the weblog of Alan Knox

Replay: Following Ignatius instead of Scripture

Posted by on Oct 1, 2011 in church history, elders, office, ordinances/sacraments | 12 comments

Replay: Following Ignatius instead of Scripture

Three years ago, I wrote a post called “Following Ignatius.” When I first read Ignatius’ letters, I remember being encouraged by his focus on the gospel. But, I was perplexed by the weight that he put on the monoepiscopacy (single bishop, multiple presbyters, and multiple deacons in each city). Ignatius admits that he did not learn this from any of the apostles or any other men, but it was instead revealed to him directly by the Holy Spirit. But, I don’t know why I was surprised by the focus Ignatius placed on the bishop, since I had seen that same focus in all the churches I’d ever been part of. Oh, they didn’t focus on the bishop… but on the “senior pastor.”


Following Ignatius

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. 10-1-2011


    It is amazing that the mono-episcopacy started so early. However, given the fact that many didn’t have the fullness of the NT revelation and the apostles were dead, its no wonder that this happened so soon.

  2. 10-1-2011


    It is interesting to find several different “leadership structures” espoused among 2nd century Christians. Perhaps one of the most interesting is the fact that Ignatius write to Polycarp and tells him to teach others about the one bishop/presbyters/deacons model. But, when Polycarp writes to the Philippians, he doesn’t teach that structure. If I remember correctly, it wasn’t until another 100 years (in the early 200’s) before Ignatius’ monoepiscopacy structure was pushed by another writer.


  3. 10-1-2011


    What did Polycarp teach the Philippians? Plural elder/deacons, home-grown style?

  4. 10-1-2011


    Polycarp mentions “presbyters” three times in his letter, but never mentions “bishops”. The first is in the opening where he seems to identify himself with the other presbyters in his city (instead of identifying himself as “the bishop” as Ignatius identifies him). Then, there are these two passages:

    …submitting yourselves to the presbyters and the deacons as to God and to Christ. (Polycarp to the Philippians 5.3b)

    And let the presbyters be compassionate and merciful to all, bringing back those who wander, caring (the verb form of “overseer” or “bishop” – so Polycarp knew the term) for the weak, not neglecting the widow, the orphan or the poor… (Polycarp to the Philippians 6.1a)


  5. 10-1-2011

    Thanks Alan for sharing this. I appreciate what you’ve added in the comments as well. It is good to recognize that these ideas of Ignatius were not necessarily held by all believers of his day.

    It also seems a further leap has been made somewhere. It seems what is common today is to have a bishop/overseer in each congregation. Not one per city as Ignatius was teaching. This seems to divide the church in each city into separate groups following different leaders.

  6. 10-1-2011

    I appreciate your work, Dr. Knox. Thank you.

  7. 10-1-2011


    Yes, the jump from a single leader over the church in the city to a single leader over each “local church” probably arose with the “local church.” I’m guessing that happened when the state churches of the Reformation lost their connection to the state. That would be an interesting historical study though.


    I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Please, call me Alan, because I don’t have a PhD, and even if I did, I would still prefer that you use my name and not a title.


  8. 10-2-2011

    Stacy and I are just about to remember the LORD in the breaking of the bagels and the drinking of the coffee, we will be reading, contemplating and discussing the gospel of Christ and His unveiling/revelation from Luke 1:1-4, John 1:1-18 & Revelation 1:1-20. Not an apostle, bishop, elder, pastor, prophet, teacher etc. present, unless of course Christ has gifted us in one or more of those functions, we do know for a fact that Christ is present and that He will teach us through each other and lead us as our only Rabbi & Leader. The Ignatious quotes are very interesting to see how quickly the deeds of the Nicolaitans began to take hold.

  9. 10-3-2011


    I hope you two had a great time together with the Lord!

    I’m not sure how quickly Ignatius’ ideas took hold. It depends on who you ask. :)


  10. 10-3-2011

    We did Alan, we believe it is a season for us, still praying for something more in line with what you folks are doing-we will see where He leads.

  11. 10-3-2011

    This was awesome…I love history and this is important history. The quotes from Ignatius sound awfully familiar…it is how many pastors interpret Hebrews 13:17!

  12. 10-4-2011


    Follow his lead, not ours… and I know you will. :)


    I love history also. Of course, different people interpret history differently, especially from writings so long ago that have been interpreted many times over.