Series Intro: Jesus said that He will build His church, but does anyone care as to “how” He has done so? In an effort to help myself and online readers better understand the “Early Church,” I will be sharing brief research done in coordination with my graduate school work (as well as personal enrichment) on 10 important men and women in Christian history: Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Perpetua, Felicity, Tertullian, Irenaeus, Origen, and Athanasius. Join me in traveling back in time almost two millennia to encounter some of the most intriguing people you will ever meet, Christians who have left an indelible mark on church history.
– Ignatius of Antioch –
Last time in the “Early Church Mini-Bio Series” we left off visiting Clement in the city of Rome. Today, we will be heading back to Rome, traveling through the narrative of the 2nd famous early Christian in our study. However, today we will not be focusing on the believer’s place of origin or city of ministry; rather, his city of death, or more precisely, his martyrdom.
Ignatius of Antioch lived most of his life the first century A.D. We are not told much at all about his early life, or even his adult life for that matter. He eventually became a bishop (pastor) in Antioch. Due to the dangers that heresy and false teaching pose to the Church, many historians look to Ignatius of Antioch who instituted the ministry function of having one head bishop, with the presbytery underneath him, and deacons underneath both the bishop and elders. This way, if only orthodox bishops were leading congregations, doctrinal purity could be maintained and all churches would be perfectly unified. It was a great ideal on the surface, but what happens when (in a fallen world it’s not “if”) corrupt bishops get into office? Furthermore, does the New Testament argue for the dichotomy of a bishop over elders? (see forthcoming research paper on this very topic, projected to appear on this blog early May).
Without question, Ignatius of Antioch’s development of the church hierarchy was a major influence on the rest of church history, but there is more to consider than ecclesiology. Ignatius (also referring to himself as “Theophorus”) was traveling to Rome with much anticipation. Why? He was going to martyred. This sounds somewhat bizarre to many 21st century Western Christians, but Ignatius was eagerly anticipating eternity with His Savior. In writing to the Romans, he stated the following: “Grant me nothing more than that I be poured out a libation to God, while there is still an altar ready; that forming yourselves into a chorus in love ye may sing to the Father in Jesus Christ, for that God hath vouchsafed [allowed] that the bishop from Syria [i.e. Ignatius] should be found in the West, having summoned him from the East. It is good to set from the world unto God, that I may rise unto Him.” Before being killed for the faith, Ignatius wrote seven letters that are still extant. To better understand Ignatius, let’s consider his famous letters.
- To the Ephesians
It seems to be that the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians resonated quite well the church of Ephesus. The theme of “unity” was present in that epistle as it was in Ignatius’s. He wrote, “For since there is no strife raging among you which might distress you, you are certainly living in accordance with God’s will” (see full-length translation here). Like the majority of other early Christian writings, Ignatius warns the Ephesians of false teachers. But the ultimate encouragement was that the Ephesian believers shared in the same hope as Ignatius: “For our God, Jesus Christ, was, according to the appointment of God, conceived in the womb by Mary, of the seed of David, but by the Holy Ghost. He was born and baptized, that by His passion He might purify the water…Farewell in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ, our common hope.”
- To the Magnesians
The Magnesians were known for possessing a “godly love,” and for that, Ignatius was thankful. Ignatius makes note of their “bishop” (head pastor) named Damas, providing counsel that is quite fitting for any era in church history: “Now it becomes you also not to treat your bishop too familiarly on account of his youth, but to yield him all reverence, having respect to the power of God the Father, as I have known even holy presbyters do, not judging rashly, from the manifest youthful appearance [of their bishop], but as being themselves prudent in God, submitting to him, or rather not to him, but to the Father of Jesus Christ, the bishop of us all” (trans. Lightfoot and Harmer). What Ignatius is saying here is that when churches do not give respect to their pastors, they are expressing dishonor to God. Men in pastor/elder leadership should not be respected for their age, or lack thereof; they should be respected for their position of godly responsibility. Paul wrote roughly 40 years prior to Ignatius, warning churches to not “despise,” or “look down on,” young pastors (1 Timothy 4:12). Evidently, the young/old relationship among members that is sometimes a strain is not a new phenomenon.
- To the Trallians
In Tralles, also known as Caesarea, there were warnings against heresies and false teachings and exhortations to remain loyal to church leadership. These two themes are quite common in all of Ignatius’s writings which goes to show his, and other people’s, priorities. There is much resemblance in this letter with his epistle to Smyrna (see below).
- To the Romans
Interestingly, Ignatius wrote this letter to Rome – the very city of his final destination. I’ve already quoted from this letter in my introductory paragraphs, expressing Ignatius’s yearning desire to “depart and be with Christ” like the Apostle Paul had once said to the Philippians. One aspect worth noting is that while Ignatius emphasized the importance of the head bishop in several of his letters, he does not mention the head bishop of Rome at this time (Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church). Roughly ten years before this letter was written, Clement of Rome served that church in leadership; whether or not Rome had a monoepiscopate (one bishop) position at the writing of 1 Clement or in Ignatius of Antioch’s letter is debatable and not probable in my opinion.
- To the Philadelphians
While many documents of the Early Church speak to the topic of warning against false teaching, few are more illustrious than Ignatius’s. He writes, “Keep yourselves from those evil plants which Jesus Christ does not tend, because they are not the planting of the Father.” Ignatius is saying that schisms are akin to “evil plants” in a garden, and, of course, God didn’t plant them. Therefore, believers ought to follow the leadership of the church, unless of course they have gone into doctrinal or moral corruption.
- To the Smyrnaeans
Ignatius, in writing to Smyrna, warns these believers of the apparent heresy prevalent in their locale. I’ve written about the heresy that the Apostle John warned against in his first epistle in another article (read that here). I argued that he spoke out against “Docetism,” a heresy that rejected Jesus’ humanity (they accepted his divinity though). It seems that the Smyrnaeans were facing something similar or the exact same problem. Observe this rather long, yet creedal-like statement representing the beliefs of the church of Smyrna as told by Ignatius: “For I have observed that you are perfected in an immoveable faith, as if you were nailed to the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, both in the flesh and in the spirit, and are established in love through the blood of Christ, being fully persuaded with respect to our Lord, that He was truly of the seed of David according to the flesh, and the Son of God according to the will and power of God; that He was truly born of a virgin, was baptized by John, in order that all righteousness might be fulfilled by Him; and was truly, under Pontius Pilate and Herod the tetrarch, nailed [to the cross] for us in His flesh. Of this fruit we are by His divinely-blessed passion, that He might set up a standard, for all ages, through His resurrection, to all His holy and faithful [followers], whether among Jews or Gentiles, in the one body of His Church.” Once again, Ignatius finds that in order to best protect against doctrinal heresy, the highest of church authority is vested in one bishop.
- To Polycarp
This final letter is to a person, Polycarp, though it was most likely intended for the congregation of Smyrna also. The letter begins: “Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus, to Polycarp, Bishop of the Church of the Smyrnæans, or rather, who has, as his own bishop, God the Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ: [wishes] abundance of happiness.” It is worth considering that in Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians, he writes, “Polycarp and the presbyters that are with him…” This could mean that Polycarp considers himself as a bishop, with elders underneath him, taking the “Ignatian” view. But it could be evidence to show that Polycarp was one of many elders. Paragraph six in Polycarp’s letter to Philippi speaks only of “presbyters” (plurality of elders), not one bishop. The monoepiscopate idea is not present in any other part of that letter either. Moving back to the letter written by Ignatius to Polycarp, it’s plausible to suggest that the Ignatian view of church government was something new instituted to combat heresy and promote unity, though it was not universal – though it started to become so by the middle part of the second century (Everett Ferguson, Church History: Vol. 1, pg. 107). Moving beyond Ignatius’s view on the bishop/elder dichotomy, his letter to Polycarp also ventures into other areas: protecting against false doctrine, caring for widows, words for slaves, exhortations to husbands and wives, instructions for nurturing their community, and concluding matters for Polycarp.
Can we learn from Ignatius of Antioch? Absolutely! His writings give us an important historical look into church life not even one hundred years following Christ’s ascension. Now, I have been fairly critical on the monoepiscopate view in his writings, but what really all matters is one’s decision to either reform according to Scripture or to something else. I don’t think Ignatius’s motivations were of ill intent; that he sought ecclesiastical power for himself and other like him seems far from the Ignatius that I have read in these seven letters. Rather, he saw the Church as something precious to Christ, something worth dying for.
Church History Tip: Ignatius of Antioch vs. Ignatius of Loyola. I have two tips to distinguish between the two. First, consider the two cities represented. Antioch is where Jesus-followers were first called “Christians.” Therefore, Antioch was well-known in Christian circles early on, whereas Loyola is not found in Scripture. Thus, when considering the cities of the Ignatius you are studying, think about the “earliness” of Antioch and the later appearance of “Loyola.” However, a second memory clue is considering just the name Loyola and its references to academia. In the U.S.A. at least, there are several schools and universities that bear the name “Loyola.” This has a lot to do with the Jesuits (a Catholic group heavily involved with academics among other things) which find their origins in Ignatius of Loyola. So, try to connect Ignatius of Loyola with academia, whereas Ignatius of Antioch was more so prominent with church ministry.