between the scattered Ecclesiae; but the unity of the universal Ecclesia as he contemplated it does not belong to this region: it is a bulk of theology and religion, not a fact of what we call ecclesiastical politics.”
Organization corresponded to the life distinctive of the new Ecclesia. This was one of essential equality among “the saints” or “the brethren,” turning on common possession of and by the one Spirit of Christ. “The whole congregation of the faithful was responsible for the whole life of the church—for its faith, its worship, and its discipline” (Dale). All alike were “priests unto God” in Christ (Apoc. i. 6; 1 Pet. ii. 9) and entrusted with prerogatives of moral jurisdiction (1 Cor. vi. 1 ff.). “The Ecclesia itself, i.e. apparently the sum of all its male adult members, is the primary body, and, it would seem, even the primary authority.” So says Dr Hort (p. 229), adding that “the very origin and fundamental nature of the Ecclesia as a community of disciples renders it impossible that the principle should rightly become obsolete.” In the Apostolic age local office was determined, on the one hand, by the divine gifts (charisms) manifesting themselves in certain persons (1 Cor. xii.; Rom. xii. 3 ff.); and on the other by the recognition of such gifts by the inspired common consciousness of each Ecclesia (1 Cor. xvi. 15–18; 1 Thess. v. 12 ff.). In most cases this took formal effect in a setting-apart by prayer, sometimes with layingon of hands. Such consecration, however, whatever its form, was a function of the local Ecclesia as a whole, acting through those of its members most fitted by gift or standing to be its representatives on the occasion. As to the specific officers thus called into being, whether for supervision or relief (1 Cor. xii. 28), the New Testament knows none in the local church superior to elders, the ruling order in Judaism also. “Bishop” (overseer) was “mainly, if not always, not a title, but a description of the elder’s function” (Hort, p. 232). Each church at first had at its head not a single chief pastor, but a plurality of elders (= bishops) acting as a college.
In course of time there emerged from this presbyterial body a primus inter pares, i.e. a permanent leader, to whom henceforth the description “bishop” tended to be restricted. This is the “monarchical episcopate” which first meets us in the letters of Ignatius, early in the 2nd century (see Church History). But whatever its exact attributes, as he conceived it, it was still strictly a congregational office. Each normal church had its own bishop or pastor, as well as its presbytery and body of deacons. “One city, one church (‘parish’ in the ancient sense) with its bishop,” was the rule. Hence “if we are to give a name to these primitive communities with their bishops, ‘congregational’ will describe them better than ‘diocesan’ ” (Sanday, Expositor, III. viii. p. 333). Nor did this state of things change so soon as is often supposed. It persisted in the main during the 2nd and 3rd centuries, and only faded before the growing influence of metropolitan or diocesan bishops in the 4th century. These, the bishops in the first instance of provincial capitals, gradually acquired a control over their episcopal brethren in lesser cities, analogous to that of the civil governor over other provincial officials. Indeed the development of the whole hierarchy above the congregational bishop was largely influenced by the imperial system, especially after Church and State came into alliance under Constantine.
This sacrifice of local autonomy was in a measure prepared for by an earlier centralizing movement proper to the churches themselves, whereby those in certain areas met in conference or “synod” to formulate a common policy on local problems. Such inter-church meetings cannot be traced back beyond the latter half of the 2nd century, and were purely ad hoc and informal, called to consider specific questions like Montanism and Easter observance. Nor were they at first confined to church officers, much less to bishops, but included “the faithful” of all sorts (Euseb. Hist. Eccl. v. 16, p. 10), and were in fact “councils composed of whole churches” (ex universes ecclesiis), where there was a true “representation of the whole Christian name” (Tert. De Jejun. 13). In a word, they were “councils of churches” (id. De Pud. 10) and not merely of church officers. Naturally, however, as the areas represented increased, the more indirect and partial became the representation possible. Thus far, however, synods were still compatible with local autonomy and so with Congregationalism. But as the idea that bishops were successors of the apostles came to prevail, presbyters, though sharing in the deliberations, gradually ceased to share in the voting; while synods insensibly acquired more and more coercive control over the churches of the area represented. Yet the momentous change which finally crushed out Congregationalism, by substitution of legal coercion for moral suasion as the final means of securing unity, came relatively late in the history of the ancient Catholic Church.
The seat of authority in Discipline, the means by which the church strives to preserve the Christian standard of living from serious dishonour in its own members, is the touch-stone of church politics. The local Ecclesia in the Apostolic age was itself responsible for the conduct of its members (1 Cor. vi. 1 ff. and the Epistles passim). “If a man will not hear the church,” when the local church-meeting utters the mind of Christ on a moral issue, he has rejected the final court of appeal and is ipso facto self-excommunicate (Matt. xviii. 17). This remains the working rule of ante-Nicene Christianity. Indeed Cyprian plainly lays it down that the church members must withdraw from sinful officers, since “the people itself in the main has power either of choosing worthy priests (bishops) or of refusing unworthy ones” (Ep. 67. 3).
On the whole, then, Congregationalism, the self-government of each local church, prevailed for the most part during the first two and a half centuries of Christianity, and with it a church life which, with all its developments of ministry and ritual, remained fundamentally popular in basis (cf. T. M. Lindsay, The Church and the Ministry in the Early Centuries, p. 259 and passim). The central idea was the sanctity of the church-members as such, rather than of the ministry as a clerical order. This is implied in the oldest ordination rules and forms of prayer, such as those underlying the “Canons of Hippolytus” and related collections. It is also implied in the congregational form and spirit of the earliest liturgies; but most of all in the discipline of the church before Constantine. But from the time of Cyprian (A.D. 250) the idea of the ministry as clergy or priesthood gained ground, parallel with the more mixed quality of those admitted by baptism to the status of “the faithful,” and with the increasingly sacramental conception of the means of grace.
In both respects the reflex action of the Novatianist and Donatist controversies upon Catholicism was disastrous to the earlier idea of church-fellowship. Formal and technical tests of membership, such as the reception of sacraments from a duly authorized clergy, came to replace Christ’s own test of character. The church ceased even to be thought of as a society of “saints,” or to be organized on that basis. The gulf between the “laity” and “clergy” went on widening during the 5th and 6th centuries; and the people, stripped of their old prerogatives (save in form here and there), passed into a spiritual pupillage which was one distinctive note of the medieval Church. In such a Catholic atmosphere Congregationalism could have no being, save among little groups of men who protested against the existing order. These, in proportion as they revived a primitive type of piety, tended to recover also some of its forms of organization. “They bore witness to the loss of the true idea of the Christian church,” though they did not avail to restore it. Still, a good deal of semi-congregationalism probably did exist in obscure circles which preluded the wider Reformation and were merged in it. So was it among the Waldenses, who reasserted the priesthood
of all believers: still more among the Lollards, who produced
- An ancient city generally included a district around it, dwellers in which would go ecclesiastically, as well as politically, with those living within the city proper.
- So not only the Didachē (xv. 3, cf. xiv. 1, 2), but also Tertullian (Apol. ch. 39), and even Cyprian and the 4th-century Apostolic Constitutions (ii. 47), as well as the Didascalia, its 3rd-century basis.
- G. M. Trevelyan, England in the Age of Wycliffe (1899); W. H. Summers, Our Lollard Ancestors (1906), pp. 51, 92, 109 ff.