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8. Recapitulation

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

8. Recapitulation

For the purpose of illustrating to the common reader the views of the ancient church respecting this interesting and important subject, together with the motives which led to the observance of this system of discipline as detailed above, a recapitulation is inserted in the words of the popular author of whose labors we have taken occasion frequently to avail ourselves in the progress of this work. 

  1. Severity of discipline. Widely as society, among the primitive Christians, was pervaded with the leaven of a pure and exalted morality, and well adapted as were the means they took to preserve that high standard of piety and virtue, their history bears melancholy evidence, that no precautions are sufficient to protect the purest associations of men from the intrusion of the unworthy. Even in the earliest age of the church, when the number of the disciples was small, and the apostles themselves presided over the interests of the infant body, the rules of christian propriety were frequently violated, and the most odious forms of hypocrisy and vice were found lurking under the cloak of a religious profession; and it is not surprising, therefore, that as Christianity enlarged her boundaries, and saw multitudes flocking to her standard in every region of the world, the number of delinquents proportionally increased. While some who had embraced the cause of Jesus from low and selfish considerations, and others who had brought over to the new religion a lingering attachment to the habits of the old, were often found acting in a manner that disgraced the christian name, or betrayed a spirit at variance with the requirements of the gospel, a more numerous class were driven, through weakness, or the fears of persecution, to apostatise from the faith, and defile themselves again with the profane rites of idolatry; and no description of offenders – not even those who were guilty of the grossest immoralities, – appeared in the eyes of the primitive church to have more degraded themselves, and to be covered with a darker shade of guilt, than those who, from a cowardly apprehension of torture and death, relapsed into the abominations of heathenism. From various causes, then, partly arising from the peculiar circumstances of the times, partly traceable to the general corruption of human nature, the primitive Christians were ever and anon distressed with the discovery of offences committed by some of their body against the name or the principles of Jesus; and accordingly, one branch of their manners that presents itself preeminently to our notice, throughout the whole of their history, is the mode of treatment they observed towards their erring or fallen brethren.

    That treatment was characterised by a rigor and an impartiality to which the discipline of succeeding ages has seldom furnished a parallel; and indeed it is not wonderful, that they who adopted such extraordinary means to prevent the introduction of vicious or unworthy men into the church, should have been equally anxious for the stern and unsparing exclusion of all who were afterwards found wanting in the requisite qualities of faith and holiness. Whatever other faults the primitive Christians fell into at different periods, at no time did they lay themselves open to the imputation of laxity. On the contrary, so much did a severe and inflexible virtue regulate the terms of membership, during the whole period within which they flourished, that no sin, whether of that scandalous description that outrages every feeling of decency, or of that milder character that implies only an inconsistency with the spirit of the gospel, was allowed to pass, without receiving a due measure of censure or condemnation. Each successive age, though it added in many other respects to the religious observances of the preceding, transmitted the ancient discipline of the church unimpaired to posterity, and endeavored to preserve the christian society as a sacred enclosure, within whose precincts nothing unclean or unholy was permitted to enter or continue.

  2. Tenderness and sorrow for the offender. But however firm and vigorous the hand with which they wielded the reins of discipline, they always tempered the infliction with the affectionate spirit of christian love, and combined unqualified detestation of the sin with lively pity and concern for the sinner. While, in executing that painful duty, they knew no man after the flesh, – would have addressed the language of reproof, – or passed the sentence of a long exile from the community of the faithful on their dearest earthly friend, if he deserved it, – they mourned over the fall of an erring disciple as much as if they had been suffering a personal or family bereavement. The day on which such a doom was sealed, was a season of universal and bitter lamentation. The aged considered themselves as having lost a son or a daughter – the young, as having been severed from a brother or sister. Every one felt that a tie had been broken, and that an event had occurred which could be considered in no other light than as a dire and wide-spread calamity. Before, however, they allowed matters to reach that painful extremity, they never failed to resort to every means, in private, of reproving and admonishing the brother whom they saw to be in fault; and it was not till after they had tried all the arts of persuasion, and their repeated efforts had proved unavailing, that they brought the case under the notice of the church, and subjected the offender to that severe and impartial ordeal which few but the most daring and incorrigible had the hardihood to abide. It is scarcely possible for us, who live in a state of society so different, to conceive the tremendous effect of a sentence which cut off an obstinate offender from all connection with the church, and which, being solemnly pronounced in the name of God, seemed to anticipate the award of the judgment day. Looking upon the fallen disciple from that moment as an enemy of Christ and a servant of the devil, the brethren avoided his presence as they would have fled from plague or pestilence. They were forbid to admit him to their house, to sit with him at table, or to render him any of the ordinary offices of life, – and the man who should have been detected in his company, would have run the hazard of bringing his own character into suspicion, and of being thought a guilty partner of the other's sins.
  3. Tremendous effects of excommunication. Few, but those in whom long habits of secret wickedness had almost obliterated every religious feeling, could remain long undisturbed and tranquil in a state which, considered as forsaken by God as well as by man, was attended with such a tremendous load of present misery, – and which imagination associated with the terrors of a dark and unknown futurity. The hearts even of the most hardened, if they bore up for a while, through their corrupt nature, and the love of their sinful practices, soon felt this unnatural boldness give way, and becoming alive to all the wretchedness of an excommunicated state, – the unhappy sinners, like persons standing on the brink of despair, placed themselves again at the gate of the church, and implored, in the most importunate and abject manner, to be delivered from a condition which was more dreadful than death itself. From day to day they repaired to the cloisters, or the roofless area of the church, – for no nearer were they allowed to approach it, – and there they stood, in the most humble and penitent altitude, with downcast looks, and tears in their eyes, and smiting on their breasts; or threw themselves on the ground at the feet of the faithful, as they entered to worship, begging an interest in their sympathies and their prayers, – confessing their sins, and crying out that they were as salt which had lost its savor, fit only to be trodden under foot. For weeks and months they often continued in this grovelling slate, receiving from the passengers nothing but the silent expressions of their pity. Not a word was spoken, in the way .either of encouragement or exhortation; for during these humiliating stations at the gate, the offenders were considered rather as candidates for penance than as actually penitents. When at last they had waited a sufficient length of time in this state of affliction, and the silent observers of their conduct were satisfied that their outward demonstrations of sorrow proceeded from a humble and contrite spirit, the rulers of the church admitted them within the walls, and gave them the privilege of remaining to hear the reading of the Scriptures and the sermon. The appointed time for their continuance among the hearers being completed, they were advanced lo the third order of penitents, whose privilege it was to wait until that part of the service when the prayers for particular classes were offered up, and to hear the petitions which the minister, with his hands on their heads, and themselves on their bended knees, addressed to God on their behalf, for his mercy to pardon and his grace to help them. In due time they were allowed to be present at the celebration of the communion, and the edifying services that accompanied it; after witnessing which, and offering, at the same time, satisfactory proofs of that godly sorrow which is unto salvation, the term of penance ended.
  4. Duration of banishment from the church. The duration of this unhappy banishment from the peace and communion of the church lasted for no fixed time, but was prolonged or shortened according to the nature of the crime, and the promising character of the offender. The ordinary term was from two to five years. But in some cases of gross and aggravated sin, the sentence of excommunication extended lo ten, twenty, and thirty years; and even in some cases, though rarely, to the very close of life. During the whole progress of their probation, the penitents appeared in sackcloth and ashes, – the men were obliged to cut off their hair, and the women to veil themselves, in token of sorrow. They were debarred from all the usual comforts and amusements of life, and obliged to observe frequent seasons of fasting, – an exercise which, in the ancient church, especially among the Christians of the East, was deemed an indispensable concomitant of prayer.
  5. Solemn manner of restoring offenders. On the day appointed for their deliverance from this humiliating condition, they came into the church in a penitential garb of sackcloth, and with a trembling voice and copious tears, took their station on an elevated platform, where, in presence of the assembled congregation, they made a public confession of their sins, and throwing themselves down on the ground, they besought them to forgive the scandal and reproach they had brought on the christian name, and to give them the benefit and comfort of their intercessory prayers. The brethren, moved with the liveliest emotions, at beholding one, to whom they had often given the kiss of peace, in so distressing a situation, fell on their knees along with him, and the minister, in the same attitude of prostration, laying his hands on the head of the penitent, supplicated, with solemn fervor, the divine compassion on him, and then raising him, placed him in the ranks of the faithful at the table of the communion.

    This severe and protracted discipline, through which offenders, in the primitive church, were required to pass, – though several outward ceremonies usually entered as elements into the observance, was reckoned essentially a discipline of the mind; and it was as different from the bodily mortification, in which the votaries of Papal Rome comprise the whole duty of penitents, as the life-giving spirit is from the senseless form. Two grand and important objects were contemplated in its appointment, – the one to check every sin in the bud, and prevent the contagion of an evil example; for so jealous were the good and holy Christians of primitive times, of the least dishonor being done to their heavenly Master, or the smallest reproach being cast on his cause, that they lost no time in excluding from their society every one who refused compliance with the precepts of the gospel, or was not adorned with the fruits of its genuine and consistent disciples: – the other was to afford penitents sufficient time to prove the sincerity of their sorrow, and to satisfy the church of their well-founded claims to enjoy its clemency and be restored to its privileges. It was the more necessary to adopt those measures of precaution, that in the days of primitive Christianity, multitudes, who from the ranks of idolatry came over to Christianity, retained a strong predilection for their early indulgences and habits, and were the occasion, by their vices and their crimes, of doing injury to the cause they embraced, to an extent of which we can scarcely form any idea. Accordingly, those who, under the pressure of severe sickness, or in the immediate prospect of death, were absolved and admitted to peace and communion, were, in the event of their recovery, required to place themselves again in that stage of their discipline at which they had arrived when arrested by their indisposition, And to complete the course in due order, as if no interruption had occurred; while, on the other hand, the sins of some were considered as of so black a hue, and involving such enormous guilt, that a life-time appearing far too short a time to enable them to bring forth fruits meet for repentance, they were doomed by a law, as unalterable as the laws of the Modes and Persians, to live and die under the ban of the church. In regard to those cases where penitents, in the progress of their trials, relapsed into sin, they were degraded to a lower rank, and obliged to enter on the task of probation anew, – an obligation, however, which, in such circumstances, was at once a punishment, and a favor granted to them as an act of grace, in the spirit of christian tenderness, – disposed to forbear a little longer with their weakness. But when a person who had gone through the routine of penitential observances, and was restored to the privileges of full communion, repeated his crime, or was convicted of another, the opportunity of again placing himself in the order of penitents was inflexibly denied, and no importunities or tears on his part, – no influence nor intercession on that of others, could open the gates of the church, which thenceforth were for ever shut against him.

  6. Impartiality of this discipline – story of Theodosius, Nor was the discipline of the primitive church less distinguished for its impartiality than its rigor. Never was it known that the shield of protection was thrown over the head of a relative or a friend; never did a timid or time-serving policy lead its rulers to shrink from visiting with merited punishment the perpetrator of wickedness in high places. Let the offender be who or what he might, – whether old or young, a male member of the community, or one belonging to the gentler sex; whether invested with the sacred office, or moving in the humbler sphere of an ordinary brother; whether a poor mechanic, or a christian prince, – all were equally amenable to the laws; all were doomed indiscriminately to abide the consequences of violating them; all required to submit to the same tedious and searching ordeal, as the indispensable terms of their restoration to christian society. The following historical anecdote, out of many similar ones that might be adduced, affords so interesting and remarkable a proof, with how steady and equal a hand the reins of ancient discipline were wielded, that we are confident our readers will excuse its insertion. The emperor Theodosius, who flourished about the year 370, was a prince whose character was adorned with many virtues, and who added to the other excellent qualities that distinguished him, – a firm and sincere attachment to the gospel of Christ. As the best of men, however, have their besetting sins, and their inherent faults, Theodosius inherited the infirmity of a keen and impetuous temper, which, on several occasions, hurried him to the inconsiderate adoption of measures which he afterwards found cause bitterly to lament. The most memorable of these occasions was the affair of Thessalonica. In that city of Macedonia, some enactments of the emperor had given so great and universal dissatisfaction to the inhabitants, that they assembled in an uproar, threatening to set the imperial orders at defiance, and sufficiently indicating their determined spirit of resistance by an attack upon the garrison, which was signalized by the massacre of the commanding officer, and several of the soldiery. The intelligence of this untoward event so incensed Theodosius, that he forthwith issued his mandate for reducing the whole city to ashes; and the bloody edict would have been carried into prompt execution by the military, who participated in the feelings of their monarch, and breathed revenge for the loss of their slaughtered comrades, had not some christian bishops, by their powerful and importunate intercession, prevailed on the emperor reluctantly to recall his orders. The prime minister, however, was implacable, and by his incessant representations to his imperial master, that so ill-timed clemency would produce the greatest detriment to the public service, and weaken the hands of government especially in the provinces, succeeded in inducing Theodosius to reissue his command for exterminating the Thessalonians with fire and sword. Seldom have the annals of history been stained with so foul a deed of perfidy and baseness. Proclamation having been made, that on a set day, the civil authorities would treat the populace to an exhibition of their favorite games, a vast concourse assembled, and the moment all eyes were rivetted to the spot, expecting the spectacle to commence, bands of soldiers rushed furiously from all quarters on the defenceless crowd, slaughtering all without distinction of age, sex, or condition. So dreadful was the massacre, that within three hours, 7000 people were stretched lifeless on the ground. Meanwhile a messenger had been posting night and day from the palace with a commission to stop the proceedings, the emperor having no sooner consented to the massacre than he relented; but the deputy did not arrive till the unfortunate Thessalonica had become a city of the dead, and Theodosius had to sustain in the eyes of God and man the guilt of such unparalleled cruelty. Not long. after, circumst ances occurred that rendered it necessary for the emperor to repair to Milan, when the celebrated Ambrose, bishop of the place, wrote him a letter, in which he severely reproached him for his base and horrible treatment of the Thessalonians. Nothing is known of the reception given to this letter, or of any further correspondence that may have passed between them on the subject, till, on the Lord's day, the emperor proceeding to public worship, Ambrose met him at the gates of the church, and peremptorily refused to admit him. This proceeding of Ambrose, extraordinary as it may appear to us, could not have been surprising nor unexpected to his sovereign, who was well aware that the austere discipline of the times doomed offenders of every description to wait in the area or the porticoes of the church, and beg the forgiveness and the prayers of the faithful, ere they were permitted to reach the lowest station of the penitents. Self-love, however, or a secret pride in his exalted station, might perhaps have led Theodosius to hope that the ordinary severity of the church would be relaxed in his favor, – more especially, as the act imputed to him as a crime was justified by many urgent considerations of state policy; and under this 'delusion, he made for the church, never dreaming, it would seem, that whatever demur the minister of Christ might make, he would have the boldness to arrest the progress of an emperor in presence of his courtiers, and of the whole congregation. But the fear of man was never known to have made Ambrose flinch from his duty; and, heedless of every consideration, but that of fidelity to the cause and the honor of his heavenly Master, he planted himself on the threshold of the church, and vowed, that neither bribes nor menaces would induce him to admit, into the temple of the God of peace, a royal criminal, red with the blood of thousands, who were his brethren, – all of them by the ties of a common nature, – many of them by the bonds of a common faith. Theodosius, thus suddenly put on his self-defence, took refuge in the history of David, who was also a sovereign; and who, though he had combined the guilt of adultery with that of murder, was yet pardoned and restored to favor by God himself, on the confession of his sins. "You have resembled David in his crime," replied the inflexible Ambrose, "resemble him also in his repentance." Self-convicted and abashed, the emperor abandoned all further attempts; and, returning to his palace, during eight months continued in a state of excommunication from christian fellowship, bearing all the ignominy, and stooping to all the humiliating acts required of those who underwent the discipline of the church. As the first annual season of communion approached, the anxiety of the emperor to participate in the holy rite became extreme. Often, in the paroxysms of his grief, did he say to the counsellor, who had advised the Draconic edict against the Thessalonians, "Servants and beggars have liberty to join in worship and communion, but to me the church doors, and consequently the gates of heaven, are closed; for so the Lord hath decreed, 'Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven.'" At length it was agreed between the prince and his favorite, that the latter should seek an interview with Ambrose, and endeavor to gain him over to employ a privilege of his order, – that of abridging, in certain circumstances, the period appointed for the duration of church discipline. The eagerness of his royal master could not wait his return, and, meeting him on his way, he was greeted with the unwelcome intelligence, that the faithful bishop considered it a violation of his duty, to remit any part of the just censures of the church; and that nothing but submission to the shame and degradation of a public confession of his sins could accomplish the object which was dearest to the heart of the royal penitent. On an appointed day, accordingly, Theodosius appeared in the church of Milan, clothed in sackcloth; and, acknowledging the heinousness of hi s offence, the just sentence by which he forfeited the communion of the faithful, and the profound sorrow he now felt for having authorized so gross an outrage on the laws of heaven, and the rights of humanity, was received, with the unanimous consent of the whole congregation, once more into the bosom of christian society. Nothing can afford a better test of the simplicity and godly sincerity of the christian emperor than his readiness to assume, in presence of his people, an attitude so humiliating. How deep must have been his repentance towards God, – how strong his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, – and how many plausible reasons of personal honor and public expediency must he have had to encounter, ere he could bring himself, in face of a crowded assembly, to say, as he entered, "My soul cleaveth unto the dust; quicken thou me, according to thy word;" and ere he could throw himself prostrate on the ground, to implore the pardon of God and the forgiveness of his fellow men! And if this extraordinary history affords an illustrious example of genuine repentance, it exhibits, in no less memorable a light, the strictness and impartiality of primitive discipline. What minister would have dared to impose, – what prince would have submitted to undergo, a course of public penitence, so humiliating and so painful, if it had not been the established practice of the church to let no offenders escape with impunity.

Jamieson, pp. 147–150

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