We learn from the New Testament Scriptures, that, in the apostolic church, thus in the beginning, the bishop in the church was a common minister of the gospel. But he did not long remain this. At the close of the second century we find every Christian local church, including the ministers of the gospel and the elders, and also, of course, the deacons, ruled by a new dignitary, who alone bore the title of bishop. It means that the bishop was now an office bearer in the church vested with legal power over the ministers of the gospel. In the church of Christ, legal power is key power, that is, the right or authority to administer the word and the sacraments and especially the right to excommunicate out of the Christian Church. At the beginning of the second century, this power was more and more being exercised only by the bishops in contradistinction to the ministers of the gospel, who were now the legal inferiors of the bishop. This was a strange and lamentable departure from the church Policy laid down by Christ in the New Testament Scriptures. These Scriptures plainly teach the legal parity of those whom it calls bishops, teachers and pastors, elders, and presbyters. They know of no bishops vested with legal power also over the presbytery or consistory. This new power, whose appearance was the beginning of papacy and the foundation thereof, is known in history as the monarchial or hierarchical bishop, and the government by such bishops was given the name “episcopate” from the Greek “epi-skopeoo”, meaning to oversee. Simultaneously, the Lord’s Supper became transformed into the sacrifice of the Mass. According to the doctrine of the Mass the bread of holy communion, as it lies upon the Communion Table or Altar, is a sacrifice, and as such an unbloody repetition of the sacrifice of Christ. The duties of preaching and teaching were more and more appropriated by the monarchial bishops, and the task of the ministers of the Gospel became sacrificing the Mass, and on this account the Ministers were called priests, which was now their official title, but they continued to be called presbyters. To the deacons, too, were assigned new tasks, strange to their office. Instead of caring for the poor—a task which was more and more appropriated by the bishops—they baptized, distributed the sacramental cup, said the church prayers, not seldom preached, and were confidential advisors to the bishops; but they were the legal inferiors of the priests. As to the office of ruling elder, it ceased to exist, as the duties that belonged to this office, were taken over by the monarchial bishop. In this bishop was seen the high priest of the Old Dispensation, and the Priests and Deacons were held to correspond to the Levitical Priests and the common Levites respectively.
Still other offices were invented and instituted, namely the following. 1. Sub-deacons or under helpers, as assistants to the deacons. 2. Readers, who read the Scriptures in the meetings for public worship and had charge of the church books. 3. The Acolyths who attended the bishops in their official duties and processions. 4. Exorcists who by prayers and the laying on of hands cast out evil spirits from the possessed, and often assisted in baptism. 5. Janitors or sextons. They took care of the religious meeting rooms and at a later period also of the church yards. 6. Catechists who taught the catechumens or assisted therein. 7. Interpreters. But the interpretation was usually done by the Presbyters, deacons or readers. These were all inferior offices and they formed with the deacons and the priests the Lower Clergy, the Higher Clergy thus including the bishops and all the higher dignitaries.
But we must now concentrate on the bishops. In the first period they had jurisdiction only over the local consistory; but at length the territory over which the church had spread itself was divided into districts or clerical dioceses and in the chief city of each district a bishop was established, whence the city was called the see—from the Latin sedes meaning seat. In course of time the district or dioceses assigned to the first bishop became too populous, whereupon they were subdivided and a second bishop selected; and so bishops and dioceses were multiplied according to the wants of the churches. Meanwhile the bishops of the new sees grouped themselves around the bishops of the ancient sees. So did the bishops fall into differing ranks according to the ecclesiastical and political importance of their several seats of authority. On the lowest level stood the bishops of the country churches, who had jurisdiction over all the churches located in their respective districts. The next highest rank was occupied by the city bishops. Among the latter towered the bishops of the chief cities of the civil provinces of the Roman empire. In the East they were called metropolitans—from the Greek, metra mother and polls city, hence mother city—in the West archbishops. They had jurisdiction over the other bishops of the province, ordained them, called the provincial synods and presided in such synods. Upon them devolved the care of all the churches of the whole province. Above the metropolitans stood the five patriarchs. They were the bishops of the four great capitals of the empire, Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, and Constantinople, to which was added the bishop of Jerusalem. Their joint rule extended over the whole Christian church. Each patriarch had jurisdiction over a number of dioceses, ordained the metropolitan bishops, rendered the final decisions in church controversies, presided in the ecumenical councils, published the decrees of the councils, and thus united in themselves the supreme legislative and executive powers in the church. This was the episcopate in its completed form—a form which it attained by the fourth century. It may be compared to a building, rising from the lower clergy as its base, through rank upon rank of bishops of always greater (power and topped by five spires or steeples—the five patriarchs; or it may be compared to a body with five heads. In this conception the lower clergy forms the feet, the bishops of differing ranks the legs and the torso, and the patriarchs the five heads of the body. In a previous article it was pointed out that what contributed to the development of the episcopacy was the commendation it received from the church fathers, especially from Ignatius, bishop of Antioch and Iraneus.
Thereupon the idea was conceived that the patriarch or the bishop of Rome enjoyed a universal jurisdiction over the whole Christian church, laity and clergy alike including the other four patriarchs. But this is not all. In process of time, the bishop of Rome, who took the name of pope, laid claim to a jurisdiction over all the kingdoms of the earth as well. Church and state were conceived of as forming two sides to the kingdom of Christ on earth, and in this kingdom the pope claimed to be the supreme judicial power, thus under Christ, the head over all things in the church not only but the Lord of every earthly potentate as well. It is through the pope, such is the conception, that Christ exercises His dominion on earth in state and church. These were amazing claims. Still more amazing is the fact that, at times and in a measure, the papacy actually succeeded in realizing its claims. Its success in this direction, the how and the why of this success, makes an astounding story full of intrigue and carnal tactic. This story I now purpose to tell. In a series of articles I purpose to sketch the rise and decline of the papacy in its struggles with the rulers in church and state for world dominion.
As has just been observed, the claim of the papacy to such universal jurisdiction has been realized but partially. Greek Christendom has never acknowledged it and Latin Christianity—the church of Western Europe—acknowledged it for a time only. In the Reformation the papacy was deprived forever of the best of its domain. So, that to which we now have regard is the rise and the decline of the papacy in the countries of Latin Christianity. These countries are: The British Isles, the Lowlands (Belgium and the Netherlands) Gaul (the modern France) Germany, Italy, and Spain, that the papacy did not advance its authority in the other countries of the Eastern Hemisphere was not due to the fact that it had set a limit to its ambitions. Could the popes have gotten their way, they would have ruled the world from pole to pole and would be ruling the world from pole to pole in this day and age.
The papacy, its ambitions and strivings, is of the earth earthy. As to the idea of world dominion in church and state, it was conceived and born in carnal lust of power. It is not according to the pattern for church organization laid down by Christ in the Scriptures. True, its erection took place according to the determinate counsel of God. Undoubtedly, not a few of the popes through whom it became flesh and blood were true children of God. As do all things, good and bad, it worked for good to God’s believing people. It performed useful deeds. Through it Christ promoted the ends of his kingdom in the same sense that he advances the cause of His kingdom through all things good and bad. Thus it served God’s counsel, as do all things. But for all this it was and is an unscriptural institution. It bore fruit after its kind and this fruit was evil. The apostles, whose successors the popes claim to be, did not strive after worldly power. They did not lay claim to jurisdiction over all things in the state. But they warned the pastors in the church against entangling themselves in the affairs of this life. I Tim. 2:4. True, the office after which the popes aspired does exist; but it exists for Christ only. He, as seated at the right hand of God in the highest heavens, is King of Kings and Lord of lords and as such the head over all things in the church. But nowhere, certainly, do the Scriptures teach that Christ exercises this dominion on earth through the pope of Rome.
Since the papacy had no army of its own to fight for it, the question is pertinent how it succeeded even partially in realizing its ambition? The question is to be answered thus. The temporal rulers would come to the assistance of the papacy with their armies in exchange for favors sought from and granted them by the popes. What is more, some of the popes themselves were skilled in the arts of war and went forth to battle at the head of troops recruited from their own estates. Secondly, all men, including the mightiest kings, feared the pope’s thunderings. For the belief became general that the keys of the kingdom of heaven had been placed by Christ in the hands of the pope so that he had the power to set men in heaven or send them in everlasting desolation as he chose and as convenience dictated. The preaching by the church so registered in men’s minds that this was the conclusion that was being drawn. And the fault lay with the teachers in the church. They obscured the truth by the vain philosophies of men. Thus through the use of these two instruments—the sword power and the key power—the papacy went far in fastening itself upon the state and the church. It went far in this respect also through the use even of the sword power and this despite the fact of Christ’s reply to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom was of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence,” John 18:26. Truly, the papacy is an evil institution, and this despite the fact that it performed useful things, and also despite the fact that more than one pope—we cannot otherwise judge—was a true believer, bearing fruit worthy of repentance.
The first pope to lay claim to dominion in the whole church—mark you, in the church not in the state as yet—this came later—was Leo I, the dates of whose pontificate are 440-461. This claim he founded upon his own erroneous interpretation of Matt. 16:18, 19. In his conception, Peter is the rock upon whom the Lord built His church. To him especially the Lord gave the keys of the kingdom of heaven; to the other apostles only in a general capacity. Peter therefore is the prince of the whole church. This primacy (of Peter) was transferrable and actually was transferred1 to the bishops of Rome and to them only, who, in consequence thereof are, as the successors of Peter, the pastors of the whole church. The fallacy of this interpretation is seen from the statement, that the church universal is built, according to the Scriptures, upon the foundation of all the apostles and prophets and upon Christ as the chief, corner stone. Thus the function of them all was to lay, through their infallible teachings, the foundation of the church for all the ages to come, so that with the death of the last apostle—circa 100—this function ceased and with it the office of the apostles, so that the apostles were without successors. They continued to function through the word of God that Christ, through their agency, gave to the church. This must be maintained in opposition to the fundamental idea of the papacy as set forth with unprecedented clarity for the first time by pope Leo I. With unprecedented clearness. This is the correct way of stating the matter, for the seeds of the papal idea are discoverable in the writings of all the leading church fathers. According to Leo, obedience to the pope is necessary to salvation. So did he wholly identify the kingdom of heaven with the Roman hierarchy, in particular with the papacy. And he was bold to make good his claims. In the tone of overload, be admonished the bishops of the African church; severely rebuked the bishops of Italy for their laxity in purging their churches of the Manichean and Pelagian heresy; confirmed in his office Anastacius, bishop of Thessalonica, upon the latter’s request; and extended his jurisdiction over all the Illyrian bishops, but reserving to them the right of appeal in important cases from the provincial synod to the pope. The African, Illyrian, and Italian bishops acknowledged his authority and likewise the Spanish church, which besought his intervention against the Priscillianists, whom he refuted point by point. But in Gaul he succeeded but partially in establishing his authority, and in the East his effort in this direction failed completely. By the twenty eighth canon of the Council of Chalcedon, the bishop of Constantinople was raised to official equality with Leo, and his earnest protest against this decree was futile.
Leo’s success in carrying the idea of the papacy into effect can be explained, Firstly, be was a man of unusual ability. Justly does he bear the title of “The Great” in the history of the Latin hierarchy. In acuteness and depth of thought, in energy of will and spirit, he surpassed all his predecessors and successors down to pope Gregory I. And during the time of his pontificate, he was the only great man in the Roman empire. Nowhere was there a powerful bishop or divine, like Athanasius or Augustine in the former generation. He was the directing influence in the second stage of the Christological controversy. The whole substance of the doctrinal formula by which this controversy was concluded, was taken from his letter to Flavian of Constantinople. He took a leading part in all the affairs of the church, doing battle with the heresies of his time such as the Manichaean, the Pricilianist, and the Pelagian. Besides shaping the doctrine and the polity of the church, he saved Rome from destruction by venturing into the camp of the Huns, who were threatening the imperial city. As subdued by his remonstrances and as awed by his venerable appearance, the heathen actually changed their purpose. Leo was a great man. And his feelings at the assumption of his office, which he, himself, describes in one of his sermons, bespeak in him the true Christian: “Lord I have heard your voice calling me, and I was afraid; I considered the work enjoined and I trembled. For what proportion is there between the burden assigned to me and my weakness, this elevation and my nothingness? What is more to be feared than exaltation without merit, the exercise of the most holy functions being entrusted to one who is buried in sin? Oh, you have laid upon me this heavy burden, bear it with me, I beseech you; be you my guide and my support.” On a whole, the popes of the ante-Nicene and early post-Nicene periods were earnest men. For the papacy had not yet begun to strive after worldly power and it was still without its “States of the Church”. Hence, it had not yet become the coveted prize of wicked men and the playball of political factions. The popes were still ecclesiastics, theologians and shepherds, be it chief shepherds, occupied with the affairs of the church.
In explaining the success which Leo had in advancing papal authority, there are still other factors to be considered. There was the importance of the Roman church. It was the only church in the West that was thought to have been founded by apostles, these apostles being Peter and Paul. And the latter had died at Rome. In Rome the early persecutions had been the severest and the church there had endured with vigor. The Roman church was famed for its generosity to poor churches and for its resistance, and this successfully, to heresy, so that already at the close of the second century the feeling was general that every church should agree with the church at Rome. Lastly, this church was the largest single congregation in Christendom and it was located in the capital of the empire.