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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
From The Church: Its Polity and Ordinances, 1879
The constitution of the church, as here explained, is derived from the Scriptures, the only and sufficient authority in matters of faith and practice. The highest Patristic and historical authorities, however, confirm this view.
Mosheim says of the primitive churches:
"Every church was composed of three constituent parts:
1. Teachers, who were also invested with the government of the community according to the laws;
2. Ministers; and
3. The multitude or people. Of these parts the chief in point of authority was the people, for to them belonged the appointment of the bishop and presbyters, as well as of the inferior ministers; with them resided the power of enacting laws, as also of adopting or rejecting whatever might be proposed in the general assemblies, and of expelling, and receiving into communion, any depraved or unworthy members. In short, nothing whatever of any moment could be determined or carried into effect without their knowledge and concurrence.”
"With regard to government and internal economy, every individual church considered itself as an independent community, none of them ever looking, in these respects, beyond the circle of its own members for assistance, or recognizing any sort of external influence or authority." (Commentaries on First Three Centuries, pp. 179, 196, Burdock's Ed.)
Neander, when speaking of the terms episcopos and presbuteros, says:
"Originally both names related to the same office, and hence both names are frequently interchanged as perfectly synonymous…Every church was governed by a union of the elders or overseers chosen from among themselves, and we find among them no individual distinguished above the rest who presided as primus inter pares [first among equals], though probably, in the age immediately succeeding the apostolic, of which we have, unfortunately, so few authentic memorials, the practice was introduced to apply to such an one the name of episcopos by way of distinction.
“The government of the church was the peculiar office of such overseers. It was their business to watch over the general order, to maintain the purity of the Christian doctrine and the Christian practice, to guard against abuses, to admonish the faulty, and to guide the public deliberations, as appears from the passages in the New Testament where their functions are described. But their government by no means excluded the participation of the whole church in the management of their common concerns, as may be inferred from what we have already said respecting the nature of Christian communion, and is also evident from many individual examples in the apostolic church." (Planting and Training of the Church, book iii, Ch. 5)
Gibbon, who on this subject may surely be regarded as an impartial witness, says of the early churches:
"The societies which were instituted in the cities of the Roman Empire were united only by the ties of faith and charity. Independence and equality formed the basis of their internal constitution…The public functions of religion were solely entrusted to the established ministers of the church, the bishops and presbyters—two appellations which in their first origin appear to have distinguished the same office and the same order of persons…In proportion to the respective numbers of the faithful, a larger or smaller number of these episcopal presbyters guided each infant congregation with equal authority and united counsels."
After describing the subsequent appropriation of the term bishop to the presiding officer among the presbyters, and the powers committed to him, the historian continues:
"These powers, during a short period, were exercised according to the advice of the presbyterial college, and with the consent and approbation of the assembly of Christians. The primitive bishops were considered only as the first among equals, and the honorable servants of a free people. Whenever the episcopal chair became vacant by death, a new president was chosen from among the presbyters by the suffrage of the whole congregation, every member of which supposed himself invested with a sacred and sacerdotal character.
“Such was the mild and equal constitution by which the Christians were governed more than a hundred years after the death of the apostles. Every society formed within itself a separate and independent republic; and although the most distant of these little states maintained a mutual as well as friendly intercourse of letters and deputations, the Christian world was not yet connected by any supreme authority or legislative assembly." (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Ch. 15)
Archbishop Whately, in his Kingdom of Christ, speaking of the early churches, says:
"Though there was one Lord, one faith, and one baptism for all of these, yet they were each a distinct, independent community on earth, united by the common principles on which they were founded, by their mutual agreement, affection, and respect, but not having any one recognized head on earth or acknowledging any sovereignty of one of these societies over others. Each bishop originally presided over an entire church.
“A church and a diocese seem to have been for a considerable time coextensive and identical, and each church a diocese, and consequently each bishop or superintendent, though connected with the rest by the ties of faith, hope, and charity, seems to have been perfectly independent so far as regards any control, occasionally conferring with brethren in other churches, but owing no submission to any central authority."
The apostolic and Christian Fathers are full and distinct in their testimony respecting the primitive church organization. Clement of Rome, at the close of the first century, says: "The apostles, preaching in countries and cities, appointed the firstfruits of their labors bishops and deacons, having proved them by the Spirit."
Polycarp, in the middle of the second century, exhorts the church at Philippi to "be subject to the elders and deacons," and makes no allusion to other officers.
Jerome says: "A presbyter, therefore, is the same as a bishop; and before there were, by the devil's instigation, parties in religion, and it was said among the people, I am of Paul, and I of Apollos, and I of Cephas, the churches were governed by the common council of presbyters." (Commentary on Titus)
Respecting the election of officers, Clement of Rome cites as an apostolic rule in regard to church offices "that they should be filled according to the judgment of approved men, with the consent of the whole community."
Cyprian, in the middle of the third century, required that the bishop be invested with his office "by the suffrage of the whole brotherhood and of the bishops present," and he urges the people to care in the selection of officers, for the reason that "they especially have the power either of electing worthy presbyters or of rejecting unworthy ones," and affirms that this right of choice by the people was observed in his day as resting on divine authority and apostolic usage. (Ep. lxviii. 5)
Origen asserted that the presence of the people was required in the ordination of a presbyter to secure the election of the most worthy. (Hom. vi.s on Lev.)
The Apostolical Constitutions, belonging probably toward the end of the third century, declare that the bishop is a "select person, chosen by the whole people." (Book viii. 8; 4 cf. 16)
The clearest proofs exist that many of the distinguished bishops of the Patristic period were chosen by the voice of the people, as Cyprian, of Carthage, Ambrose, of Milan, Martin, of Tours, Eustathius, of Antioch, Chrysostom, of Constantinople, and others. Even the Roman Pontifical, in the order for the ordination of a presbyter, recognizes the principle of popular suffrage, the bishop saying:
"It was not without reason that the Fathers ordained that the advice of the people should be taken in the election of those persons who were to serve at the altar; to the end that, having given their assent to their ordination, they might the more readily yield obedience to those who were so ordained." (Pontific. Rom. in Ordinat. Presbyter, fol. 38)
That the church, as a congregation, was the ultimate appeal in matters of discipline during the first three centuries rests upon equally clear testimony. Cyprian, speaking of the trial of certain offenders, declares that they "shall be tried, not only in the presence of his colleagues, but before the whole people;" (Ep. xxxiv) and he quotes an African synod as ordaining that, "except in danger of death or of sudden persecution, none should be received to the peace of the church without the knowledge and consent of the people." (Ep. lix)
Du Pin, an eminent Roman Catholic writer, after citing at great length the language of Cyprian addressed to Cornelius, Bishop of Rome, says: "From whence it is plain that both at Rome and at Carthage no one could be expelled from the church, or restored again, except with the consent of the people." (De Antiqua Disciplina) Origen, at Caesarea, and Chrysostom, at Constantinople, speak with equal distinctness on the right of the people to determine matters of discipline.
The fact is, moreover, everywhere obvious that the charge of a primitive bishop was, not over a diocese as now understood, but over a single church or congregation. This is shown by undoubted authorities. Campbell, an eminent Episcopalian historian, after quoting many Fathers of the second and third centuries, among others Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Tremens, Tertullian, and Cyprian, conclude:
"Now, from the writings of these Fathers it is evident that the whole flock assembled in the same place, epi to auto, with their bishop and presbyters, as on other occasions, so in particular every Lord's Day—or every Sunday, as it was commonly called—for the purpose of public worship, hearing the Scriptures read, and receiving spiritual exhortations…Again, as there was but one place of meeting, so there was but one communion-table, an altar, as they sometimes metaphorically called it. 'There is but one altar,' said Ignatius, 'for there is but one bishop,' and accordingly but one place of worship."
A further evidence that the primitive bishop presided over only a single congregation is seen in the fact that in the comparatively small territory of North Africa there were six hundred and ninety bishoprics, many of them known to embrace only a small town or village. Diocesan episcopacy did not become common till the fourth century, when the church was modelled after the empire. Ignatius is the only authority for the episcopacy during the first three centuries, and even he everywhere speaks of the bishop as over only one congregation, or parish.
Of the fifteen epistles attributed to the Father, Archbishop Wake accepts seven as genuine, and Archbishop Usher only six; all the rest are unanimously rejected by Protestants as spurious. Of the seven accepted by Wake, the Chevalier Bunsen has proved four to be forgeries and the remaining three to be badly interpolated.
The fair-minded Neander, the profoundest student of this Father, regards one only as having decided marks of genuineness.
Bishop Stillingfleet, in his Irenicum, says: “Of all the thirty testimonials produced out of Ignatius in his epistle for episcopacy, I can meet with but one which is brought to prove the least semblance of an institution of Christ for episcopacy; and if I be not much deceived, the sense of that place is clearly mistaken."
A multitude of other authorities might be adduced, but these, which are the highest in church history, suffice to show that the profoundest historical investigations confirm the view of the divine constitution of the church here derived from Scripture.
And we close the subject with the words of Dr. Schaff:
"The spirit and practice of the apostles thus favored a certain kind of popular self-government and the harmonious, fraternal co-operation of the different elements of the church. It countenanced no abstract distinction of clergy and laity. All believers are called to the prophetic, priestly, and kingly offices in Christ. The bearers of authority and discipline should, therefore, never forget that their great work is to train the governed to freedom and independence, and by the various spiritual offices to form gradually the whole body of believers to the unity of faith and knowledge, and to the perfect manhood of Christ." (Church History, vol. i., sect. 43)