Having begun an examination of “authority” and Church “hierarchy” in the writings of Ignatius, we now turn specifically to his letter to the Romans. Remember that to the other churches (Magnesia, Ephesus, and so on) Ignatius offered instruction; he counseled them on matters of doctrine and discipline; he gave them advice for the functioning of their local church community. But Ignatius does not attempt to advise Rome on any of these matters, for he says to them:
“You have never envied any one; you have taught others. Now I desire that those things may be confirmed [by your conduct], which in your instructions you enjoin [on others].”
It seems it is Rome’s place to “enjoin instructions” on others, while Ignatius does not presume to enjoin instructions on Rome. Ignatius makes only one simple request – not a call to obedience or the correction of some abuse – rather, Ignatius asks for their prayers:
“Only request in my behalf both inward and outward strength, that I may not only speak, but [truly] will; and that I may not merely be called a Christian, but really be found to be one.”
Ignatius asks nothing more than their prayers as he faces his impending martyrdom. In this way the Romans will “confirm” by their “conduct” what they have conveyed in their “instructions” to the other churches.
Why this special treatment of the Roman church? Why do the other churches receive stern teaching from Ignatius, while Rome receives only praise and an earnest appeal for prayer? Lest we forget, Ignatius opened this letter with words of high admiration for the Romans unlike that of any of the other churches: “…worthy of God, worthy of honor, worthy of the highest happiness, worthy of praise, worthy of obtaining her every desire, worthy of being deemed holy, and which presides over love…” Why is Rome set apart in this way from the other churches?
Ignatius gives one possible indication for this rare treatment when he alludes to the two Apostles who ministered in Rome and met their end in that great city. Ignatius acknowledges the Apostles Peter and Paul. He points to their preaching in Rome and suggests that it is the preeminence of their ministry in Rome that prevents him from now issuing instruction to this church:
“I do not, as Peter and Paul, issue commandments unto you. They were apostles; I am but a condemned man: they were free, while I am, even until now, a servant.”
Ignatius, a man who himself was a student of John the Apostle and a prominent First Century Christian bishop - worthy of recognition in his own right - yet recognizes Rome’s place of honor above his own. Even while he offers instruction and guidance to other churches well outside his jurisdiction in Antioch, Ignatius withholds any such teaching for Rome. It is the city of Peter and Paul. She teaches other churches and “presides over love.”
Ignatius now makes an appeal to the Roman Church - that they pray for his own strength as he undergoes his martyrdom: “[R]equest in my behalf both inward and outward strength.” He is traveling to Rome to be fed to wild beasts. He wishes to embrace this martyr’s death so that he “may not merely be called a Christian, but really be found to be one.” Ignatius asks that the Romans not intervene or make any appeal to the authorities for his life. He says to them, “I beseech of you not to show an unseasonable good-will towards me. Suffer me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God.”
Ignatius’ plea is both gruesome and heartfelt: “May I enjoy the wild beasts that are prepared for me; and I pray they may be found eager to rush upon me, which also I will entice to devour me speedily, and not deal with me as with some, whom, out of fear, they have not touched. But if they be unwilling to assail me, I will compel them to do so. Pardon me [in this]: I know what is for my benefit. Now I begin to be a disciple. And let no one, of things visible or invisible, envy me that I should attain to Jesus Christ. Let fire and the cross; let the crowds of wild beasts; let tearings, breakings, and dislocations of bones; let cutting off of members; let shatterings of the whole body; and let all the dreadful torments of the devil come upon me: only let me attain to Jesus Christ.”
This is a man who had lived a long life serving Christ and his Church as bishop of Antioch. After decades of service, he was ready to meet his final reward. But he was not so detached from the world as to neglect those he left behind. Ignatius showed concern for the Church that would remain after his passing. We have already read a few excerpts from some of his letters. And Ignatius mentions these letter to the Romans: “I write to the Churches, and impress on them all, that I shall willingly die for God…” And he realizes that his own church in Antioch will be left without an earthly shepherd. So he entrusts his flock to God and to the prayers of Rome: “Remember in your prayers the Church in Syria, which now has God for its shepherd, instead of me. Jesus Christ alone will oversee it, and your love [will also regard it].”
Thus Ignatius gives his final report to Rome upon his impending death. The tone is quite distinct from that of the other letters. To the other churches he had stressed the role of bishops and the authority of the ordained clergy within Christ’s Church. He instructed them to obey their bishops and to act in one accord with their leaders. But to Rome Ignatius seems to owe his own allegiance. He seems to acknowledge an elevated status for Rome, a place of honor, praise and holiness. He acknowledges Peter and Paul’s leadership there. And he ascribes to Rome the role of teacher of other churches. He even commends his own church to the loving prayers of Rome as he meets his final fate.
Once again, none of this definitively proves Roman primacy, the papacy, or the Catholic understanding of the hierarchical structure of the Church. But it certainly goes a long way in that direction. For a First Century student of the Apostles to bear such witness as Ignatius does gives strong support to the Catholic argument on this matter.
And finally, we are reminded of Jesus’ words to Peter before His passion and death: “But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” Ignatius now asks for the strength to face his own death. He turns to Rome, the city where Peter met his own end, the city which carries on Peter’s role of strengthening his brothers. Rome has “instructed others” and now her instructions are "confirmed by [her] conduct" as she receives her faithful “servant" Ignatius, so that he might go home to meet the Lord.