House Church Talk - First century power grab.

David Miller David at
Thu Mar 11 12:32:50 EST 2004

David Anderson wrote:
> Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans, CHAPTER 8
> Let no man do aught of things pertaining to 
> the Church apart from the bishop. Let that be 
> held a valid Eucharist which is under the bishop 
> or one to whom he shall have committed it.
> ...
> We, of course, do not dismiss everything from 
> Ignatius as he did fulfill important roles in 
> other areas. Here, I believe he went slightly 
> over the line.
> ...
> Meaning well is what these "protections" were all 
> about, no doubt. Still, this is a specimen of misplaced 
> zeal resulting in lost liberties and clergy dependence.

Hi David.  I wish I had more time right now to elaborate on the thoughts
you share with us here.  Please at least consider just a few short
remarks, and forgive my lack of looking up exact references to help in
what I am about to say.  My time is extremely limited right now.

I think the letters of Ignatius are very important for the home church
community.  If we had some kind of "university of home church" (an
oxymoron, I know), I would think these letters should be required
reading.  While certain statements challenge some of our thinking about
hierarchy and leadership, a more thorough study actually supports much
of us who favor the home church model of meeting together.  

Your post indicated that he was born around the year 50, but I think
that year is very much conjecture.  We really do not know when he was
born.  My secular dictionary (Microsoft Encarta World Dictionary) has
35? as his date of birth.  Church tradition says that Ignatius was the
child in Mark 9 that Jesus took into his arms and used as an
illustration in his message that when we receive such a child in his
name, we receive him. 

What we do know about Ignatius is that he was appointed as an overseer
of the Antioch church around 68 A.D.  I doubt he was 18 then, so I favor
a birth date back to the time of Christ and have no problem thinking
that he may indeed have been that child mentioned in Mark 9.  Ignatius
was in leadership in Antioch for a whole generation, about 40 years,
until about 107 A.D. when he was brought to Rome and died a martyr's
death.  This places him very close to the time of ministry of Paul and
Barnabas in that church, and to the time of Peter's ministry there.  It
also establishes him as someone who had a much longer tenure of ministry
there than either Paul or Peter.  As such, his letters give us a lot of
insight into the second generation of believers in these Christian

The history of the ministry of the founding apostles for Ignatius when
he first began in Antioch as its overseer was as fresh as talking about
events of the 1980's and 1990's for us.  At the time these letters were
actually written, his experience with the former apostles would be like
an older man today talking about church issues when he knew the founding
apostles in the 1950's and 1960's.  That is very fresh and personal in
my way of thinking.

Ok, with that background, I have a couple of points about your comment
that Ignatius crossed the line with his emphasis on the bishop, which
led to lost liberties and clergy dependence.  First, I hope to be clear
that I do not believe it good to designate a bishop as being over the
elders (presbyters), as this is following the world system of government
and opens the door to abuse and problems.  Ignatius clearly did think
such appointments were helpful, and in that I agree with you that he
crossed the line, but there is more to the story that I think makes it
worthwhile to study.

1.  We need to understand that Jesus introduced a novel thing by
appointing authority that ministered as a plurality of servants rather
than as a single person in hierarchy over others.  When such
introductions happen, it is natural to assume that the pendulum of
understanding for this might eventually swing too far in the opposite
direction.  For example, some people might begin to think that anarchy,
or no government at all, is the Biblical model, and many might make
arguments for not having any authority whatsoever.  We know that this
happened in the second generation of believers because of Clement's
letter to the Corinthians (about 95 A.D.) where he rebukes those among
them who had moved to remove their elders from their place of authority.
Clement argued that it was Paul himself and other apostles who
established elders among them in the first place.  So if the pendulum
did swing to error in the opposite direction, we might expect some Godly
men helping to bring it back to center by emphasizing the Godly virtue
of submitting to Godly authority.

2.  If we look at Ignatius's letters closely, we find him not just
affirming the bishop, but the entire ecclesiastical order that existed
among them of bishop, elders, and deacons.  I believe it is in his
letter to the Trallians where he says that without "these," there is not
the name of "church" (ekklesia).  It might be argued that he meant
without elders there is no church, but some try and say all three are
needed: bishop, elders, and deacons.  I think his real point is that
without submission unto the mature and favored by God among us, the
elders, they cannot be called a church.  I would agree with this latter
position along the same lines of, if we do not love our brother whom we
have seen, how can we love God whom we have not seen.  The mature in
Christ among us ought to be the ones we submit to very easily, or there
is some defect within us that causes us to deceive ourselves into
thinking that we submit unto Christ but not unto those who are true
disciples of Christ.

3.  We need to note that in this letter to the Smyrnaeans that you
quote, while he uses the word "bishop," he knows intimately the person
he is speaking about.  This bishop is Polycarp, a very close friend of
Ignatius.  So while we read his letter thousands of years later and want
to make some universal general application of it, I think Ignatius had a
specific situation in mind.  He knew of people in the congregation who
were anarchists and wanted to usurp the place of respect that Polycarp
had, and he knew of Polycarp's true converted and holy nature.  So his
instruction was to help guide people to order and submission unto Christ
through one of Christ's trusted disciples, Polycarp.  In such a
situation, he would actually use the word "bishop" instead of the man's
name, "Polycarp," in order to help keep those to whom he speaks from
giving undue adulation to a man.  He is trying to focus on the man's
function instead of his person or position.  When we think about how the
Caesars were doing just the opposite, this makes a lot of sense.

4.  As we study the other letters of Ignatius, we see that many churches
had the same trouble.  We further come to understand that the abuse of
authority with which our generation is all too familiar really was
almost non-existent at that time.  In Polycarp's letter to the
Philippians, written decades later, Polycarp mentions a man named
Valens, and his wife, who was apparently removed from his position as an
elder because of misdealing with money.  His grief and instruction about
that situation is very suggestive that this was an unusual situation.
Therefore, in the context in which Ignatius instructs submission unto
the bishop, he very well might bear good fruit by it.  In other words,
if there were some very wicked men in the church who were gaining
advantage by disrespecting those within the assembly whom God respected,
much like Korah disrespected Moses, then the words of Ignatius may have
actually born good fruit and not led to the abuses of authority that we
have witnessed through history since that time.  Indeed, if Ignatius
lived in our day and age, I think we would find him teaching something
very different.  I think he would be in agreement with many of us who
enjoy the home church model.  We have to look at his statements in the
context that he makes them, and interpret them appropriately, and when
we do so, the disparity between Igantius and those of us who shy away
from episcopate forms of government is not really that great.  We
probably can come to agreement on this in the same way as Paul and James
had agreement about the role of faith and works in justification.

5.  It is noteworthy that in Ignatius' letter to the Romans, he
indicates that he left NO BISHOP to succeed him in the Antioch church.
That is very significant.  Antioch was the third largest city in the
world, coming right behind Rome and Alexandria with about half a million
people.  Some might argue that God was using the Roman persecution to
get rid of presiding bishops in that age.  Whatever the case, it is very
clear that Ignatius was not insistent upon an episcopate government of
the church or he would not have left Antioch without one!  Instead, he
wrote letters to the bishop in Smyrna, Polycarp, and other churches,
urging them to remember Antioch and to send ministers there to help the
church.  This proves to me that the real thrust of the message of
Ignatius was not to establish a bishop over a church, but rather his
message was to the unsubmissive in the body of Christ, to the anarchists
within the church, to recognize Godly authority and to submit unto it.
In that vein, I find myself in agreement with Ignatius.

Anyway, I have taken way too much time.  I hope what I have shared helps
stimulate your thinking.  You have certainly stimulated mine.  :-)

Peace be with you.
David Miller, Beverly Hills, Florida.

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