These next two chapters in Ignatius' letter to the Smyrneans can be the most difficult to understand and interpret in light of our present day structures and religious experiences. However, being the man of limited judgment that I am, I'm going to give it a try anyway.
"See that ye all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as ye would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid." (Ignatius to the Smyrneans, Chapter 8)For many of us, adherence to Ignatius' teachings would be difficult if not impossible, since many of us have lived our entire religious lives without experiencing a bishop present and presiding over our gatherings. For many of us it is hard to understand how anything could be "not lawful without the bishop" and that would include everything we have experienced and done throughout our entire christian lives. So how do we relate to such a teaching and, more importantly, now having read Ignatius' teaching, how should we respond?
Such quandaries are not be new to us as many injunctions in the scriptures towards the church can present us trouble today. For example, consider just a few teachings of Paul from his letter to the Corinthians. " But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head, for she is one and the same as the woman whose head is shaved." (1 Corinthians 11:5) "The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church." (1 Corinthians 14:34-35) For many today, these verses also cause trouble and, in some churches, our right conflict. So what is, or should be, our position towards these teachings?
The key questions are, first, are these teachings authoritative and, secondly, do they still apply to us today. For the sake of argument, I am assuming the answer to the first question to be yes; these teachings are authoritative. However, are these teachings immutable and universal? In other words were these laws and rules for the church meant for all times and in every place, or where these rules specific to the apostles and bishops presiding over churches in a specific area and/or were they meant to address specific cultural and religious issues of the day?
To properly answer these questions we must first recognize that the churches of the first and second century were not homogeneous but differed widely in their traditions and structures. For example, while Ignatius, a disciple of John, speaks much about the role of a Bishop, we do not see the same teachings in the letters of Paul to the churches he was responsible for. Also, Justin martyr, in his First Apology, wrote
"There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things atHis hands." (Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chapter 65)
Here there is no mention of a bishop just the "president of the brethren." Also, Tertullian, in writing on who may baptize says,
"Beside these, even laymen have the right; for what is equally received can be equally given." (Tertullian, On Baptism, Chapter 10)
Here, everyone could baptize; something which is not wholly consistent with the views of Ignatius.
It is clear that the churches were not all uniform and many had their own traditions and practices that were different from others. It is also interesting to note that not all the churches used the same set of New Testament writings in their services that other churches used. For example, some of the books that differed in usage and acceptance included 2nd Peter, Jude, Hebrews, and John's Apocalypse. It seems that primary factor in determining which books to use in there service was based on which apostle founded the church and/or which apostle they were most familiar with. For example, churches founded by Paul would give more weight to the writings of Paul and those founded by John to his writings. A church's traditions, practices, and selection of scripture seems to have been mostly determined by the traditions set down by their founding apostle.
Paul writes to the Corinthians, "Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you." (1 Corinthians 11:2) It is quite conceivable that these traditions were different from those delivered by John to the churches he founded. Each apostle delivering to each church the traditions he believed most suited to them and, it was these traditions, that the bishops that followed sought to maintain and pass down.
Finally, it is interesting to note that when Ignatius says that it is "unlawful" to perform some rites without the bishop, he does not say that it is unscriptural or sinful, but simply unlawful, as being against the ecclesiastical rules, patterns, or traditions that had been established within the churches.
So how do we relate and respond to such teachings? What is important is to understand the wisdom of God that was behind such teachings and what the Holy Spirit was trying to avoid and or reinforce in the church.
"It is well to reverence both God and the bishop. He who honours the bishop has been honoured by God; he who does anything without the knowledge of the bishop, does [in reality] serve the devil." (Ignatius to the Smyrneans, Chapter 9)In Ignatius' days there were those who were setting up their own churches with their own scriptures, love feasts, and bishops. They even claimed to be "christian", but they were founded by and built upon heretics and heretical teachings that, among other things, denied Jesus as God in human flesh. How was the new believer to know which church was right? One way was to identify those bishops who were in succession from the apostles and who held to the apostles teachings and traditions. Keeping faith and communion with these men was a safeguard to keeping faith and communion with the true faith of God.
There were also those, in Ignatius' day, who sowed division and discord in the church; some centered around heretical ideas, other around a desire for honor, power, and position. These people worked in the dark, with secrets, and by subterfuge. The were like Absalom who secretly sought to draw the people's loyalty away from his father David unto himself. Absalom would rise up early and stand at the gate and fain his care for the people over that of his father. "Then Absalom would say to him, 'See, your claims are good and right, but no man listens to you on the part of the king.' Moreover, Absalom would say, 'Oh that one would appoint me judge in the land, then every man who has any suit or cause could come to me and I would give him justice.' " ("2 Samuel 15:3-4) However, when everything is done in the light, it gives little room for deception and subterfusion. When we live and speak like everyone is hearing then we are more careful what we say and it becomes harder to draw away the faith and loyalty of others by our lies and deception.
Many of us enjoy communion in churches where there is no bishop, yet we can still learn from Ignatius and seek an open and honest communion with other believers. One built on truth, loyalty, and mutual submission. In doing so we will be living in the spirit of what Ignatius sought to teach.