One letter remains for us to explore from Ignatius - that which he wrote to his friend Polycarp, a fellow student of John the Apostle and fellow First Century Christian bishop. We will study Polycarp in more detail soon enough, but first we will examine a few lines from Ignatius’ letter to this dear friend.
Ignatius opens his letter with the following words:
“Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus, to Polycarp, Bishop of the Church of the Smyrnaeans, or rather, who has, as his own bishop, God the Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ: [wishes] abundance of happiness.”
We have seen in other texts from Ignatius great emphasis placed on the authority of the bishop. Ignatius says that Christians are to follow their bishop as they would God. This seems strong language. But in the opening of this letter we have the other side of the story: the bishop is to see God as his own Bishop. Or, put more plainly: the leaders of the Church are answerable to God, just as we are answerable to those same leaders. Thus God is an active participant within the hierarchy of the Church.
Still we must ask, is this comparison of “God” and “Bishop” biblically sound? Is Ignatius perhaps elevating the authority of the bishop to undue heights; or, conversely, is God’s majesty being drawn down to a human level? Can we rightly speak of “God” and “Bishop” in such a relational manner?
The answer is clear. Scripture gives the title of “Bishop” to Christ: “For you were going astray like sheep; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.” (1Peter 2:25)
The word used here to refer to Jesus as “Bishop” of our souls is the Greek word episkopos, which is the same word used elsewhere in the Bible for the office of “overseer” or “bishop” as the highest rank of ordination in the Church. Obviously, the Bible has no problem relating Jesus (the Son of God) to the office of bishop. There is a direct correlation between Jesus’ role as head of the Church and the bishop as head of the local congregation – both are described as episkpos. If the Bible uses this terminology, then we can be certain that God is not diminished by calling Him “Bishop.”
Still it might fairly be asked, is Ignatius not elevating the power of man by assigning undue authority and prestige to the office of bishop? God may be the “Bishop” of our souls, (this much is true and is soundly biblical), but do the human bishops within the hierarchy of the Church really have sway over our souls as well?
Scripture tells us that those holding leadership positions within the Church are worthy of imitation and set an example of faith for other Christians to follow: “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” (Hebrews 13:7) Outward imitation is one thing, but does God expect a mere human to be answerable for the salvation of those who are under his watch as bishop? Does a bishop’s spiritual authority reach to our very souls? According to Scripture, it does: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.” (Hebrews 13:17)
Understandably, Ignatius and Polycarp take very seriously their duties as bishop, as they will be answerable to God for the outcome of their service. They take as their role model, Jesus, the Bishop of bishops, and guardian of our souls. Ignatius encourages Polycarp in this vocation, and urges him to remain steadfast in exercising his God-given authority:
“Let not those who seem worthy of credit but teach strange doctrines fill you with apprehension. Stand firm, as does an anvil which is beaten…Let nothing be done without your consent…”
Even marriage falls under the discretion of the bishop: “…[I]t becomes both men and women who marry, to form their union with the approval of the bishop, that their marriage may be according to God, and not after their own lust. Let all things be done to the honor of God.”
Also, to the people of Smyrna, those who have Polycarp as their bishop, Ignatius issues instructions similar to that which he gave the other churches:
“Give heed to the bishop, that God also may give heed to you. My soul be for theirs that are submissive to the bishop, to the presbyters, and to the deacons, and may my portion be along with them in God! Labor together with one another; strive in company together; run together; suffer together; sleep together; and awake together, as the stewards, and associates, and servants of God.”
From all that we have read of Ignatius’ letters, we can conclude that the First Century Church had an ordered hierarchy, composed of bishops, priests, and deacons; that the ordained clergy of the Church exercised an authority originating from the Apostles, who in turn received their authority from Jesus; that the office of bishop in the local church is a reflection of Jesus’ own authority over the whole, universal Church and over each individual bishop; that the word “catholic” (“universal”) correctly describes Christ’s Church; that Rome enjoyed a special distinction among all the ancient church’s as worthy of high honor and praise, and as a faithful witness to Apostolic teaching; and finally, that the early Christians sought unity in belief and practice, most especially concerning the celebration of the Eucharist, which they saw as containing the Presence of Jesus’ Body and Blood under the appearance of bread and wine.
These teachings of Ignatius cannot be discredited as simply one man’s opinion among many. This was not some obscure “nobody” who died alone in his musings at the start of the Second Century. This was Ignatius, a disciple of the Apostle John, consecrated bishop by Simon Peter, friend of the Apostles, bishop of Antioch (an important center of Christianity); he was led to his death after decades of service to the Church. On his journey to martyrdom he was met by adoring throngs as word spread of his passage to Rome. Along the way he wrote letters to the surrounding cities and Christians preserved these texts for future generations. This was not just any man, nor was this some deviant sect of Christianity. This was the faith of the First Century Church recorded for history to retell many centuries later.
We do not know how many letters Ignatius issued during his lifetime, (we have only seven of which we are certain, and these reflect his thoughts as he awaited his impending death). But we do know that his influence reached far and wide in the First Century Church, during the years he served as bishop. His final instruction to Polycarp is characteristically aimed at spreading the Catholic faith far and wide and preserving Apostolic Teaching:
“It is fitting, O Polycarp, most blessed in God, to assemble a very solemn council, and to elect one whom you greatly love, and know to be a man of activity, who may be designated the messenger of God; and to bestow on him this honor that he may go into Syria, and glorify your ever active love to the praise of Christ…”
Ignatius wished for all the churches to send out messengers bearing his greetings and his final instructions…
“Inasmuch as I have not been able to write to all the Churches, because I must suddenly sail from Troas to Neapolis, as the will [of the emperor] enjoins, [I beg that] you, as being acquainted with the purpose of God, will write to the adjacent Churches, that they also may act in like manner, such as are able to do so sending messengers, and the others transmitting letters through those persons who are sent by you…”
Till his death Ignatius remained a strong witness for the First Century Church. Through his writings we catch a glimpse of the faith of the first Christians. To believe as Ignatius believed is to share in the faith of the martyrs. In our study of the Church Fathers, Ignatius, called Theophorus (Bearer of God) offers invaluable insights into the early Catholic Church.
Next we will meet Ignatius' friend, Polycarp…