Dr. Lightfoot on the Christian Ministry.

(St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians by J. B. Lightfoot, D.D., 3rd edition, 1873.)

1874 157 This is a dissertation of 86 pages on the christian ministry, appended to a revised text and comment on the Epistle to the Philippians.

It is an industrious and sufficiently exhaustive treatise on the origin and progress of episcopacy. Dr. L. repeatedly demurs at the office considered uniquely, much more at the order of bishops being found in the word of God.

He derives it, as most modern authors do, from a presidency — a primus inter pares — originally and perhaps necessarily given by the presbytery itself to some one of its members, which afterwards developed itself first into the office of a bishop, then into the right of ordination, and eventually into sacerdotalism, in which form it at present exists. As this is an important question of the day, we shall briefly pursue the line, not of argument, but of history, followed by the author, and state wherein we think he fails as to his acceptance of the office or order in its present circumstances, and as to a real discrimination of what true ministry is.

Not only do we need no better witness than Dr. Lightfoot for the fact that episcopacy as an order, distinct in itself from the presbytery, is not of God; but also we could not have a more explicit testimony, as to the time at which the change was made. It was between the closing of the canon of scripture, and the period in the writings of the early christian fathers, namely, front about the year A. D 70 to the beginning or middle of the second century. Let us hear what Dr. L. says on the subject. "History seems to show decisively that before the middle of the second century, each church or organized christian community had its three orders of ministers, its bishop, its presbyters, and its deacons." (Page 184.) Again, "As late therefore as the year 70, no distinct signs of episcopal government have hitherto appeared in Gentile Christendom. Yet unless we have recourse to a sweeping condemnation of received documents, it seems vain to deny that early in the second century, the episcopal office was firmly and widely established. Thus during the last three decades of the first century, and consequently during the lifetime of the latest surviving apostle, this change must have been brought about." (Page 199.)

Again: "Nor does it appear that the rise of episcopacy was so sudden and so immediate, that an authoritative order issuing from an apostolic council alone can explain the phenomenon. In the mysterious period which comprises the last thirty years of the first century, and on which history is almost silent, episcopacy must, it is true, have been mainly developed." (Pages 203 — 204.) Once more: "In this way, during the historical blank which extends over half a century after the fall of Jerusalem, episcopacy was matured, and the catholic church consolidated." (Page 205.)

Nothing more need be added to these extracts to show that, when church history opened, a departure had already taken place from scriptural order. "The bishops [or presbyters] and deacons" of Philippians i. 1, and the elders or presbyters of Peter (l Peter 5:1-3) which was the apostolic order, had changed into bishops, presbyters, and deacons. However lightly, as will be seen farther on, Dr. L. may think of this change, to our mind it exhibits a grievous departure from scripture truth.

Two circumstances appear to satisfy Dr. L. or to reconcile him to the change. The first is that he thinks James the Lord's brother to have been a bishop "in the later and more special sense of the term." (Page 195.) Again: "The church of Jerusalem, as I have already pointed out, presents the earliest instance of a bishop. A certain official prominence is assigned to James the Lord's brother, both in the Epistles of St. Paul, and in the Acts of the Apostles. And the inference drawn from the notices on the canonical scriptures is borne out by the tradition of the next ages. As early as the middle of the second century all parties concurred in representing him as a bishop in the strict sense of the term." Again: "Hegesippus who is our authority for this statement (namely, that Symeon was appointed in his place) distinctly regards Symeon as holding the same office with James, and no less distinctly calls him a bishop." (Page 200.)

This occurred of course in the church at Jerusalem. As to the rise of the office among the Gentiles, he supposes that it took place in Asia Minor under the auspices of the Apostle John. Thus he writes: "Above all these notices establish this result clearly, that its maturer forms are seen first in those regions where the latest surviving apostles (more especially St. John) fixed their abode, and at a time when its prevalence cannot be dissociated from their influence or their sanction." Without a trace of it in his writings, nay, with much in them against such a supposition, it is thus traditionally affirmed that John the apostle had a hand in the establishment of episcopacy. This is serious, because it connects tradition with an apostle, and throws us off his inspired writings, in which latter alone we ought to find an unerring guile. It is thus that Dr. L. evidently connects himself with an apostolic succession. We must again allow him to speak for himself.

"Here we find (that is, in Asia Minor) the widest and most unequivocal traces of episcopacy at an early date. Clement of Alexandria distinctly states that St. John went about from city to city, his purpose being 'in some places to establish bishops, in others to consolidate whole churches, in others again to appoint to the clerical office some one of those who had been signified by the Spirit;' and much more to this effect from the works of those fathers who had notoriously imbibed episcopacy, their writings being full of the subject."

Now if James and John be thus brought in as sanctioning episcopacy, is it not well with a view to check such assertions to examine their writings? Do they verify such a statement as the following? "Nor again is Rothe probably wrong as to the authority mainly instrumental in effecting the change. Asia Minor was the adopted home of more than one apostle after the fall of Jerusalem. Asia Minor too was the nurse, if not the mother, of episcopacy in the Gentile churches. So important an institution, developed in a christian community of which St. John was the living centre and guide, could hardly have grown up without his sanction: and, as will he presently seen, early tradition very distinctly connects his name with the appointment of bishops in these parts." (Page 204.) Once more: "We have seen that the needs of the church and the ascendancy of his personal character placed St. James at the head of the christian brotherhood in Jerusalem. Though remaining a member of the presbyterial council, he was singled out from the rest, and placed in a position of superior responsibility. His exact power it is impossible, and it is unnecessary, to define. When therefore after the fall of the city, St. John with the surviving apostles removed to Asia Minor, and found there manifold irregularities, and threatening symptoms of disruption, he would not unnaturally encourage an approach in these Gentile churches to the same organization, which had been signally blessed, and proved effectual inholding together the mother church amid dangers not less serious. The existence of a council or college necessarily supposes a presidency of some kind, whether this presidency be assumed by each member in turn, or lodged in the hands of a single person. It was only necessary therefore for him to give permanence, definiteness, stability, to an office which already existed in germ. There is no reason however for supposing that any direct ordinance was issued to the churches. The evident utility and ever pressing need of such an office, sanctioned by the most venerated name in Christendom, would be sufficient to secure its wide though gradual reception" (Page 205.) But let us see whether in the Epistles of James or of John a trace can be found that, if they remained true to their writings, such an event could have occurred under their auspices.

We willingly admit at Jerusalem the salient position which James (whether an apostle or not) occupied. Paul alludes to this, when in Galatians he associates him with Peter and John. "And when James, Cephas, and John who seemed to be pillars," and still more so when he says of Peter, "For before that certain came from James the did eat with the Gentiles" (Gal. ii. 9-12); but when we look at James's writings, he calls himself simply "a servant of God," and throughout his Epistle remarkably seeks to connect the souls of those he addresses with God Himself, not at all through any bishop; and on the only occasion in which he makes any allusion to church officers, he desires the sick to send "for the elders of the church." It is plain that by this recommendation he owned a body of elders in any or every church; in other words a body of bishops, for we learn their identity by a comparison of Titus i. 5 with verse 7, and of Acts xx. 17 compared with verse 28, to say nothing of other passages used quite fairly by Dr. L.

Whatever prominence therefore James had, it was not by way of establishing a new office, still less a new order, for himself; however this may have been done for him by others after his death.

In the Epistles of John nothing is more significant than the way in which those to whom he writes are made personally responsible for the truth. They are to "try the spirits whether they are of God." (1 John iv. 1.) They were to be on their guard. "Little children, let no man deceive you." (1 John iii. 7.) Again, "Little children it is the last time, and as ye have heard that Antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists, whereby ye know that it is the last time." John wrote these testing Epistles as owning the last time. He did not hint at any apostolic or episcopal succession, to whom the case or conduct of any person was to be relegated. Moreover, if upon the one hand there were the many antichrists, upon the other he could say, "Ye have an unction from the Holy One and know all things." (1 John ii. 18-20.) They were not left without abundant provision.

In his second Epistle he more fully owns, and that to a lady, the fallen condition of things — "many deceivers are entered into the world" — and says, "Look to yourselves [not to a bishop] that ye lose not those things which we nave wrought, but that we receive a full reward." In the third Epistle (to Gaius), he informs him that he had written to the church, but that "Diotrephes who loveth to have the preeminence among them receiveth us not." (Ver. 9.) It is clear that every evil principle was at work in apostolic days, and with the example of Diotrephes before him, he is not likely to have given his sanction to a supposed successor, more especially when full directions were given to the saints in this state of things. Is it likely after this that, according to Dr. L., he should have sanctioned, not a primus inter pares, not a president of a board of elders, but an established bishop of an order superior to the presbyters?

But here a very interesting question meets us. It is well known that discrepancies exist as to the succession of the early bishops so-called, although plenty of lists are found. Dr. L. says, of those at Jerusalem, that Symeon follows James — then, "The episcopate of Justus, the successor of Symeon, commences about A.D. 108; that of Marcus, the first Gentile bishop (of Jerusalem), A.D.136. Thus thirteen bishops occupy only about twenty-eight years" (p. 206). In like manner of the Roman bishops proper, it is observable although their occupancy of the see is not so short, yet their names are mingled together in a confused way, more especially the nearer they are to the fountain head. Thus they run — Linus, Anencletus, Clemens, Evarestus, according to Irenaeus. Eusebius in different works gives two lists, both agreeing in the order with Irenaeus, though not agreeing with each other in the dates. Catalogues are also found in later writers, transposing the sequence of the earliest bishops, and adding the name Cletus, or substituting it for Anencletus. But although not instanced by Dr. L., Tertullian says, "As the church of the Smyrneans relates that Polycarp was placed there by John, so, in like manner, the church of the Romans relates that Clement was ordained by Peter," so that here was confusion anew. How simple is the solution, if, in the discrepancies as to the position of the names at Rome, as well as in the suspicion attached to the shortness of the occupancies at Jerusalem, we recognize a presbytery with a chairman, whose place, when he was absent owing to other important calls, was filled by another, and reoccupied by him on his return!

We take leave of Dr. L. with one more notice. It does him credit that he does not force into his service the angels of the churches in Revelation ii., iii., as do too many of his contemporaries. We give his view of these angels, because it comes so near to what our judgment of them is. "Whether the angel is here conceived as an actual person, the celestial guardian, or only as a personification, the idea or spirit of the church, it is unnecessary for my present purpose to consider. But whatever may be the exact conception, he is identical with, and made responsible for it, to a degree wholly unsuited to any human officer. In one passage especially the language applied to the angel seems to exclude the common interpretation. In the message to Thyatira, the angel is blamed because he suffers himself to be led astray by 'his wife Jezebel.'

In this image of Ahab's idolatrous queen, some dangerous and immoral teaching must be personified; for it does violence alike to the general tenor, and to the individual expressions in the passage, to suppose that an actual woman is meant" (p. 198). But to conclude our notice, as far as Dr. L. is concerned. The steps alas! are easy from even the chairman of a body of presbyters to the functorial order of a bishop, thence, through the right of ordination to sacerdotalism, and onwards to the pope. Candour obliges us to say that Dr. L.'s easy acceptance of modern episcopacy is at variance with the premises lie lays down of its irreconcileableness with scripture. But he contrives, unfairly as we think, to connect the names of James and John with it, but only in the latter case through the untrustworthy channel of tradition, and thus he satisfies himself. Always objecting, yet in the end He assents, and gives in his adhesion in the language which follows.

The power of the bishops, as a question of practical importance, being the subject, he says: "Such a development involves no new principle, and must be regarded chiefly in its practical bearings. It is plainly, competent for the church, at any given time, to entrust a particular office with larger powers, as the emergency may require. And though the grounds on which the independent authority of the episcopate was at times defended may have been false or exaggerated, no reasonable objection can be taken to later forms of ecclesiastical polity because the measure of power accorded to the bishop does not remain exactly the same as in the church of the sub-apostolic ages. Nay, to many thoughtful and dispassionate minds even the gigantic power wielded by the popes during the middle ages will appear justifiable in itself (though they will repudiate the false pretensions on which it was founded, and the false opinions which were associated with it), since only by such a providential concentration of authority could the church, humanly speaking, have braved the storms of those ages of anarchy and violence" (pp. 242, 243).

Is all this reasoning anything but a simple begging of the question? Has Dr. L. proved that the order of bishops, as one superior to presbyters, is found in scripture? If he has not found the order, how can it be "entrusted with larger powers?" It is just this departure from the word of God — this finding by tradition what cannot be found in scripture — which has brought Christendom into its present position. If God has thought proper to lay down distinct landmarks in His word, what authority have we to depart from them? If the bishopric be an order superior to presbyters, why, are there no administrative instructions given for its exercise? The end is that Dr. L. is obliged to condone the very office of the pope, productive as it was of a condition of Christendom during the middle ages far worse than that of heathenism. By giving the church an earthly head, we effectually shut out association with Christ as a heavenly one. Dr. L. thus derives his sanction to preach through the tradition that John the Apostle set up the first bishop, whence comes the pope, and also through him Dr. L.'s successional right? all the time, be it remembered, that the pope himself denies that the Anglican church has any succession at all. Upon what a slippery foundation does all this succession rest! Besides, is it not evident, from the farewell interview of Paul with the elders of Ephesus, narrated in Acts xx., that he looked for no succession? Did he not rather "commend them to God and to the word of his grace, which was able to build them up, and to give them an inheritance among all them that were sanctified?"

A few remarks are yet needed as to a want in this treatise concerning the Christian ministry, or, in other words, early church government for this is really the subject, and not Christian ministry, which latter is provided for, as will be shown, from Christ Himself on high. Placed upon their trial, we believe that Presbyterianism shows more proofs in its favour than Episcopacy [though it wholly fails in the vital point of valid power to choose or appoint, where Episcopacy is right theoretically in insisting on a superior authority].

But both sides, as now existing, equally develop the clerical orders, and both equally restrict ministerial office, properly speaking, to those who have been ordained by the laying on of hands. Surely, on the supposition that their ordination is lawful or necessary, there should still be room left for the manifestation of those gifts which are independent either of bishops or presbytery. "He gave some apostles; and some prophets; and some evangelists; and some pastors and teachers."

Here let us digress for a moment. The treatise of Dr. L. is at the least valuable on this account, that it substantiates a point of departure, a "mysterious period," during which the action of the Holy Ghost, as "dividing to every man severally as he will," was set aside, and clerical order was set up. During the period between Paul's departure and the first Christian uninspired writer, a child might discover how deep the fall had been, so manifest is the difference between the canonical scriptures and such writings, not only in their feeble hold of positive truth, but in their determined, though often puerile and erroneous assertions. The fathers are indeed no safe guides. We have in measure to be thankful for this. The gulf is narrow, but very deep, between their writings and the scriptures. There is no possibility of adjusting the two. There is a clear line of separation between the scriptures and the earliest church writers; and as to the matter we have in hand, nowhere is it more distinctly seen than in the negation of the prerogatives of Christ, and of the person of the Holy Ghost, in the question of ministry. The error of all modern church history is, that ministry is confined to local officers. Be the system what it may, there are no connections in the way of ministry, properly speaking, with God or with Christ outside of this local channel.

But if we study the First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, we find that there was a great deal of gift, and no eldership (that is, no local government); in fact, elders were made for the church, and not the church for elders. Minute directions are given by Paul as to the use of gifts (1 Cor. xiv.), and as to the observance of the Lord's supper (1 Cor. xi.); but there were apparently no elders, and everything was left to the church's own sense of divine suitabilities. We know, indeed, that there was failure, but the failure was not corrected by the creation of a bishop. Even Dr. L. seems to recognize that there is something besides local government, when he says (p. 194), "The apostle, like the prophet or the evangelist, hold no local office. He was essentially, as his name denotes, a missionary." If this be the case, where is now the evangelist? Do parochial arrangements allow of travelling evangelists, we might say of travelling curates? The truth is, that elders (that is, bishops), as well as deacons, are local. They were of apostolic appointment, chosen for an office, and may or may not have been gifts also; but such appointments offered no restraint to the free current of divine life in the assembly, as we see in the Epistle to the Philippians, nor to the divine prerogative of Christ, who gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers, not one of which are in themselves necessarily elders, "till we all come, in the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man," etc. It is this confusion between local office and gifts for the universal church, or body of Christ, which has been the fruitful source of apostasy, and the poisonous sap which has dwarfed the growth and spread of truth everywhere. It has eventuated in an earthly system, with the pope as chief, and has dethroned our Lord Jesus from all positive action as Head, "from which all the body, by joints and bands, having nourishment ministered, and knit together, increaseth with the increase of God." (Col. ii. 19.) In secret and in silence, blessed be His name, all goes on (for the counsels of God must come to pass); but, speaking of visibility, speaking to those and of those who assume a corporate condition, a discussion on Christian ministry can never be perfect which throws the sources of it into local organization, and omits the engagement of Christ according to Ephesians iv., and the action of the Holy Ghost in such language as "All these worketh that one and the self-same Spirit dividing to every man severally as he will." (1 Cor. xii. 11.) See 1 Peter iv. Dr. L. simply ignores all this.

It is in vain to say with some, that these gifts, those we mean for the edification of the body of Christ (Eph. iv.), were not lasting, and were therefore superseded by elders. They are to last "till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man;" and this is not yet accomplished. It is true that apostles no longer remain. They were the foundation: "As a wise master-builder," says Paul, "I have laid the foundation" (1 Cor. iii.); but prophets, not foretellers, but forth-givers of truth, still remain, and will do so, with evangelists, pastors and teachers; until at the Lord's coming (may it be very near!) we pass into glory. W. W.