(London, 1887, pp. 44-45, 72-77, 100-103, 105, 116-123, 125,127)
There Was No 'Clergy/Laity' Distinction in the Early Church
It will be convenient to take in detail the several functions which in later times were
regarded as the special and peculiar functions of Church officers, and to inquire how far
they were regarded as special and peculiar functions in the first two centuries.
In regard to the function of teaching or preaching, it is clear from both the Acts of
the Apostles and Paul's epistles that 'liberty of prophesying' prevailed in the Apostolic
age. It is equally clear that liberty of prophesying existed after the Apostolic age ...
In regard to baptism there is no positive evidence, but there is the argument a
fortiori which arises from the fact that even in later times, when the tendency had become
strong to restrict the performance of ecclesiastical functions to Church officers, baptism
by an ordinary member of the Church was held to be valid, although if an officer might
have been found it was held to be contrary to Church order ...
In regard to the [Lord's Supper], the only explicit evidence is that of the Ignatian
Epistles ...It is clear from them that the Christians of the cities to which they were
addressed had held other meetings beside those at which the officers were present. In
these meetings the bread had been broken and the Eucharist celebrated. The practice is
reproved, but the reproof is a gentle one. ...It appears from this that the celebration of
the Eucharist without the presence of a Church officer was not of itself invalid. It is
inconceivable that anyone who held that the presence and action of a Church officer are
essential to the valid celebration of the Eucharist, which has been ordinarily held in
later times, would have used the language of mild remonstrance....
In regard to the exercise of discipline, the earliest evidence is that of First
Corinthians. In it Paul addresses the whole community, and urges them to meet together and
exercise the power of expulsion in the case of one who was guilty of open sin....
Whether therefore we look at preaching, at baptism, at the Eucharist or at discipline,
it seems probable that the officers were not conceived as having, as such, exclusive
powers. In other words, the existing evidence in regard to the functions of Church
officers, so far from establishing, tends to disprove the existence of any conception of
the nature of their office, than that which is gathered from the terms which were in use
to designate such office....
Such a conclusion may appear strange when viewed by the light of later times, but it is
not strange if it is viewed in relation to the circumstances of the first two centuries.
In those early days the mere membership in a Christian Church was in itself a strong
presumption of the possession of high spiritual qualifications - before the doors of
admission were thrown wide open, before children were ordinarily baptized and men grew up
from their earliest years as members of a Christian society, before Christianity had
become a fashionable religion and gathered into its net 'of every kind' both good and bad.
Then the Christian was indeed a 'member of Christ', a 'king and priest unto God'. The
whole body of Christians was upon a level: 'you are all brethren'. The distinctions Paul
makes between Christians are based not upon office, but upon varieties of spiritual
power... There was a vivid sense, which in later times was necessarily weakened, that
every form of the manifestation of the religious life is a gift of God - a charisma, or
direct operation of the Divine Spirit upon the soul...
Now, while this sense of the diffusion of spiritual gifts was so vivid, it was
impossible that there should be the same sense of distinction between officers and
non-officers which afterwards came to exist. Organization was a less important fact than
it afterwards became... The officers who had the control of order and administration came
inevitably to have a higher relative status than they had before. There were not only
disputes, as we learn from Clement of Rome, about the appointment of officers, but also an
exaggeration of the place of order in the Christian economy. The gift of ruling, like
Aaron's rod, seemed to swallow up the other gifts.
Then came a profound reaction. Against the growing tendency towards that state of
things which afterwards firmly established itself, and which ever since has been the
normal state of almost all Christian Churches, some communities, first of Asia Minor, then
of Africa, then of Italy, raised a vigorous and, for a time, a successful protest. They
reasserted the place of spiritual gifts as contrasted with official rule. They maintained
that the revelation of Christ through the Spirit was not a temporary phenomenon of
Apostolic days, but a constant fact of Christian life. They combined with this the
preaching of a higher morality than that which was tending to become current. They were
supported in what they did by the greatest theologian of his time [Tertullian] ... In
theological as in other wars the tendency is to cry, 'Vae victis!', and to assume that the
defeated are always in the wrong. But a careful survey of the evidence leads to the
conclusion that, in its view of the relation of ecclesiastical office to the Christian
life, the Montanism, as it was called, which Tertullian defended, was theoretically in the
right, though its theory had become in practice impossible. ...It was a beating of the
wings of pietism against the iron bars of organization. It was the first, though not the
last, rebellion of the religious sentiment against official religion...
But although the original conception of ecclesiastical office ultimately passed away,
it passed away only by slow degrees. Little by little those members of the Christian
Churches who did not hold office were excluded from the performance of almost all
ecclesiastical functions. At first a layman might not preach if a bishop were present,
then not if any Church officer was present, and finally not at all...
Priesthood of Believers Replaced by Primacy of Bishop
[There}were the strangers who passed in constant stream through the cities of all the
great routes of commerce in both East and West. Everyone of those strangers who bore the
Christian name had therein a claim to hospitality. For Christianity was a great
fraternity, and grew because it was a loving brotherhood. The name 'brother', by which a
Jew addressed his fellow-Jew, came to be the ordinary designation by which a Christian
addressed his fellow-Christian. It vividly expressed a real fact. For driven from city to
city by persecution, or wandering from country to country an outcast or a refugee, a
Christian found wherever he went a welcome and hospitality in the community of his
fellow-Christians. The practice of hospitality was enjoined as the common virtue of all
Christians, and in the New Testament stress is laid upon it by Paul, Peter and John.
But it was a special virtue of the episcopos [bishop]. It was for him not so much a
merit as a duty. Traveling brethren, no less than the poor of his community, were entitled
to a share in the distribution of the Church funds. It is natural to find that such a
system was abused... Even in Apostolic days there were 'false brethren', and later on the
Apostolical Canons say in reference to the practice that 'many things are done in a spirit
of plunder'. But the abuses increased the responsibility and the importance of the
Hardly had the organization of the Christian communities begun before Paul looked upon
it as an intolerable scandal that 'brother goes to law with brother, and that before
unbelievers'. He depreciates litigation of any kind. The Christian rule was a rule not of
litigation, 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?' 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 Paul's words
point: 'If then you have judgments of things pertaining to this life, set them to judge
who are least esteemed in the Church'. 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
[The mutual care] which had been possible in a small community became impossible in the
larger situation... The transition of any community from a state of repression [under
cycles of persecution] to a state of supremacy [under Constantine] tends to change the
character of the offenses of which it takes cognizance. It accentuates the organization.
It elevates the by-laws to a new prominence. It makes offense against those by-laws
important. And we have but to compare the early monument which is known as the
Constitutions of Clement with the post-Constantinian code which is known as the
Apostolical Canons to see how wide was the chasm which in the Christian Church severed the
ethics of the age of struggle from the age of supremacy...
Protection of the Church by the State Caused Great Confusion
The recognition of Christianity by the State tended to narrow the broad borderline
between the Church and the world. The fact that the Christians were no longer a paroikia,
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 disputes '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 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 - the Church
constantly claiming and the State constantly endeavoring to limit this ecclesiastical and
Inside these contests was another struggle - the struggle on the part of the bishops to
act as sole judges, without the consilium of presbyter, of which in early times they had
been merely the presidents..... 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 discharge all a presbyter's functions, but in which also those
functions are primarily not those of discipline but 'the ministration of the Word and
The Supremacy of the Bishop
The supremacy of a single officer which was thus forced upon the Churches by the
necessity for unity of doctrine, was consolidated by the necessity for unity in
discipline... Early in the third century rose the question of readmission to membership of
those who had fallen into grievous sin, or who had shrunk from martyrdom. For many years
there had been comparative peace. In those years the gates of the Church had been opened
wider than before. The sterner discipline had been relaxed. Christianity was not illegal
and was tending to become fashionable. The fashionable church-goers accepted the easy
terms which the State offered to those who were willing to acknowledge the State religion.
Suddenly the flames of persecution shot fiercely forth again. The teachers of Christianity
defended those who 'lapsed' on the theological ground that Christ did not call on all men
to be partakers of His sufferings in the flesh. When the persecution was over many of the
'lapsed' wished to come back again...
In the earlier days each separate case came for judgment before the whole Church. The
certificate of a confessor was of the nature of an appeal which the Church might upon
occasion reject. But persecution sometimes rendered it impossible for the Church to be
gathered together. The Church officers took it upon themselves to act for the general
body. They readmitted the lapsed without consulting the assembly. That which had begun in
a time of emergency tended to become a rule in a time of peace... The pure spouse of
Christ was in peril of her virginity. The Churches for which some of them had sacrificed
all they had were beginning to be filled with weak brethren who had preferred dishonor to
death... There was a long and determined controversy... It was agreed on all sides that
readmissions just not be indiscriminate. If the earlier usage of submitting each case to
the tribunal of the whole assembly were impossible, at any rate individual presbyters and
deacons must not act without the knowledge and approval of the president. This rule was in
many cases resisted... but it ultimately became so general that the bishops came to claim
the right of readmitting penitents, not in their capacity as presidents of the community
but as an inherent function of the episcopate...
It was a natural effect of the same causes, and it forms an additional proof of their
existence, that a rule should grow up that there should be only one bishop in a community.
This rule was not firmly established until the third century. Its general recognition was
the outcome of the dispute between Cyprian and Novatian. That dispute was one of the
collateral results of the controversy... in reference to readmission of the lapsed...
The controversy was keen, but in the end the views of Cyprian prevailed. The necessity
for unity outweighed all other considerations. Henceforth, whoever in any city claimed to
be a member of the Christian Church must belong to the established organization of that
city. The seamless coat of Christ must not be rent. As there was one God, and on Christ,
and on Holy Spirit, so there could be but one bishop. *
* Editor's note - Cf. Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels
(Vintage Books, 1981), 'One God, One Bishop': The Politics of Monotheism,' pp. 33-56.
'When the orthodox insisted upon 'one God', they simultaneously validated the system of
governance in which the church is ruled by 'one bishop''.. [Clement's] letter marks a
dramatic moment in the history of Christianity. For the first time, we find here an
argument for dividing the Christian community between 'the clergy' and 'the laity'. The
church is to be organized in terms of a strict order of superiors and subordinates... But
Ignatius went further than Clement... [He] warns 'the laity' to revere, honor, and obey
the bishop 'as if he were God'