, as we have already mentioned, the doctrine of the apostles, and exhibit, with the order of the presbytery, sound teaching and an inoffensive conversation.| [585:1] |The order of the presbytery| obviously signifies the official character conveyed by |the laying on of the hands of the presbytery,| and yet such was the ordination of those who, in the time of Irenaeus, possessed |the succession from the apostles| and |the succession of the episcopate.|

Some imagine that no one can be properly qualified to administer divine ordinances who has not received episcopal ordination, but a more accurate acquaintance with the history of the early Church is all that is required to dissipate the delusion. The preceding statements clearly shew that, for upwards of one hundred and fifty years after the death of our Lord, all the Christian ministers throughout the world were ordained by presbyters. The bishops themselves were of |the order of the presbytery,| and, as they had never received episcopal consecration, they could only ordain as presbyters. The bishop was, in fact, nothing more than the chief presbyter. [585:2] A father of the third century accordingly observes -- |All power and grace are established in the Church where elders preside, who possess the power, as well of baptizing, as of confirming and ordaining.| [585:3]

An old ecclesiastical law, recently presented for the first time to the English reader, [586:1] throws much light on a portion of the history of the Church long buried in great obscurity. This law may well remind us of those remains of extinct classes of animals which the naturalist studies with so much interest, as it obviously belongs to an era even anterior to that of the so-called apostolical canons. [586:2] Though it is part of a series of regulations once current in the Church of Ethiopia, there is every reason to believe that it was framed in Italy, and that its authority was acknowledged by the Church of Rome in the time of Hippolytus. [586:3] It marks a transition period in the history of ecclesiastical polity, and whilst it indirectly confirms the testimony of Jerome relative to the custom of the Church of Alexandria, it shews that the state of things to which the learned presbyter refers was now superseded by another arrangement. This curious specimen of ancient legislation treats of the appointment and ordination of ministers. |The bishop,| says this enactment, |is to be elected by all the people.... And they shall choose ONE OF THE BISHOPS AND ONE OF THE PRESBYTERS, ... AND THESE SHALL LAY THEIR HANDS UPON HIS HEAD AND PRAY.| [586:4] Here, to avoid the confusion arising from a whole crowd of individuals imposing hands in ordination, two were selected to act on behalf of the assembled office-bearers; and, that the parties entitled to officiate might be fairly represented, the deputies were to be a bishop and a presbyter. [587:1] The canon illustrates the jealousy with which the presbyters in the early part of the third century still guarded some of their rights and privileges. In the matter of investing others with Church authority, they yet maintained their original position, and though many bishops might be present when another was inducted into office, they would permit only one of the number to unite with one of themselves in the ceremony of ordination. Some at the present day do not hesitate to assert that presbyters have no right whatever to ordain, but this canon supplies evidence that in the third century they were employed to ordain bishops.

It thus appears that the bishop of the ancient Church was very different from the dignitary now known by the same designation. The primitive bishop had often but two or three elders, and sometimes a single deacon, [587:2] under his jurisdiction: the modern prelate has frequently the oversight of several hundreds of ministers. The ancient bishop, surrounded by his presbyters, preached ordinarily every Sabbath to his whole flock: the modern bishop may spend an entire lifetime without addressing a single sermon, on the Lord's day, to many who are under his episcopal supervision. The early bishop had the care of a parish: the modern bishop superintends a diocese. The elders of the primitive bishop were not unfrequently decent tradesmen who earned their bread by the sweat of their brow: [587:3] the presbyters of a modern prelate have generally each the charge of a congregation, and are supposed to be entirely devoted to sacred duties. Even the ancient city bishop had but a faint resemblance to his modern namesake. He was the most laborious city minister, and the chief preacher. He commonly baptized all who were received into the Church, and dispensed the Eucharist to all the communicants. He was, in fact, properly the minister of an overgrown parish who required several assistants to supply his lack of service.

The foregoing testimonies likewise shew that the doctrine of apostolical succession, as now commonly promulgated, is utterly destitute of any sound historical basis. According to some, no one is duly qualified to preach and to dispense the sacraments whose authority has not been transmitted from the Twelve by an unbroken series of episcopal ordinations. But it has been demonstrated that episcopal ordinations, properly so called, originated only in the third century, and that even the bishops of Rome, who flourished prior to that date, were |of the order of the presbytery.| All the primitive bishops received nothing more than presbyterian ordination. It is plain, therefore, that the doctrine of the transmission of spiritual power from the apostles through an unbroken series of episcopal ordinations flows from sheer ignorance of the actual constitution of the early Church.

But the arrangements now described were gradually subverted by episcopal encroachments, and a separate chapter must be devoted to the illustration of the progress of Prelacy.

<<  Contents  >>

Promoting Genuine Biblical Revival.
Privacy Policy