« Prev Chapter VI. Progress of the Episcopate. Next »



The progress of the Church in discipline and in her hierarchy was in proportion to her progress in dogma. Like every living body she developed an astonishing instinctive cleverness in completing all that was still wanting for her solid foundation and her perfect 46equilibrium. As the hopes for the end of the world, and of the reappearance of Messiah become fainter, Christianity obeyed two natural tendencies; the one to reconcile itself with the empire as well as it could, and then to organise itself so that it might become lasting. The first church at Jerusalem, the first churches of St Paul, were not established with any view to their endurance, for they were only so many assemblies of the saints at the end of the world, who were preparing themselves by prayer and divine rapture for the coming of God. The Church felt that now the time had come for her to be an abiding city and a real society.

The strangest movement that ever took place in a democracy took place within the Church. The ecclesia, the voluntary reunion of persons meeting on a footing of equality amongst themselves, is the most democratic thing that can be imagined; but the ecclesia, the club has that fatal defect which causes every association of that kind to fall to pieces, and that defect is anarchy, the ease with which schisms arise. But more fatal still are the contentions for pre-eminence in the midst of small confraternities which have been founded on an altogether spontaneous vocation. That seeking after the highest place was the principal evil which affected the Christian churches, and which caused the greatest trouble to the simple and faithful members of the flock. It was thought that this danger might be prevented by supposing that Jesus, in a similar case, could have taken a child and said to the contending parties, “This is the greatest.” On different occasions the Master had, as was said, opposed the ecclesiastical primacy, brotherly as it was, to that of the depositories of worldly authority who were given to assume a masterful manner. But that was not enough, and the association of Christians would soon be menaced by a great danger, if some salutary institution 47did not rescue it from its own internal abuses.

Every ecclesia presupposes a small hierarchy of its own,—what we call in these days a committee, a president, assessors, and a small body of assistants. Democratic clubs take care that these functions shall be as limited as possible both as to time and privileges, but there is something precarious in that, and the result has been that no club has outlived the circumstances which called it into existence. The synagogues had a much longer continuance, although the personnel was never a clerical body. The reason for that is, the subordinate position which Judiasm held for centuries, so that the pressure from without counterbalanced the unwholesome effects of internal divisions. If the Christian Church had suffered from the same want of discretion, she would no doubt have missed her destinies; and if ecclesiastical powers had continued to be regarded as emanating from the Church itself, she would have lost all her hieretic and theocratic character; but, on the other hand, it was fated that the clergy should monpolise the Christian Church, and should substitute itself in her place. Speaking in her name, representing itself in everything as her sole authorised agents, that clergy would constitute her strength, but would at the same time be her canker-worm, and the chief cause of her future decline.

History has no example of a more wonderful transformation. What happened in the Christian Church is just what would happen in a club, if the members were to abdicate all their powers into the hands of the committee, and the committee to abdicate theirs into the hands of the president, so that neither those who were present, nor the seniors in office, would have any deliberative voice; no influence, no control over the management of the funds, so that the president might be able to say 48“I, alone, am the club.” The presbutoroi (the elders), the episcopi (the officers, overseers), very soon became the only representatives of the church, and very shortly after another and even more important revolution took place. Amongst the presbutoroi and the episcopi there was one, who, because he habitually took the principal seat, became presbuteros, or episcopos par excellence. The form of worship contributed very powerfully towards this. Only one priest could be celebrant of the eucharist at the same time, and he obtained an extreme importance; and that episcopos became, with surprising rapidity, the chief amongst the presbyterate and those of the whole church. His seat, placed apart from the others, assumed the shape of an arm-chair, and became the seat of honour—the sign of the Primacy, and from that time such church had only one chief presbyter, who called himself episcopos, to the exclusion of all the rest. By his side were to be seen a number of deacons, widows, a council of presbutoroi, but the great step had been taken; the bishop had become the sole successor of the apostles, the professor of the true religion was altogether thrust aside. The apostolic authority, which was supposed to be transmitted by the imposition of hands, had altogether destroyed the authority of the community, and then, the bishops of the different churches coming to an understanding amongst themselves, will, as we shall see, constitute the universal church into a sort of oligarchy, which will hold synods, censure its own members, decide questions of faith, and, in herself, constitute a real sovereign power.

Within a hundred years the change was almost accomplished. When Hegesippus, during the second half of the second century, travelled throughout the whole of Christendom, he remarked nothing but the bishops; everything for him resolves itself 49into a question of canonical succession, and the living sentiment of the churches exists no longer. We shall show that that revolution was not accomplished without protest, and that the author of the Pastor, for example, still tried, in opposition to the growing influence of the bishops to maintain the equal authority of the presbutoroi. But aristocratic tendency carried the day; on the one side were the shepherds, on the other, the flocks. The primitive equality existed no longer, and, henceforth the Church was to be nothing but an instrument in the hands of those who directed her; and they held their authority, not from the community in general, but from a spiritual heredity from a pretended transmission which went back in a continuous line to the apostles themselves. It will be seen at once that the representative system could not even in the slightest degree become the system of the Christian Church.

In one sense it may be said that this was a falling off, a diminution of that spontaneity which had hitherto been such a creative power. It was evident that ecclesiastical forms were about to absorb and to destroy the work of Jesus, and that all free manifestations of Christian life would soon be stopped. Under episcopal censorship, the glossolalia, prophecy, the creation of legends, and the production of new sacred books, would be withered-up faculties, and the Christian graces would be reduced to official sacraments. In another sense, however, such a transformation was an essential condition of the strength of Christianity. In the first place, the concentration of their forces became necessary, as soon as the churches became at all numerous, for relations between these small religious societies would have been quite impossible, unless they had an accredited representative who was entitled to act for them. It is, moreover, an incontestable 50fact that, without episcopacy, the churches which were momentarily drawn together by the recollections of Jesus would have been dispersed again. The divergencies of doctrine, the different turns of thought, and, above all, rivalries and unsatisfied self-love, would have had a vast influence on disunion and dismemberment, and, at the end of three or four centuries, Christianity would have come to an end like the worship of Nithras, or, like so many sects, have ended, being unable to withstand the force of time. Democracy is at times eminently creative, but only on the conditions that conservative and aristocratic institutions spring from it, which prevent the revolutionary fever to be prolonged indefinitely.

That is the real miracle of infant Christianity. It produced order, a hierarchy, authority, obedience from the ready subjection of men’s wits; it organised the crowd and disciplined anarchy, and it was the spirit of Jesus with which his disciples were so deeply imbued, that spirit of meekness, of self-denial, of forgetfulness of the present, the pursuit of spiritual joys which destroys ambition, that preference for a childlike mind, these words of Jesus, “Let him who would be first among you become as he that serveth,” that worked this miracle. The impression which the apostles left behind them also did its share. They and their immediate vicars had an uncontested power over all the churches, and as episcopacy was supposed to have inherited apostolic powers, the apostles governed even after their death. The idea that the chief officer of the Church holds his mandate from the members of that Church who have appointed does not appear once in the literature of that time, and thus the Church escaped, by the supernatural origin of her power, from anything that is defective in delegated authority. Legislative and executive authority can come from the majority, but the sacraments and the 51dispensations of divine grace have nothing to do with universal suffrage, for such privileges come only from heaven, or, according to the Christian formularies, from Jesus Christ, who is himself the source of all grace and of all good.

Properly speaking, the bishops had never been nominated by the whole community. It was quite sufficient for the spontaneous enthusiasm of the first churches that he should be designated by the Holy Ghost, that is to say, that electoral means should be employed which extreme simplicity alone could excuse. After the apostolic age, and when it became necessary that that sort of divine right with which the apostles and their immediate disciples were supposed to be invested, should be supplemented by some ecclesiastical decision, the elders chose their president from among themselves, and submitted his name to popular approval. As this choice was never made without the people’s opinion having been consulted in the first instance, this approval, or rather the vote by raising the hand, was nothing more than a mere formality, but it was enough to preserve the recollection of the gospel ideal, according to which the spirit of Jesus essentially dwelt in the community, The election of deacons was also of a double nature, for they were nominated by the bishop, but they had to be approved by the community before the choice could be valid. It is a general law of the Church that the inferior never nominates his superior, and this is one of the reasons which still gives to the Church, in spite of the totally different tendency of modern democracy, such a great power of reaction.

In the churches of St Paul this movement towards a hierarchy and an episcopate was particularly felt. The Jewish Christian churches, which had less life in them, remained synagogues, and did not land so immediately in clericalism, and thus, by writings attributed to St Paul, arguments for the doctrine which 52it was sought to inculcate were created. There was no controverting an epistle of St Paul, and several passages of the authentic epistles of that apostle already taught the doctrine of a hierarchy and of the authority of the elders. For the sake of even more decisive arguments, three short epistles were forged, which were supposed to have been written by Paul to his disciples Timothy and Titus. The author of these apocryphal epistles had not got the Acts of the Apostles, and he only knew the apostolical journeys of St Paul vaguely and not in detail. As very few people had any more precise notions about them, he was not gravely compromised, and, besides, at that period, there was such a lack of critical feeling, that it did not strike any one that texts must necessarily agree. Some passages in those three epistles are also so beautiful, that the question might be asked, whether the forger had not some authentic letters of St Paul in his possession which he embodied in his apocryphal compositions?

These three short works, evidently the production of the same pen, and written most likely at Rome, are a sort of treatise on ecclesiastical duties, a first attempt at false decretals, a code for the use of churchmen. Episcopacy is a grand thing, and the bishop is a sort of model of perfection, set up before his subordinates. He must, therefore, be irreprehensible in the eyes of the faithful and of others; he must be sober, chaste, amiable, kind, just, not proud, given to hospitality, moderate, inoffensive, free from avarice, and earning his livelihood honestly. He may drink a little wine for his health’s sake, but he must not marry more than once. His family must be grave like himself, and his sons submissive, respectful and free from any suspicion of dissolute morals. If anyone cannot rule his own house, how can he take care of the Church of God? Orthodox above everything; attached to the true faith, the sworn enemy of error, 53and he is to preach and to teach. For such functions neither a novice must be taken, lest such a rapid elevation should make him be lifted up with pride, nor a man capable of a sudden attack of rage, nor anyone exercising a calling that is looked down upon, for even unbelievers ought to respect a bishop, and not have anything to say against him.

The deacons must be as perfect as the bishops; serious, not double-tongued, drinking little wine, not given to filthy lucre, holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience. So must their wives be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things. They must be husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well, and as a trial is necessary for such difficult functions, no one is to be raised to them till after a kind of noviciate.

Widows were an order in the Church, and their first duty was to perform their household duties, if they had any to fulfil. They who were widows indeed, and desolate, ought to trust in God, and continue in supplications and prayers night and day, but such as live in pleasure are dead whilst they live. These interesting but feeble persons were subject to a certain rule; they had a female superior, and every Church had side by side with its deacon also its widow, whose duty it was to watch over the younger widows, and to exercise a sort of female diaconate. The author of the false epistles to Timothy and Titus wishes that the widow thus chosen should not be less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one man, well reported of for good works, if she have brought up children, if she have lodged strangers, if she have washed the saints' feet. But he instructs Timothy to refuse the younger widows, for they will wax wanton against Christ and marry, and withal they learn to be idle, wandering about front house to house, and not only idle, but tattlers also, and busybodies, speaking things that they ought not. “I will therefore that the 54younger widows marry, bear children, guide the house, give none occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully. For some are already turned aside from Satan.” (1 Tim. v. passim.) Widows who are without means are to be relieved by the Church, whereas those who have relations are to be kept at their expense.

From all this may be seen what a complete society the church already was. Every class had its own particular functions in it, and represented a member of the social body; all had their duties, were it only slaves, the power of the precepts of Jesus was to be admired by their virtuous life. As examples of this, slaves were particularly relied upon, and they are reminded that none can honour the new doctrine mere than they. If their master were a heathen, they were to be counted worthy of all honour, that the name of God and His doctrine might not be blasphemed; and if they had believing masters, they were not to be despised because they were brethren, but they were to be served because they were faithful and beloved, partakers of the benefit. Of course there was no word of emancipation. The aged men were to be sober, grave, temperate, sound in faith; the aged women, in behaviour such as becometh holiness, not false accusers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things, for they should be like catechists and teach the young women to be sober and love their husbands and their children; to be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God might not be blasphemed. The young men were to he exhorted to be sober minded.

The married women’s part is humble indeed, but still a beautiful one.

In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shame-facedness and sobriety, not with plaited hair, or gold or pearls or costly array; but (which becometh women 55professing godliness) with good works. Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve, and Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression. Nevertheless she shall be saved in childbearing, if she continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.” (1 Tim. ii. 9-15.)

All should be submissive, as subjects, obedient, gentle, inoffensive, enemies to revolution, interested in the preservation of public peace, which alone would allow them to lead their usual holy life. They need not be surprised if they were persecuted, that was the natural lot of Christians. They ought to be the very opposite to the heathen. A man who only follows the dictates of nature is the slave of his desires, carried away by sensuality, wicked, envious, hating and hateful. The transformation which makes the natural man one of the elect is not the fruit of his own merits, but of the compassion of Jesus Christ, and of the efficacy of his sacraments.

This short Epistle, which is already quite Catholic, is a true type of the ecclesiastical spirit, and for seventeen centuries has been the manual of the clergy, the gospel of seminaries, the rule of that spiritual policy as it is carried out by the Church. Piety, which is the soul of the priest, the secret of his resignation and of his authority, is the foundation of this spirit. But the pious priest has his rights; those of reprimanding and correcting—respectfully, indeed, in the case of old people, but always with firmness. “Preach the word, be instant in season and out of season, reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long-suffering and doctrine” (2 Tim. iv. 2). Simple in his life, asking only for food and raiment, the “Man of God,” as our author calls him, was sure to be an austere man, often an imperious ruler. “Rebuke not an elder, but intreat him as a father, and the younger men as brethren; the elder women as mothers, the younger as sisters, in all purity.” 56After that one feels that the Christian society cannot be a free one, for every individual member of it will be watched and censured, and will not have the right to say to his fellow citizen, “What business is my belief or my conduct to you? I am doing you no wrong.” The believer will say that in believing differently to what he does, he is being wronged, and that he has the right of protesting. Against such an idea, so totally opposed to liberty, princes and laymen must rightly soon revolt. “A man that is an heretic after a first and second admonition reject.” (Titus iii. 10.) Nothing could be less in keeping with the maxims of a man of liberal education. The heretic has his opinions as well as you, and he may be right, and politeness certainly requires you to pretend to believe so in his presence. The world is no monastery, and the advantages, which, as is alleged, are obtained by censure and accusation, bring more evils in their train than they hoped to avoid.

In the Epistles to Timothy and Titus orthodoxy has made as much progress as episcopacy. Already there is a rule of faith, a Catholic centre in existence, which excludes everything that does not receive its life from the parent stem as dead branches. The heretic is a guilty man, a dangerous being, who must be avoided. He has every vice, is capable of every crime, and acts which are even laudable in the Christian priest, such as a wish to direct women on certain matters of internal government, are acts of usurpation on his part. The heretics of whom the author is thinking seem to be the Essenes, the Elkasaites, Jewish Christian sectaries, who occupied their minds with genealogies of æons, who insisted on certain acts of abstinence and on a rigorous distinction between things pure and impure, who condemned marriage, and who yet were great seducers of women, whom they overcame by holding 57out to them the bait of an easy way of expiating their sins, whilst at the same time they might procure sensual pleasure for themselves. One feels that this is approaching very near to Gnosticism and Montanism, and the proposition, that the resurrection was already an accomplished fact reminds us of Marcion. The expressions concerning Christ’s Divinity gain in vigour, though still surrounded by some difficulties. A wonderful amount of good practical sense rules everything, however. The ardent pietist who composed these Epistles, does not for a moment lose himself in the dangerous paths of quietism. He repeats almost ad nauseam that the woman has no right to devote herself to the spiritual life, except when she has no family duties to fulfil; that her principal duty is to bear and bring up children, and that it is a mistake to pretend to serve the Church if everything is not well ordered at home. Besides that, the piety which our author preaches is one of an altogether spiritual kind, and is one of feeling in which bodily exercise (1 Tim. iv. 8) and abstinence profit little. St Paul’s influence is felt, a sort of mystic sobriety, and, amidst the strangest aberrations of faith in a supernatural direction, these writings contain a large amount of what is upright and sincere.

The composition of the Epistles to Timothy and Titus most likely coincided with what may be called the publication of St Paul’s Epistles. Up till that time those letters had been scattered, and each church had kept those which had been addressed to them, whilst several had been lost. At about the period of which we are now speaking they were collected, and the three short epistles, which were looked upon as a necessary complement of St Paul’s writings, were embodied with them. They were most likely published at Rome, and the order which the first editor adopted has always been preserved. They were divided into two categories, Epistles to 58churches and to individuals, and in each of these categories the epistles were arranged according to stichometry, that is, according to the number of lines in the manuscript. Certain copies soon contained the Epistle to the Hebrews, and its very place at the end of the volume, out of all order as regards its length, ought to suffice to prove that it was incorporated into St Paul’s Epistles at some later period.

« Prev Chapter VI. Progress of the Episcopate. Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection