Books of a Fether

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Appendix: From Organism to Organization

How did the Body become a business?

Human beings seem bent on arranging themselves into hierarchies, and the first apostles had to constantly struggle with legalists and the mentality of rule. Yet somehow they kept the congregations from getting too far out of hand while they lived. However, history tells us that not long after the last of them had died, the controlling spirit established itself as official practice and took root. Let us read some quotes from Philip Schaff in History of the Christian Church, § 42, Clergy and Laity.1

The idea and institution of a special priesthood, distinct from the body of the people, with the accompanying notion of sacrifice and altar, passed imperceptibly from Jewish and heathen reminiscences and analogies into the Christian church. The majority of Jewish converts adhered tenaciously to the Mosaic institutions and rites, and a considerable part never fully attained to the height of spiritual freedom proclaimed by Paul, or soon fell away from it. He opposed legalistic and ceremonial tendencies in Galatia and Corinth; and although sacerdotalism does not appear among the errors of his Judaizing opponents, the Levitical priesthood, with its three ranks of high-priest, priest, and Levite, naturally furnished an analogy for the threefold ministry of bishop, priest, and deacon, and came to be regarded as typical of it. Still less could the Gentile Christians, as a body, at once emancipate themselves from their traditional notions of priesthood, altar, and sacrifice, on which their former religion was based. Whether we regard the change as an apostasy from a higher position attained, or as a reaction of old ideas never fully abandoned, the change is undeniable, and can be traced to the second century. The church could not long occupy the ideal height of the apostolic age, and as the Pentecostal illumination passed away with the death of the apostles, the old reminiscences began to reassert themselves…

After the gradual abatement of the extraordinary spiritual elevation of the apostolic age, which anticipated in its way the ideal condition of the church, the distinction of a regular class of teachers from the laity became more fixed and prominent. This appears first in Ignatius, who, in his high episcopalian spirit, considers the clergy the necessary medium of access for the people to God. "Whoever is within the sanctuary (or altar), is pure; but he who is outside of the sanctuary is not pure; that is, he who does anything without bishop and presbytery and deacon, is not pure in conscience." Yet he nowhere represents the ministry as a sacerdotal office. The Didache calls "the prophets" high-priests, but probably in a spiritual sense. Clement of Rome, in writing to the congregation at Corinth, draws a significant and fruitful parallel between the Christian presiding office and the Levitical priesthood, and uses the expression "layman" (lai>ko" a[nqrwpo") as antithetic to high-priest, priests, and Levites. This parallel contains the germ of the whole system of sacerdotalism. But it is at best only an argument by analogy. Tertullian was the first who expressly and directly asserts sacerdotal claims on behalf of the Christian ministry, and calls it "sacerdotium," although he also strongly affirms the universal priesthood of all believers. Cyprian (d. 258) goes still further, and applies all the privileges, duties, and responsibilities of the Aaronic priesthood to the officers of the Christian church, and constantly calls them sacerdotes and sacerdotium. He may therefore be called the proper father of the sacerdotal conception of the Christian ministry as a mediating agency between God and the people. During the third century it became customary to apply the term "priest" directly and exclusively to the Christian ministers especially the bishops. In the same manner the whole ministry, and it alone, was called "clergy," with a double reference to its presidency and its peculiar relation to God. It was distinguished by this name from the Christian people or "laity." Thus the term "clergy," which first signified the lot by which office was assigned (Acts 1:17, 25), then the office itself, then the persons holding that office, was transferred from the Christians generally to the ministers exclusively.

Solemn "ordination" or consecration by the laying on of hands was the form of admission into the "ordo ecclesiasticus" or "sacerdotalis." In this order itself there were again three degrees, "ordines majores," as they were called: the diaconate, the presbyterate, and the episcopate— held to be of divine institution. Under these were the "ordines minores," of later date, from sub-deacon to ostiary, which formed the stepping-stone between the clergy proper and the people.

Thus we find, so early as the third century, the foundations of a complete hierarchy; though a hierarchy of only moral power, and holding no sort of outward control over the conscience. The body of the laity consisted of two classes: the faithful, or the baptized and communicating members, and the catechumens, who were preparing for baptism. Those church members who lived together in one place, formed a church in the narrower sense.

While we rightly point to the Roman emperor Constantine as the most powerful catalyst of this transformation of the Body of Christ into a club or institution, we can see from these quotes that the seeds of hierarchy were well established before his rise to power. In fact, I believe that this usurping of the priesthood of the believer had to have taken place in order for Constantine to assimilate it into his government. No doubt there would still have been a hierarchy-based branch of Christianity without him, but it would have had much less power and influence.

I am astounded that those who lived so near in time to the writers of the NT could wish for such a system, regardless of their backgrounds. Was not Paul completely and profoundly changed in his conversion? Was Peter not a different man after the Holy Spirit came upon him? And these early controllers had a much better grasp of the culture and language than we do, thereby having no excuses for their utter failure to follow their teachers. Yet it is these people, and not the first apostles, who have been followed through history.

There have always been dissenters who did follow the apostles, but they were typically marginalized at best, or hunted down and murdered at worst. Take for example the case of John Calvin, who in spite of his intense studies of the Bible and claim to desiring a return to true Christianity, hated and wished death upon those he branded heretics.2 Martin Luther is quoted as saying about Jews, "Consequently, if I had power over them, I would assemble their scholars and their leaders and order them, on pain of losing their tongues down to the root, to convince us Christians within eight days of the truth of their assertions and to prove this blasphemous lie against us, to the effect that we worship more than the one true God. If they succeeded, we would all on the self-same day become Jews and be circumcised. If they failed, they should stand ready to receive the punishment they deserve for such shameful, malicious, pernicious, and venomous lies."3 And of course the history of the Popes is a history of depravity, murder, worldly ambition, and a host of other foul characteristics.

I will surely be accused of only "digging up dirt" or maligning a "good name" here, but can the name be "good" if the heart harbors such darkness? How can the love of Jesus live in such words and deeds? If the apostle Paul was not "a product of his time" after his conversion, then any who purport to be teachers, scholars, leaders, or role models for other believers cannot use that worn-out excuse. We are not products of time but new creations, redeemed and adopted children of God. Surely these people knew the words of the apostle John: "Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love."4 And this is not about an occasional lapse or a moment of rage, but the character of a life.

Such is the legacy of the controlling spirit, a spirit that must defeat all its enemies and take on the role of supreme judge in this life, thinking the Holy Spirit is incapable of managing those He indwells. If anyone is to be respected as a Christian leader or thinker, let them first exhibit the life of one who has been radically transformed; let them model the heart of a servant; let them show their love for God's people by setting them free from oppression.

  1. 1
  2. 2 Even in this historical commentary, as well as others, we see an attempt to somehow exonerate Calvin as a product of his time. Yet any who claim to have been reconciled with God through the sacrifice of Jesus have no excuses for hatred, much less murder, or for desiring the death of those who oppose them. It is never the place of any servant of Christ to play God by decreeing who lives or dies, nor to use civil law as a vehicle for personal vengeance.
  3. 3 On the Jews and Their Lies
  4. 4 1 John 4:7