The written law of Moses was the sacred bond which united so closely the Church of Israel. The ritual observances of the Hebrews, which had all a typical meaning, are described by the inspired lawgiver with singular minuteness; and any deviation from them was forbidden, not only because it involved an impeachment either of the authority or the wisdom of Jehovah, but also because it was calculated to mar their significance. Under the Mosaic economy the posterity of Abraham were taught to regard each other as members of the same family, interested, as joint heirs, in the blessings promised to their distinguished ancestor. The Israelites were knit together by innumerable ties, as well secular as religious; and when they appeared in one multitudinous assemblage on occasions of peculiar solemnity, [249:1] they presented a specimen of ecclesiastical unity such as the world has never since contemplated.
Some, however, have contended that the Christian community was originally constructed upon very different principles. According to them the word church [249:2] in the New Testament is always used in one of two senses -- either as denoting a single worshipping society, or the whole commonwealth of the faithful; and from this they infer that, in primitive times, every Christian congregation was independent of every other. But such allegations, which are exceedingly improbable in themselves, are found, when carefully investigated, to be totally destitute of foundation. The Church of Jerusalem, [249:3] with the tens of thousands of individuals belonging to it, [249:4] must have consisted of several congregations; [249:5] the Church of Antioch, to which so many prophets and teachers ministered, [249:6] was probably in a similar position; and the Church of Palestine [249:7] obviously comprehended a large number of associated churches. When our Saviour prayed that all His people "may be one," [250:1] He evidently indicated that the unity of the Church, so strikingly exhibited in the nation of Israel, should still be studied and maintained; and when Paul describes the household of faith, he speaks of it, not as a loose mass of independent congregations, but as a "body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth." [250:2] The apostle here refers to the vital union of believers by the indwelling of the Holy Ghost; but he apparently alludes also to those "bands" of outward ordinances, and "joints" [250:3] of visible confederation, by which their communion is upheld; for, were the Church split up into an indefinite number of insulated congregations, even the unity of the spirit could neither be distinctly ascertained nor properly cultivated. When oiled by the spirit of Divine love, the machinery of the Church moves with admirable harmony, and accomplishes the most astonishing results; but, when pervaded by another spirit, it is strained and dislocated, and in danger of dashing itself to pieces.
Those who hold that every congregation, however small, is a complete church in itself, are quite unable to explain why the system of ecclesiastical organization should be thus circumscribed. The New Testament inculcates the unity of all the faithful, as well as the unity of particular societies; and the same principle of Christian brotherhood which prompts a number of individuals to meet together for religious fellowship, should also lead a number of congregations in the same locality to fraternize. The twelve may be regarded as the representatives of the doctrine of ecclesiastical confederation; for though they were commanded to go into all the world and to preach the gospel to every creature, yet, as long as circumstances permitted, they continued to co-operate. "When the apostles which were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John;" [251:1] and, at a subsequent period, they concurred in sending "forth Barnabas, that he should go as far as Antioch." [251:2] These facts distinctly prove that they had a common interest in everything pertaining to the well-being of the whole Christian commonwealth; and that, like Paul, they were entrusted with "the care of all the churches." Nor did the early Christian congregations act independently. They believed that union is strength, and they were "knit together" in ecclesiastical relationship. Hence, we read of the brother who was "chosen of the churches" [251:3] to travel with the Apostle Paul. It is now impossible to determine in what way this choice was made -- whether at a general meeting of deputies from different congregations, or by a separate vote in each particular society -- but, in whatever way the election was accomplished, the appointment of one representative for several churches was itself a recognition of their ecclesiastical unity.
We have seen that the worship of the Church was much the same as the worship of the synagogue, [251:4] and it would seem that its polity also was borrowed from the institutions of the chosen people. [251:5] Every Jewish congregation was governed by a bench of elders; and in every city there was a smaller sanhedrim, or presbytery, consisting of twenty-three members, [251:6] to which the neighbouring synagogues were subject. Jerusalem is said to have had two of these smaller sanhedrims, as it was found that the multitudes of cases arising among so vast a population were more than sufficient to occupy the time of any one judicatory. Appeals lay from all these tribunals to the Great Sanhedrim, or "Council," so frequently mentioned in the New Testament. [252:1] This court consisted of seventy or seventy-two members, made up, perhaps, in equal portions, of chief priests, scribes, and elders of the people, [252:2] The chief priests were probably twenty-four in number -- each of the twenty-four courses, into which the sacerdotal order was divided, [252:3] thus furnishing one representative. The scribes were the men of learning, like Gamaliel, [252:4] who had devoted themselves to the study of the Jewish law, and who possessed recondite, as well as extensive information. The elders were laymen of reputed wisdom and experience, who, in practical matters, might be expected to give sound advice. [252:5] It was not strange that the Jews had so profound a regard for their Great Sanhedrim. In the days of our Lord and His apostles it had, indeed, miserably degenerated; but, at an earlier period, its members must have been eminently entitled to respect, as in point of intelligence, prudence, piety, and patriotism, they held the very highest place among their countrymen.
The details of the ecclesiastical polity of the ancient Israelites are now involved in much obscurity; but the preceding statements may be received as a pretty accurate description of its chief outlines. Our Lord himself, in the sermon on the mount, is understood to refer to the great council and its subordinate judicatories; [252:6] and in the Old Testament appeals from inferior tribunals to the authorities in the holy city are explicitly enjoined. [253:1] All the synagogues, not only in Palestine but in foreign countries, obeyed the orders of the Sanhedrim at Jerusalem; [253:2] and it constituted a court of review to which all other ecclesiastical arbiters yielded submission.
In the government of the Apostolic Church we may trace a resemblance to these arrangements. Every Christian congregation, like every synagogue, had its elders; and every city had its presbytery, consisting of the spiritual rulers of the district. In the introductory chapters of the book of the Acts we discover the germ of this ecclesiastical constitution; for we there find the apostles ministering to thousands of converts, and, as the presbytery of Jerusalem, ordaining deacons, exercising discipline, and sending out missionaries. [253:3] The prophets and teachers of Antioch obviously performed the same functions; [253:4] Titus was instructed to have elders established, or a presbytery constituted, in every city of Crete; [253:5] and Timothy was ordained by such a judicatory. [253:6] For the first thirty years after the death of our Lord a large proportion of the ministers of the gospel were Jews by birth, and as they were in the habit of going up to Jerusalem to celebrate the great festivals, they appear to have taken advantage of the opportunity, and to have held meetings in the holy city for consultation respecting the affairs of the Christian commonwealth. Prudence and convenience conspired to dictate this course, as they could then reckon upon finding there a considerable number of able and experienced elders, and as their presence in the Jewish metropolis on such occasions was fitted to awaken no suspicion. [253:7]
We may thus see that the transaction mentioned in the 15th chapter of the Acts admits of a simple and satisfactory explanation. When the question respecting the circumcision of the Gentile converts began to be discussed at Antioch, there were individuals in that city quite as well qualified as any in Jerusalem to pronounce upon its merits; for the Church there enjoyed the ministry of prophets; and Paul, its most distinguished teacher, was "not a whit behind the very chiefest apostles." But the parties proceeded in the matter in much the same way as Israelites were accustomed to act under similar circumstances. Had a controversy relative to any Mosaic ceremony divided the Jewish population of Antioch, they would have appealed for a decision to their Great Sanhedrim; and now, when this dispute distracted the Christians of the capital of Syria, they had recourse to another tribunal at Jerusalem which they considered competent to pronounce a deliverance. [254:1] This tribunal consisted virtually of the rulers of the universal Church; for the apostles, who had a commission to all the world, and elders from almost every place where a Christian congregation existed, were in the habit of repairing to the capital of Palestine. In one respect this judicatory differed from the Jewish council, for it was not limited to seventy members. In accordance with the free spirit of the gospel dispensation, it appears to have consisted of as many ecclesiastical rulers as could conveniently attend its meetings. But the times were somewhat perilous; and it is probable that the ministers of the early Christian Church did not deem it expedient to congregate in very large numbers.
A single Scripture precedent for the regulation of the Church is as decisive as a multitude; and though the New Testament distinctly records only one instance in which a question of difficulty was referred by a lower to a higher ecclesiastical tribunal, this case sufficiently illustrates the character of the primitive polity. A very substantial reason can be given why Scripture takes so little notice of the meetings of Christian judicatories. The different portions of the New Testament were put into circulation as soon as written; and though it was most important that the heathen should be made acquainted with the doctrines of the Church, it was not by any means expedient that their attention should be particularly directed to the machinery by which it was regulated. An accurate knowledge of its constitution would only have exposed it more fearfully to the attacks of persecuting Emperors. Every effort would have been made to discover the times and places of the meetings of pastors and teachers, and to inflict a deadly wound on the Church by the destruction of its office-bearers. Hence, in general, its courts appear to have assembled in profound secrecy; and thus it is that, for the first three centuries, so little is known of the proceedings of these conventions.
It is to be observed that, in the first century, when the rulers of the Church met for consultation, they all sat in the same assembly. When the ecclesiastical constitution was fairly settled, even the Twelve were disposed to waive their personal claims to precedence, and to assume the status of ordinary ministers. We find accordingly that there were then no higher and lower houses of convocation; for "the apostles and elders came together." [255:1] Some, who suppose that James was the first bishop of the holy city, imagine that in his manner of giving the advice adopted at the Synod of Jerusalem, they can detect marks of his prelatic influence. [255:2] But the sacred narrative, when candidly interpreted, merely shews that he acted on the occasion as a judicious counsellor. He was, assuredly, not entitled to dictate to Paul or Peter. The reasoning of those who maintain that, as a matter of right, he expected the meeting to yield to the weight of his official authority, would go to prove, not that he was bishop of the Jewish capital, but that he was the prince of the apostles.
The New Testament history speaks frequently of James, and extends over the whole period of his public career; but it never once hints that he was bishop of Jerusalem, he himself has left behind him an epistle addressed "to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad," in which he makes no allusion to his possession of any such office. Paul, who was well acquainted with him, and who often visited the mother Church during the time of his alleged episcopate, is equally silent upon the subject. But it is easy to understand how the story originated. The command of our Lord to the apostles, "Go ye unto all the world and preach the gospel to every creature," [256:1] did not imply that their countrymen at home were not to enjoy a portion of their ministrations; and it was probably considered expedient that one of their number should reside in the Jewish capital. This field of exertion seems to have been assigned to James. His colleagues meanwhile travelled to distant countries to disseminate the truth; and as he was the only individual of the apostolic company who could ordinarily be consulted in the holy city, he soon became the ruling spirit among the Christians of that crowded metropolis. In all cases of importance and of difficulty his advice would be sought and appreciated; and his age, experience, and rank as one of the Twelve, would suggest the propriety of his appointment as president of any ecclesiastical meeting he would attend. The precedence thus so generally conceded to him would be remembered in after-times when the hierarchical spirit began to dominate; and would afford a basis for the legend that he was the first bishop of Jerusalem. And as he, perhaps, commonly occupied the chair when the rulers of the Church assembled there at the annual festivals, we can see too why he is also called "bishop of bishops" in documents of high antiquity. [257:1]
During a considerable part of the first century Jerusalem probably contained a much greater number of disciples than any other city in the Roman Empire; and until shortly before its destruction by Titus in A.D.70, it continued to be the centre of Christian influence. There is every reason to believe that, for some time, all matters in dispute throughout the Church, which could not be settled by inferior judicatories, were decided by the apostles and elders there convened. But the rapid propagation of Christianity, the rise of persecution, and the progress of political events, soon rendered such procedure inconvenient, if not impracticable. Persons of Gentile extraction who lived in distant lands, and who were in humble circumstances, could not be expected to travel for redress of their ecclesiastical grievances to the ancient capital of Palestine; and, when the temple was destroyed, the myriads who had formerly repaired to it to celebrate the sacred feasts, of course discontinued their attendance. The Christian communities throughout the Empire about this period began to assume that form which they present in the following century, the congregations of each province associating together for their better government and discipline. There are not wanting evidences, as we shall now endeavour to show, that the apostles themselves suggested the arrangement.
It has been taken for granted by many that when Paul, on his arrival at Miletus, "sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the Church," [258:1] he convoked a meeting only of the ecclesiastical rulers of the chief city of the Proconsular Asia. But a more attentive examination, of the passage in which the transaction is described may lead us to doubt the correctness of such an interpretation. It is probable that, when the apostle sent to Ephesus, the Christian elders of the surrounding district, as well as of the capital, were requested to meet him at Miletus. Such a conclusion is sustained by the reason assigned for his mode of proceeding at this juncture. Ephesus was a seaport about thirty miles from Miletus, and it is said he did not touch at it on his voyage "because he would not spend the time in Asia, for he hasted, if it were possible for him, to be at Jerusalem the day of Pentecost." [258:2] But, had he merely wished to see the elders of this provincial metropolis, his visit to it need have created no delay, for he might have gone to it as quickly as the messenger who was the bearer of his communication. He seems, however, to have felt that, had he appeared there, he would have given offence had he not also favoured the Christian communities in its neighbourhood with his presence; and as he could not afford to spend so much time in Asia as would thus have been required, he adopted the expedient of inviting all the elders of the district to repair to him in the place where he now sojourned. [258:3] From Ephesus, the capital, his invitation could be readily transmitted to other provincial cities. The address which he delivered to the assembled elders certainly conveys the impression that they did not all belong to the metropolis, and its very first sentence suggests such an inference. "When they were come to him, he said unto them, Ye know from the first day that I came into Asia after what manner I have been with you at all seasons." [259:1] The evangelist informs us that he had spent only two years and three months at Ephesus, [259:2] and yet he here tells his audience that "by the space of three years" he had not ceased to warn every one night and day with tears. [259:3] He says also "I know that ye all among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom of God, shall see my face no more," [259:4] -- thereby intimating that his auditors were not resident in one locality. We have also distinct evidence that when Paul formerly ministered at Ephesus, there were Christian societies throughout the province, for in his First Epistle to the Corinthians written from that city, [259:5] he sends his correspondents the salutations of "the Churches of Asia." [259:6] These Churches must obviously have been united by the ties of Christian fellowship; and the apostle must have been in close communication with them when he was thus employed as the medium of conveyance for the expression of their evangelical attachment.
In other parts of the New Testament we may discern traces of consociation among the primitive Churches. Thus, Paul, their founder, sends to "the Churches of Galatia" [259:7] a common letter in which he requires them to "serve one another," [259:8] and to "bear one another's burdens." [259:9] Without some species of united action, the Galatians could not well have obeyed such admonitions. Peter also, when writing to the disciples "scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia," [259:10] represents them as an associated body. "The elders," says he, "which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder....feed the flock of God which is among you taking the oversight thereof." [260:1] This "flock of God," which was evidently equivalent to the "Church of God," [260:2] was spread over a large territory; and yet the apostle suggests that the elders were conjointly charged with its supervision. Had the Churches scattered throughout so many provinces been a multitude of independent congregations, Peter would not have described them as one "flock" of which these rulers had the oversight.
But, though the elders of congregations in adjoining provinces could maintain ecclesiastical intercourse, and meet together at least occasionally or by delegates, it was otherwise with Churches in different countries. Even these, however, cultivated the communion of saints; for there are evidences that they corresponded with each other by letters or deputations. The attentive reader of the inspired epistles must have observed how the apostles contrived to keep open a door of access to their converts by means of itinerating preachers; [260:3] and the same agency seems to have been continued in succeeding generations. Disciples travelling into strange lands were furnished with "epistles of commendation" [260:4] to the foreign Churches; and Christian teachers, who had these credentials, were permitted freely to officiate in the congregations which they visited. It is an extraordinary fact that, during the lives of the apostles, there were preachers, in whom they had no confidence, who were yet in full standing, and who went from place to place addressing apostolic Churches. Having found their way into the ministry in a particular locality, they set out to other regions provided with their "letters of commendation;" and, on the strength of these testimonials, they were readily recognised as heralds of the cross. The apostles deemed it prudent to advise their correspondents not to rest satisfied with the certificates of these itinerant evangelists, but to try them by a more certain standard. "If there come any unto you," says John, "and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed." [261:1] -- "Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God, because many false prophets are gone out into the world." [261:2] Strange as it may now appear, even some of the apostles had personal enemies among the primitive preachers, and yet when these proclaimed the truth, they were suffered to proceed without interruption. "Some indeed," says Paul, "preach Christ even of envy and strife; and some also of good will. The one preach Christ of contention, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my bonds; but the other of love, knowing that I am set for the defence of the gospel. What then? notwithstanding, every way, whether in pretence or in truth, Christ is preached; and I therein do rejoice, yea, and will rejoice." [261:3]
The preceding statements may enable us to appreciate the unity of the Apostolic Church. This unity was not perfect; for there were false brethren who stirred up strife, and false teachers who fomented divisions. But these elements of discord no more disturbed the general unity of the Church than the presence of a few empty or blasted ears of corn affects the productiveness of an abundant harvest. As a body, the disciples of Christ were never so united as in the first century. Heresy had yet made little impression; schism was scarcely known; and charity, exerting her gentle influence with the brotherhood, found it comparatively easy to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. The members of the Church had "one Lord, one faith, one baptism." But their unity was very different from uniformity. They had no canonical hours, no clerical costume, no liturgies. The prayers of ministers and people varied according to circumstances, and were dictated by their hopes and fears, their wants and sympathies. When they met for worship, the devotional exercises were conducted in a language intelligible to all; when the Scriptures were read in their assemblies, every one heard in his own tongue the wonderful works of God. The unity of the Apostolic Church did not consist in its subordination to any one visible head or supreme pontiff; for neither Peter nor Paul, James nor John pretended to be the governor of the household of faith. Its unity was not like the unity of a jail where all the prisoners must wear the same dress, and receive the same rations, and dwell in cells of the same construction, and submit to the orders of the same keeper; but like the unity of a cluster of stalks of corn, all springing from one prolific grain, and all rich with a golden produce. Or it may be likened to the unity of the ocean, where all the parts are not of the same depth, or the same colour, or the same temperature; but where all, pervaded by the same saline preservative, ebb and flow according to the same heavenly laws, and concur in bearing to the ends of the earth the blessings of civilisation and of happiness.