a council naturally includes that of a president to guide their deliberations and give unity and force to their decisions; and such we soon find springing up under the title of Bishops, or Presbyter Bishops, as they were first called. During the course of the second century the latter institution seems gradually to have gained strength at the expense of the power of the Presbyters, whose delegate the Bishop was assumed to be. In that capacity the Bishops not only took upon themselves the general direction of the affairs of the church, but formed themselves into separate councils and synods, meeting in the provincial capitals of the provinces where they were located. These meetings took place under the presidency of the Bishop of the city in which they met, who thus assumed to be the chief or metropolitan. These formed a new presbytery above the older institution which was thus gradually superseded—to be again surpassed by the great councils which, after the age of Constantine, formed the supreme governing body of the church; performing the functions of the earlier provincial synods with more extended authority, though with less unanimity and regularity than had characterized the earlier institution.
It was thus that during the first three centuries of its existence the Christian community was formed into a vast federal republic, governed by its own laws, administered by its own officers, acknowledging no community with the heathen and no authority in the constituted secular powers of the state. But at the same time the hierarchy admitted a participation of rights to the general body of the faithful from whom they were chosen, and whose delegation was still admitted to be their title to office.
When, in the time of Constantine, this persecuted and scattered church emerged from the Catacombs to bask in the sunshine of Imperial favor, there were no buildings in Rome which could be found more suited for their purpose than the basilicas of the ancient city. They were designed and erected for the transaction of the affairs of the heathen Empire, and were in consequence eminently suited for the convenience of the Christian republic, which then aspired to supersede its fallen rival, and replace it by a younger and better institution.
In the basilicas the whole congregation of the faithful could meet and take part in the transaction of the business going on. The bishop naturally took the place previously occupied by the praetor or quæstor, the presbyters those of the assessors. The altar in front of the apse, where the pious heathen poured out libations at the commencement and conclusion of all important business, served equally for the celebration of Christian rites, and with the fewest possible changes, either in the form of the ceremonies or in the nature of the business transacted therein, the basilica of the heathen became the ecclesia or place of assembly of the early Christian community.