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Gospel and Monoepiscopacy in Ignatius

Posted by on Nov 28, 2007 in church history, discipleship, elders, office | 13 comments

I am writing a paper on the gospel and monoepiscopacy in the seven letters of Ignatius. This is a synopsis of the paper which I presented a few days ago.

[UPDATE: “Monoepiscopacy” is the doctrine that there should be one bishop per city (church). This is usually combined in a hiearchical fashion with elders (presbyters) under the bishop, and deacons under the elders. (Thanks, Jonathan.)]


Leadership in early Christian writings

(107-117 AD) Ignatius to the Magnesians 6.1 – “Make every effort to do all things in the harmony of God, while the bishop presides over you in the place of God and the elders [preside over you] in the place of the assembly of the apostles and the deacons, who are dear, [preside over you]…”

(80-120 AD) Didache 15:1 – “Therefore, choose for yourselves bishops and deacons worthy of God, men who are gentle, not lovers of money, dependable, and proven, for they also serve you with the service of prophets and teachers.” (The Didache does not mention elders, and bishops are only mentioned in the plural.)

(110-140 AD) Polycarp to the Philippians 5:3 – “Therefore, it is necessary to keep away from all these things, subjecting yourselves to the elders and to the deacons as to God and to Christ.” (Polycarp does not mention bishops, much less a single bishop. He does not call himself a bishop although Ignatius does call him by the title “bishop.”)

For Ignatius, it is important that believers stay in harmony with the single bishop of their area. From reading the Didache and Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians, Ignatius’ view is not the only view of leadership at the beginning of the second century. Why would Ignatius put so much emphasis on the monoepiscopacy?

Theological Sources in Ignatius’ Letters
Sometime between 107 and 117 AD, Ignatius, the Bishop of Smyrna, was arrested and taken to Rome for execution. On the way to Rome, he wrote seven letters: one each to the churches in Tralles, Magnesia, Ephesus, Philadelphia, Smyrna, and Rome, and one to Polycarp, the bishop of the church in Smyrna.

From the text of these seven letters, it is clear that Ignatius knows of the Old Testament Scriptures. He quotes the Old Testament three times: he quotes Proverbs 3:34 in Ign. Eph. 5.3, he quotes Proverbs 18:17 in Ign. Magn. 12, and he quotes Isaiah 52:5 in Ign. Trall. 8.2. He introduces the first two citations with the scriptural formulation, “It is written” (ge,graptai). These three citations are minimal compared to Old Testament citations in the writings of other apostolic fathers. Ignatius recognizes the Old Testament as an early, but incomplete witness to Jesus Christ.

Ignatius’ recognition of and use of the New Testament writings are even more difficult to determine. From a statement in Ign. Eph. 12.2, it is clear that Ignatius knows of more than one of Paul’s letters. Most scholars agree that there are allusions to some of these letters, especially 1 Corinthians. Similarly, there may be allusions to Matthew’s Gospel in Ignatius’ letters. However, he does not quote from the New Testament writings with the formula, “It is written.”

For the most part, Ignatius seems to downplay written records and holds “the Gospel” as authoritative. For example, he says:

Moreover, I urge you to do nothing in a spirit of contentiousness, but in accordance with the teaching of Christ. For I heard some people say, “If I do not find it in the archives, I do not believe it in the gospel.” And when I said to them, “It is written,” they answered me, “That is precisely the question.” But for me, the “archives” are Jesus Christ, the inviolable archives are his cross and death and his resurrection and the faith which comes through him; by these things I want, through your prayers, to be justified. (in Ign. Phil. 8.2)

What does Ignatius mean by “the gospel”? For the most part, he identifies the gospel with the tradition handed down to him concerning the birth, life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He does not use the standard term for “tradition”, nor does he use the phrase “rule of faith.” However, his teaching concerning “the gospel” is similar to later references to the “rule of faith.” He uses the term “gospel” six times and the term “passion” fifteen times within his letters. At times, Ignatius uses “passion” to refer to “the gospel” as a whole and, at other times, “passion” only refers to Christ’s suffering or death. To a lesser extent, he refers to this tradition as “the teaching of Christ” and “stewardship”.

Ignatius’ statements about “the gospel” are very similar to later creeds. He exhorts his readers to believe in various aspects of the birth, life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. However, unlike the creeds, his statements do not appear to be standardized, memorized, or verbatim. For example, consider these two statements (along with the above citation from Ign. Phil. 8.2):

But the Gospel possesses something transcendent: the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ, His passion and resurrection. (Ign. Phil. 9:2a)

There is one Physician who is possessed both of flesh and spirit; both made and not made; God existing in flesh; true life in death; both of Mary and of God; first able to suffer and then not able to suffer, even Jesus Christ our Lord. (Ign. Eph. 7.2)

Throughout the seven letters, there are ten instances of these “gospel” sayings; however, none of the ten are identical. If all of the elements of the ten gospel sayings are combined, none of the ten instances include all of the elements. From this data, it seems that even though the tradition of “the gospel” was very important to Ignatius, this was not a creedal-type tradition (yet). Instead of focusing on specific words to express the gospel, Ignatius was more interested in the content of the gospel. Thus, whether someone calls it suffering, passion, or crucifixion did not concern Ignatius. Instead, he was concerned that Christians believed in this gospel.

Ignatius did not turn to either Old Testament or New Testament Scriptures for his authority, although he did recognize the writings as being very important witnesses to the gospel. Similarly, he did not find authority in specific creedal statements that may have been handed down (as some suggest are found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Instead, for Ignatius, authority is found in the gospel: the events surrounded the life of Jesus Christ and the correct interpretation of those events.

The Unity of the Gospel
Importantly, even though “the gospel” was not a formulaic creed, there was still only one gospel for Ignatius. He states that there is one God, one faith, and one Eucharist. Based on this unity, Ignatius, encourages his readers to maintain harmony with God and with one another, and the proper way of maintaining harmony is found in the bishop. Since there is one God, and one gospel, there should be one bishop. He says:

Therefore, make every effort to take advantage of the 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 elders and the deacons, my fellow servants, in order that whatever you might do, you might do according to God. (Ign. Phil. 4:1)

For Ignatius, the monoepiscopacy was necessary to maintain the unity of the gospel. Since Ignatius found his authority in the gospel, he took this unity very seriously. Anyone who found himself outside of the teachings or the practices of the bishop also found himself outside of the gospel, because the one bishop maintained the unity of the one gospel. Living according to the bishop was the same as living according to the gospel and Jesus Christ.

However, Ignatius does not seem to envision a “ruling” bishop. While he instructed the believers in each city to submit themselves to the gospel as well as to the bishop, he did not instruct the bishops to take an authoritarian position over the Christians. In fact, this would be contrary to Ignatius’ understanding, since he finds the gospel to be the authority. Instead, Ignatius commends the bishops that he meets along the way for being humble and gentle.

For Ignatius, there is one gospel because there is one God and one Lord Jesus Christ. Within this one gospel he finds his authority. The gospel is not primarily written or recited verbatim. Instead, the gospel is the events and interpretation of the events surrounding the life of Jesus Christ. From his concerns of protecting the one gospel, he derives a need for a single human leader (the one bishop) as well as the one Eucharist, the one altar, and the one meeting. Other writers from the same time period did not derive a monoepiscopacy from the one gospel.

During the first thousand years of the history of the church, Ignatius’ letters were arguably the most cited and most influential writings of any of the apostolic fathers. However, later church figures latched onto Ignatius’ derivatives (one bishop, one Eucharist, one altar, etc.) while losing his primary emphasis on the one gospel. For Ignatius, the monoepiscopacy should exist only as an extension of the one gospel in order to protect that gospel.


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 11-28-2007

    Alan, thanks for helping me understand what “monoepiscopacy”. It was buggin’ me. 😉

  2. 11-28-2007

    oops… sorry, Jonathan.

  3. 11-28-2007

    Alan, thanks. This was good. I know very little about Ignatius. Would you consider explaining (either here or in another post) how the believers were to submit to the bishop while the bishop does not have an authoritative function over the believers? Are they submitting to the bishop’s interpretation of the ‘gospel’? This seems like it would lead to the same problem as the Medieval Catholic church and the Latin text (only with a verbal gospel rather than a written one).

    This is a need for clarification, not a challenge to your conclusion.

  4. 11-28-2007

    I like Ignatius’ apparent view of the Gospel. I especially like that bit about Jesus himself being “the archives”. Sounds like the opening of Hebrews to me.

    That fits a lot with some of my thinking in recent months and years.

    Of course, that’s because I’m a heretic 😉 hehe

    With regard to glenn’s comment, I think that it’s a frequent misconception that “submit” on the part of one has to result in “authority” on the part of another. One can most certainly submit to someone in the sense of deferring to them, viewing the other’s interests as higher than their own, etc. without the other needing to exercise or even possess one shred of authority. How else would Paul exhort us to submit to one another (Eph. 5:21)?

  5. 11-28-2007


    I’m glad that you asked your question. It shows that I did not express myself well in my presentation, and that I need to correct that in my paper. What Steve says is correct. It is possible to submit to someone without that person having authority. I can even submit to my children, although they are not my authority.

    However, in Ignatius, there is a sense that the bishop has authority, but I think that authority is based on the one gospel. Thus, the believers are to submit to the bishop and the bishop “presides over” them because the bishop is responsible for teaching and protecting the “gospel”.

    The difference is that it is not a bishop’s position or office that is “authoritative”, but his function in relation to the gospel. I hope this makes sense.


    Perhaps there should be a new heretic denomination… it might actually be the largest denomination… we could have a central location and officers and rules and… oh wait… nevermind.


  6. 11-28-2007

    I think I am having a difficult time with the term authoritative.

    Is this to say, there is a difference between the type bishop who clarifies/teaches gospel and the type of bishop who enforces gospel in the lives of the believers (you and Ignatius saying the bishop is not the type that should enforce)?

    If this is not correct, would it be possible for you to describe a scenario where a believer submits to the bishop’s authoritative function in relation to the gospel?

  7. 11-29-2007

    I think that I needed to read this at a different time than 11:15 pm.

    Very good thoughts. I enjoyed the challenge. To me, I think that they (Ignatius: in particular) were very concerned in the first centuries about what the “gospel” detailed and to make sure that false doctrines were not being taught. If this ocurred early on – the stake of Christianity could be in danger.

    On to some of the questions:

    Without the Bible being in place at the time, I believe that he was referring to the good news of Jesus (His story) when he was referring to the gospel.

    The differences in the letters is him being human and interacting with humans in different context and dealing with issues with them -so they need to be different.

    His thoughts of bishops to me was what it was all about or should be about. The power that they had came from “down under” not “over the top”. What do you do when you are the most powerful person in the room – you serve at the others person feet .. why ? When Jesus was the most powerful in the room; he washed his disciples feet.

    Leaders moved away from the gospel and latched onto them because they became greedy (opposite of the humble you mentioned). They began to see bishops and elders as authoritative and abuse their power.

    Thus, we saw 500 years of chaos till the Reformation hit us.

    If this comment was too long; I apologize.

  8. 11-29-2007


    If it was only for the sake of preserving the Gospel that there was a need for a central “authority” then, As I see it, the Canno of scripture is the perfect bishop, and there is now no need for the cetral human bishop. The scripture has preserved the Gospel and is in the hand of every church worldwide!

    What a fantastic job as bishop it has done, no human could have maintained the truth so universally over time and space as scripture has, praise God for plugging that hole!

    I now have far greater sympathy also for these early defenders of the faith, and I had a lot before!


  9. 11-29-2007

    Alan and Glenn,

    Can I have a stab at thowing a thought into the ring.

    As I see it now we are under Grace and not Law, the authority figure does not have authority to punish. So, a person in authority cannot be questioned as far as there teaching is concerned, however, people responded to it was up to them.

    I liken it to the authority of scripture, as much as one can change one’s theology, one cannot change the actual words of scripture.

    I see this as the same with the Apostles, a church could not change what Paul taught, but how they responded to it was up to them.

    If Paul got wind that a church was not “behaving” (eg the Corinthians) he would take lengths to give them authoritive corrective teaching. In other words, his teaching was the authoritative word of God to them and unquestionable, come the judgment of believer’s works they would be judged according to what they were taught, however, Paul had no authority to punish them if the did not obey. His limit would be to declare them out of fellowship until they repent (as per 1 Cor 5). If they decided they were happy to form a sect then that would be that! But they would probably not be on Paul’s teaching rota and he would warn others to avoid them!

    Also, issues within the church would be dealt with within the church. For example, again 1 cor 5, Paul told them they should have dealt with this. It is not a matter that an outside authority needs to give the final rubber stamp on any decisions.

    On a matter of someone preaching the gospel, the Bishop would tell them “This is what the gospel is” If someone started teaching that Christ didn’t rise physically from the dead, then it would be agreed that they were not preaching the true Gospel. I would assume that such a one would be dealt with by the church, not the bishop.


  10. 11-30-2007

    Unfortunately, I’ve fallen behind on my comments in this thread. But, since I’m still working on the paper, your comments are being very helpful.

    The important thing for me concerning the monoepiscopacy in Ignatius’ writings is that he does not base the “one bishop” on Scripture. The focus of my paper is not on whether or not Ignatius feels the bishop should have or exercise authority, but the source of Ignatius’ understanding of the monoepiscopacy.


  11. 11-30-2007


    If I remember correctly, the Roman Catholic Church has traditionally used this quote of Ignatius as a justification for holding up the tradition of the Church, as passed down through “apostolic succession,” as a parallel authority to that of Scripture.

    As “Protestants,” I believe it is important for us to have some reply. I would be interested to what you would say.

    My inclination is to say the Ignatius, if he were able to look down through the telescope of history, would recognize the flaw in his argument. But, he had no way of knowing that the “bishops” of his day, who, more the most part, still faithfully upheld the teaching of the Gospel, would later “pass down” their authority to others who would not uphold it so faithfully.

    It seems to me, it was a fairly good theory, when Ignatius first proposed it. But God himself, whose foreknowledge and wisdom is infinite, “trumped” him with the complete Canon of Holy Scripture as the best measuring stick of the authenticity of the “Gospel message” being proclaimed by various ones who proported to be the “real thing.”

    An objective study of history seems to demonstrate, to me, that many apparently “legitimate” successors of the “bishops” referred to by Ignatius ended up diverging from the original Gospel message, and even contradicted each other in significant matters.

  12. 11-30-2007

    It is a bit disconcerting to me, though, that Ignatius, at such an early period in church history, could refer to the monoepiscopacy in such a way, without apparently being directly corrected by others. Would that indicate that monoepiscopacy was already pretty standard practice by this time?

    Do you have any thoughts on this?

  13. 11-30-2007


    The three-fold leadership structure along with the monoepiscopacy that was taught by Ignatius was not the only leadership structure taught during the late first and early second century. To me, the most important piece of evidence that everyone did not agree with Ignatius comes from Polycarp. Polycarp knew of Ignatius’ teaching about the monoepiscopacy because he knew of Ignatius’ letter to himself, his letter to the church in Smyrna where Polycarp lived, and he knew of some of the other letters of Ignatius. However, in spite of knowing that Ignatius supported a three-fold leadership structure with the monoepiscopacy, Polycarp did not promote this same structure just a few years later when he wrote to the church in Phillipi. Instead, as I quoted at the beginning of this post, Polycarp taught the Phillipians a two-fold leadership structure with multiple elders and multiple deacons within the church at Phillipi.

    Concerning how Ignatius’ teachings about the monoepiscopacy were used by later Christian writers, I’m not exactly sure what Ignatius would say. It seems from his writings that Ignatius knew all of the bishops to whom he encouraged the recipients of his letters to submit. We do not know if he would make the same exhortation toward a bishop that he did not know, or to a bishop that he knew did not emphasize the gospel.