Page images
PDF
EPUB

pastor. In short, the rest of the teaching presbyters in this case, bore precisely the same relation to the bishop, on the score of rank, as curates bear to the rector in a large episcopal congregation. They were clothed with the same official power of preaching and administering ordinances with the pastor, and were capable, without any further ordination, of becoming pastors in their turn; but while they remained in this situation, their labours were directed by him. As a congregation under these circumstances, increased still more, and included a number of members from the neighbouring villages, some of these members, finding it inconvenient to attend the church in which the bishop officiated every Lord's day, began to lay plans for forming separate congregations nearer home. To this the bishop consented, on condition that the little worshipping societies thus formed, should consider themselves as still under his pastoral care, as amenable to the parent church, and as bound to obey him as their spiritual guide. When the pastor agreed to this arrangement, it was generally understood, that there should be but one communion table, and one baptistery in the parish; and, of course, that when the members of these neighbouring societies wished to enjoy either of the sealing ordinances, they were to attend at the parent church, and receive them from the hands of the pastor or bishop himself. At ordinary seasons they were supplied by his curates or assistants, who, in labouring in these little oratories or chapels of ease, were subject to his control. This was laying a foundation for the authority of one bishop or pastor over several congregations, which was not long afterwards claimed and generally yielded. This proved a THIRD STEP in the rise of prelacy.

The progress of the church towards prelacy was further aided by the practice of convening synods and councils. This practice began at an early period, and soon became general. The Latins styled these larger meetings of the clergy, councils, the Greeks, synods; and the laws which were enacted by these bodies, were denominated canons, i. e. rules. “"These councils," says Dr. Mosheim, "changed the whole face of the church, and gave it a "new form." The order and decorum of their business required that a president should be appointed. The power lodged in this officer scarcely ever failed to be extended and abused. These synods were accustomed to meet in the capital cities of the district

or province to which the members belonged, and to confer the presidency upon the most conspicuous pastor, for the time being, of the city in which they met. And thus, by the gradual operation of habit, it came to be considered as the right of those persons, and of their successors in office." Hence," says the learned historian just quoted," the rights of metropolitans derive their origin." The order of the church required, at first, the presence of the presiding bishops, to give regularity to the acts of synods and councils. In a little while their presence was deemed necessary to the validity of these acts; and, in the third century, it began to be believed that without them nothing could be done. Such is the ordinary progress of human affairs. The increase of wealth, the decay of piety, the corruption of morals, and the prevalence of heresy and contention, were all circumstances highly favourable to the progress of this change, and concurring, with Jewish prejudices, pagan habits, and clerical ambition, hurried on the growing usurpation.

That the synods and councils which early began to be convened, were, in fact, thus employed by the ambitious clergy, to extend and confirm their power, might be proved by witnesses almost numberless. The testimony of one shall suffice. It is that of the great and good bishop, Gregory Nazianzen, who lived in the fourth century, and who, on being summoned by the emperor to the general council of Constantinople, which met in 381, addressed a letter to Procopius, to excuse himself from attending. In this letter he declares," that he was desirous of avoiding all synods, "because he had never seen a good effect, or happy conclusion of any "one of them; that they rather increased than lessened the evils "they were designed to prevent; and that the love of contention, " and the lust of power, were there manifested in instances innu"merable." Greg. Naz. Oper. tom. I. p. 814. Epist. 55. And, afterwards, speaking of that very council, this pious father remarks: "These conveyers of the Holy Ghost, these preachers of peace to "all men, grew bitterly outrageous and clamorous against one "another, in the midst of the church, mutually accusing each other, "leaping about as if they had been mad, under the furious impulse "of a lust of power and dominion, as if they would have rent the "whole world in pieces." He afterwards adds, " this was not the "effect of piety, but of a contention for thrones." Tom. II. 25, 27. In short, so great was the disgust of Gregory at the ambitious and

grasping spirit manifested by the clergy of his day, that we find him speaking on the subject in the following warm language. “Would "to God there were no prelacy, no pre-eminence of place, no ty"rannical privileges ; and that we might be distinguished by virtue "alone. This right and left hand, and this middle place, these "higher and lower dignities, and this state-like precedency, have "caused many fruitless contests and bruises, have cast many into "the pit, and carried away multitudes to the place of the goats." Oper. tom. I. Orat. 28. Would an eminently learned and pious bishop have spoken thus, if he had considered prelacy as of divine appointment? Or would he have suffered himself to use this language concerning the prelates of his day, and also concerning their predecessors, if their ambition and usurpations had not been altogether intolerable.

In the third century, the title of bishop was seldom applied to any other of the presbyters, than the different classes of presidents before mentioned. The only shadow which now remained of its former use was in the case of the pastors of country parishes, who still maintained the parochial episcopacy, under the name of Chorepiscopi. The ordaining power, originally vested in all presbyters alike, was in the third century seldom exercised by presbyters, unless the presiding presbyter, or bishop, was present. About this time, the name of presbyter was changed into that of priest, in consequence of the unscriptural and irrational doctrine coming into vogue, that the christian ministry was modelled after the Jewish priesthood. About this time also the office of ruling elder appears to have been laid aside; and a part of the ministry of the word bestowed upon deacons, contrary to the original design of their office, which was to superintend the maintenance of the poor. The presbytery sunk into the bishops' council. The Synod subserved the pretensions of the metropolitan, and there was only wanting a general council, and a chief bishop, to complete the hierarchy. Both of these the next age compliantly furnished. In the mean time, the few humble admirers of primitive parity and simplicity, who dared to remonstrate against these usurpations, were reviled

* He speaks with nearly equal severity of the unprincipled ambition, and shameful conduct of the clergy at the council of Nice, which met in 325.

as promoters of faction and schism, and either thrust out of the church, or awed into silence.

When Constantine came to the imperial throne, in the fourth century, he confirmed the usurpation of the bishops by his authority, and bestowed upon them a degree of wealth and power to which they had before been strangers. He conferred new splendour on every part of the ecclesiastical system. He fostered every thing which had a tendency to convert religion from a spiritual service into a gaudy, ostentatious, dazzling ritual; and its ministers into lords over God's heritage, instead of examples to the flock. Old Testament rites, heathen ceremonies, and institutions of worldly policy, which had long before begun to enter the church, now rushed in like a flood. And what was worse, the great mass of the people, as well as of the clergy, were gratified, with the change. The Jewish proselyte was pleased to see the resemblance which the economy of the Christian church began to bear to the ancient temple service. The pagan convert was daily more reconciled to a system, which he saw approximating to that which he had been long accustomed to behold in the house of his idols. And the artful politician could not but admire a hierarchy, so far subservient to the interests, and conformed to the model of the Roman empire. Constantine assumed to himself the right of calling general councils, of presiding in them, of determining controversies, and of fixing the bounds of ecclesiastical provinces. He formed the prelatical government after the imperial model, into great prefectures; in which arrangement, a certain pre-eminence was conferred on the bishops of Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople; the first rank being always reserved for the bishop of Rome, who succeeded in gradually extending his usurpation, until he was finally confirmed in it by an imperial decree.

Though an attempt has been made to trace some of the gradations by which ministerial imparity arose from small beginnings to a settled diocesan episcopacy; yet, from the very nature of the case, the dates of the several steps cannot be precisely ascertained. To definite transactions which take place in a single day, or year, or which are accomplished in a few years, it is commonly an easy task to assign dates. But, in this gradual change, which was more than three centuries in accomplishing, no reasonable man could expect to find the limits of the several steps precisely

defined; because each step was slowly and almost insensibly taken; and more especially, because the practice of all the churches was not uniform. There was no particular time when the transition from a state of perfect parity, to a fixed and acknowledged superiority of order took place at once, and therefore no such time can be assigned. It is evident from the records of antiquity that the titles of bishop and presbyter were indiscri minately applied to the same order in some churches, long after a distinction had begun to arise in others. It is equally evident, that the ordaining power of presbyters was longer retained in the more pure and primitive districts of the church, than where wealth, ambition, and a worldly spirit, bore greater sway. In some churches there were several bishops at the same time; in others, but one. In some parts of the Christian world, it was the practice to consider and treat all the preaching presbyters in each church as colleagues and equals; in others, one of the presbyters was regarded as the pastor or bishop, and the rest his assistants. A few early writers mention ruling elders, but the greater part say nothing about them; simply because this class of officers was not found in every congregation, and was early discontinued. Further; when the practice of choosing one of the presbyters to be president or moderator, commenced, it appeared in different forms in different churches. In one church, at least, according to Jerome, the presiding presbyter was elected by his colleagues; in other churches, according to Hilary, the president came to the chair agreeably to a settled principle of rotation. In some cases, the presiding presbyter was vested with greater dignity and authority; in others with less. In short, it is evident, that, in some portions of the church, a difference of order between bishops and presbyters was recognized in the third century; in others, and perhaps generally, in the fourth, but in some others, not until the fifth century. No wonder, then, that we find a different language used by different fathers on this subject, for the practice was different; and this fact directs us to the only rational and adequate method of interpreting their different repre

sentations.

Such being the case, what reasonable man would expect to find in the records of antiquity, any definite or satisfactory account of the rise and progress of prelacy? If changes equally early and

« PreviousContinue »