In the Acts of the Apostles we are presented with an inspired picture of the early Church, in her unity and power, as God’s witness on the earth. As the word “Church” imports, those who compose it are a people “called out” from the world, and at its first formation and spread, this line was maintained very markedly. Soon after the departure of the apostles, grevious wolves obtained entrance to the flock, who sought their own gain and honour, and as they gradually rose into a distinct caste, or “clergy,” separate from and lording it over the people or “laity,” they became the instruments by which in process of turn all barriers between the Church and the world were removed, and the interested agents for the consummation of the Union of the two into one— Christendom.
The rise, development, and end of this clerical system has been set forth by the Lord in the Scriptures, as He regards it, and to His warnings all who desire to escape its meshes do well to take heed.
The Apostle Peter in his First Epistle, chap. 2:5, speaks of all believers as “a holy priesthood,” whose privilege is to offer up “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God by Jesus Christ,” while in chapter 5:3, he calls all the Lord’s people His “clergy,” or inheritance, and the presbyters or elders are admonished that while they act the bishop in an oversee the flock, they are not to lord it over this said heritage or clergy. Thus the two errors are brought into close juxtaposition and condemned together.
The Spirit of Clerical assumption and Prelatical usurpation had thus early begun to manifest itself in Peter’s own day, and is here reproved. In his Second Epistle he warns against “false teachers” who were “among” the saints, whose perversions of the truth had been so extensively embraced and whose errors so generally prevailed, that “the way of truth” was through their instrumentality already being evil spoken of (2 Peter 2:2). The Apostle Paul warned the Ephesian elders that after his departure “of your own selves shall men arise speaking perverse things to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:29, 30). Here again the evil rises from within, and among those who are addressed as elders, overseers, or bishops and it should be remembered that it was this particular Church that the Lord made choice of, some years later, to depict the general decline of the entire Church in its first stage, and the growth of Nicolaitinism, or clerisy within its pale.
So early as in the beloved disciple John’s day, there was a Diotrephes who “loved to have the preeminence,” and whose “evil deeds” and “malicious words” that apostle refers to in his third Epistle, verse 10. The presumption and arrogance thus begun, developed with such an amazing rapidity that Jude forewarns in his day that these clerics would come to “despise dominion and speak evil of dignities” (verse 8), which actually came to pass when the religious rulers of Christendom caused civil governors to execute their behest and usurped the monstrous power of releasing subjects from their allegiance to their rightful Sovereign, while emperors bowed with fear and trembling to the men who claimed to be the Vicars of Christ.
Thus, some of the professed servants of Christ, instead of being “examples to the flock,” even in very early times usurped dominion, lording it over God’s possessions, and as their claims were yielded to they waxed increasingly arrogant. Who that reflects at all, but must see that herein lies the very root of the apostacy!
It would be very small in its beginnings. In some assemblies there would doubtless be certain who desired to have some one to lean upon, where there was not faith to reckon upon a present God, to supply all His Church’s needs. Gifted but carnal men would willingly take the place thus accorded to them, and become “ministers,” claiming the exclusive right to preach and teach. Practice would grow into custom and especially when copies of the Scriptures were few, would in course of time become an accredited “doctrine.” And thus a distinct and clerical caste grew up within the Church, who gradually drew a hard and fast line between themselves and those they termed the “laity,” claiming for themselves superiority in all spiritual matters, and that they only had the right to recognise and appoint others to perform the same function, so that whoever was received by them into their circle, however glaringly deficient he might be in those heavenly gifts which truly constitute a minister of Jesus Christ, yet immediately upon his masonic-like investiture into the charmed circle he became a minister by that act, and wherever he henceforth happened to be, his voice alone must be heard and every one else must be mute and passive. And again, whoever is not thus received into this clique, however markedly he may be furnished by the Holy Ghost with gifts and graces, however well equipped with spiritual knowledge wherewith to edify the Church, yet, in consequence of being outside that elect, that charmed circle—an imperium in imperio, a church within a church—he may not perform scarcely any public function. Such is clerisy; such was its beginning, which as we shall see grew and flourished, because it had the sufference if not the support of a people who had left their first love and lost sight of the Lord Jesus, as the Supreme Head of His Church. Clerisy chiefly depends for its existence and sufferance upon the notion that Christianity is nothing but the expansion of Judaism. In Judaism there was a divinely-instituted priesthood quite separate from the body of the nation, a three-fold order—high priest, priests, and Levites. But the Cross abolished all these. There is now no high priest but One, who is declared by the Spirit to have the priesthood “intransmissibly” (Heb. 7:24), an high priest after the order of Melchisedec. For any to assume to intervene between God and His people, save He who appears in the presence of God on their behalf (Heb. 9:24), is an invasion of His rights, which sooner or later a jealous God, who watches over the honour due to Christ, will visit with judgment. There is no priesthood on earth, save that which is the common privilege of all who have been loosed from their sins in the blood of Christ (Rev. 1:7), who anointed by the Spirit (2 Cor. 1:21) are invited to enter the holiest (Heb. 10:19) as worshippers. The gradual yielding on the part of Christians generally of these privileges, in some through fear and indolence, in others through ignorance and unacquaintance with the Scriptures, with the increasing arrogance of the clerics in assuming more and more the place of lordship over the heritage of God perfected the apostacy.
When love to Christ declines in the hearts of His own, love of the world, probably covered over with some religious pretext, must take its place. The heart of man, like nature, abhors a vacuum; it must have something to occupy it. Thus, in the earliest stages of the church’s decline, as set forth by the Lord Jesus in Rev. 2:1-7, there are two forms of evil detected, one of the heart, the other in the life. Inwardly, the church had left her first love, yet not wholly; outwardly Nicolaitianism or clerisy began to appear, not without the great disapprobation of some at first, who in the course of time, as their love to Christ became less, ceased to witness against the evil, which was thus permitted to grow and increase within the church’s pale, until the “deeds” of these clerics became a custom and were accepted as a “doctrine” (ver. 15). As regards Christ, it was the ceasing to give Him His place as Lord in the assembly of His saints, together with the ignoring of the Holy Ghost’s presence there. On the human side it was the leaning on some gifted individual or individuals, who gradually performed all spiritual functions.
But it may be asked, what proof is there, that Nicolaitanism here condemned by the Lord is clerisy.
There never was such a sect as “The Nicolaitanes. All sorts of old tomes have been searched to discover such a sect, but in vain. Men have found a Nicolas, then assumed this sect were his followers, all in imagination. Suppose there had been, why should the Lord single this one out from all the rest, of which there were at least a dozen by the end of the first century, and give it twice over all the blame? The word when translated means— “Those who put down or conquer the people,” and is chiefly associated with “the doctrine of Balaam,” which latter word means— “Those who devour the people. And when it is remembered that the point of the teaching in regard to this prophet and his work of seducing Israel into an unholy alliance with Moab, is not to be found in fleshly, but in spiritual fornication (James 4:4), the application of it to clerisy is at once striking and solemn. The “doctrine of the Nicolaitaines” looks at the priestly assumption of these clerics; the “doctrine of Balaam” has respect to their work in bringing the church into an unhallowed union with the world, and the profit accruing to them therefrom. Surely then clericalism and Nicolaitanism are identical! The writings of the apostles abound in descriptive allusions to the apostacy of the church, and they also trace the various evils by which it is accomplished to their source, which is seen to be within, and to proceed from ungodly men making a base use of the ministerial office.
The Second Epistle to Timothy deals chiefly with these evils and with the Christian’s duty in the face thereof. In the third chapter, there is a notable reference to the cause or prime movers in this state of things. “Now as Jannes and Jambres withstood Moses, so do these also resist the truth.” How do they resist it? By successfully imitating up to a certain point what God had commanded His servant to perform. These resisters, having a form of godliness but destitute of its power, imitate the true ambassadors of Christ.
The Second Epistle of Peter and the Epistle of Jude speak out plainly and portentiously of the class of men who are the instruments in enticing the Church from the path of separation, and bringing it into unholy alliance with the world. There too their inner selves, their thoughts, their objects, and the secrets of their hearts are brought to light. They are “false teachers” (chap. 2:1), although they would not avow themselves to be such. Wolves in wolves clothing would but very partially succeed. Unmingled error would not avail or take. These ministers of Satan transformed themselves into “the apostles of Christ” (2 Cor. 11:15), privily bringing in heresies of destruction, no doubt mingled with grains of truth. The object was to “make merchandise” of the saints, for their hearts were exercised “with covetous practices” (chap. 2:14).
“The way of Balaam” and the “error of Balaam” both mentioned in these later epistles, with the end and doom of that covetous prophet, have a solemn warning voice to those who use the ministerial office “for advantage.” “Livings “bought and sold for “filthy lucre” continue until this day. That these clerics were the chief movers in bringing about this union in the days of Constantine is a matter of history. The very names of the chief movers are preserved. Without them and their false prophesyings of peace, this union would have never been consummated; by it they were, and their successors are to this day, the greatest gainers in earthly things. The outward appearance of Christianity was entirely changed. Persecution ceased. Instead of vaults and catacombs for their assemblies as one writer tells—“There arose in the cities and towns churches of magnificence, and the ritual was celebrated with a corresponding pomp. Earthen vessels were displaced by golden cups, and the once lowly servants of Christ became companions of kings and nobles. Mitres adorned with precious stones adorned the heads recently exposed to wind and rain .Soldiers with naked swords kept watch around the palace gates, while they passed through them to sit at the emperor’s table. It looked like the image of the kingdom of Christ. Their chief ecclesiastical meetings were presided over by the emperor in person. Men dreamt that the millennium had come. The walls of the church were totally broken down: the church was the world and the world the church: the two had married and become one—Christendom. Others in turn began to lord it over the clericals. The great ecclesiastical tree shot up and spread forth its branches of deacons, archdeacons, priests, deans, bishops, archbishops, patriarchs, until at length the Papal supremacy with cardinals second in rank crowned the whole, with all sacred things in their power, and with heaven and hell as was supposed absolutely under their control. “The church, the church” was then the term ever in men’s mouths. Christ the Living Head was unheard of. She was supreme. Holy mother church was all in all! Then it was that the church became Paganised, and at the instigation of her ministers persecuted unto death the faithful servants of Christ as the fourth Epistle, the message to the church in Thyatira tells. Then followed one gross abomination after another, until full apostasy was reached. The church accepting the Pope’s supremacy, and the world’s kings charmed into the belief that by submission to its outward rites they would propitiate heaven, soon permitted the Pope to rule over it. Thus the evil which had so small and apparently trivial a beginning, and was probably winked at by those whose responsibility it was to check it, grew and increased, until it domineered over church and world alike. Such is clerisy, and such its way wherever found. “He that hath an ear to hear, let him hear!”