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1. Of the Clergy and the Laity

Antiquities of the Christian Church
CHAPTER III. Of the Ministers of the Church

1. Of the Clergy and the Laity

Such as bore the office of the priesthood were denominated, in distinction from the laity, the clergy, cleri and clerici. Respecting the derivation of this term the learned are much divided in opinion. All agree indeed that it is derived from a lot* but allege very different reasons for using it to denote the priesthood. Some affirm, that men at first were elected to this office by lot, and were therefore called cleri*. In confirmation of this theory, they allege that this mode of election was common, both among pagans and Jews, and not unknown in the primitive church, as appears from the choice of Matthias, by lot. Acts 1:17, 25. But this method of electing persons to the sacred office, has never been allowed in the church, except in some extraordinary cases. Jerome says, they were called clergy, either because they are chosen by lot to be the Lord's, or because the Lord is their lot, or heritage. The Jews were of old God's peculiar people, the heritage of the Lord. Such, especially, were the Levites who ministered at the altar. And, after the cessation of the Levitical office, the name was transferred to the ministers of the christian church. Hence the name clergy*, which primarily signifies a lot, or heritage. Such is the approved derivation of this word. But many learned men derive it from the mode of election, by lot. 

Many allege that this term came into general use in the beginning of the third century, as the name of the religious teachers of the church. But this cannot be accurately determined. The formal distinction between the clergy and laity, was evidently introduced at a period still later. Previous to this, the whole church were styled God's heritage, 1 Pet. 5:3; and every Christian, a priest of God. And yet, the epithet might with peculiar propriety be applied to those, who devoted themselves to the ministerial office; and the more naturally, inasmuch as this phraseology is common in the Old Testament. With this usage, several passages in the New Testament very well accord, Acts 16:18, Col. 1:12, Eph. 1:11. The unlearned* again, in Col. 14:16, 23, 24, may, for aught that appears, be laymen or catechumens, as Chrysostom and Theodoret affirm. Different officers there certainly were in the time of the apostles, such as rulers, bishops, elders, deacons, etc., derived immediately from the Jewish synagogue, though they may with propriety be compared also with the Levitical priesthood, as the author of the epistle to the Hebrews has done.

Much importance is attached to the authority of Clemens Romanus on this subject, who, in the first century speaks of the laity, and the several officers of the church and orders of the priesthood, as though they were then the same that they are known to have been in the second and third centuries;. that passage, however, relates to the Levitical priesthood. Ignatius is also quoted to the same effect, but the genuineness of the passage is disputed. 

It is worthy of remark, that the advocates of the Episcopal form of church government, labor much to prove that the distinction between the clergy and the laity, was as ancient as the time of the apostles, while the Roman Catholic writers, Rigaltius, Salmasius, and others, deny this early distinction. The dispute, however, is of little importance; for the distinction can, in no case, be proved to be of apostolic authority. It can, therefore, be of little consequence to show, that it was introduced a few years earlier or later. Boehmer, and Rigaltius, have shown that Tertullian may be regarded as the author of the distinction in question, – but in this general sense only, that he distinctly pointed out the difference between the laity and clergy, and clearly defined the limits of the several offices of the church; the confounding of which he complained of, as the leading fault of heretics. And yet, who will venture to affirm, that these distinctions and offices were wholly unknown before Tertullian lived? It may at least be said with truth, that at some time in the first two centuries, the three higher orders, bishops, presbyters, and deacons, were denominated clergy; so that a higher antiquity may be claimed for this name, than for some subordinate classes which had their origin in the third and fourth centuries. 

The clergy were also known by the name of canonici*. Two reasons are assigned for this appellation. One, that they were subject to the canons, or general rules of the church. The other, that they were wont to be registered in a catalogue of the church, as the authorized officers of the same. This catalogue was also called a canon*, album, matricula, and tabula clericorum. 

They were also called Ecclesiastics, Dogmatists, and Gnostics, names applicable to all Christians, but especially to their officers and teachers. In the middle ages, it was customary to denominate the subordinate officers of the church ecclesiastics.

Another name by which they were less frequently known, is order of the altar*, or shrine., from their being permitted to enter within the sacred enclosure which surrounded the altar.

The word order*, is applied to the priesthood*, has also been the subject of more critical discussion than its importance demands. Many contend, that it is adopted from the Roman language, and used by Tertullian and others in the classic sense, to exhibit the patrician rank of the clergy like the ordo senatorius of the Romans. The result, however, of the discussion is, that the word is derived from the Roman language as a technical phrase, but applied not according to the usus loquendi of the Romans, but, of the church, and of the Scriptures, to denote the distinction between the priesthood and the people, – the ordo ecclesiasiicus and the laity; and that, in this sense it has been used since the close of the second century. Jerome uses it as synonymous with gradus, ojicium, potest as, dignitas, etc.; Basil, as the same as * etc. 

The precise time, when this distinction between the superior and inferior clergy was introduced, is unknown. It must, however, have been very early, for the several offices and officers of the church were clearly defined, towards the close of the second, and beginning of the third century. To say nothing of the authority of Ignatius which is justly suspected, there are authorities sufficient to show that, at this early period, the officers of the church were, substantially, the same as in later centuries. On this subject, the remark of Amalarius is worthy of special notice: "that the offices of the priesthood and deacons were instituted by the apostle Paul, because they were indispensable in the church, and that as the church increased, other offices were created, and inferior officers appointed in aid of the superiors. "

The Roman Catholics divide the officers of the church into two classes, ministers, and magistrates. In the former, are included bishops and presbyters; in the latter, the other officers of the church. 

According to the authority of Cave, "the whole*, as it is often called in the Apostle's Canons, – the roll of the clergy of the ancient church, taking it within the compass of its first four hundred years, consisted of two sorts of persons, – the *, who were peculiarly consecrated to the more proper and immediate acts of the worship of God; and the *, such as were set apart for the lower and common services of the church. Of the first sort were these three, bishops, presbyters, and deacons." 

The distinction of ordinary and extraordinary officers of the church, is given on the best authority, based on many passages of Scripture, Eph. 4:11, 12, 1 Cor. 12:28, Rom. 12:7, 8, 1 Tim. 3:5. etc. The shepherds and teachers were the same as bishops and elders, ministers of particular congregations, who were equally necessary at all times. But there were others, who were known in the church only while the miraculous gifts of the Spirit were continued, and of whom mention is very seldom made in later times. Among these may be reckoned,

  1. Apostles, including the immediate disciples of Christ, and several others. Acts 14:4, 2 Cor. 8:23, Phil. 2:25. In the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries, missionaries to foreign lands bore this title.
  2. Evangelists. This term is used sometimes in a restricted, and sometimes in a wider sense. Eph. 4:11, Acts 21:8, 2 Tim. 4:5. In later ages, the officer who read, or chanted the gospel, was called Evangelist.
  3. Prophets. Inspired writers and teachers of the christian religion – such as foretold future events, and also a particular class of teachers in the primitive church, whose business it was to act as expounders of the Scriptures, and interpreters of the divine will.

Hieron. ep. 2. ad Nepot; Augustin, in Ps. 67; Cave, Prim. Christ. P. 1. c. 8; Dodwell, Dissert. Cyprian, i. c. 15; Codex Theodos. de Episc. 1. 2.

Tertull. exhort, ad cast. o. 7; Iren. adv. haeres. lib. iv. c. 20.

Clemens Rom. ep. ad Cor. c. 40, 41, 42, 44; Comp. Boehmer, Dissertat. 7. p. 354.

Rheinwald, Arch. p. 20; Neander, Kirchengeschichte, bd. i. 301.

Baumgarten, S. 51; Cyprian, ep. 33. 22; Ambrose, De dignit. sacerdot. c. 3; Epiphanius, haeres, 67.

Concil. Antioch. c. 1. 2; Nicen. c. 16, 17. 19; Agath. c. 2; Can. Apost. c. 14. c. 50; Basil M. ep. can. c. 6; Augustin, Serm. 50. De Divers, tom. x. p. 525.

Boehmer, Dissertat. jur. eccl. antiq. 7. p. 341; Tertull. in castit. c. 7; De idol. c. 12. 7; Bingham, bk. ii. c. 1. sec. 1; Basil M. ep. canon, c. 51.

Euseb. hist. eccl. lib. vi. c. 43; Tertullian, Cyprian, Constitut. Apost. passim.

De offic. eccl. lib. ii. c. 6.

Pellicia, chr. eccl. polit. tom. i. p. 27.

Primitive Christianity, P. 1. c. 8.

(* denotes Greek text in Rev. Lyman Coleman's translation.)


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