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4. Of the Christian Church

Antiquities of the Christian Church
CHAPTER II. Names and classes of christians

4. Of the Christian Church

This term* in the New Testament, and by the ancient fathers, primarily denoted an assembly of Christians, i.e. believers in the christian religion in distinction from all others. In this sense it included the officers and teachers, though these were more frequently denominated ecclesiastics*. But it has, from the earliest ages, been used in a more restricted sense to denote the great body of the church, the laity, in distinction from her officers and teachers. So it is used by Eusebius, Cyril of Jerusalem, and Amalarius.

That it so seldom occurs in this signification, is to be ascribed merely to the circumstance that the term laity was the technical name of the body of the church in contradistinction from the clergy. The derivation of the word is unquestionably from the Greek [word for] people*. In this sense it is not indeed used in the New Testament, but it occurs in the earliest christian writers, and was in familiar use in the third century.

Tertullian especially complains of heretics, that they confounded the officers of the church. One is made bishop to-day, another tomorrow. One is to-day a deacon, to-morrow a reader; to-day a presbyter, to-morrow a layman; for they confer the sacerdotal offices even upon the laity. Such was the anxiety of the ancient church to distinguish between the clergy and laity, and to guard them from assuming any of the official duties of the priesthood. Jerome indeed speaks of a lay priesthood, but by the term he only designates those who have received christian baptism, in allusion to the passage: He hath made us kings and priests unto God!

The laity were also divided into different classes, which were very distinctly known and cautiously observed previous to the general introduction of infant baptism. The prevalence of this ordinance changed, in a great measure, the ancient classification of the church, which again was subject to other modifications by the rise of the different classes of penitents, and of the energumens and the several orders of monastics.

[The views which the primitive Christians entertained of themselves as the priests of God are clearly exhibited in the following extracts from Bib. Repos. July 1840, pp. 97–99. "They viewed themselves as the priests of God, placed in a polluted world to sanctify it, to be purified temples in which the Holy Spirit might dwell, safe from the contact of surrounding corruption, to be purified channels in which the sweet influences of heaven, the rills from the river of life, which surrounds the throne of God, might freely flow to purify a world which lay in wickedness.

"'We,' says Justin Martyr, (Dial. Tryph. 355,) 'are the true high priests of God, as God himself testifies, when he says that pleasant incense and a pure offering shall in every place among the heathen be offered to him. Mal. 1:11. He receives offerings from none but his priests. Prayer and thanksgiving only, brought by the worthy, are genuine offerings well pleasing to God; and those, Christians alone are in a condition to give.' Says Irenaeus (iv. 20), 'All the righteous have the sacerdotal dignity.' Says Tertullian (de Orat. c. 28), 'We are the true worshippers and the true priests, who, praying in the Spirit, in the Spirit offer to God the prayer which is his due, and is well-pleasing to him. Such prayer, coming from a heart full of devotion, nourished by faith, kept pure by a blameless life, made glorious by love, and accompanied with good works, we must with psalms and hymns bring to the altar of God; and it is all which God requires of us.'

"There was then no such distinction between clergymen and laymen, that compliances which would be acknowledged improper in the one would yet be considered harmless in the other. They were all equally the priests of God, and as such they felt their responsibilities, and as such they endeavored to keep themselves unspotted from the world, and always to maintain the grave and serious demeanor becoming in a priest of the Most High. Says Tertullian (Monog. 7), 'We are priests, called thereto by Christ. The supreme High Priest, the great Priest of the Heavenly Father, even Christ, when he clothed us with that which is his, for as many of you as are baptized have put on Christ, Gal. 3: 27, hath made us kings and priests to God and his Father.' Rev. 1:6. 'We are deluded if we imagine that that is allowed to the layman which is not permitted to the priest. Are not we laymen also priests?' (Exhort, c. 7.)"

According to Rheinwald, Arch. 12, and Gleseler Kirchengesch, I. 169, the distinction between laity and clergy was unknown until the second century. Previous to this, all performed the office of priests as they had occasion. The power of speaking and exhortation was considered rather the free gift of the spirit, and was possessed by many of the Christians, though exercised in different ways – prophets, teachers, speaking with tongues, 1 Cor. 12:28–31. chap. 14. There was as yet no distinct order of clergy, for the whole society of Christians was a royal priesthood, 1 Pet. 2:9; the chosen people of God, 1 Pet. 5:3. comp. Deut. 4:20. 9:29.

In support of his opinion, Gieseler quotes the following authorities. – "Terlullian de exhort, castit. c. 7. Amhrosiaster (Hilarius Diaconus?), about A. D. 380, in comment, ad Ephes. iv. 11: Primum omncs docebant et omnes baptizabant, quibuscunque diebus vel temporibus fuisset occasio; nee enim Philippus terapus quaesivit aut diem, quo eunuchum baptizaret neque jejunium interposuit. * * * Ut ergo cresceret plebs et multiplicaretur, omnibus inter initia concessum est et evangelizare et baptizare et scripturas in ecclesia explanare. At ubi omnia loca complexa est ecclesia, conventicula constituta sunt et rectores, et caetera officia in ecclesiis sunt ordinata, ut nullus de clericis [ceteris?] auderet, qui ordinatus non esset, praesumere officium, quod sciret non sibi creditum vel concessum. Et coepit alio ordine et providentia gubernari ecclesia, quia si omnes eadem possent, irralionabile esset, et vulgaris res et vilissiraa videretur. Hinc ergo est, unde nunc neque diaconi in populo praedicarit, neque clerici vel laici baptizant, neque quocunque die credentes tinguntur, nisi aegri. Ideo non per omnia conveniunt scripta Apostoli ordinationi, quae nunc in ecclesia est, quia haec inter primordia sunt scripta. – TR.]

Tertidlian, De Prescrip. c. 41; Bingham, bk. i. c. 5; Tertull. Exhortat. ad Cast. c. 7; Clemens Rora. Ep. ad Corinlh. c. 40.

(* denotes Greek text in Rev. Lyman Coleman's translation.)


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