Christ's deliverance of the keys to the apostles vested in them the full power of administering church discipline, from every thing connected with the reception of members to the extreme act of excommunicating from Christian fellowship. His assurance that whatsoever they should bind or loose on earth should be bound or loosed in heaven (Matt. xviii. 18), was based on the assumption that in their official acts they would be under the full guidance of the Holy Spirit. The power of the keys passed from the apostles to the Church. This power it is bound to exercise, as it is bound to give to its members the benefit of good government. The conditions of the right exercise of this power are the same as they were in its first bearers. A God-fearing, spiritual Church, earnestly intent upon ascertaining the mind of the Spirit, may hope to obtain the Divine approbation in its acts of administration and discipline; in other words, to have its binding and loosing upon earth confirmed in heaven. The promise of Christ supposes a competency which is no attachment of official position as such, no peculiar treasure of an ecclesiastical aristocracy which is passed along by the magical connection of one link with another, but an outgrowth of spiritual endowments. In the hands of a corrupt Church, the use of the keys is sure to be at the same time an abuse of them, --a binding and loosing in large part contrary to that which transpires in heaven. Even under the best conditions, an element of fallibility is likely to be mixed with the fulfilment of this serious responsibility.

As the Church of the first centuries was a purely religious organization, no penalty was thought of beyond that of excommunication. This was imposed for heresy, apostasy, crimes, and gross immoralities. The excommunicated was expected to give special tokens of repentance before restoration. Gradually a sort of established penitential discipline grew up for this class, and they were allowed only by successive stages to regain the full privileges of church fellowship. At the beginning of the fourth century, four stages appear to have been distinctly recognized; (1) that of the "weepers," who bewailed their sins at the church-doors;
(2) that of the "hearers," who were allowed to hear the Scripture lessons and the sermon, but were to leave the sanctuary before the sacramental service; (3) that of the "kneelers," who might attend the public prayers only in a kneeling posture; (4) that of the "standers," who were permitted to remain, in a standings posture, through the entire service, but were not yet privileged to partake of the communion.

The question of greater or less strictness in discipline was in itself a question of high importance, and its significance was greatly enhanced by the number of those who lapsed or apostatized in the great persecutions. Some would delay restoration longer than others. Some would deny restoration altogether to those who were guilty of certain grievous sins. The Church at large was never committed to this extreme, but there are indications that it early adopted a strict code in dealing with offenders against its own sanctity. Several writers speak as though it were an accepted maxim, that only a single fall after baptism can claim any indulgence. "If any one," says Hermas, "is tempted by the devil, and sins after that great and holy calling in which the Lord has called his people to everlasting life, he has opportunity to repent but once." [Command., iv. 3.] Tertullian in like manner observes that after baptism the door is opened but once to repentance. [De Pœnit., vii. Compare Clement ot Alexandria, Strom., ii. 13.] "In the graver kinds of crimes," says Origen, "piece for repentance is granted only once." [Hom. in Lev., xv. 2.] The usual practice of the Church he represents to have been as follows: "The Christians lament as dead those who have been vanquished by licentiousness or ally other sin, because they are lost and dead to God; and as being rises from the dead (if they manifest a becoming change) they receive them afterwards, at some future time, after a greater interval than in the case of those who were admitted at first, but not placing in any office or post of rank in the Church of God those who, after professing the gospel, lapsed and fell." [Cont. Celsum, iii. 51.] A greater rigor was advocated by the Montanists, and found supporters in various quarters. As already stated, a canon of the Council of Elvira denied all hope of restoration to those who had sacrificed to idols. Tertullian, in the later, or Montanist, stage of his belief, affirmed that the Church is never authorized to restore those who have been expelled on account of such gross sins as adultery, fornication, murder, apostasy, and blasphemy. [De Pudicit., i., ii., xix.] On the other hand, the Roman bishops in the time of Tertullian began to distinguish themselves as the advocates of mildness. According to Hippolytus, who favored severity, mildness degenerated into laxity in the case of the Roman bishop Callistus; and he credits him with comparing the Church to the ark of Noah, in which were all manner of unclean animals as well as the clean. [Philos., ix. 7.] Not long after Callistus, opposition to the milder régime culminated at Rome in the Novatian schism. Cyprian, who was contemporary with these developments at the great capital, inclined to an intermediate position. While he advocated suitable delay in the restoration of the lapsed, he would deny to none the hope of being ultimately admitted to the fellowship of the Church.

Confession of sins was a matter of frequent injunction. But in most cases the injunction had reference only to a penitential acknowledgment of sins before the congregation. Where the clergy were designated as the proper recipients of confession, they were so designated on the twofold ground that they were the most competent spiritual advisers and the proper overseers of discipline. Auricular confession to a priest, as the common obligation of all Christians, and the essential condition of absolution, was a thing foreign to the thought of the early Church. By absolution, apart from baptism, was understood, in the main, simply a loosing from ecclesiastical censures. In this, to be sure, the bishop took a lending part, but he did not stand alone: the whole congregation joined in the prayer for the penitent, [Cons. Apost., ii. 41.] after which the bishop gave the benediction as a fitting pledge of restoration and as an invocation of divine grace. Even Cyprian, who wits perhaps more deeply tinged with sacerdotalism than any other prominent writer of the period, did not materially transcend this view of the episcopal, or priestly, absolution. He speaks only of those who had been cut off from the Church for known offences as having occasion to come to the priestly tribunal; and the prerogative which he assigns to the priest in relation to such, so far as their standing with God is concerned, is that of an intercessor offering sacritices, which, as being well-pleasing to God, may solicit remission from Him. Beyond this,the priest stands between the penitent and God, only as he is the doorkeeper of the Church, slid the Church is the way to God. No man, says Cyprian, can usurp the divine prerogative in the forgiveness of sins. "The Lord alone carl have mercy. He alone can bestow pardon for sins which have been committed against Himself.'' [De Lapsis, xvii.] Quite as remote from the theory of judicial absolution is the language of Firmilian. Among the occasions, he says, for the yearly assembling of prelates and priests is this, "that some remedy may be sought for by repentance for lapsed brethren, and for those wounded by the devil after the saving laver, not as though they obtained remission of sins from us, but that by our means they may be converted to the understanding of their sins, and may be compelled to give fuller satisfaction to the Lord." [Epist., Ixxiv. 4 (or lxxv.), in works of Cyprian. Firmilian, it is true, in the same epistle speaks of the apostolic prerogative in the forgiveness of sins as having passed to the apostolic churches and their bishops. But, as the context shows, this is only another way of saying that the Catholic Church is the only true Church, the only one having a valid baptism, which is the rite of remission, the only one, therefore, which can give sure promise of remission. His words are no indication of an already existing sacrament of penance with its judicial sentence.] It is in the light of this statement that the office of penitentiary presbyter, which, as we learn from the historian Socrates, had place in some of the churches after the Decian persecution, is to be interpreted. [A further consideration of this will be found in the next period.] Origen, while he emphasized the principle that the priest should be consulted as a spiritual adviser, was far from conceding to him a power to absolve from sins in simple virtue of his office. [In Matt. Tom., xii. 14; Hom. in Lev., v. 4.] Still, it must be allowed that the third century supplied in no small measure a basis for the later doctrine of priestly absolution. Not to speak of the general growth of sacerdotal conceptions, the stress which Cyprian and others placed upon the catholic unity was of the nature of such a basis. In proportion as they made union with the Catholic Church an indispensable condition of salvation, end assigned to the priest the position of doorkeeper in that Church, they inculcated the notion of dependence upon priestly mediation.