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.”
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?