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Church Discipline

The Church was the company of the saints. How far, then, could the Church
tolerate in its midst those who had committed serious offences against the
moral law? A case had occurred in the Corinthian church about which St.
Paul had given some instructions to the Christians of that city (cf. I
Cor. 5:3-5; II Cor. 13:10). There was the idea current that sins after
baptism admitted of no pardon and involved permanent exclusion from the
Church (cf. Heb. 10:26). A distinction was also made as to sins whereby
some were regarded as "sins unto death" and not admitting of pardon (cf.
I John 5:16). In principle, the exclusion from the Church of those who had
committed gross sins was recognized, but as the Church grew it soon became
a serious question as to the extent to which this strict discipline could
be enforced. We find, therefore, a well-defined movement toward relaxing
this rigor of the law. The beginning appears in Hermas, who admits the
possibility of one repentance after baptism. A special problem was
presented from the first by the difference between the conceptions of
marriage held by the Christians and by the heathen. The Church very early
took the position that marriage in some sense was indissoluble, that so
long as both parties to a marriage lived, neither could marry again, but
after the death of one party the surviving spouse could remarry, although
this second marriage was looked upon with some disfavor. Both the idea of
a second repentance and the idea of the indissolubility of marriage are
expressed in the following extract from Hermas:

Hermas, Pastor, Man. IV, I, 3.

Hermas wrote in the second century. Opinions have varied as to his
date, some putting him near the beginning, some near the middle of
the century. The weight of opinion seems to be that he lived
shortly before 150. His work entitled The Pastor is in the form
of revelations, and was therefore thought to partake of an
inspiration similar to that of Holy Scripture. This naturally gave
it a place among Scriptures for a while and accounts for the great
popularity of the work in the early Church. It is the best example
of an extensive apocalyptic literature which flourished in the
Church in the first two centuries.

Ch. 1. If the husband should not take her back [i.e., the penitent wife
who has committed adultery] he sins, and brings a great sin upon himself;
for he ought to take back her who has sinned and repented; but not
frequently; for there is but one repentance to the servants of God
[i.e., after becoming the servants of God]. On account of her repentance
[i.e., because she may repent, and therefore should be taken back] the
husband ought not to marry. This treatment applies to the woman and to the

Ch. 3. And I said to him: "I should like to continue my questions." "Speak
on," said he. And I said: "I have heard, sir, from some teachers that
there is no other repentance than that when we descend into the water and
receive remission of our former sins." He said to me: "Thou hast well
heard, for so it is. For he who has received remission of his sins ought
to sin no more, but to live in purity. Since, however, you inquire
diligently into all things, I will point out this also to you, not as
giving occasion for error to those who are to believe, or have lately
believed, in the Lord. For those who have now believed and those who are
to believe have not repentance of their sins, but they have remission of
their former sins. For to those who have been called before these days the
Lord has set repentance. For the Lord, who knows the heart and foreknows
all things, knew the weakness of men and the manifold wiles of the devil,
that he would inflict some evil on the servants of God and would act
wickedly against them. The Lord, therefore, being merciful, has had mercy
on the works of His hands and has set repentance for them; and has
intrusted to me the power over this repentance. And therefore I say unto
you," he said, "that if after that great and holy calling any one is
tempted by the devil and sins, he has one repentance. But if thereupon he
should sin and then repent, to such a man his repentance is of no benefit;
for with difficulty will he live."(23)

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