Sunday, March 03, 2013

Ignatius to the Magnesians - The Bishop defines the Church

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 begins to define the role of the Bishop and the importance that the members of the church remain united with him in fellowship and obedience.

"It is fitting, then, not only to be called Christians, but to be so in reality: as some indeed give one the title of bishop, but do all things without him. Now such persons seem to me to be not possessed of a good conscience, seeing they are not stedfastly gathered together according to the commandment." (Ignatius to the Magnesians, Chapter 4)
The Bishops defined the church. In any given place there was only one church and it was overseen by the bishop (depending on the founding Apostle and the era of the church there may have been more than a single bishop at any given time overseeing a specific church). Any other church that was setup outside the one church, as defined by the bishop, was not part of the true church and was typically established out of envy, strife, or sedition, or was established after some specific heresy. These were those whom John wrote of, "They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us." (1 John 2:19) To be "with us" was to be in fellowship with the church as defined and overseen by the appointed bishop.

Churches being started around a grievance or a heresy were a problem for the early church, but Ignatius exhorts the believers to take on the character of Christ and to follow only Him.
"Seeing, then, all things have an end, these two things are simultaneously set before us—death and life; and every one shall go unto his own place. For as there are two kinds of coins, the one of God, the other of the world, and each of these has its special character stamped upon it, [so is it also here.] The unbelieving are of this world; but the believing have, in love, the character of God the Father by Jesus Christ, by whom, if we are not in readiness to die into His passion, His life is not in us." (Ignatius to the Magnesians, Chapter 5)
We must not fashion ourselves after the coin of this world, bearing its image, but after the coin of God, bearing His image. As part of this we must give honor, reverence, and obedience to the order of authority that God has established in His church. That order being the Bishop, the Presbytery, and the Deacons.
"Since therefore I have, in the persons before mentioned, beheld the whole multitude of you in faith and love, I exhort you to study to do all things with a divine harmony, while your bishop presides in the place of God, and your presbyters in the place of the assembly of the apostles, along with your deacons, who are most dear to me, and are entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ, who was with the Father before the beginning of time, and in the end was revealed." (Ignatius to the Magnesians, Chapter 6)
It has been said that the United States Constitution is not a Suicide Pact, meaning that strict adherence to it should never be pushed to the limits where such adherence would bring about the loss of the very things the constitution attempts to secure. In the same way, strict adherence to a bishop should never be demanded to a point where such obedience would lead us away from Christ or harm our relationships with God or others. This can be understood from the recent scandals surrounding some bishops and young boys. The same is true for a woman being abused by her husband, we would never counsel her to stay in a place of violence but rather encourage her to leave and seek a place of safety. 

However, such was not the case with Damas. Ignatius writes that he had seen in Damas' eyes the love he had for all the brethren and, on this account, encourages those in Magnesia to remain obedient and united with their bishop and to love and reverence him as they would God.

Again, it must be restated that Ignatius is not saying that the bishop is the "Vicar of God" just because he is appointed as bishop, but rather he has been appointed as bishop because his life represents the very character and nature of God. He does not take the place of God in our lives but his life reveals God through his love, obedience  and character. Once again, the key to understanding this is to see the bishop, not according to the flesh, but according to the spirit.
"Do ye all then, imitating the same divine conduct, pay respect to one another, and let no one look upon his neighbour after the flesh, but do ye continually love each other in Jesus Christ. Let nothing exist among you that may divide you; but be ye united with your bishop, and those that preside over you, as a type and evidence of your immortality." (Ignatius to the Magnesians, Chapter 6)
Such a perspective should not be limited solely to those who rule or govern over us, but should be extended to all in the Body of Christ. We must begin to see everyone, not as who they are in the flesh (who they have been, what they have done, their particular personality)  but who they are in the spirit (who they are in God, what special grace and gifts they have received from God, what they are called to in God). Only then can we truly secure unity and harmony and obedience in the church.
"As therefore the Lord did nothing without the Father, being united to Him, neither by Himself nor by the apostles, so neither do ye anything without the bishop and presbyters. Neither endeavour that anything appear reasonable and proper to yourselves apart; but being come together into the same place, let there be one prayer, one supplication, one mind, one hope, in love and in joy undefiled. There is one Jesus Christ, than whom nothing is more excellent. Do ye therefore all run together as into one temple of God, as to one altar, as to one Jesus Christ, who came forth from one Father, and is with and has gone to one." (Ignatius to the Magnesians, Chapter 7)
"Come together in one place." This is the hope and pray of Ignatius. We have come so far from this, but perhaps, in some small ways, even in our varied and fractured churches, we can still find a way to move towards greater unity and harmony by seeing people according to the spirit.

David Robison

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