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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
The organization of the Christian Church was in the beginning eminently simple, free, and popular. The government of the Church was at first a pure democracy, allowing to all its constituents the most enlarged freedom of voluntary religious association. Prelacy takes its name and character from the assumed prerogatives of the bishop as a distinct order or rank— praelati, preferred, promoted over others. It began in the 2nd century with the distinction between presbyter and bishop, which were originally identical, merely different names for the same office. In the New Test. the appellations as titles of bishops and presbyters are the same. They are required to possess the same qualifications and to perform the same official duties; neither was there in the apostolical churches any ordinary and permanent class of officers superior to the presbyters.
I. In the Early Church. — Various circumstances conspired to give certain of the clergy influence and distinction over others. The pastors of churches founded by the apostles took precedence of presbyters of later and subordinate churches. The churches of Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth, etc., became central points of influence which gave importance to their incumbents. They were the principal agents in appointing new stations for the extension of the Christian Church and in the organization of new churches dependent on the parent institution. With the increase of these chapels a parochial system of churches arose, more or less relying on the central Church for support and spiritual instructors-all of which gave to the prelate of the metropolis importance and pre-eminence over his subordinate presbyters.
In their persecutions the feebler churches relied for relief and protection on the parent Church. In their ecclesiastical assemblies the bishop of the metropolitan Church was of course the leading spirit, the moderator of the assembly, giving direction to their deliberations and the results of the council. He was still only primus inter paeres, foremost among his equals in rank in the ministry. Prelacy had not yet taken form and character by asserting the rights and prerogatives of the bishop, but the concessions granted began in time to be claimed as an official right. Baptism was one of the rights of the bishop in the 2nd century ("Dandi baptismum quidem habet summus sacerdos qui est episcopus," Tertullian, De Cap § 7). The imposition of hands by the bishop in baptism and ordination soon followed as a prescriptive right of the bishop. This right was soon accorded to the presbyters and deacons by the authority of the bishop— non tamen sine episcopi auctoritate. In the unity of the Church and its officers Cyprian sought safety and defense both from the schismatic efforts of Felicissimus and Novatian and the persecution of Decius, A.D. 251. "No safety but in the Church" — extra ecclesiam nulla salus. As is the branch to the tree, the stream to the fountain, and the members to the body, so is the constituency to the Church. Moreover, the bishop is the embodiment of the Church, and there can be no Church without a bishop (Cyprian, De Unit. Ecclesiastes Ephesians 4, 5). The bishop is appointed of God and invested with inviolable authority to rule over the Church, Such are the divine rights which were assumed by Cyprian as prelate of the Church, invested with divine authority and power over the Church of Christ. The bishop now claimed affinity with the Jewish priesthood, a daysman of the laity, the medium of grace from God to man, and the recipient of spiritual illumination and divine guidance. The synodical letter of the Council of Carthage contains similar pretensions ("Placuit nobis, Sancto Spirito suggerente, et Domino per visiones multas et manifestas admouente"). A sacerdotal caste was formed by Cyprian about A.D. 250, who claimed the prerogative of a distinct order of the priesthood, separate from and superior to the presbyters. Praelati, bishops, diocesan bishops were the titles designating the assumed prerogatives.
Provincial synods began now to be held, in which the presbyters were for a time admitted, but the predominant influence of the bishops directed the deliberations and enacted the laws of the synod. Thus they became the law- makers of the Church by the exercise of their prelatical authority under the guidance of the Divine Spirit— Spiritu Divino suggerente. Gradually they constituted themselves at once the enactors and the executors of the ordinances of the Church.
The rule of the priesthood was made more stringent over private members of the Church. In their travels they were required to have letters of recommendation literae formnatae, clericae, canonicae— from the bishop of the diocese. A long course of catechetical instruction and probation was required for admission to the Church. Rigorous and relentless was the discipline of offending constituents. Subordinate orders of the clergy were created — subdeacons, acolytes, readers, exorcists, doorkeepers, etc. — all having the effect to exalt the rank of the prelate as prominent above all. But the prelatical aspirations of bishops were restricted by the controlling influence which the laity still retained over the elections of the Church. This was gradually restricted by a crafty policy of having the candidates nominated by the subordinate clergy and their election confirmed by the bishop.
But a masterstroke of policy was requisite to obtain control of the revenues of the Church. It was accomplished by successive expedients through a period of considerable time. The apostolic injunction was carefully urged on the Church to lay aside for charitable purposes "on the first day of the week or of the month a store as God had prospered them" (1 Corinthians 16:2). At their love feasts and sacramental seasons contributions were required as voluntary offerings-indeed, as late as Tertullian ("Nam nemo compellitur, sed sponte confert," Apol. § 39). Tithes began to be urged upon the members of the Church as early as the 3rd century, but to the honor of the Church the offerings and contributions continued to be voluntary on the part of its members. Whatever taxes were imposed in later times for the maintenance of public worship and of the clergy were effected by the relations of the Church to the State under the Christian emperors. On the rules of the Church requiring the gratuitous performance of religious offices the following references may be consulted: Concil. Illiber. c. 48; Gelasius, Epist. 1, al. 9, c. 5; — Gregorius Naz. Orat. 40; Gratian, Decr. c. 1, qu. 1, c. 8; Concil. Trullan. 2, c. 23; Jerome, Quaest. Hebr. in Genesis 23.
The Council of Braga, in Portugal, A.D. 563, ordered a tripartite division of the property of the Church-one for the bishop, one for the other clergy, and the third for the lighting and repairs of the church. According to another authority four divisions were made, of which one portion was for the poor.
II. Under the Emperors. — When Christianity was the religion of the State, various other revenues accrued to the Church and the bishop. Upon the abolition of the heathen rites, under Theodosius the Great and his snls, the property of the heathen temples and priests which fell to the State was delivered over to the Christian clergy, or at least was appropriated to ecclesiastical uses (Cod. Theodos. lib. 16, tit. 10, leg. 19-21; comp. Sozom. Hist. Eccl. lib. 5, c. 7, 16). On the same principle the ecclesiastical property of heretics was confiscated and made over to the Catholic Church, as, for instance, in the case of the Novatians (Cod. Theodos. lib. 16, tit. 5, leg. 52; Socrat. Hist. Eccl. lib. 7:c. 7). It was also enacted that the property of such of the clergy as died without heirs, and of those who had relinquished their duties without sufficient cause, should lapse to the Church funds (Cod. Theodos. lib. 5, Titus 3, leg. 50; Cod. Justin. lib. 10:Titus 3, leg. 20, 53; Cod. Nov. 5, c. 4; 123, c. 42). The Church was also made the heir of all martyrs and confessors who died without leaving any near relatives (Euseb. Vit. Const. lib. 2, c. 36). The clergy enjoyed many privileges by which on the one hand they were in a measure shielded from the operations of the law, and on the other were entrusted with civil and judicial authority over the laity. Three particulars are stated by Planck:
1. In certain civil cases they exercised a direct jurisdiction over the laity.
2. The State submitted entirely to them the adjudication of all offences of the laity of a religious nature.
3. Certain other cases, styled ecclesiastical, causae ecclesiasticae, were tried before them exclusively. The practical influence of these arrangements and their effects upon the clergy and the laity are detailed by the same author, to whom we must refer the reader (Gesell. — Verfass. 1, 308 sq.). The laity were ultimately separated from the control of the revenues which they contributed for the maintenance of the government of the Church and for charitable purposes. All measures of this nature, instead of originating with the people, as in all popular governments, began and ended with the priesthood (Conc. Gan. Song of Solomon 7, 8; Bracar. 11:c. 7; the canons alluded to clearly indicate the unjust and oppressive operations of this system). The wealth of the laity was now made to flow in streams into the Church. New expedients were devised to draw money from them. (It was a law of the Church in the 4th century that the laity should every Sabbath partake of the sacrament, the effect of which law was to augment the revenues of the Church, each communicant being required to bring his offering to the altar. Afterwards, when this custom was discontinued, the offering was still claimed [Cong. Agath. A.D. 585, c. 4]). Constantine himself contributed large sums to enrich the coffers of the Church, which he also authorized, A.D. 321, to inherit property by will (Cod. Theodos. 4, 16, Titus 2, leg. 4; Euseb. lib. 10:c. 6; Sozomen, lib. 1, c. 8; lib. 5, c. 5). This permission opened new sources of wealth to the bishops, while it presented equal incentives to their cupidity. With what address they employed their newly acquired rights is apparent from the fact stated by Planck, that "in the space of ten years every man at his decease left a legacy to the Church, and within fifty years the clergy in the several provinces, under the color of the Church, held in their possessions one-tenth part of the entire property of the province. By the end of the 4th century the emperors themselves were obliged to interpose to check the accumulation of these immense revenues- a measure which Jerome said "he could not regret, but he could only regret that his brethren had made it necessary" (Planck, Gesell. — Verfass. 1, 281; comp. Pertsch, Kirchengesch. c. 9, § 11).
Prelacy also gained great power from the Church by controlling the elections f the clergy. The sovereign rights of the people in their free elective franchise began at an early period to be invaded. The final result of these changes was a total disfranchisement of the laity and the substitution of an ecclesiastical despotism in the place of the elective government of the primitive Church. Of these changes one of the most effective was the attempt, by means of correspondence and ecclesiastical synods, to consolidate the churches into one Church universal, to impose upon them a uniform code of laws, and establish an ecclesiastical polity administered by the clergy. The idea of a holy Catholic Church and of an ecclesiastical hierarchy for the government of the same was wholly a conception of the priesthood. Whatever may have been the motives with which this doctrine of the unity of the Church was first promulgated, it prepared the way for the overthrow of the popular government of the Church.
Above all, the doctrine of the divine right of the priesthood aimed a fatal blow at the liberties of the people. The clergy were no longer the servants of the people, chosen by them to the work of the ministry but an independent and privileged order, like the Levitical priesthood, and, like them, by divine right invested with peculiar prerogatives. This independence they began by degrees to assert and to exercise. The bishop began in the 3rd century to appoint at pleasure his own deacons and other inferior orders of the clergy. In other appointments, also, he endeavored to disturb the freedom of the elections and to direct them agreeably to his own will (Pertsch, Kirchengesch. des drit. Jahrhund. p. 439-454; Planck, Gesell. — Verfass. 1, 183). Against these encroachments of ecclesiastical ambition and power tie people continued to oppose a firm but ineffectual resistance. They asserted, and in a measure maintained, their primitive right of choosing their own spiritual teachers (Gieseler, 1, 272; for a more full and detailed account of these changes of ecclesiastical policy and of the means by which they were introduced, the reader is referred to the volume of J. G. Planck, Gesch. der christ. — Kirchl. Gesellschaftsverfassung, 1, 149-212, 433 sq.). There are on record instances in the 4th, and even in the 5th century, where the appointment of a bishop was effectually resisted by the refusal of the people to ratify the nomination of the candidate to a vacant see (Gregorius Naz. Orat. 10; comp. Orat. 19, p. 308; 21, p. 377; Bingham, bk. 4, ch. 1, § 3; Planck, 1, 440, n. 10). The rule had been established by decree of councils, and often repeated, requiring the presence and unanimous concurrence of all the provincial bishops in the election and ordination of one to the office of bishop. This afforded them a convenient means of defeating any popular election by an affected disagreement among themselves. The same canonical authority had made the concurrence of the metropolitan necessary to the validity of any appointment. His veto was accordingly another efficient expedient by which to baffle the suffrages of the people and to constrain them into a reluctant acquiescence in the will of the clergy (Conc. Nic. c. 4: Cone. Antioch. c. 16; Carthag. A.D. 390, c. 12; Planck, 1, 433-452).
Elections to ecclesiastical offices were also disturbed by the interference of secular influence from without, in consequence of that disastrous union of Church and State which was formed in the 4th century under Constantine the Great. During this century
(1) the emperors convened and presided in general councils;
(2) confirmed their decrees;
(3) enacted laws relative to ecclesiastical matters by their own authority;
(4) pronounced decisions concerning heresies and controversies;
(5) appointed bishops;
(6) inflicted punishment on ecclesiastical persons.
Agitated and harassed by the conflict of these discordant elements, the popular assemblies for the election of men to fill the highest offices of the holy ministry became scenes of tumult and disorder that would disgrace a modern political canvass.
To correct these disorders various but ineffectual expedients were adopted at different times and places. The Council of Laodicea (A.D. 361, c. 13) denied to the multitude—τοῖς ὄχλοις, the rabble — any vote in the choice of persons for the sacred office. Justinian in the 6th century sought. with no better success, to remedy the evils in question by limiting the elective franchise to a mixed aristocracy composed of the clergy and the chief men of the city. These were jointly to nominate three candidates, declaring under oath that in making the selection they had been influenced by no sinister motive. From these three the ordaining person was to ordain the one whom he judged best qualified (Justin. Novell. 123, c. 1; 137, c. 2; Cod. lib. 1. Titus 3; De Episcop. leg. 42). The Council of Arles (A.D. 452, c. 54) in like manner ordered the bishops to nominate three candidates, from whom the clergy and the people should make the election; and that of Barcelona (A.D. 599, c. 3) ordered the clergy and people to make the nomination, and the metropolitan and bishops were to determine the election by lot. But even these ineffectual efforts to restore measurably the right of the people show to what extent it was already lost.
The doctrine that to the clergy was promised a divine guidance from the Spirit of God had its influence also in completing the subjugation of the people. Resistance to such an authority under the infallible guidance of God's Spirit was rebellion against High Heaven, which the laity had not the impiety to maintain. The government and discipline of the Church by the priesthood was but the natural result of their control of the elective franchise. It established and commemorated the independence, the supremacy of prelacy. The bishops, no longer the ministers and representatives of the Church, are the priests of God to dictate the laws and administer the discipline of the Church (Mosheim, De Rebus Christ. saec. 2, § 23). By the middle of the 4th century prelacy, by various expedients, acquired the control of the whole penal jurisdiction of the laity, opening and closing at pleasure the doors of the Church, inflicting sentence of excommunication, prescribing penances, absolving penitents, and restoring them to the Church by arbitrary authority (Planck, Gesell. — Verfass. 2, 509).
III. Under the Papacy. — Such are the various causes — influential in different degrees, perhaps, in the several organizations — in supplanting the popular government of the primitive Church and substituting in its place prelacy, which, under different forms of centralization, finally culminated in the pope of Rome. This culmination, and the craft by which it was accomplished, require a fuller detail than our limits will allow. We can only affirm that this important period in history; when the foundation was laid for rendering the hierarchy independent both of clerical and secular power, has not been noticed by historians so particularly as its importance requires. They seem not to have noted the fact that Hildebrand, who A.D. 1073 became Gregory VII, concerted measures for the independence of the Church. "It was the deep design of Hildebrand, which he for a long time prosecuted with unwearied zeal, to bring the pope wholly within the pale of the Church, and to prevent the interference in his election of all secular influence and arbitrary power. And that measure of the council which wrested from the emperor a right of long standing, and which has never been called in question, may deservedly be regarded as the masterpiece of popish intrigue, or rather of Hildebrand's cunning. The concession which disguised this crafty design of his was expressed as follows: That the emperor should continue to hold, as he ever had held, the right of confirming the election of the pope derived from him. The covert design of this clause was not perceived, but it expressed nothing less than that the emperor should ever receive and hold from the pope himself the right of confirming the appointment of the pope" (Voigt, Hildebrand [Weimar, 1815, 8vo], p. 54, cited by Augusti, 1, 209).
As might have been expected, the lofty claim of the pope was resisted; but he had the address to defend his usurped authority against all opposition, and proudly proclaimed himself "the successor of St. Peter, set up by God to govern, not only the Church, but the whole world." The gradations of ecclesiastical organization through which prelacy has passed are from congregational to parochial, parochial to diocesan, diocesan to metropolitan, metropolitan to patriarchal, patriarchal to papal-from the humble pastor of a little flock to the pope of Rome, the supreme and universal prelate of the Church of Christ on earth. See Coleman, Prelacy and Ritualism; National Repository, Feb. 1878 (Ex Cathedra). (L.C.)