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The Ancient Church by William Dool Killen


The apostles, and the other original heralds of the gospel, sought primarily the conversion of unbelievers. The commission given to Paul points out distinctly the grand design of their ministry. When the great persecutor of the saints was himself converted on his way to Damascus, our Lord addressed to him the memorable words -- |I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee; delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee, to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me.| [605:1]

When a few disciples were collected in a particular locality, it not unfrequently happened that they remained for a time without any proper ecclesiastical organization. [605:2] But the Christian cause, under such circumstances, could not be expected to flourish; and therefore, as soon as practicable, the apostles and evangelists did not neglect to make arrangements for the increase and edification of these infant communities. To provide, as well for the maintenance of discipline, as for the preaching of the Word, they accordingly proceeded to ordain elders in every city where the truth had gained converts. These elders afterwards ordained deacons in their respective congregations; and thus, in due time, the Church was regularly constituted.

In the first century Christian societies were formed only here and there throughout the Roman Empire; and, at its close, the gospel had scarcely penetrated into some of the provinces. It is not to be expected that we can trace any general confederation of the churches established during this period, and it would be vain to attempt to demonstrate their incorporation; as their distance, their depressed condition, and the jealousy with which they were regarded by the civil government, [606:1] rendered any extensive combination utterly impossible. At a time when the disciples met together for worship in secret and before break of day, it is not to be supposed that their pastors deemed it expedient to undertake frequent journeys on the business of the Church, or assembled in multitudinous councils. But though, in the beginning of the second century, there was no formal bond of union connecting the several Christian communities throughout the world, they meanwhile contrived in various ways to cultivate an unbroken fraternal intercourse. Recognising each other as members of the same holy brotherhood, they maintained an epistolary correspondence, in which they treated of all matters pertaining to the common interest. When the pastor of one church visited another, his status was immediately acknowledged; and even when an ordinary disciple emigrated to a distant province, the ecclesiastical certificate which he carried along with him secured his admission to membership in the strange congregation. Thus, all the churches treated each other as portions of one great family; all adhered to much the same system of polity and discipline; and, though there was not unity of jurisdiction, there was the |keeping of the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.|

In modern times many ecclesiastical historians [607:1] have asserted that synods commenced about the middle of the second century. But the statement is unsupported by a single particle of evidence, and a number of facts may be adduced to prove that it is altogether untenable. There is no reason to doubt that synods, at least on a limited scale, met in the days of the apostles, and that the Church courts of a later age were simply the continuation and expansion of those primitive conventions. We know very little respecting the history of the Christian commonwealth during the former half of the second century, for the extant memorials of the Church of that period are exceedingly few and meagre; and as the proceedings of most of the synods which were then held did not perhaps attract much notice, [607:2] it is not remarkable that they have shared the fate of almost all the other ecclesiastical transactions of the same date, and that they have been buried in oblivion. [607:3] It is nowhere intimated by any ancient authority that synodical meetings commenced fifty years after the death of the beloved disciple, and the earliest writers who touch upon the subject speak of them as of apostolic original. Irenaeus, the pastor of Lyons, had probably reached manhood when, according to Mosheim and others, synods were at first formed; he enjoyed the instructions of Polycarp, the disciple of the Apostle John; he was beyond question one of the best informed Christian ministers of his generation; and yet he obviously considered that these ecclesiastical assemblies were in existence in the first century. Speaking of the visit of Paul to Miletus when he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the Church, [608:1] he says that the apostle then convoked |the bishops and presbyters of Ephesus and of the other adjoining cities| [608:2] -- plainly indicating that he summoned a synodical meeting. Had an assembly of this kind been a novelty in the days of Irenaeus, the pastor of Lyons would not have given such a version of a passage in the inspired narrative. Cyprian flourished shortly after the time when, according to the modern theory, councils began to meet in Africa, but the bishop of Carthage himself unquestionably entertained higher views of their antiquity. He declared that conformably to |the practice received from divine tradition and apostolic observance,| [608:3] |all the neighbouring bishops of the same province met together| among the people over whom a pastor was to be ordained; [608:4] and he did not here merely give utterance to his own impressions, for a whole African synod concurred in his statement. Subsequent writers of unimpeachable credit refer to the canons of councils of which we otherwise know nothing, and though we cannot now ascertain the exact time when these courts assembled, there is no reason to doubt that at least some of them were convened before the middle of the second century. Thus, when Jerome ascribes the origin of Prelacy to an ecclesiastical decree, he alludes evidently to some synodical convention of an earlier date than any of the meetings of which history has preserved a record. [609:1]

Did we even want the direct testimony just adduced as to the government of synods in the former part of the second century, we might on other grounds infer that this species of polity then existed; for apostolic example suggested its propriety, and the spirit of fraternity so assiduously cherished by the early rulers of the Church must have prompted them to meet together for the discussion and settlement of ecclesiastical questions in which they felt a common interest. But whilst Christianity was still struggling for existence, it was not in a condition to form widely spread organizations. It is probable that the business of the early Church courts was conducted with the utmost secrecy, that they were attended by but few members, and that they were generally composed of those pastors and elders who resided in the same district and who could conveniently assemble on short notice. Their meetings, in all likelihood, were summoned at irregular intervals, and were held, to avoid suspicion, sometimes in one city and sometimes in another; and, except when an exciting question awakened deep and general anxiety, the representatives of the Churches of a whole province rarely, perhaps, ventured on a united convention. Our ignorance of the councils of the early part of the second century arises simply from the fact that no writer appeared during that interval to register their acts; and we have now no means of accurately filling up this blank in the history. But we have good grounds for believing that Gnosticism now formed the topic of discussion in several synods. [609:2] The errorists, we know, were driven out of the Church in all places; and how can we account for this general expulsion, except upon the principle of the united action of ecclesiastical judicatories? Jerome gives us to understand that their machinations led to a change in the ecclesiastical constitution, and that this change was effected by a synodical decree adopted all over the world [610:1] -- thereby implying that presbyterial government was already in universal operation. Montanism appeared whilst Gnosticism was yet in its full strength, and this gloomy fanaticism created intense agitation. Many of the pastors, as well as of the people, were bewildered by its pretensions to inspiration, and by the sanctimony of its ascetic discipline. It immediately occupied the attention of the ecclesiastical courts, and its progress was, no doubt, arrested by their emphatic condemnation of its absurdities. It is certain that their interference was judicious and decided. |When the faithful held frequent meetings in many places throughout Asia on account of this affair, and examined the novel doctrines, and pronounced them profane, and rejected them as heresy,| the Montanist prophets |were in consequence driven out of the Church and excluded from communion.| [610:2]

The words just quoted are from the pen of an anonymous writer who flourished towards the end of the second or beginning of the third century; [610:3] and, though they supply the earliest distinct notice of synodical meetings, they do not even hint that such assemblies were of recent original. The Paschal controversy succeeded the Montanist agitation, and convulsed the whole Church from East to West by its frivolous discussions. The mode of keeping the Paschal festival had for nearly fifty years been a vexed question, but about the close of the second century it began to create bitter contention. Eusebius has given us an account of the affair, and his narrative throws great light upon the state of the ecclesiastical community at the time of its occurrence. |For this cause,| says he, |there were synods and councils of bishops, and all, with according judgment, published in epistles an ecclesiastical decree.... There is still extant a letter from those who at that time were called together in Palestine, over whom presided Theophilus, bishop of the parish of Caesarea, and Narcissus, bishop of the parish of Jerusalem. There is also another letter from those who were convoked at Rome [611:1] concerning the same question, which shews that Victor was then bishop. There is too a letter from the bishops of Pontus, over whom Palmas, as the senior pastor, presided. There is likewise a letter from the parishes in Gaul of which Irenaeus was president. And another besides from the Churches in Osroene and the cities in that quarter.| [611:2]

It is obvious from this statement that, before the termination of the second century, synodical government was established throughout the whole Church; for we here trace its operation in France, in Mesopotamia or Osroene, in Italy, Pontus, and Palestine. This passage also illustrates the progress of the changes which were taking place about the period under review in the constitution of ecclesiastical judicatories. As the president of the presbytery was at first the senior elder, so the president of the synod was at first the senior pastor. At this time the primitive arrangement had not been altogether superseded, for at the meeting of the bishops of Pontus, Palmas, as being the oldest member present, was called to occupy the chair of the moderator. But elsewhere this ancient regulation had been set aside, and in some places no new principle had yet been adopted. At the synod of Palestine the jealousy of two rivals for the presidency led to a rather awkward compromise. Caesarea was the seat of government, and on that ground its bishop could challenge precedence of every other in the district, but the Church of Jerusalem was the mother of the entire Christian community, and its pastor, now a hundred years of age, [612:1] considered that he was entitled to fill the place of dignity. For the sake of peace the assembled fathers agreed to appoint two chairmen, and accordingly Theophilus of Caesarea and Narcissus of Jerusalem presided jointly in the synod of Palestine. In the synod of Rome there was no one to dispute the pretensions of Bishop Victor. As the chief pastor of the great metropolitan Church, he seems, as a matter of course, to have taken possession of the presidential office.

A few years after the Paschal controversy the celebrated Tertullian became entangled in the errors of Montanism, and in vindication of his own principles published a tract |Concerning Fasts,| in which there is a passing reference to the subject of ecclesiastical convocations. |Among the Greek nations,| says he, |these councils of the whole Church are held in fixed places, in which, whilst certain important questions are discussed, the representation of the whole Christian name is also celebrated with great solemnity. And how worthy is this of a faith which expects to have its converts gathered from all parts to Christ? See how good and how pleasant a thing it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! You do not well know how to sing this, except when you are holding communion with many. But those conventions, after they have been first employed in prayers and fasting, know how to mourn with the mourners, and thus at length to rejoice with those that rejoice.| [612:2]

Greek was now spoken throughout a great part of the Roman Empire, and at this period it continued to be used even by the chief pastors of the Italian capital, so that when Tertullian here mentions the Greek nations, [613:1] he employs an expression of somewhat doubtful significance. But it is probable that he refers chiefly to the mother country and its colonies on the other side of the Aegean Sea, or to Greece and Asia Minor. It is apparent from the apostolic epistles, most of which are addressed to Churches within their borders, that the gospel, at an early date, spread extensively and rapidly in these countries; and it is highly probable that, at least in some districts, its adherents would have now made a considerable figure in any denominational census. They were thus, perhaps, emboldened to erect their ecclesiastical courts upon a broader basis, as well as to hold their meetings with greater publicity, than heretofore; and, as these assemblies were attended, not only by the pastors and the elders, but also by many deacons and ordinary church members who were anxious to witness their deliberations, Tertullian alleges, in his own rhetorical style of expression, that in them |the representation of the whole Christian name was celebrated with great solemnity.| [613:2] These Greek councils commenced with a period of fasting -- a circumstance by which they seem to have been distinguished from similar meetings convened elsewhere, and as they thus supplied him with an argument in favour of one of the grand peculiarities of the discipline of Montanism, it is obviously for this reason they are here so prominently noticed. If, as he contends, these fasts were kept so religiously by the representatives of the Church when in attendance on some of their most solemn assemblies, there might, after all, be a warrant for the observance of that more rigid abstinence which he now inculcated. But though this passage of Tertullian is the only authority adduced to prove that councils originated in Greece, it is plain that it gives no sanction whatever to any such theory. Neither does it afford the slightest foundation for the inference that, at the time when it was written, these ecclesiastical convocations were unknown in Africa and Italy. We have direct proof that before this period they not only met in Rome, but that the bishop of the great city had been in the habit of requesting his brother pastors in other countries to hold such assemblies. [614:1] There is, too, satisfactory evidence that they were now not unknown at Carthage, [614:2] and Tertullian himself elsewhere apparently refers to the proceedings of African synods. [614:3] He must have been well aware that they had recently assembled in various parts of the West to pronounce judgment in the Paschal controversy; for the decisions of the Gallic and Roman synods mentioned by Eusebius seem to have been published all over the Church; and the reason why he refers to the convocations of the Greeks was, not because such meetings were not held in other lands, but because these, from their peculiar method of procedure in the way of fasting, [614:4] supplied, as he conceived, a very apposite argument in support of the discipline which he was so desirous to recommend.

If historians have erred in stating that synods commenced in Greece, they have been still more egregiously mistaken in asserting that the once famous Amphictyonic Council suggested their establishment, and furnished the model for their construction. In the second century of the Christian era the Council of the Amphictyons was shorn of its glory, and though it then continued to meet, [615:1] it had long ceased to be either an exponent of the national mind, or a free and independent assembly. It is not to be imagined that the Christian community, in the full vigour of its early growth, would all at once have abandoned its apostolic constitution, and adopted a form of government borrowed from an effete institute. Synods, which now formed so prominent a part of the ecclesiastical polity, could claim a higher and holier original. They were obviously nothing more than the legitimate development of the primitive structure of the Church, for they could be traced up to that meeting of the apostles and elders at Jerusalem which relieved the Gentile converts from the observance of the rite of circumcision.

The most plausible argument in support of the theory that the Amphictyonic Council suggested the establishment of synodical conventions is based upon the alleged fact that these ecclesiastical meetings were at first held in spring and autumn, or exactly at the times when the Greek political deputies were accustomed to assemble. [615:2] But this statement, when closely examined, is found to be quite destitute of evidence. Tertullian does not say that the Greek synods met twice a year, and we know that, at least half a century afterwards, they assembled only annually. This fact is attested by Firmilian of Cappadocia in his celebrated letter to Cyprian. |It is of necessity arranged among us,| says he, |that we elders and presidents meet every year [616:1] to set in order the things entrusted to our charge, that if there be any matters of grave moment they may be settled by common advice.| [616:2] The author of this epistle lived in the very country where synods are supposed to have assembled so much more frequently half a century before, so that his evidence demonstrates the fallacy of the hypothesis framed by some modern historians.

About the beginning of the third century, or at the time when Tertullian wrote, it would seem that the members of the Greek synods had an arrangement which was not then generally adopted. The Greek councils met together |in fixed places.| There is reason to believe that these |fixed places| were, commonly speaking, the metropolitan cities of the respective provinces. But still, as we have seen, the pastors and elders had not yet generally agreed to the regulation that the chief pastor of the metropolitan city should be the constant moderator of the provincial synod. In the case of the bishop of Rome the rule was, no doubt, already established; but, in other instances, the senior pastor present was, as yet, invited to fill the office of president. The constant meeting of the synod in the principal town of the province tended, however, to increase the influence of its bishop; and he was at length almost everywhere acknowledged as the proper chairman. [616:3] At the Council of Nice in A.D.325 his rights were formally secured by ecclesiastical enactment. About the same date synods appear to have commenced to assemble with greater frequency. |Let there be a meeting of the bishops twice a year,| says the thirty-seventh of the so-called Apostolical Canons, |and let them examine amongst themselves the decrees concerning religion, and settle the ecclesiastical controversies which may have occurred. One meeting is to be held in the fourth week of the Pentecost, and the other on the 12th day of the month of October.| [617:1]

As soon as the light of historical records begins to illustrate the condition of any portion of the ancient Church, its synodical government may be discovered; and though the literary memorials of the third century are comparatively few, they are abundantly sufficient to demonstrate that, as early as the middle of that period, ecclesiastical courts upon a tolerably extensive scale were everywhere established. About that time the controversy relative to the propriety of rebaptizing heretics created much agitation, and the subject was keenly discussed in the synods which met for its consideration. Nowhere is any hint given that these courts were of recent formation. Though meeting in so many places in the East and West, and in countries so far apart, they are invariably represented as the ancient order of ecclesiastical regimen. They all appear, too, as co-ordinate and independent judicatories; and though the Roman bishop, as the chief pastor of the Catholic Church, endeavoured to induce them to adopt uniform decisions, his attempts to dictate to the brethren in Spain, Africa, and other countries, were firmly and indignantly repulsed. There were fundamental principles which they were all understood to acknowledge; these principles were generally embodied in the divine Statute-book; it was admitted that the decisions of every council which adhered to them were entitled to universal reverence; but, though the reservation was scarcely compatible with the genius of catholicity, each provincial convention claimed the right of forming its own judgment of the acts of other courts, and of adopting or rejecting them accordingly.

The most influential synods which were held before the establishment of Christianity by Constantine were those which met in the latter part of the third century to try the case of the famous Paul of Samosata, the bishop of Antioch. The charge preferred against him was the denial of the proper deity of the Son of God, and as he was an individual of much ability and address, as well as, in point of rank, one of the greatest prelates in existence, his case awakened uncommon interest. Christianity had recently obtained the sanction of a legal toleration, [618:1] and therefore churchmen now ventured to travel from different provinces to sit in judgment on this noted heresiarch. In the councils which assembled at Antioch were to be found, not only the pastors of Syria, but also those of various places in Palestine and Asia Minor. Even Dionysius, bishop of the capital of Egypt, was invited to be present, but he pleaded his age and infirmities as an apology for his non-attendance. [618:2] In a council which assembled A.D.269, [618:3] Paul was deposed and excommunicated; and the sentence, which was announced by letter to the chief pastors of Rome, Alexandria, and other distinguished sees, was received with general approbation.

All the information we possess respecting the councils of the first three centuries is extremely scanty, so that it is no easy matter exactly to ascertain their constitution; but we have no reason to question the correctness of the statement of Firmilian of Cappadocia, who was himself a prominent actor in several of the most famous of these assemblies, and who affirms that they were composed of |elders and presiding pastors.| [619:1] We have seen that bishops and elders anciently united even in episcopal ordinations, and these ministers, when assembled on such occasions, constituted ecclesiastical judicatories. A modern writer, of high standing in connexion with the University of Oxford, has affirmed that |bishops alone had a definitive voice in synods,| [619:2] but the testimonies which he has himself adduced attest the inaccuracy of the assertion. The presbyter Origen, at an Arabian synod held about A.D.229, sat with the bishops, and was, in fact, the most important and influential member of the convention. About A.D.230, Demetrius of Alexandria |gathered a council of bishops and of certain presbyters, which decreed that Origen should remove from Alexandria.| [619:3] About the middle of the third century, |during the vacancy of the see of Rome, the presbyters of the city took part in the first Roman council on the lapsed.| [619:4] At the council of Eliberis, held about A.D.305, no less than twenty-six presbyters sat along with the bishops. [619:5] In some cases deacons, [619:6] and even laymen, were permitted to address synods, [619:7] but ancient documents attest that they were never regarded as constituent members. Whilst the bishops and elders sat together, and thus proclaimed their equality as ecclesiastical judges, [619:8] the people and even the deacons were obliged to stand at these meetings. The circular letter of the council of Antioch announcing the deposition of Paul of Samosata is written in the name of |bishops, and presbyters, and deacons, and the Churches of God,| [620:1] but there is reason to believe that the latter are added merely as a matter of prudence, and in testimony of their cordial approval of the ecclesiastical verdict. The heresiarch had left no art unemployed to acquire popularity, and it was necessary to shew that he had lost the influence upon which he had been calculating. It is obvious that the pastors and elders alone were permitted to adjudicate, for why were they assembled from various quarters to uphold the doctrine and discipline of the Church, if the people who were themselves tainted with heresy or guilty of irregularity, had the liberty of voting? Under such circumstances, the decision would have been substantially, not the decree of the Church rulers, but of the multitude of the particular city in which they happened to congregate.

The theory of some modern ecclesiastical historians, who hold that all the early Christian congregations were originally independent, cannot bear the ordeal of careful investigation. Whilst it directly conflicts with the testimony of Jerome, who declares that the churches were at first |governed by the common council of the presbyters,| it is otherwise destitute of evidence. As soon as the light of ecclesiastical memorials begins to guide our path, we find everywhere presbyteries and synods in existence. Congregationalism has no solid foundation either in Scripture or antiquity. The eldership, the most ancient court of the Church, commenced with the first preaching of the gospel; and in the account of the meeting of the Twelve to induct the deacons into office, we have the record of the first ordination performed by the laying on of the hands of the presbytery of Jerusalem. A few years afterwards the representatives of several Christian communities assembled in the holy city and |ordained decrees| for the guidance of the Jewish and Gentile Churches. The continuous development of the same form of ecclesiastical regimen has now been illustrated. This polity was obviously based upon the principle that |in the multitude of counsellors there is safety.| [621:1] At the meetings of the elders, information was multiplied, the intellect was sharpened, the brethren were made better acquainted with each other, and the Christian cause enjoyed the benefit of the decisions of their collective wisdom. The members had been previously elected to office by the voice of the people, so that the Church had pre-eminently a free constitution. And it is no mean proof as well of the intrepidity as of the zeal of the early Christian ministers that, at a time when their religion was proscribed, they sometimes undertook lengthened journeys for the purpose of meeting in ecclesiastical judicatories. They thus nobly asserted the principle that Christ has established in His Church a government with which the civil magistrate has no right whatever to intermeddle. It has been said that the early Christian councils |changed nearly the whole form of the Church,| and that by them |the influence and authority of the bishops were not a little augmented.| [621:2] But this is obviously quite a mistaken view of their native tendency. The face of the Church was, indeed, changed at an early period, but it was simply because these councils yielded with too much facility to the spirit of innovation. Had they been always conducted in accordance with primitive arrangements, they could have crushed in the bud the aspirations of clerical ambition. But when the city ministers were rapidly accumulating wealth, their brethren in rural districts remained poor; and when councils began to meet on a scale of increased magnitude, the village and country pastors, who could not afford the expenses of lengthened journeys, were unable to attend. Meanwhile Prelacy established itself in the great towns, and the influence of the city bishops began gradually to preponderate in all ecclesiastical assemblies. When the prelates had once secured their ascendency in these conventions, they made use of the machinery for their own purposes. The people were deprived of many of their rights and privileges; the elders were stripped of their proper status; the village and rural bishops were extinguished; and at length the ancient presbytery itself disappeared. The city dignitaries became the sole depositories of ecclesiastical power, and the Church lost nearly every vestige of its freedom. But, long after the beginning of the fourth century, many remnants of the primitive polity still survived as memorials of its departed excellence.

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