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1. Rank of the Clergy

Antiquities of the Christian Church
CHAPTER VI. Of the Rank, Rights and Privileges and Costume of the Clergy

1. Rank of the Clergy

Nothing appears to indicate the relation of rank either in the age of the apostles, or of their immediate successors; nor indeed until the establishment of Christianity as the religion of state under Constantine. The representations which the Scriptures and the primitive fathers so frequently make of the dignity and worth of religious teachers have no reference to this subject. They only represent these teachers as the servants and stewards of God, and their office as one in the highest degree elevated and heavenly. Ignatius styles bishops the vicegerents of Christ, whose instructions are to be obeyed as the ordinances of Christ and his apostles, and whom men should honor above potentates and kings. But all this is only what, in the phraseology of the times, philosophers, poets and orators might have claimed for themselves. Such representations are only ideal delineations which present the reality in a contrast the more striking. Such, indeed, was the real estimation in which some of the most eminent christian bishops were held, by the world, in the first three centuries, that one might fitly say of them – the greatest in the kingdom of heaven was the least of all men.

The famous Origen was, in regard to rank, one of the lesser lights in the church, invested at first with only the humble office of catechist, and afterwards, informally, with that of deacon, or according to some with that of presbyter. Yet had he more influence and authority than any dignitary of the church in his time. Clemens Alexandrinus and Tertullian were never bishops; but they were held in the highest estimation both by their contemporaries and by posterity. Jerome was only an itinerating presbyter, but he was honored as the dictator of the church. And still later, even when the aristocracy of the church was fully established, there occurred, at times, instances of men who, by their talents, rose superior to all the distinctions of rank and of office. On the other hand, even the bishops of Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, Carthage and others, notwithstanding their high office, were often treated with the greatest indignities.

Something analogous to the relations of rank must have existed among the priesthood themselves previous to the time of Constantine, as appear* from the fact that they were regarded as a distinct order, and were divided into the classes superior and inferior. But it was a long time before even these relations became so distinct as they have been since the establishment of the Eastern and Western hierarchy in the eighth century. The primitive presbyters first sustained an arduous conflict against the pretensions of bishops to superiority; and then again, against the order of deacons, and especially with the archdeacons, who arrayed themselves on the side of the bishops. And the bishops again sustained a struggle, arduous and disastrous to themselves, with the archbishops, primates, and patriarchs. With the latter, particularly, a long and obstinate strife for the mastery was maintained, which finally resulted in the popish supremacy; but the conflict ceased not so long as one remained to sustain it.

But previous to the reign of Constantine no relations of rank were established among the clergy, save those of different gradations among themselves. As in both the Jewish and Roman states the priesthood were invested with peculiar honors, so this monarch sought to transfer, the same to the christian ministry. Thus these forms of the priesthood perpetuated themselves in the christian church after the overthrow of the religion to which they, at first, respectively belonged. 

The bishops, especially, profited by this reference to the priesthood of Jewish and pagan systems of religion. The christian bishops, it was supposed, ought at least to be equal in rank to the Jewish patriarchs. It was an expedient for elevating a depressed priesthood, to invest them with new honors, just as Julian the apostate sought again to overthrow them by reinstating the pagan priesthood in their ancient rank. And again Constantine himself sustained a certain relation to the priesthood. Eusebius declares him to have been a bishop duly constituted by God. And he styles himself bishop, * – a phrase of similar import with pontifex maximus, which after the example of the Roman emperors he solemnly assumed in the year 325. The emperor Gratian was the last who bore this title. But so long as it was retained it had the effect to elevate the office, both of bishops and emperors in the estimation of the people, and to justify the intervention of secular power in ecclesiastical councils, and in the elections of bishops.

The priesthood of the christian church were the constituted guardians of the morals of the community, and in this relation had a decided superiority to the Pagan and Jewish priesthood. Even the highest magistrates and princes were not exempt from the sentences of suspension and excommunication. Theodosius the Great submitted himself to this discipline, and his example was imitated by many of his successors down to the time of Henry IV. Gregory Nazianzen, in speaking on this subject, says "The law of Christ subjects you to my control. For we also are in authority, and 1 will add, an authority greater and more perfect than yours, inasmuch as the carnal is inferior to the spiritual – the earthly, to the heavenly." Multitudes of passages of similar import are found in the writings of Chrysostom, Ambrose, and other of the fathers. 

But notwithstanding the high consideration in which the clergy were held, we are still left in ignorance of their relative rank in civil life. But on the reestablishment of the western empire, their civil and political relations were clearly defined; and Under the Carlovingian dynasty, the bishops obtained the rank of barons and counts, and as civil dignitaries took part in all political and ecclesiastical concerns, of importance. They were regular members of all imperial diets, which were in reality ecclesiastical synods. At a later period, bishops, archbishops and abbots were, by statute laws, made princes of the empire, and electors. And the last mentioned were often involved in conflicts with the Roman cardinals for superiority. This organization was continued until the dissolution of the German confederacy subsequent to the French Revolution, and became a pattern for other lands.

Codex Theodos. lib. xvi. I. 10. 53. hes, 1. 14.

Codex Theodos. lib. ii. lit. i. 1. 10. lib. xvi. tit. viii. 1. 1.

Epist. ad Arsaciiim Pontif. Galai. ep. 49. opp. p. 430.

De Vit. Constant. M. lib. i. c. 4. vgl. lib. 4. c. 24.

Zosim. hist. lib. 4. c. 36: J. A. Bosii Exerc. post, de Pontificate. M. Imperat. Roman, praecipue Cliristianoriim: S. Graevius. Thesanr. Antiq. Rorn. torn. v. p. 271.

Sozom. h. e. lib. vii c. 25. Theodor. 5, c. 17. Rufin. 11. c. 18. vgl. Socrat. lib. vii. c. 13: Synes. ep. 58.

Orat. 17. p. 271.

Horn. 4, de verb. Jes. Horn. 15. in 2 Cor.

De dignitate sacerdotale.

Deer. Grat. part 1. distinct 96. e. 9: part ii. caus. 9. qtiaest. ii. iii. Ph. Rovenii respubl. chr. Antv. 4. p. 1, 2, 52.

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


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