I’m studying Ignatius of Antioch for a research project in my Theological Foundations seminar. Ignatius was the bishop of Antioch who was killed in Rome around 107 AD. As he was being transported from Antioch to Rome, he penned seven letters: six letters to the churches of Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Rome, Philadelphia, and Smyrna, and one letter to Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna. Within these letters, Ignatius addressed several areas that are typically included within the scope of ecclesiology. Specifically, he discussed the sacraments and place of the bishop, the presbyters (elders), and the deacons within the church of each city.
Within Ignatius’ letters, there are several passages that deal with the bishop. He always uses this title in the singular when referring to the bishop of a church. Here are a few of the passages:
I urge [you], make every effort to do everything in the harmony of God, with the bishop presiding in the place of God, and the presbyters (elders) [presiding] in the place of the council of apostles, and the deacons who are precious to me having been entrusted with the service of Jesus Christ. (Ignatius to the Mangesians 6:1)
It is necessary, as you are doing, for you to do nothing apart from the bishop, but to be submissive also to the presbyters (elders) as to the apostles of Jesus Christ. (Ignatius to the Trallians 2:2)
Similarly, let all regard (respect) the deacons as Jesus Christ and the bishop as being in the place of the Father, then the presbyters (elders) as the council of God and as the assembly of the apostles. (Ignatius to the Trallians 3:1)
Make every effort to have one eucharist, for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ and one cup for the unity of his blood, one altar, as there is one bishop along with the presbyters (elders) and deacons. (Ignatius to the Philippians 4:1)
Let all of you follow the bishop as Jesus Christ [followed] the Father, and [follow] the presbyters (elders) as the apostles, then respect the deacons as the commandment of God. (Ignatius to the Smyrneans 8:1)
The reason that these passages are interesting to me is that they are not consistent with some of the other early Christian writings – even those writings from the same time period.
For example, Ignatius wrote one of his letters to Polycarp, who Ignatius recognizes as the Bishop of Smyrna. In his letter to the church at Smyrna, Ignatius tells the church to “follow the bishop as Jesus Christ followed the Father.” When writing to Polycarp, Ignatius instructs Polycarp to tell the church in Smyrna the same thing (Ignatius to Polycarp 5:2; 6:1)
However, when Polycarp writes a letter to the church in Philippi only a few years later, Polycarp does not even mention a “bishop”. Instead, Polycarp tells the Philippians to be subject to “the presbyters (elders) and deacons” (Polycarp to the Philippians 5:3).
In the Didache, another document written at about the same time, presbyters (elders) are not mentioned. Instead, the Didache instructs believers to appoint “bishops (plural) and deacons”. In an interesting twist, the Didache associates “bishops and deacons” with “prophets and teachers”, but the two groups do not seem to be synonymous:
Therefore, choose for yourselves, bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men [who are] gentle, and not lovers of money, and truthful and proved; for they also serve you the service of prophets and teachers. Therefore, do not disregard them, for they are honored among you, together with the prophets and teachers. (Didache 15:1-2)
The Didache mentions others types of travelling apostles and prophets (not to be confused with the original apostles of the New Testament nor the prophets of the Old testament) that seem to be distinct from the “bishops and deacons” and also the “prophets and teachers”. (Didache 11-13)
Why is this interesting to me? I think it shows that the early church struggled with some of the same questions that we struggle with today? Questions such as 1) What is the nature of Christian leadership? 2) Are there specific roles within the church that are distinct from gifting? 3) How should leadership within the church structure itself? 4) How should believers interact with those who they have recognized as leaders?
Ignatius seems to have answered these questions differently than Polycarp. And, the Didache seems to be different from both. Interestingly, in most of Ignatius’ letters he spells out what it means to follow the way of Jesus Christ, and he does not include the bishop, the presbyters, nor the deacons in any of those instructions.
I think it would be beneficial for all believers to read the Apostolic Father, as long as they learn to read critically. Before beginning a study of the early Christian writings, we must answer another question (for ourselves): Where will I find authority – in the texts of Scripture or in the early understandings of those texts?