January 23, 2021

Friday with the Fathers (2)

The Church Fathers, Kievan Miniature (11th c)

By Chaplain Mike

On Fridays during the Lenten season, we are meditating on brief introductions to the Apostolic Fathers. These are the first Christian writings we have outside the pages of the New Testament itself. Dates range from the second half of the first century to the first half of the second century. The traditional list of the Fathers includes:

  • Clement of Rome
  • Ignatius of Antioch
  • Polycarp of Smyrna
  • The Didache
  • The Epistle of Barnabas
  • The Shepherd of Hermas
  • Papias

Today, we meet Ignatius of Antioch (Syria). Though he was bishop of Antioch, the only writings we have of his come from a brief period at the end of his life, shortly before he died as a martyr in Rome early in the second century. As Ignatius was being escorted to Rome in the custody of soldiers, he wrote seven letters to churches along the way and to Rome, alerting them of his soon arrival. We do not have the account of his death, but it is likely that he suffered and died shortly thereafter as a martyr to the faith.

Thus, the Letters of Ignatius contain the words of a “dead man walking”—walking toward what in human eyes was a tragic loss, but for him eternal gain.

Ignatius’ Letters have had a profound influence on studies of Christian origins because of their emphasis on church leadership structure and practices. In particular, Ignatius emphasizes the role of the bishop, as in this passage from his Letter to the Magnesians:

…I have this advice: Be eager to do everything in godly harmony, the bishop presiding in the place of God and the presbyters in the place of the council of the apostles and the deacons, who are especially dear to me, since they have been entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ, who before the ages was with the Father and appeared at the end of time. Let all, therefore, accept the same attitude as God and respect one another, and let no one regard his neighbor in merely human terms, but in Jesus Christ, love one another always. Let there be nothing among you that is capable of dividing you, but be united with the bishop and with those who lead, as an example and lesson of incorruptibility. (Magnesians 6:1-2)

What might today’s evangelicals, confident of belief in the “autonomous local church,” say upon reading such a letter? It is clear that Ignatius commends a level of leadership outside and above the local congregation, that works in cooperation with the local leaders to provide “the ministry of Jesus Christ” to the believers gathered in various assemblies. Indeed, for this church Father who lived near the end of the apostolic period (writing in the early second century), the office of bishop was the key to maintaining order, unity, and sound doctrine in the churches.

Thus it is proper for you to run together in harmony with the mind of the bishop, as you are in fact doing. For your council of presbyters, which is worthy of its name and worthy of God, is attuned to the bishop as strings to a lyre. Therefore in your unanimity and harmonious love Jesus Christ is sung. (Ephesians 4:1)

Similarly, let everyone respect the deacons as Jesus Christ, just as they should respect the bishop, who is a model of the Father, and presbyters as God’s council and as the band of the apostles. Without these no group can be called a church. (Trallians 3:1)

Therefore be on your guard against such people [i.e. false teachers]. And you will be, provided that you are not puffed up with pride and that you cling inseparably to Jesus Christ and to the bishop and to the commandments of the apostles. The one who is within the sanctuary is clean, but the one who is outside the sanctuary is not clean. That is, whoever does anything without the bishop and council of presbyters and deacons does not have a clean conscience. (Trallians 7:1-2)

Take care, therefore, to participate in one Eucharist (for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup that leads to unity through his blood; there is one altar, just as there is one bishop, together with the council of presbyters and the deacons, my fellow servants), in order that whatever you do, you do in accordance with God. (Philadelphians 4:1)

Flee from divisions as the beginning of evils. You must all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ followed the Father, and follow the council of presbyters as you would the apostles; respect the deacons as the commandment of God. Let no one do anything that has to do with the church without the bishop. Only that Eucharist which is under the authority of the bishop (or whomever he himself designates) is to be considered valid. Wherever the bishop appears, there let the congregation be; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church. (Smyrnaeans 8:1-2)

The final letter of Ignatius is addressed to one such bishop, Polycarp of the Smyrnaeans. It contains instructions for fulfilling this all-important ministry in a way that glorifies God and edifies the churches. Here is a sample:

I urge you, by the grace with which you are clothed, to press on in your race and to exhort all people, so that they may be saved. Do justice to your office with constant care for both physical and spiritual concerns. Focus on unity, for there is nothing better. Bear with all people, even as the Lord bears with you; endure all in love, just as you now do. Devote yourself to unceasing prayers; ask for greater understanding than you have. Keep alert with an unresting spirit. Speak to the people individually, in accordance with God’s example. Bear the diseases of all, as a perfect athlete. Where there is more work, there is much gain. (1:2-3)

If you love good disciples, it is no credit to you; rather with gentleness bring the more troublesome ones into submission…. (2:1)

…Do not let those who appear to be trustworthy yet who teach strange doctrines baffle you. Stand firm, like an anvil being struck with a hammer…. (3:1)

…Do not let the widows be neglected. After the Lord, you be their guardian…. (4:1)

…Tell my sisters to love the Lord and to be content with their husbands physically and spiritually. In the same way command my brothers in the name of Jesus Christ to love their wives as the Lord loves the church. If anyone is able to remain chaste to the honor of the flesh of the Lord, let him so remain without boasting…. (5:1-2)

Ignatius’ words are filled with pastoral wisdom and counsel. Note that even the bishop is to “speak to the people individually, in accordance with God’s example.” Observe also the concern for both spiritual and physical needs, for truth and compassion, for prayer and chaste sexuality. Leadership in the church is about caring for people in Jesus Christ.

Ignatius himself was profoundly aware of the responsibility entrusted to him as a bishop. In his letter to the Ephesians, he writes, “I am not commanding you, as though I were someone important. For even though I am in chains for the sake of the Name, I have not yet been perfected in Jesus Christ. For now I am only beginning to be a disciple, and I speak to you as my fellow students. For I need to be trained by you in faith, instruction, endurance, and patience.” (Eph. 3:1)

In fact, this sense of being called to be an example to the flock led Ignatius to have a desire for martyrdom that we would find strange and morbid. Much of his Letter to the Romans is devoted to discouraging them from trying to gain his release. At one point, he even urges them to coax the wild beasts to devour him wholly and leave nothing of his body behind. “Then I will truly be a disciple of Jesus Christ, when the world will no longer see my body.” (Rom. 4:2)

Such “heavenly-mindedness” sounds odd to our ears. Is that a sign of how crazy and fanatical Ignatius was, or a sign of how much we have come to love this life and ignore the next?

Neither the ends of the earth nor the kingdoms of this age are of any use to me. It is better for me to die for Jesus Christ than to rule over the ends of the earth. Him I seek, who died on our behalf; him I long for, who rose again for our sake. The pains of birth are upon me. (Rom. 6:1)

Text cited from:
The Apostolic Fathers, by Michael W. Holmes


  1. Christiane says

    When was it that Protestant evangelists first taught the doctrine of the ‘“autonomous local church” ?
    I know that it was not the pattern of early Christianity . . . the Fathers don’t speak of it at all, and as, in the example given from the writings of Ignatius of Antioch, we see instead the Church is spoken of as a unity.

    • good historical blogroll

    • Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

      There were some in the Reformed tradition that favored a more congregational polity. The Anabaptists certainly did. As a widespread thing, 16th Century is about as early as you can get. Some congregationalists would look at various dissident groups throughout earlier times as being support for congregationalism. They’d also say that the Apostles didn’t set up hierarchical systems, which could potentially be argued from NT texts, though it seems to me to be more of an argument from silence than anything else.

      St. Ignatius was a an disciple of St. John, so we know that at least one of the Apostles’ immediate students treated a three-fold ministry with Episcopal polity as the norm. By the end of the Second Century it was definitely the norm. The First and early Second Centuries are a bit murkier when it comes to government. In my own personal studies I’ve come to the conclusion that the difference between Presbyters and Bishops weren’t exactly clear in the Apostolic Age. They were in development during the second generation of Christian leaders (i.e. the disciples of the Apostles). By the third generation the three-tier ordained ministry was firmly established, largely as a way of combating gnostic heresy. The gnostics claimed that they had received special secret knowledge from the Apostles and Jesus. The “catholics” claimed that Jesus gave his authority to the Apostles who in turn gave it to the Bishops.

      • Many Orthodox and Roman Catholics would not point to elders as the background for bishops, but would point to apostles. And, Saints Timothy and Titus would be seen as the first steps in a settled regional apostolic ministry with oversight of elders. As that “settledness” happened, the title of episkopos (or overseer) switched from the elders to the regional successors of the apostles, who themselves are considered to be apostolic.

        The fact that the early writers all talked about bishops shows that it was not a late development. They all say that it was something that the apostles all did (appoint successors who watched over regions).

      • The Roman Catholic position is that the bishop possesses the fullness of the priesthood (e.g. he can ordain while ordinary priests cannot; he can delegate authority to his priests, but it is only he who can do the laying on of hands).

        So I imagine that in the very early Church, while congregations were still small and local enough, the bishop fulfilled all the roles, both those of governance and those we associate with priests in parishes. When the Church spread out over large areas so that it simply wasn’t feasible for one bishop to physically pastor in person three, four, six, ten or whatever number of churches over a wide geographical area, then his presbyters took over those for him – as delegates and representatives.

      • Isaac said, “The gnostics claimed that they had received special secret knowledge from the Apostles and Jesus.”
        I have understood gnosticism to relate to a more general special knowledge from heavenly beings that were destroyed and their remains giving “special knowledge” to those on whom it fell. Can you give me a source for your statement so I can go back and research this a little more. It comes up so often I want to make sure I have it right.

        • From the little I understand, Pat B, there seem to have been a whole lot of different Gnostic sects; some of them were pagan remnants, some entangled themselves with Christianity, some arose on the fringes of Christianity themselves.

          The ones that usually get quoted in these contexts are the likes of the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, or the one which all the kerfuffle was about a couple of years ago, the Gospel of Judas, are the ones associated with “secret knowledge taught by Jesus only to the Apostles”.

          You couldn’t pay me to read her books, but I’m given to understand that Elaine Pagels is the ‘go-to’ woman for the “Gnostic Christianity” stuff.

          Someone I haven’t read, but who is probably a more reliable source (being nearer to the time of the controversy) is Irenaeus, who in his “Against Heresies” takes on the Gnostics and especially the Valentinians (these were one particular group; there certainly wasn’t anything like an ordered or mainstream Gnosticism which one could point to as being a definite school of doctrine, but rather a lot of associated groups with broadly similar base beliefs but greatly differing interpretations of same).

  2. Oh man. THIS is why I fell in love with iMonk.

    • You don’t get this stuff anywhere else (that I’ve noticed, anyway).

      • You’re right. Though I usually try to write a weekly devotion based on the teachings of the Desert Fathers over at my blog, it’s usually not as in-depth, and lately I’ve been too busy to post regularly (I’ve been in southeast Asia for a few weeks). I guess that’s one of the great things about iMonk being a blogging community, as well…

  3. thanks mike – i love it when imonk goes “old school”. the fad-driven and gadget-geared church today needs to hear the voice of the fathers. as chesterton so wisely put it – tradition means giving our ancestors a vote, it is the democracy of the dead .

    • Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

      Ack! THAT’S who said it! I’ve been trying to remember whose quote that was! It’s been driving me nuts for days, and the Interwebs were no help.

  4. “Stand firm, like an anvil being struck with a hammer.”

    That’s wonderful!

    F.F. Bruce has a good introduction to Saint Ignatius in his new testament history. He traces apostolic succession back to Ignatius, which was meant to be a way to reduce the spread of heresy. Apparently, Ignatius didn’t fathom the potential of bishops raised up in the apostolic tradition to fall into heresy.

    • Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

      The way it was SUPPOSED to work was that the bishops would keep each other in check. And when stuff was more council-based, that seemed to work pretty well. The historical problem seems to be that when the religious leaders get too much temporal power, the religious offices get seriously abused.

  5. Thanks Mike, I often need these particular exhortations of Ignatius

  6. It seems to me that Ignatius always spoke of unity in terms of a unity in Love. Any authority that a bishop held was form and sustained through the individual and communal Love imparted through Christ’s Spirit. It also seems to me that the greatest tragedy in this regard was the Donation of Constantine. For after that, Christianity seemed to glean it’s authority from the temporal powers of this world – one of the three temptations of Satan toward Jesus in the desert. This has been problematic for Christianity to this day. The sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church is, to me, a direct result of our succumbing to that temptation. Any unity or authority must flow from our Love borne in and sustained through the Gracious infusion of the Spirit of Christ. All else is folly…

  7. The writings of Ignatius have helped me move from protestantism/ pentecostalism into the Greek orthodox church.
    Particularly the fact that he was writing in the second century and aquainted with the Apostle’s. (As opposed to writing from the 1500’s on.
    It is interesting to note, note only his views on the authority of the Bishop, but also of the communion being the actual body and blood of the Lord, and his views on baptismal regeneration.

  8. DavidL, I see nothing in the writings above which gives credence to the belief that when you partake of communion, the bread actually becomes Christ’s body and the wine becomes Christ’s blood. We are commanded to do the last supper in “remembrance” of Him, not to indulge in what only could be termed the sin of eating human flesh.

    • Randy,

      Ignatius is credited with seven letters and Chaplain Mike, of course, did not exhaustively quote them in this post. However, Ignatius had much to say about communion:

      Epistle to the Romans, 7
      I desire the Bread of God, the heavenly Bread, the Bread of Life, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who became afterwards of the seed of David and Abraham; I wish the drink of God, namely His blood, which is incorruptible love and eternal life.

      Epistle to the Philadephians, 4:1
      Be ye careful therefore to observe one eucharist (for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ and one cup unto union in His blood; there is one altar, as there is one bishop, together with the presbytery and the deacons my fellow-servants), that whatsoever ye do, ye may do it after God.

      Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, Chapter 6
      Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God … They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which that Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes.

      • Thanks Donna and Randy,

        Just some interesting things I found in my studies on the word “remembrance” in Luke 22:19 is translated from the Greek word “anemnesin” which means to continually actualise. So the deeper meaning is to take the Lord’s supper in “continual actualisation” of him. I confirmed this with an Orthodox priest.

        The other interesting thing I found is that this position was held for hundreds of years, whereas after the Reformation – Luther, Zwingli and Calvin had three different views on the Eucharist.

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