the weblog of Alan Knox

Following Ignatius

Posted by on Oct 1, 2008 in church history, elders, office, ordinances/sacraments | 9 comments

Ignatius of Antioch was one of the earliest Christian writers following the apostles. He died sometime around 110 AD in Rome. After being arrested in Antioch, he was led to Rome through Asia Minor. On the way, he wrote seven letters, six to churches and one to Polycarp.

Ignatius was very interested in the gospel. Ignatius’ gospel was a literal interpretation of the historical events and persons surrounding the birth, life, death, burial, resurrection, and continuing ministry of Jesus Christ. His desire was to see Christians living in harmony with the one gospel.

In order to exhort Christians toward harmony with the one gospel, Ignatius also encouraged them toward a three-part church leadership structure that included one bishop, multiple elders, and multiple deacons per city.

Evangelicals are proud of the fact that we follow Scripture and not traditions such as those espoused by Ignatius. But, do we follow Ignatius over Scripture? You can judge for yourself…

By being subject to the bishop and the elders, you might be sanctified concerning all things. (Ign. Eph. 2.2b)

Let us make every effort then not to oppose the bishop in order that we might submit ourselves to God. (Ign. Eph. 5.3b)

Therefore, as the Lord did nothing without the Father, being united with him, neither by himself nor by the apostles, in the same way you must do nothing without the biship and the elders. (Ign. Mag. 7.1a)

The one who does anything without the bishop, the elders, and the deacons, such a man is not clean in his conscience. (Ign. Trall. 7.2b)

Let that Eucharist be considered proper which is either by the bishop or by the one he permits. (Ign. Smyr. 8.1b)

It is not proper to baptize or to have a “love feast” without the bishop. (Ign. Smyr. 8.2b)

The one who honors the bishop is honored by God; the one who does anything without the knowledge of the bishop serves (worships?) the devil. (Ign. Smyr. 9.1b)

It is fitting for men and women who marry to make there union by the approval of the bishop. (Ign. Pol. 5.2b)

These are only a few of the passages. I left out passages where Ignatius said that same thing to different churches. So, according to Ignatius, believers should do nothing with the consent of the bishop and elders. In fact, those who do anything without their leaders obviously have impure motives (unclean conscience). No one should have a love feast (Eucharist, communion) or baptize without the bishop’s approval. No one should get married without the bishop’s approval. If believers stay within the bishop’s will, then they are sanctified. If they move outside the bishop’s will, then they are in trouble, actually going against God himself to serve the devil.

Change “bishop” to “senior pastor”, and I think this fits very closely with many modern teachings concerning church leadership. You can especially find these types of teachings under topic of spiritual “covering”. But, I don’t think you’ll find these in Scripture.

Are we willing to admit that in many of our leadership concepts and practices in the church we follow Ignatius more closely than we follow Scripture?


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

  1. 10-1-2008

    Hence my confusion.

  2. 10-1-2008


    I would say that you hit the evangelical (movement, tradition, mindset) dead on. Rather a sad commentary!!


  3. 10-1-2008


    What’s your confusion?

    Gary (lightbearer),

    Its okay because the church agreed with Ignatius for almost 2000 years. So, he must be right.


  4. 10-1-2008

    I agree that it’s a mistake to say that simply because something is old, it’s right. However, I’m curious as to why we shouldn’t listen to Ignatius – that he was so close to the earliest Church, being a disciple of John’s, surely he would have a clue as to a right ecclesiology.

    That the Bible by itself has brought about so many forms of Church polity by various peoples should lead us to be suspect of anyone claiming a purely “Biblical” Ecclesiology. I just re-read, “Perspectives on Church Government: Five Views on Church Polity” – and every single person uses Scripture to prove their point. Who’s right?

  5. 10-2-2008


    Thanks for the comment. Its good to see you around here again. Why do you think that Ignatius was a direct disciple of John? Ignatius doesn’t mention John, or the writings of John, even though he does mention Peter and Paul, and he mentions the writings of Paul.

    I do listen to Ignatius. I listen to him as a follower of Jesus who was very interested in the gospel and was trying to encourage unity during his day. There are other explanations that I listen to as well (i.e. Didache and Polycarp) that seem to not follow Ignatius’ pattern. Then, more importantly, I listen to Scripture, which also seems to contradict Ignatius’ pattern.

    So, why should I listen to Ignatius as opposed to Scripture, the Didache, or Polycarp?

    As to the five views book and other questions “church government”, perhaps one of the problems is that the church doesn’t have a “government” in the way that its normally presented in ecclesiology books.


  6. 10-2-2008

    I love reading your blog. For better or worse, it has gotten me interested in ecclesiology.

    I didn’t realize it was suspected that Ignatius wasn’t a disciple of John. The Martyrdom of Ignatius says that he was and it was widely held belief in the early Church.

    And we have a single letter from Polycarp which doesn’t address ecclesiology – why would you take Polycarp’s word over Ignatius’? In fact, that Polycarp isn’t concerned with ecclesiology (because it wasn’t the purpose of his letter) was one of Lightfoot’s proofs for its authenticity.

    The Didache, too, is not really concerned with ecclesiology. Unfortunately, the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and this rings true in the early Church. The Didache was primarily concerned with a love of God, some liturgical practices, and then ordaining bishops and deacons for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

    And I think saying that Scripture disagrees with Ignatius is just re-stating your conclusion as an argument. Of course you don’t think Scripture agrees with Ignatius, but 2000 years of historically-minded theology has. Also, why would the councils of the 4th Century who dealt with the canon include books that were so obviously opposed to their ecclesiological system? Certainly we would’ve seen a considerable amount of opposition to the Pauline corpus if it were so against Catholic ecclesiology.

    Regardless if we use the word “government” or “polity” or “ecclesiology”, we mean the same thing – how is the Church to be run? And all 5 people who contributed to that book would say that Scripture supports their model. Knowing that God doesn’t author chaos, who should we believe?

  7. 10-2-2008


    I also like reading your blog.

    Neither Polycarp nor the Didache were concerned with ecclesiology? Could that conclusion have been reached because those writings do not present the type of ecclesiology that has been expected from “2000 years of historically-minded theology”? Perhaps you don’t find ecclesiology there because its not the ecclesiology that you’re expecting. Perhaps there is something of ecclesiology in Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians and in the Didache… especially the Didache.

    Thus, stating that Polycarp and the Didache do not contain ecclesiology is simply re-stating your ecclesiological conclusion as an argument.

    So, when it comes to presuppositions, we both have to admit that we bring them to the text (both the text of Scripture and the text of the apostolic fathers). You’re not comfortable with my unhistorically-minded ecclesiology, and I’m not comfortable with your Catholic ecclesiology.

    So… where do we go from here?


  8. 10-6-2008

    I don’t think it’s simply that I’m blind to the ecclesiology of Polycarp or the Didache, I think it’s just that those texts weren’t written with very much, if any, ecclesiological leanings.

    It is possible for ancient Christian writers to write about something without mentioning ecclesiology and if we go hunting for a particular subject in a text that doesn’t mention it, we’re going to do disservice to the text.

    I’m curious as to where we find any extra-Biblical writings in the early Church that describe an ecclesiology such as the one you promote. I still think my question is a valid one: why, during the canonization process, did the Church not find itself opposed to the Pauline corpus if it were so blatantly against the ecclesiology they had established?

    The earliest extra-Biblical documents we’re working with are the Apostolic Fathers (with the inclusion of the Didache) and, this may be due to ignorance, I can’t find anything other than a Bishop/Deacon hierarchical model.

  9. 10-6-2008


    You said that you can’t find anything but a “Bishop/Deacon” hierarchical mode. Meanwhile, apart from Ignatius, I can’t find anything but a local leadership of “elders/deacons”. And, we’re looking at the same evidence. Again, you’re looking through the lens of an existing monoepiscopal hierarchy, and I am not. Our perspective influences how we interpret the evidence.