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1. Preliminary remarks

Antiquities of the Christian Church
XVII. Of the Discipline of the Ancient Church

1. Preliminary remarks

The discipline of the ancient church, although derived from the Mosaic economy, was an original and peculiar institution, growing out of the peculiar circumstances of the early Christians; and fully illustrates their views of the stern and awful sanctity of the christian character. It has an immediate relation to the rites of baptism, and the Lord's supper; and should be studied in connection with them. In establishing this discipline, the church had respect only to the benefit of the offending member. Like an affectionate parent, she sought not simply to punish, but to correct. Like a good physician, her design was not the infliction of pain, but restoration to health. This system of discipline is distinguished especially for that protracted and severe probation to which an offending member of the church was subjected, as the only condition of his re-admission to the communion and fellowship of the church. This disciplinary treatment, which was known by the general name of penance, exacted of the offender many acts of humiliation, self denial, and personal mortification, indicative of sincere repentance, and promising amendment and a consistent life in future. The institution of penance may, therefore, be regarded as the most important part of the discipline of the church.

The subject may, with propriety, be introduced by the following remarks.

  1. Penance was required only of actual members of the church, who had become such by receiving baptism and the Lord's supper. No Jew or pagan could do penance; nor even a catechumen, because he was not strictly a member of the church.
  2. Penance was not a civil, but an ecclesiastical penalty. It affected, not his relations to the state, but to the church exclusively.
  3. Penance was entirely a voluntary duty; instead of being an unwelcome requisition, it was granted as a favor, and cheerfully sought. In this, perhaps, it was distinguished from all other forms of punishment.
  4. In the ancient church, public penance was usually allowed but once. If, at any time, a repetition of the same was permitted to the same individual, it was an exception to the general rule.
  5. The nature and duration of the penance was varied according to the aggravations of the offence committed. Every general rule on this point was subject to many exceptions, according to circumstances.
  6. In many cases, the performance of penance was required through the whole term of the penitent's life; but the severity of this sentence was frequently mitigated.
  7. The penitents were divided into several classes, differing according to time and place; but in the primitive church, they were carefully distinguished from each other.
  8. The fulfilment of the prescribed penance, restored the offender to his former standing with the church; except in the case of the clergy, whose restoration was not complete and full.
  9. The penance was often excessive, and injurious, in its tendency to the interests of the church; and, as exercised in the earliest centuries, was open to censure; but on the whole, it was productive of great good. In times of persecution and declension, especially, it was admirably instrumental in sustaining in the church, the spirit and power of religion.

A careful examination of this subject will require us to consider separately, the following points.

  1. The origin and antiquity of penance.
  2. Its subjects; or, the offences for which it was imposed.
  3. The different classes of penitents.
  4. The duties of penitents, and the discipline imposed upon them, or the different kinds and degrees of penance.
  5. The restoration or re-admission of penitents into the church.
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