Severity of discipline. Widely as society, among the primitive Christians, was pervaded with the leaven of a pure and exalted morality, and well adapted as were the means they took to preserve that high standard of piety and virtue, their history bears melancholy evidence, that no precautions are sufficient to protect the purest associations of men from the intrusion of the unworthy. Even in the earliest age of the church, when the number of the disciples was small, and the apostles themselves presided over the interests of the infant body, the rules of christian propriety were frequently violated, and the most odious forms of hypocrisy and vice were found lurking under the cloak of a religious profession; and it is not surprising, therefore, that as Christianity enlarged her boundaries, and saw multitudes flocking to her standard in every region of the world, the number of delinquents proportionally increased. While some who had embraced the cause of Jesus from low and selfish considerations, and others who had brought over to the new religion a lingering attachment to the habits of the old, were often found acting in a manner that disgraced the christian name, or betrayed a spirit at variance with the requirements of the gospel, a more numerous class were driven, through weakness, or the fears of persecution, to apostatise from the faith, and defile themselves again with the profane rites of idolatry; and no description of offenders – not even those who were guilty of the grossest immoralities, – appeared in the eyes of the primitive church to have more degraded themselves, and to be covered with a darker shade of guilt, than those who, from a cowardly apprehension of torture and death, relapsed into the abominations of heathenism. From various causes, then, partly arising from the peculiar circumstances of the times, partly traceable to the general corruption of human nature, the primitive Christians were ever and anon distressed with the discovery of offences committed by some of their body against the name or the principles of Jesus; and accordingly, one branch of their manners that presents itself preeminently to our notice, throughout the whole of their history, is the mode of treatment they observed towards their erring or fallen brethren.
That treatment was characterised by a rigor and an impartiality to which the discipline of succeeding ages has seldom furnished a parallel; and indeed it is not wonderful, that they who adopted such extraordinary means to prevent the introduction of vicious or unworthy men into the church, should have been equally anxious for the stern and unsparing exclusion of all who were afterwards found wanting in the requisite qualities of faith and holiness. Whatever other faults the primitive Christians fell into at different periods, at no time did they lay themselves open to the imputation of laxity. On the contrary, so much did a severe and inflexible virtue regulate the terms of membership, during the whole period within which they flourished, that no sin, whether of that scandalous description that outrages every feeling of decency, or of that milder character that implies only an inconsistency with the spirit of the gospel, was allowed to pass, without receiving a due measure of censure or condemnation. Each successive age, though it added in many other respects to the religious observances of the preceding, transmitted the ancient discipline of the church unimpaired to posterity, and endeavored to preserve the christian society as a sacred enclosure, within whose precincts nothing unclean or unholy was permitted to enter or continue.
Solemn manner of restoring offenders. On the day appointed for their deliverance from this humiliating condition, they came into the church in a penitential garb of sackcloth, and with a trembling voice and copious tears, took their station on an elevated platform, where, in presence of the assembled congregation, they made a public confession of their sins, and throwing themselves down on the ground, they besought them to forgive the scandal and reproach they had brought on the christian name, and to give them the benefit and comfort of their intercessory prayers. The brethren, moved with the liveliest emotions, at beholding one, to whom they had often given the kiss of peace, in so distressing a situation, fell on their knees along with him, and the minister, in the same attitude of prostration, laying his hands on the head of the penitent, supplicated, with solemn fervor, the divine compassion on him, and then raising him, placed him in the ranks of the faithful at the table of the communion.
This severe and protracted discipline, through which offenders, in the primitive church, were required to pass, – though several outward ceremonies usually entered as elements into the observance, was reckoned essentially a discipline of the mind; and it was as different from the bodily mortification, in which the votaries of Papal Rome comprise the whole duty of penitents, as the life-giving spirit is from the senseless form. Two grand and important objects were contemplated in its appointment, – the one to check every sin in the bud, and prevent the contagion of an evil example; for so jealous were the good and holy Christians of primitive times, of the least dishonor being done to their heavenly Master, or the smallest reproach being cast on his cause, that they lost no time in excluding from their society every one who refused compliance with the precepts of the gospel, or was not adorned with the fruits of its genuine and consistent disciples: – the other was to afford penitents sufficient time to prove the sincerity of their sorrow, and to satisfy the church of their well-founded claims to enjoy its clemency and be restored to its privileges. It was the more necessary to adopt those measures of precaution, that in the days of primitive Christianity, multitudes, who from the ranks of idolatry came over to Christianity, retained a strong predilection for their early indulgences and habits, and were the occasion, by their vices and their crimes, of doing injury to the cause they embraced, to an extent of which we can scarcely form any idea. Accordingly, those who, under the pressure of severe sickness, or in the immediate prospect of death, were absolved and admitted to peace and communion, were, in the event of their recovery, required to place themselves again in that stage of their discipline at which they had arrived when arrested by their indisposition, And to complete the course in due order, as if no interruption had occurred; while, on the other hand, the sins of some were considered as of so black a hue, and involving such enormous guilt, that a life-time appearing far too short a time to enable them to bring forth fruits meet for repentance, they were doomed by a law, as unalterable as the laws of the Modes and Persians, to live and die under the ban of the church. In regard to those cases where penitents, in the progress of their trials, relapsed into sin, they were degraded to a lower rank, and obliged to enter on the task of probation anew, – an obligation, however, which, in such circumstances, was at once a punishment, and a favor granted to them as an act of grace, in the spirit of christian tenderness, – disposed to forbear a little longer with their weakness. But when a person who had gone through the routine of penitential observances, and was restored to the privileges of full communion, repeated his crime, or was convicted of another, the opportunity of again placing himself in the order of penitents was inflexibly denied, and no importunities or tears on his part, – no influence nor intercession on that of others, could open the gates of the church, which thenceforth were for ever shut against him.