Exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles – Article XXVI

Article XXVI.

Of the Unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacrament.

ALTHOUGH in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ’s, and do minister by His commission and authority, we may use their ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in receiving of the Sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ’s ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God’s gifts diminished from such as by faith and rightly do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ’s institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.

Nevertheless, it appertaineth to the discipline of the Church, that inquiry be made of evil Ministers, and that they be accused by those that have knowledge of their offences; and finally being found guilty, by just judgment be deposed.

De vi Institutionum Divinarum, quod eam non tollat malitia Ministrorum.

QUAMVIS in ecclesia visibili, bonis mali semper sunt admixti, atque interdum ministerio verbi et sacramentorum præsint, tamen cum non suo, sed Christi nomine agant, ejusque mandato et auctoritate ministrent, illorum ministerio uti licet, cum in verbo Dei audiendo, tum in sacramentis percipiendis. Neque per illorum malitiam effectus institutorum Christi tollitur, aut gratia donorum Dei minuitur, quoad eos qui fide et rite sibi oblata percipiunt, quæ propter institutionem Christi et promissionem efficacia sunt, licet per malos administrentur.

Section I. — History.

IT is natural, in treating of the doctrines contained in this Article, to begin with the question concerning heretical baptism, which agitated the primitive Church. Tertullian denies that the heretics administered Christian baptism at all, because they did not believe in the same God nor the same Christ with the Christians. Hence the rebaptizing of heretics was not, according to him, a repetition of the one baptism; for their former baptism was, strictly speaking, not Christian baptism at all, being baptism into a different faith from that of the Gospel.[1] The same rule seems to be laid down by the Apostolical Canons, the 46th canon commanding the deposition of any “bishop, presbyter, or deacon, who admitted the baptism or sacrifice of heretics” (comp. canons 47, 68). In the famous dispute between Stephen, Bishop of Rome, and Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, the latter, and the African bishops who were with him, denied the validity of baptism by heretics and schismatics also. The baptism of heretics, Cyprian, like Tertullian, held to be baptism into another religion than the Gospel, into the faith of another God than the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Hence, he concluded that such baptism must be void.[2] But, moreover, the baptism of schismatics appears to have been rejected by the African bishops; because according to the interrogation in baptism, (“Dost thou believe in the life eternal, and remission of sins in the Holy Church?”) they held that remission of sins could not be given but in the Church.[3]

Stephen, Bishop of Rome, took the directly opposite view, admitting all baptism, whether by schismatics or heretics, so it was with water in the name of the Trinity; and such has been the rule of the Latin Church ever since. The Greek Church has taken a middle course, rejecting heretical, but admitting schismatical baptism.

This was quite a different question from that on which this Article is treating. But, in the controversy, the African Church used language as if they thought that one reason why heretics could not administer baptism aright, was because they themselves had not the grace of baptism, and so could not bestow it on others. “What prayer,” they ask, “can a sacrilegious and impious priest offer? As it is written, God heareth not sinners; but who worships Him and doth His will, him He heareth. And who can give what he hath not? or how can a person perform spiritual offices, who hath himself lost the Holy Spirit?”[4] Such a statement, which must be considered as obiter dictum, was perhaps naturally put forth as one among other arguments, without having been maturely weighed or traced out to all its consequences. When, however, in the fourth century, arose the famous schism of the Donatists, more was made of it than might at first have been intended. The Synodical letter in which that statement is made was addressed to certain bishops of the Numidians. Now the Donatist faction arose among the Numidians. It originated in an opposition to the election of Cæcilianus into the see of Carthage. His opponents, the Numidian bishops, accused his consecrator, Felix, of being a traditor (i. e. one who in Diocletian’s persecution had delivered up the sacred writings to the heathen magistrates to be burned); and hence they denied that his consecration was valid; for a bishop in deadly sin could not confer the grace of ordination.[5] The length to which this controversy went, was very great. The Donatists (as they were called from their chief leader Donatus) became a large and influential sect, having no fewer than 400 bishops of their own. They refused all communion with the African Church, of which Cæcilianus was the chief bishop, and even rebaptized those who came over to their own faction. They naturally referred to the authority of Cyprian and his contemporary bishops, and made the most of their statements concerning the invalidity of heretical baptism.

The controversy which thus arose, hinged much on the question with which we have now to deal. The Donatist writers (Petilianus, Parmenianus, Cresconius) appear to have maintained the invalidity of the acts of those ministers who were in deadly sin; and seemed almost to deny the position, that a true church can contain “the evil mingled with the good.” Augustine and Optatus were their chief opponents; and some of the most valuable treatises of the former were called forth by this dispute.

Augustine lays it down as a rule, that ministers do not confer remission of sins, or the grace of the Sacraments, but that the Holy Spirit confers them through their ministry.[6] The remission of sins is given by virtue of the Sacraments, not by the merit of him who ministers them.[7] “It matters not to the integrity of baptism, how much the worse he is who ministers it. For there is not so much difference between the bad and the worse, as between the good and the bad. Yet when a bad man baptizes, he gives no other thing than a good man gives.”[8] Still he seems to agree in some measure with Cyprian; for he says that heretical baptism, although it be real baptism, yet tends not to salvation, but to destruction.[9]

St. Chrysostom bears a like testimony in the Greek Church, at the same time. “It is not just,” he writes, “that those who approach by faith should receive hurt from the symbols of our salvation through the wickedness of another.”[10] So again, “God uses to work even by unworthy persons, and in no respect is the grace of baptism injured by the life of the priest.”[11]

Isidore of Pelusium is very clear to the same effect: “If a wicked man approaches the altar and unholily handles sacred things, he shall bear his punishment, but the altar receives no contamination.”[12] “He that is baptized receives no damage from the symbols of salvation, if the priest be not a good liver.”[13]

There can be no greater obstacle to the progress of religion than inconsistency in its professors, and especially in its ministers. The earnest and enthusiastic naturally sigh for a state of things which shall be free from all such blemishes, and picture to themselves a Church, the members of which shall be all sincere, and its ministers holy. They ill endure that the tares shall grow up with the wheat until the harvest. The Montanists, the Cathari, and later, the Anabaptists, were of this spirit. In the Middle Ages the ill-living of the lower class of friars appears to have been a great cause of scandal to the laity, and a principal ground for the cry of reformation. We know that Wickliffe and his followers inveighed loudly against such corruption; and it is probable enough that much was said at that period concerning the damage that might occur from the ministrations of ungodly men. The council of Constance (Sess. VIII.) condemned the errors of Wickliffe, contained in forty-five propositions; the fourth of which imputes to him the doctrine that “a bishop or priest in mortal sin cannot ordain, baptize, or consecrate.” The Council of Trent (Sess. XIV. De Pœnit. cap. 6) decrees, in like manner, that those are in error who contend that the power of absolution is lost by wicked priests; for they exercise this power as Christ’s ministers and by virtue of their ordination.

Whatever may have been the popular feeling on this subject among the advocates of reformation in general, there is no doubt that the Anabaptists (in conformity with their general principle, that the whole Church should be pure and sincere)[14] held the impropriety of receiving Sacraments from ungodly ministers.[15]

The foreign reformers, however, like the English, rejected these notions of the necessity of personal holiness in the minister to the validity of his ministrations. The VIIIth Article of the Confession of Augsburg is the original of this XXVIth Article of our Church. It was a little modified in the Vth of the Articles agreed on between the Anglicans and Lutherans in 1538, which contains a paragraph nearly word for word the same as the former part of our present Article. The Article stands now exactly as it did in 1552.[16]

It has been thought that, besides what we have been considering, the Roman Catholic doctrine of “Intention” may have been aimed at. This, however, does not appear probable. The Lutheran Article especially mentions “The Donatists and others like them;” and the state of the Church at the time of the Reformation, the disaffection of the laity to the clergy, the scandals said to exist in the lesser monasteries, the irregular lives of the mendicant friars, the ignorance of some among the reformed clergy, the springing up of Anabaptist sentiments, — all these things sufficiently point out a reason and necessity for such an Article as the present. The Roman doctrine of Intention is indeed of most “desperate consequence.” If no Sacrament is valid, unless the priest intends that it should be so; then we know not whether our children be baptized, our wives married, our communions received, or our bishops consecrated. And this last question has been made much use of by the Church of Rome against the Church of England. It is urged, that a bishop or presbyter, who has a defective view of the grace of the Sacrament, cannot rightly administer it, because he does not intend to convey the full grace of that Sacrament. The bishops, for instance, who consecrated Archbishop Parker and others in the reign of Elizabeth, had a defective view of the effects of ordination and of the power of the clergy; they therefore did not intend to give, nor the consecrated ministers to receive, the full grace and privileges of the priesthood. Hence those ministers were not rightly consecrated.

This Article was not originally directed against this error; but it virtually and in effect meets it. Plainly, the relying on the intention of the minister results from a sort of belief that the minister himself is the depositary of grace, and can dispense that grace of his own will. If then, in outwardly ministering a Sacrament, he does not intend to confer the benefits of the Sacrament, they will not be conferred. Such seems the rationale of the doctrine of Intention. This Article, on the contrary, truly sets forth, that the clergy minister the Sacraments, not “in their own name, but in Christ’s, and do minister by His commission and authority;” and that the Sacraments be “effectual because of Christ’s institution and promise, though they be ministered by evil men.” So then, it is not because ministers will or intend to bestow grace, but because Christ has ordained to give grace through their ministry. If then they rightly administer, and we rightly receive the ordinance, we need not consider what is the mind of the priest, since it is not in the power of man’s intention to frustrate the gracious purposes of God. Were it otherwise, no Church could be sure of its orders, no Christian of his baptism. For none can tell, whether in Rome, or Greece, or England, that some careless or some malicious bishop may not have been indifferent, or opposed to the conferring of ordination, and so the whole line of succession have been cut off, and all the orders of the Church invalidated. None can tell that an evil minister may not secretly have cursed his infant, whilst outwardly invoking a blessing on him, and so his baptismal privileges may have been annulled. But if we believe Christ’s Sacraments to be blessed, and Christ’s ministers to have authority, not as themselves indued with grace, but as instruments, whereby God pours it down upon us, then we need not fear to lose the treasure, though the vessel be but earthen, and itself fit only to be burned.[17]

The concluding paragraph in the Article lays it down, that inquiry ought to be made of evil ministers, and that if they are found guilty, they should by just judgment be deposed. There is not need of much history here. From the first, such discipline, prevailed, and has prevailed in every Church and sect. Thus the twenty-fifth of the Canons of the Apostles enjoins, that “a bishop or priest found guilty of fornication or perjury shall be deposed.”[18] The twenty-seventh commands, that a bishop or priest who strikes one of the faithful, be deposed.[19] The ninth canon of the first Council of Nice forbids that any be advanced to the order of presbyter who have been previously guilty of any grievous sin; and, if it be found out afterwards that he had so sinned, he is to be deposed.[20]

But so patent and obvious has been this custom of the Church, to inquire concerning scandalous ministers, to remove them that have erred, and, if possible, to forbid the ordination of the undeserving, that it is needless to enlarge on it. Of course, there have been times of laxer, and times of stricter discipline; but all times and all Churches have admitted the principle.

Section II. — Scriptural Proof.

1. THE first statement of the Article is, that “In the Visible Church the evil are ever mingled with the good.” We saw something of this under Article XIX. It is clearly proved by our Lord’s comparison of His kingdom to a field, in which tares and wheat grow together till the harvest (Matt. xiii. 24‒30, 37‒43); to a net, containing fish of every kind, that is, both the wicked and the just (Matt. xiii. 47‒50); to a marriage-feast, where some have the wedding garment, some have not; all, “both bad and good,” having been gathered into it (Matt. xxii. 10, 11). So St. Paul compares the Church to a great house, “in which there are not only vessels of gold and silver, but also of wood and earth, and some to honour, and some to dishonour” (2 Tim. ii. 20). These arguments are so conclusive, as, according to St. Augustine, to have converted even the Donatists.[21]

The Article adds, that “sometimes the evil have chief authority (præsint) in the ministration of the word and Sacraments.” We need go no further than Judas for proof of this. Our Lord Himself gave all the same authority to him that He gave to the rest of the Apostles; and yet He knew, when He chose him, that he was a devil (John vi. 70, 71). And so, later in the new Testament, we read of Diotrephes (3 John 9), and others, who, though ministers of God, were not men of godliness. Our Lord Himself describes especially the character of some, who should be made “rulers over his household, to give them meat in due season,” but who should “smite their fellow-servants, and eat and drink with the drunken,” and who at last should be “cut asunder, and have their portion with the hypocrites “(Matt. xxiv. 45‒51).

2. It should hardly need much argument to prove, that that ministry which Christ permitted in His Church, may lawfully be used by His people. If He ordained Judas, we may use the ministry of such as Judas, and yet not lose blessing. And so He taught us, “The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: all therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say and do not” (Matt, xxiii. 2, 3). And the Apostles plainly teach, that not holiness in the minister, but God’s blessing on their ministry, is the cause of good to His Church and growth to our souls. It was not by their “own power and holiness” that they made the lame to walk; but “His name through faith in His name” (Acts iii. 12, 16). Paul may have “planted, and Apollos watered; but God gave the increase. So then neither is he that planteth anything, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase” (1 Cor. iii. 6, 7). Paul and Apollos were but “ministers, by whom men believed, even as the Lord gave to every man” (ver. 5). Great and glorious as the ministration was (2 Cor. iii. 7, 8), yet the treasure was in “earthen vessels, that the excellency might be of God, and not of” them (2 Cor. iv. 7).

3. Still, though we do not believe that God’s ordinances lose their effect, because unworthy hands administer them; yet it is obviously to be much desired, that those who minister in holy things should themselves be men of holiness. If ungodly members should be excommunicated, much more should ungodly ministers be deposed. For, not only do such hinder the free course of the Gospel, and offend weak brethren; but the torch of truth and holiness is most surely lit and handed on by those in whose heart it is burning and bright. The old Testament teaches that “the priests should be clothed with righteousness” (Ps. cxxxii. 9); and that the Lord “will be sanctified in them that come nigh Him” (Lev. x. 3). In the new Testament, besides general instructions concerning discipline, there are special instructions concerning the discipline of the clergy. These are mostly to be found in the Epistles to Timothy, who, as bishop, has directions given him concerning the importance of “laying hands suddenly on no man” (1 Tim. v. 22), concerning the mode of receiving an accusation against an elder (ver. 19), and as to how he was to rebuke those that sinned (ver. 20). This is a matter too plain to be insisted on; the common instincts of our nature and the universal practice of Christians consenting render argument unnecessary.


  1. Tertull. De Baptismo, c. 15.
  2. Cyprian, Epist. 73, Jubaiano Fratri, p. 203.
  3. Epistola Synodica Numidis Episcopis, de Rebaptizandis Hæreticis in Epistol. Cypriani, Epist. 70, p. 190.
  4. Ibid. p. 191.
  5. See the History of the Donatists, Mosheim, Cent. IV. pt. II. ch. V.
  6. “Satis ostenditur non ipsos id agere, sed per eos utique Spiritum Sanctum.” — Contra Epistolum Parmeniani, Lib. II. c. 11. Tom. IX. p. 41.
  7. De Baptismo contra Donatistas, Lib. IV. c. 4, Tom. IX. p. 124, a.
  8. “Nihil interest ad integritatem baptismi, quanto pejor id tradat. Neque enim tantum interest inter malum et pejorem, quantum interest inter bonum et malum: et tamen cum baptizat malus, non aliud dat quam bonus.” — Ibid. Lib. VI. c. 24, p. 174, f.
  9. Ibid. Lib. V. c. 22, p. 156, b.
  10. Οὐ δίκαιον ἦν διὰ τὴν ἑτέρου κακίαν εἰς τὰ σύμβολα τῆς σωτηρίας ἡμῶν τοὺς πίστει προσίοντας παραβλάπτεσθαι. — Homil. LXXXVI. in Johannem. See Suicer, Tom. II. p. 383.
  11. νυνὶ δὲ καὶ δι’ ἀναξίων ἐνεργεῖν ὁ Θεὸς είωθε, καὶ οὐδὲν τοῦ βαπτίσματος ἡ χάρις παρὰ τοῦ βίου τοῦ ἱέρεως παραβλάπτεται. — Homil. VIII. in I ad Corinth. This passage is quoted by Bp. Beveridge on this Article.
  12. Isidor. Pelus. Epist. 340, Lib. III.; Suicer, ubi supra.
  13. ὁ τελούμενος οὐδὲν παραβλάπτεται εἰς τὰ σωτηριωδὴ σύμβολα, εἰ ὁ ἱερεὺς μὴ εὖ βιοὺς εἴη, ἀλλ’ αὐτὸς μὲν παντώς. — Epist. 37, Lib. II. Suic. II. 1083.
  14. Mosheim says, they taught that “the Church of Christ ought to be exempt from all sin.” — Cent. XVI. sect. III. pt. II. §§ 5, 17.
  15. See Reformatio Legum de Hæresibus, c. 15, which is cited by Hey.
  16. Confession of Augsburg.

    ART. VIII.

    A. D. 1531.

    QUANQUAM Ecclesia proprie sit congregatio sanctorum et vere credentium; tamen cum in hac vita multi hypocritæ et mali admixti sint, licet uti sacramentis quæ per malos administrantur, juxta vocem Christi, “sedent Scribæ et Pharisæi in Cathedra Mosis,” &c. Et sacramenta et verbum propter ordinationem et mandatum Christi sunt efficacia, etiamsi per malos exhibeantur.

    Damnant Donatistas et similes, qui negabant licere uti ministerio malorum in ecclesia, et sentiebant ministerium malorum inutile et inefficax esse.

    A. D. 1540.

    CUM autem in hac vita admixti sint Ecclesiæ multi mali et hypocritæ, qui tamen societatem habent externorum signorum cum ecclesia, licet uti sacramentis, quæ per malos administrantur, juxta vocem Christi, &c.

    Portion of the Vth Article of 1538.

    “Et quamvis in Ecclesia secundum posteriorem acceptionem mali sint bonis admixti, atque etiam ministeriis verbi et sacramentorum nonnunquam præsint; tamen cum ministrent non suo, sed Christi, nomine, mandato et auctoritate, licet eorum ministerio uti, tam in verbo audiendo quam in recipiendis sacramentis, juxta illud, ‘Qui vos audit, me audit.’ Nec per eorum malitiam minuitur effectus, aut gratia donorum Christi rite accipientibus; sunt enim efficacia propter promissionem et ordinationem Christi, etiamsi per malos exhibeantur.”

  17. The Council of Florence (Instr. Armenor. Concil. Tom. XIII. p. 535) and the Council of Trent (Sess. VII. can. XI.) require only an implicit intention in the minister, i. e. to do what the Church doth, or what Christ instituted. But this distinction, which seems to have some justice in it, is easily drawn out so as to save themselves, and yet to enable them to condemn us. The student may refer to Abp. Bramhall, Protestants’ Ordination Defended, V. p. 210, Lib. of Anglo-Cath. Theology.
  18. Beveridge, Synodicon, Tom. I. p. 16.
  19. Ibid. p. 17.
  20. Ibid. p. 70.
  21. See Pearson, On the Creed, Art. IX. p. 344, who quotes Augustine, lib. post collationem, c. 9, 10.


E. Harold Browne

(Edward) Harold Browne was an English bishop, born at Aylesbury and educated at Eton and Cambridge. He was ordained in 1836, and two years later was elected senior tutor of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. From 1843 to 1849 he was vice-principal of St David’s College, Lampeter, and in 1854 was appointed Norrisian professor of divinity at Cambridge. His best-known book is the Exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles (vol. i., Cambridge, 1850; vol. ii., London, 1853), which remained for many years a standard work on the subject and is still beloved today. In 1864 he was consecrated bishop of Ely.

'Exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles – Article XXVI' has 1 comment

  1. November 10, 2022 @ 1:11 am Fraiton

    The truth is that the Bible has made it clear that, in the Gospel of Matthew 7:18-19, the Bible says that a good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 every tree that does not bear fruit A good fruit is cut and thrown into the fire. 20 you will recognize them by their distance.What does it mean if you are a priest, you have to learn what is good and if what is good for you is not available, you should not be called a priest and sit on God’s altar, the Bible has made it clear that their actions precede them.Therefore, if he is a servant of God or a priest, if he does bad things, he should not offer the holy sacrament because he will defile the temple and pollute the church with his bad actions. And there is nothing that people will learn from him unless he destroys the church because he did not teach the truth of the scriptures but he taught what concerns him, and hiding in the dark is bad. We recognize these people by their actions, just as you are a servant, you are recognized by your actions. My opinion is that this priest should not sit at the altar or give the sacrament because he will defile the altar, where is it written if not to use heretical words to pollute the church.Teach people the truth of the Bible and what people need to understand, not to teach lies and distort the scriptures, even if they have many debates, these people should not sit at the altar because They pollute the church and scatter the sheep.


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