History of the Church: A. D. 100 to 311 —
Clergy and Laity
The idea and institution of a special priesthood, distinct from
the body of the people, with the accompanying notion of
sacrifice and altar, passed imperceptibly from Jewish and
heathen reminiscences and analogies into the Christian church.
The majority of Jewish converts adhered tenaciously to the
Mosaic institutions and rites, and a considerable part never
fully attained to the height of spiritual freedom proclaimed by
Paul, or soon fell away from it. He opposed legalistic and
ceremonial tendencies in Galatia and Corinth; and although
sacerdotalism does not appear among the errors of his Judaizing
opponents, the Levitical priesthood, with its three ranks of
high priest, priest, and Levite, naturally furnished an analogy
for the threefold ministry of bishop, priest, and deacon, and
came to be regarded as typical of it. Still less could the
Gentile Christians, as a body, at once emancipate themselves
from their traditional notions of priesthood, altar, and
sacrifice, on which their former religion was based.
Whether we regard the change as an apostasy from a higher
position attained, or as a reaction of old ideas never fully
abandoned, the change is undeniable, and can be traced to the
second century. The church could not long occupy the ideal
height of the apostolic age, and as the pentecostal illumination
passed away with the death of the apostles, the old reminiscences
began to reassert themselves1.
In the apostolic church preaching and teaching were not confined
to a particular class, but every convert could proclaim the gospel
to unbelievers, and every Christian who had the gift could pray and teach
and exhort in the congregation2.
The New Testament knows no spiritual aristocracy or nobility, but calls
all believers "saints", though many fell far short of their
vocation. Nor does it recognize a special priesthood in
distinction from the people, as mediating between God and the
laity. It knows only one high priest, Jesus Christ, and clearly
teaches the universal priesthood, as well as universal kingship,
It does this in a far deeper and larger sense than the Old
(see Exodus 19:6); in a sense, too, which even to this day
is not yet fully realized. The entire body of Christians
are called "clergy" (klhrwn), a peculiar people, the heritage
After the gradual abatement of the extraordinary spiritual
elevation of the apostolic age, ... the distinction of a regular
class of teachers from the laity became more fixed and
prominent. This appears first in Ignatius, who, in his high
episcopalian spirit, considers the clergy the necessary medium
of access for the people to God. "Whoever is within the
sanctuary (or altar), is pure; but he who is outside of the
sanctuary is not pure; that is, he who does anything without
bishop and presbytery and deacon, is not pure in conscience".
During the third century it became customary to apply the term
"priest" directly and exclusively to the Christian ministers,
especially the bishops. In the same manner the whole ministry,
and it alone, was called "clergy", with a double reference to
its presidency and its peculiar relation to God. It was
distinguished by this name from the Christian people or "laity".
Thus the term "clergy", which first signified the lot by which
office was assigned (Acts 1:17, 25), then the office itself,
then the persons holding that office, was transferred from the
Christians generally to the ministers exclusively. ...
With the exaltation of the clergy appeared the tendency to
separate them from secular business, and even from social
relations from marriage, for example and to represent
them, even outwardly, as a caste independent of the people, and
devoted exclusively to the service of the sanctuary. They drew
their support from the church treasury, which was supplied by
voluntary contributions and weekly collections on the Lord's
Day. After the third century they were forbidden to engage in
any secular business, or even to accept any trusteeship.
Celibacy was not yet in this period enforced, but left optional.
From History of the Christian Church, chapter 42.
1 Joseph Renan,
looking at the gradual development of the
hierarchy out of the primitive democracy, from his secular point
of view, calls it "the most profound transformation" in history,
and a triple abdication: first the club (the congregation)
committing its power to the bureau or the committee (the college
of presbyters), then the bureau to its president (the bishop)
who could say: "Je suis le club" [I am the club], and finally
the presidents to the pope as the universal and infallible
bishop; the last process being completed in the Vatican Council
of 1870. See his L'Eglise chretienne, 1879, p. 88, and his
English Conferences (Hibbert Lectures, 1880), p. 90.
2 Compare Acts 8:4; 9:27; 13:15; 18:26,28; Romans 12:6;
1 Corinthians 12:10,28; 14:1-6,31. Even in the Jewish
Synagogue the liberty of teaching was enjoyed, and the elder could
ask any member of repute, even a stranger, to deliver a discourse
on the Scripture lesson (Luke 4:17; Acts 17:2).
3 1 Peter 2:5,9; Revelation 1:6; 5:10; 20:6).
4 1 Peter 5:3.
Here Peter warns his fellow-presbyters not to
lord it over the klhrwn, that is, the lot or inheritance of the
Lord, the charge allotted to them. Compare Deuteronomy 4:20
Biographical note: Philip Schaff
was a 19th century church historian who authored, among
other works, the 8 volume History of the Christian Church.
He was born in Chur, Switzerland in 1819 and died in New York,
NY in 1893. He came to the United States in 1844 to teach
church history at the Theological Seminary of the German
Reformed Church at Mercersburg, PA. In 1863, he moved to New
York City, where he worked against the secularization of the
Lord's Day, participated in preparing the Revised Version of the
Bible (published during the 1880s), and helped to promote a
greater awareness of Church history.
History of the Christian Church A.D. 100 to 311