Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Leviathan: III.XLII.49–65

The Stoning of Saint Stephen, attributed to Luigi Garzi. Saint Stephen was one of the first deacons of the church.


The pre-Constantine establishment church was, according to Hobbes, pretty unestablished. In his view there were two broad categories of offices in this early church: “magisterial” and “ministerial.”

Magisterial offices were those offices dedicated primarily to preaching, teaching, and administering the sacraments (XLII.49). While we use a variety of words to describe these offices, in reality there were really only two basic categories that they fell into: apostles and pastors.

The “apostles,” Hobbes points out, were a fairly discrete group with very specific requirements:

…whereof there were at first but twelve; and these were chosen and constituted by our Saviour himself; and their office was not only to preach, teach, and baptize, but also to be martyrs (witnesses of our Saviour’s resurrection). This testimony was the specifical and essential mark whereby the apostleship was distinguished from other magistracy ecclesiastical, as being necessary for an apostle to have seen our Saviour after his resurrection, or to have conversed with him before, and seen his works, and other arguments of his divinity… (XLII.50)

Hobbes is quite right to point out that claims to be an apostle in the same sense that Peter or Paul were apostles are simply false. The book of Acts (which Hobbes cites) quite clearly states that the qualifications for being an apostle were at a minimum having physically seen the resurrected Jesus and having been one of His followers prior from the beginning of his earthly ministry (Acts 1:15-26). Now, that’s not the only thing a church might mean when it claims to be apostolic, but it is enough to respond to two sorts of claims that would have been made in Hobbes’s time (and in our own). First, it would respond to the Roman Catholic claim to have an office which continues the apostolic authority in the same way it was established with people like Peter and Paul. Second, it would respond to the anabaptist claim which echoes the Catholic argument, albeit in a much more democratic way.

The second category of magisterial offices includes bishops, elders, and pastors—three terms which are used interchangeably for the same office in the New Testament. Hobbes points out that this would change with the institutionalization of Christianity by the conversion of the emperor, but until then there was “no diversity of authority, though there were diversity of employments” (XLII.54).

We might ask, what about other offices that seem to be mentioned at times, such as evangelist or prophet? These, Hobbes suggests, are specific gifts rather than specific offices. As such they are occasional and very nearly random, being given only sporadically to individual Christians regardless of office as the lord saw fit. So while we should expect there to be a regular pastor in the pre-Constantine church, we should not always expect there to be an evangelist or a prophet.

In addition to magisterial offices, ministerial offices likewise must be examined. These are the offices of deacon,those who are “appointed to the administration of the secular necessities of the church” (XLII.49). They care for the physical needs of the congregation. This does not get them out of the general Christian responsibility to testify to the Gospel should the occasion arise (as Hobbes sees in the example of Philip), but it does suggest that they should not be regularly exercising the functions of the magisterial office.

Given that there are these two types of offices, questions remain of how they are filled and how they are supported in the early church?

The support part is straightforward enough—magisterial officers were supported by freely given donations. There was no tax or coercion by these officers, which is not to say that there was no obligation placed on the congregation. It is to say that the congregants could not be forced to pay until the sovereignty was united with the church authorities—that is, until the conversion of kings led to a legitimate tax on believers.

(And as a side-note: Folks, we need to pay our preachers—though that is not the same thing as saying preachers should never have to work. The less-angelic Dr. Trueman has some thoughts on the issue here.)

We don’t have much of a record of deacons being paid, though they would have been the officials who handled the money and its distribution. Likewise not all magisterial officers would have been paid, some would have served as volunteers or part-time teachers. The broad point, of course, is that the full-time pastors were paid by the charity of the congregation, not by compulsory giving.

The choosing of both sorts of officers was something done by the congregation:

It was, therefore, the assembly that elected their own elders; the apostles were only presidents of the assembly to call them together for such election, and to pronounce them elected, and to give them the benediction which now is called consecration. (XLII.56)

Even in Rome, the pastor was selected by the congregation. Hobbes sees evidence for this in the fact that whoever served as bishop had no right or authority to appoint his own successor. Even once the power of choosing a bishop had been transferred to the College of Cardinals, the person who filled the office still “pretended no right to appoint their own successors…” This in turn suggests, Hobbes thinks, that the current pontiff does not have the authority he thinks he does unless he is also a civil sovereign (XLII.57).

Although the Baptist in me rejoices in much of what Hobbes says here (if not for the reasons he says it), this joy is tempered by the fact that Hobbes hitherto has been speaking exclusively about the pre-Constantine church. The blending of church and state was a game-changer for church polity; and whether we agree or disagree with that action, we can’t deny that the church underwent a fundamental shift that would reverberate down to our own time. What the church looked like after Constantine is what Hobbes picks up in the next section.


Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.

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