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The organization of the early Christian churches : eight lectures delivered before the University of Oxford, in the year 1880 online

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and imKXrjToi was laid before the /801M.17 and passed, in the same way as at Athens
the vpo0ovX(vp:a of the @ov\r] itself was laid before the tKK\r]aia: irepl wv oi vtamoiai

F



66 Presbyters. [lect.

the yepovcrla bore the same name as the members of
the committee of the Christian Churches — that of

Trpecrfiurepoi 27 .

If we put the evidence together, it will appear pro-
bable that the presbyterate in the Gentile Churches
had a spontaneous and independent origin. This
hypothesis accounts for the fact which is not easily
explained on the hypothesis of the direct transference
of the Jewish office to the Gentile communities, namely,
that the members of the governing council were known
by various names, and that the names which were in
use for the Jewish officers did not at once uniformly

teat olitovpf)Tcs KaraajaOivres 5^eAtx0»7 (Ta, ' T V &ov\fj ical to ipi)<\».a \u\ fjvtytiav tjjs
yepovaias Hal toiv IttikA.ijtcuj' iintp Eiuppoviov Trokirdas, S(S6x6ai rrj Povkfj . . . Wood,
Discoveries at Ephesus, Append, ii. p. 29. The existence of such a committee is
rendered probable by the unwieldy size of most Eastern councils : e. g. Josephus,
Ant. 13. 13. 3, mentions 500 0ov\evrai at Gaza, and, B. J. 2. 21. 9, 600 at Tibe-
rias : Libanius, in the fourth century, speaks of the municipal council of Antioch
in times before his own as having consisted of 600 members (Op. vol. i. p. 182, ii.
pp. 527, 528 ed. Reisk.), and this was also the normal number at Cyzicus (Btickh
in Corpus Inscr. Qraec. vol. ii. p. 920). But whether the precise relation of the
yepovaia to the @ov\t} be that which is stated above, or not, the general propo-
sition, that there was a tendency to give tbe elder members of a community or
municipality a separate and integral share in its administration, is sufficiently
shown by the fact, which is stated in the preceding note, that the yepovaia is co-
ordinated with the PovKrj and the Srj/xos, in certain municipal acts, e.g. C. I. G.
Nos. 2814, 2820, 3417, 3462, and also by the distinction which is made between oi
yepovTes (17 yepovaia) and ol veoi, e.g. Dio Chrys. Orat. 34, vol. ii. p. 27, ed. Dind.,
C. I. G. Nos. 2781, 2930. So in Africa the old Roman distinction between
'seniores' and 'juniores ' was retained or revived, Renier, Iuscr. Roma ins d' Algeria,
Nos. 91, 1525, 3096, Wilmanns, Nos. 139, 1401.

27 This is an inference from the fact that 7/ yepovaia and ot Trpeafivrepoi are evi-
dently used as interchangeable terms, and both distinguished from 17 [iovX-q, at
Philadelphia, Corpus Inscr. Graec. Nos. 3417, 3422, and at Ephesus, Wood, Dis-
coveries at Ephesus, Append, vi. pp. 10, 24, 66, Append, vii. p. 6. But ot vpeo-
[Svrepoi is sometimes used to designate the members of a yepovaia even when there
is no evidence of a distinction between it and the Pov\rj : e.g. of the members of
the senate at Rome, Sozomen, 27. E. 1. 3, and of the npeafivrticov at Chios,
C. I. G. Nos. 2220, 2221.



in.j Presbyters. 67

«

prevail. But when, in the course of the second cen-
tury, the distinction between the Christian communities
which had once been Jewish and those which were
originally Gentile tended to pass away, the Jewish
conception of the nature of the governing council un-
doubtedly became dominant.

It is clear from the exhortation of Polycarp to the
presbyters of Philippi that those presbyters had the
supreme oversight of all matters of administration 28 .
It was their duty to visit the sick, to provide for
the widows and orphans and poor, to turn back those
who had gone astray from the error of their ways,
to sit in merciful judgment upon those who had com-
mitted wrong. Nor does it appear that any of these
duties ever wholly ceased to be the duties of the
presbyterate. The presbyters were, in theory, the
council of the bishop, even after the bishop had as-
serted a virtual autocracy 29 .

But it is equally clear that out of these varied
duties those which came to be in practice the chief
or only duties of the Christian councils were those
which had been the chief duties of the Jewish synedria.
The building in which they assembled came to be
called a basilica or court-house : the part of it in which
they sat was a tribunal or judgment-seat 30 : they were
chiefly courts of discipline.

38 St. Polycarp. ad Plrilipp. 6, ical ol [email protected] 8e ivo-nhuyxvoi, eis navrts
iXeripoves, lm(TTpi([>ovTis to. (iTroiTeiTXavTjixtva, eniaiceirTufieuot iravras aoOtvus, pv^
apeXowrts X'// 505 V optynvov i) ntvrjTos .... direxopevot irafftjs upyrjs, it poaomoXrppias,
Kpiaean aSitcov, pxncpav wm irdarjs <pi\apyvpias, pf/ raxiai's irtrrrevovrfs Kara Ttvos. pi)
a-noTopoi kv Kpiati, dSuTes on -navris u<pti\irai iap.lv apaprias.

29 See below, Lecture IV, p. 107.

30 For the use of basilica in relation to the early Christian churches Bee De Rossi,

F 2



68 Presbyters. [lect.

Now there were two ways in which the Jewish
synedria exercised authority. They had jurisdiction,
on the one hand, in breaches of the ecclesiastical law,
and on the other hand between man and man in cases
of wrong. They had in their several localities the
same powers which for graver cases and for national
rather than local questions were possessed by the
central court — the great Sanhedrin — at Jerusalem 31 .
They could enforce their decisions by the moral
punishment of excommunication, and by the physical
coercion of scourging and imprisonment. Outside
Palestine the same kinds of authority remained 32 : al-
though as their jurisdiction was consensual and not
of legal force the ultima ratio was exclusion from the
community or excommunication. But it is remarkable
as a proof not only of the existence of these Jewish
courts, but of their permanence, that at the end of the
fourth century the Christian emperors Arcadius and
Honorius, following the general tradition of imperial
policy, gave to them the protection of the state, and



Roma Solteranea, Tom. iii. p. 461 : for the use of Prjua, or 'tribunal,' in the same
relation see De Rossi, ibid. iii. 486. But the important and exhaustive review,
both of the facts of the case and of previous theories of the origin of the name,
which has been given since these Lectures were written by F. X. Kraus in his
Real-Encyclopadie der christlichen Alterthumer, s. v., compels me to modify the
view which is implied in the text, that ' court-house ' was the only meaning of
basilica when the name was applied to the Christian churches.

31 The respective jurisdictions of the local councils and of the central council
at Jerusalem are defined in Miachna Sanhedrin 1, 2 (translated into Latin in
Ugolini, Thesaurus, vol. xxv).

32 The existence of Jewish courts in the midst of Gentile communities is shown,
e.g. at Sardis, Jos. Ant. 14. 10. 17, at Alexandria, Strab. ap. Jos. Ant. 14.7- 2 » and
is probably implied at Corinth in the expression oiptoOe avroi, Acts 18. 15: that
they had a certain power of coercion is implied in Acts 9. 22 : 22. 19 : a6. II. Cf.
Origen, ad African. 14. vol. i. p. 28. ed. De la Rue.



in.] Presbyters. 69

required provincial judges to carry out their de-
cisions 33 .

The main functions of the Christian council of pres-
byters were closely analogous.

1. They exercised discipline. There was indeed this
difference between Christian and Jewish discipline that
it was of a severer kind. It is difficult for us in
modern times, with the widely different views which we
have come to hold as to the relation of Church govern-
ment to social life, to understand how large a part
discipline filled in the communities of primitive times.
Those communities were what they were mainly by
the strictness of their discipline. The tie of a common
belief was looser than the tie of a common ideal and
a common practice. The creed was as yet vague :
the moral code was clear. For the kingdom of God
was come which was a kingdom of righteousness.
Each organized gathering of believers seemed to itself
to be the visible realization of that Holy City of
which the greatest of Hebrew poets had sung and which
the divinest of Christian seers had seen. Between
that City of God, and the diseased and decaying
society which surrounded it, there was a perpetual
and sharp antithesis 34 . And that antithesis was the

38 Cod. Theodos. 2. I. 10, which however shows not only that the jurisdiction
was consensual, but also that it had come to be confined, if not originally confined,
to civil matters, 'si qui per compromissum ad similitudinem arbitrorum apud
Judaeos vel patriarchas ex consensu partium in civili duntaxat negotio putaverint
litigandum, sortiri eorum judicium judicio publico non vetentur : eorum etiam
sententias provinciarum judices exsequantur tanquam ex sententia cognitoris arbi-
tri fuerint attributi.' See also Lbning, Gesch. d. deutscken Kirchcnrechts, Bd. i. 296.

34 Cf. e.g. 2 Clem. Rom. 6. 3 iariv Z\ ovtos alwv nal 6 piWuv Svo ex"/""'' °vtos
\(fti noixfiav Kai <p&opcLv nai cptXap'/vpiav nai dtiaTrjv, l/ceiVos Si tovtois diroTaaaerut.



70 Presbyters. [lect.

sharper because the one and the other were in close
and daily contact. The profound moral reaction which
had set in was in itself not confined to Christianity.
The spirit of asceticism was, so to speak, in the air,
and other ascetic communities had been formed 35 . But
those ascetic communities had solved the difficulties
of the world by withdrawing from it. They would
not face ordinary society. They lived as the Christian
ascetics lived in aftertime, when the level of Christian
life was lower, apart from ordinary men in the solitude
of the wilderness. The Christian communities on the
other hand were in the world. Their members were
brought face to face day by day with the seething
mass of corruption from which divine grace had
rescued them 36 . The very fact that they could not
share the common sins of their neighbours exposed
them to the ready taunt that their garb of superior
sanctity was but a cloke for still darker forms of
wickedness. In the midst of 'a crooked and perverse
nation ' they could only hold their own by the
extreme of circumspection. £ Moral purity was not so
much a virtue at which they were bound to aim as
the very condition of their existence. If the salt, of
the earth should lose its savour, wherewith should it
be salted 1 If the lights of the world were dimmed,
who should rekindle their flame 1 And of this moral
purity the officers of each community were the
custodians. They * watched for souls as those that

35 See below, Lecture VI.

36 The point of view of the early Christians is here assumed : but it is probable
that their opinion of the vices of contemporary society, as represented by the
Apologists, was exaggerated.



in.] Presbyters. 7 1

must give account.' Week after week, and in some
cases, as the Jewish synagogues had done, on two days
in a week, the assembly met not only for prayer but
for discipline 37 . ' We come together,' says Tertullian,
'to call the sacred writings to remembrance, if so
be that the character of the present times compel us
either to use admonition or recollection in anything.
In any case, by these holy words we feed our faith,
raise our hopes, establish our confidence ; nor do we
the less strengthen our discipline by inculcating pre-
cepts. For our judgment also cometh with great
weight, as of men well assured that they are under
the eye of God : and it is a very grave forestalling
of the judgment to come if any shall have so offended
as to be put out of the communion of prayer, of the
solemn assembly, and of all holy fellowship. The most
approved elders preside 38 . And about the same time
Origen, refuting a calumnious statement of Celsus in
reference to the indiscriminate character of the Chris-
tian congregations, says, ' There are men appointed
among us to examine closely into the lives and cha-
racters of those who come to us, that they may prevent
those who do what is forbidden from entering our
common assembly, and that by receiving those who
do otherwise they may make them better day by day 3 V
And in similar way the Clementines put these words
into the mouth of St. Peter : ■ Do ye as elders of the
Church adorn with discipline the bride of Christ — and
by the bride of Christ I mean the whole assembly of
the Church — in moral purity: for if she be found pure

37 See above, note 18. M Tertull. Apol. 39. 39 Origen, c. Cels. 3 51.



72 Presbyters. [lect.

by the bridegroom King, she herself will attain the
height of honour, and ye, as guests at the marriage-
feast, will gain great delights : but if she be found to
have sinned, she herself will be cast out, and ye will
suffer punishment because, it may be, the sin has
happened through your neglect 40 /

2. The Christian like the Jewish presbyters exer-
cised a consensual jurisdiction in matters of dispute
between Christian and Christian. It was only when
a severer punishment was necessary than such a con-
sensual jurisdiction admitted that any Gentile court
had been allowed to interfere between Jew and Jew 41 .
And the recognition of such a jurisdiction became for
the Christian an obligation, because it seemed to rest
on a divine command. In one of the only two passages
in which our Lord uses the word Church, He uses it in
this relation : ' If thy brother shall trespass against
thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him
alone : if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy
brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with
thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or
three witnesses every word may be established. And
if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the Church :
but if he neglect to hear the Church, let him be unto
thee as an heathen man and a publican 42 .' And hardly
had the organization of the Christian communities
begun before St. Paul looked upon it as an intolerable

40 Clemeritin. Epist. Clem, ad Jacob, c. 7.

41 Mekhiltha and Midrash Thanhurna ad Exod. si. I : Mischna Gittin 9. 10.

42 St. Matth. 18. 15-17 (but it is an open question whether our Lord refers to
the contemporary Jewish, or to the future Christian, tcclesia) : the other passage
in which our Lord uses the word church is ib. 16. 19.



in.] Presbyters. 73

scandal that ' brother goeth to law with brother, and
that before the unbelievers.' He deprecates litigation
of any kind : the Christian rule was a rule not of liti-
gation but of forgiveness : but if litigation became
inevitable he asks indignantly, 'Dare any of you,
having a matter against another, go to law before the
unjust and not before the saints 43 ? ' In those early
days it may have been the case that the assembly
itself, or persons chosen by the assembly, acted as
arbitrators : and to this St. Paul's words point : ' If
then ye have judgments of things pertaining to this
life, set them to judge who are least esteemed in the
Church 44 .' But when the organization of the churches
was more complete it is clear that the jurisdiction
belonged to the council of presbyters. ' Let not those
who have disputes/ say the Clementines, ' go to law
before the civil powers, but let them by all means be
reconciled by the elders of the Church, and let them
readily yield to their decision 45 .'

These two great functions of the early council of
presbyters have been modified in many important par-
ticulars as the circumstances under which the Church
itself has existed have themselves undergone material
change.

1. In the first place, the relations of the Church to
discipline were of necessity altered when the Church
began to fill a larger place in history. That which
had been possible in a small community became im-

48 I Cor. 6. 1. Cf. 5. 12. " 1 Cor. 6. 4.

45 Clement. Epist. Clem, ad Jacob. 10.



74 Presbyters. [lect.

possible in a larger. The stern self-restraint which
had linked men arm to arm in the grim struggle for
existence relaxed its tension. The close supervision
with which the officers of the Church had watched the
failings and backslidings of their small communities
could exist no longer in a vast and complex society.
And again : the transition of any community from
a state of repression to a state of supremacy tends
to change the character of the offences of which it
takes cognizance. It accentuates the organization. It
elevates the by-laws to a new prominence. It makes
offence against those by-laws important. And we have
but to compare the early monument which is known
as the Constitutions of Clement 46 with the post-Con-
stantinian code which is known as the Apostolical
Canons 47 , to see how wide was the chasm which in the
Christian Church severed the ethics of the age of
struggle from the ethics of the age of supremacy.
And again : Christianity had no sooner become the
religion of the Koman world, than it found itself
swung round and round in a vast eddying swirl
of intellectual currents — doubts and half-beliefs and
rationalizings of divine truths — through which it was
almost impossible to steer. Those times of intense

*" This work is printed under the title Ai dia.Ta.yal al 5ta K\rjfj.cvTos ital icavoves
eKK\r]ffia<TTiKol twv dyicuy dnoaroXoov printed by Biekell, Gcschichte des Kirchenrechts,
Bd. i. Theil. i: Lagarde, Juris Ecdcsiastiei reliquiae, pp. 74 sqq. : Pitra, Juris
Ecclcsiaxtici Graccorum hist, et mow. vol. i. pp. 77 sqq. : and under the title 'Ju-
dicium Petri ' by Hilgenfeld, Novum Tesfamcntum extra eanonem receptum, Fasc.
iv. to which reference may be made for a clear, though not conclusive, discussion
of its origin.

47 The date of the Apostolical Canons, at least in their present form, is very
uncertain : but since they embody decrees of councils of the fourth century, espe-
cially those of the Council of Antioch, they must at least be post-Constantinian.



in.] Presbyters. 75

crisis were no times for scanning too narrowly the
characters of those who manned the ship. There was
no condonation of flagrant and open sin : but at the
same time soundness in the faith may have covered
many a minor fault, and unsoundness in the faith was
not atoned for by the highest Christian virtue. In
the meanwhile a new code of Christian morality
was being formed. The ascetic communities laid an
abnormal stress upon certain special forms of virtue
and the corresponding special forms of vice. They
dreamed in their seclusion of all imaginable sins : and
the coup de grace to the earlier Christian morality was
given when the ghastly catalogues of those imagined
possibilities of sin, each with its specific penalty, came
to be looked upon as the code of Christian morals and
the rule of Christian life 48 .

2. In the second place, the recognition of Chris-
tianity by the State tended to narrow the broad
border-line between the Church and the world. The
fact that the Christians were no longer a -wapoiKla, a
colony of strangers in a strange land, that the local
judges were Christian, and that the emperors who
were the ultimate court of appeal were also Christian,
diminished the force of the reason for submitting dis-
putes 'in things pertaining to this life' to the Church
officers. The consensual jurisdiction of the Church
courts came to be limited to disputes in which Church

48 The reference is to the books known as ■ Penitentials,' the most important of
which will be found in Wasserschleben, Die Bussordnunycn dcr abendlandische
Kirche, Halle, 1851 ; Kunstmann, Die lateinische Ponitentinlhucher dcr Anych
sachsen, Mainz, 1^44 ; Iladdan and Stubbs, Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents,
vol. iii.



76 Presbyters. [lect.

officers were themselves concerned. That jurisdiction
was recognized by the State, but it was viewed with
a jealous eye. Out of it grew that long line of contests
between State and Church with which many of us are
familiar, but which passes far beyond the limits of the
present subject — the Church constantly claiming and
the State constantly endeavouring to limit this ec-
clesiastical and consensual jurisdiction 49 . Inside these
contests was another struggle — the struggle on the
part of the bishops to act as sole judges, without the
aweSpiov or * consilium ' of presbyters, of which in early
times they had been merely the presidents. But there
are at least two significant indications that the original
conception of the presbyterate never wholly passed
away: the one is the fact that in all the Ordinals of
the Latin Church, in both the prayers and the addresses
to the people at the ordination of presbyters, Church
government is a leading element in the conception
of the presbyter's office 50 ; the other is the fact that,
after the parochial system had come to prevail, the

49 See below, Lecture VI.

50 The chief petition of the prayer entitled ' consecratio,' the importance of which
may be inferred not only from its place in the service, but also from the fact of its
having lasted, with only slight verbal changes, from the time of the earliest sur-
viving Sacramentaries until now, is as follows : ' Da, quaesumus, omnipotens Pater,
in hos famulos tuos presbyterii dignitatem : innova in visceribus eorum spiritum
sanctitatis ; ut acceptum a te, Deus, secundi meriti munus obtineant, censuramque
morum exemplo suae conversationis insinuent. Sint providi cooperatores ordinis
nostri ; eluceat in eis totius forma justitiae ut bonam rationem dispensationis sibi
creditae reddituri aeternae beatitudinis praemia consequantur.' (The text here
given is that of the modern Roman Pontifical : the text of the Leonine and Gelasian
Sacramentaries will be found in Muratori, Lilurgia Romano, Vetus, vol. i. pp. 425,
513.) The form of the address to the people, or to the ordinands, has passed
through several changes : but even the latest form, that of the modern Pontifical,
preserves the early statement that the presbyters are appointed to help the bishop
as the seventy elders were appointed to help Moses.



III.] Presbyters. jj

presbyter who was put in charge of a parish was said
to be sent not to teach but to rule (' ad regendum ') ;
the conception of his office which underlies this ex-
pression is preserved to us even in modern times in
the familiar title of ' Rector 51 .'

In the meantime, other functions which in early times
were in the background came to the front. It will no
doubt have been observed that the functions which
have been described are all such as could be exercised
by and were appropriate to a college or council of
officers 52 . What powers, if any, were possessed by a
single presbyter acting alone there is no evidence to
show. But by one of those slow and silent revolutions
which the lapse of many centuries brings about in
political as well as in religious communities, the ancient
conception of the office, as essentially disciplinary and
collegiate, has been superseded by a conception of it in
which not only is a single presbyter competent to dis-
charge all a presbyter's functions, but in which also
those functions are primarily not those of discipline, but
f the ministration of the Word and Sacraments 53 .'

i . In regard to the first of these functions it is clear

a E.g. Cone. Cabill. a.d. 649, c. 5, Statt. Ecclcs. Antiq. ( = 4 Cone. Carth.) c.
36 : so also when a parish priest resigns his office he is said ' ab ordine et titulo et
regimine plebis se exuere,' Cone. Remens. A.D. 874, c. 1. The title ' Ecclesiae rector'
seems first to occur in the ninth Council of Toledo, A.D. 655, c. 2.

52 The minimum number of presbyters appears to have been two, forming with
the bishop a court of three, which was the minimum number of a Jewish avvidpiov
(Talmud Bab. Sanhedrin 2). See above, note 18.

53 It is probable that even in the Jewish communities the distinction between
the presbyters and the apxiavvafco-yoi, i. e. between the ovvtSptov and the avvaywyri,
became gradually obliterated : since in Justinian. Novell. 146. 1, the names appear
to be identified, nap' avrois apxuptptKirai rj npeafivTepoi tvxuv iy diSaaitakoi irpoaayo-
p(v6ntvoi.



78 Presbyters. [lect.

that the presbyters of the primitive Churches did
not necessarily teach. They were not debarred from
teaching, but if they taught as well as ruled they
combined two offices 54 . In the numerous references to
presbyters in sub-apostolic literature there is not one
to their being teachers, even where such a reference
might have been expected, as for example in the
enumeration of the duties of presbyters which is given
by Polycarp in the form of an exhortation to fulfil
them 55 . But the Clementine literature of the beginning
of the third century makes the distinction, that whereas


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