Friday, February 15, 2013

Ignatius to the Ephesians - The Bishop and Unity

This is a continuation of my series on Ignatius and the seven letters he wrote while on his way to be martyred in Rome. If you are unfamiliar with Ignatius, you may want to start with the introduction to this series.

Ignatius speaks of the role of the Bishop in the unity of the church.
"For your justly renowned presbytery, worthy of God, is fitted as exactly to the bishop as the strings are to the harp. Therefore in your concord and harmonious love, Jesus Christ is sung. And do ye, man by man, become a choir, that being harmonious in love, and taking up the song of God in unison, ye may with one voice sing to the Father through Jesus Christ, so that He may both hear you, and perceive by your works that ye are indeed the members of His Son. It is profitable, therefore, that you should live in an unblameable unity, that thus ye may always enjoy communion with God. (Ignatius to the Ephesians, Chapter 4)
In the early church, the bishop and presbyters provided oversight to the church, much like the elders in ancient Israel. However, the bishop represented the extension of the apostles and, as such, were the final arbiter of truth. They were the final authority as to what Jesus taught his apostles and what the apostles taught and what they meant by what they wrote. They were the "keepers" of the apostolic message of which the church was the "pillar and support of the truth." (1 Timothy 3:15) They were the living definition of what it meant to be orthodox. This is why to be outside the fellowship of the bishop was to be outside the church.
"Let no man deceive himself: if any one be not within the altar, he is deprived of the bread of God. For if the prayer of one or two possesses such power, how much more that of the bishop and the whole Church! He, therefore, that does not assemble with the Church, has even by this manifested his pride, and condemned himself." (Ignatius to the Ephesians, Chapter 5)
It is so hard to place ourselves back onto the situation that the early church experienced since we have drifted so far from the early church model. However, in their day they did have those who set themselves up against the bishops and the apostolic churches. Men such as Valentinian and Simon had setup their own churches with their own bishops and even their own love (or agape) feasts. They used the same scriptures and the same names for God but they preached a gospel that was radically different from the one the church had received. They were men whom Polycarp would call the "Firstborn of Satan." The evidence of their error was not just their teaching but also that their bishops had no connection (or lineage) back to the apostles and their churches could not trace the heritage back to any apostolic church. They were completely  found "outside" the altar.

Ignatius reminds us of one very specific advantage to unity, when he said, "thus you will always enjoy communion with God." When there is strife and discourse in the church, our communion with God suffers. However, when we exist harmoniously with each other and with the bishop and the presbytery then our hearts are united together and our lives are as a song that rises up to God. In such unity there is not only an individual communion with God but also a corporate communion; in such unity, God is present.

David Robison


  1. Anonymous3:38 PM

    I think unity in the Church is important--to a point. And I understand that, in the days of Ignatius, the bishops were somewhat close to the apostles themselves. But I think Ignatius makes statements here that are quite unfortunate.

    He says, "Let us be careful, then, not to set ourselves in opposition to the bishop, in order that we may be subject to God." Is compliance with the bishop a requirement to being subject to God? What if a bishop is mistaken? Are bishops beyond criticism?

    As history goes forward from Ignatius, other questions arise. Does apostolic succession preserve the judgmental purity of bishops? As the eastern and wetern churces separated, which bishops should concerned Christians have followed?

    Many churches today are outside lines of apostolic succession. Are they not legitimate? What of those churches, such as those with congregationalist or presbyterian governments, that have no bishops at all?

    Finally, consider the doctinal mess in the churches of apostolic succession. Should we submit compliantly with such doctines and practices of the bishops?

  2. Interesting points. Check out a previous article I wrote from Clement's letter to the Corinthians Clement speaks of not only apostolic succession but also the honorable service of the Bishop and the consent of the people in the selection. It is my opinion that we can easily misunderstand Ignatius if we try to interpret it by today's standard. We need to put ourselves in Ignatius shoes and time to properly understand him. Let me know what you think of the article from Clement.

  3. Anonymous1:42 PM

    Thanks! I read your Clement reference. It does seem well balanced. I also agree with you that we can misread the Fathers, but I believe that, in fact, we often do press the Fathers beyond what they intended. My concern is about church leaders who are controlling, abuse their positions, or adopt an authoritative stance that cannot be questioned.