IGNATIUS OF ANTIOCH & THE “MONARCHICAL BISHOP”
Ignatius was an elderly bishop of Antioch around the beginning of the second century. He was possibly a disciple of John the apostle. Ignatius called himself Theophorus – “bearer of God” or “he who has Christ within his breast” (Martyrdom ii). Later legends about Ignatius, which identified him as the child Jesus placed in the midst of his disciples as an example of humility (cf. Matt. 18:2), incorrectly interpreted Theophorus to mean “God-borne” or “he who was carried by Christ.”
Most of what we know about Ignatius is found in the account of his martyrdom. Ignatius was condemned by the imperial authorities and sent to Rome to die for the gratification of the people. Since there was no general persecution of Christians by Rome at that time, Ignatius was probably accused of being a Christian and refused to recant his beliefs before the Roman courts. In such cases, according to policies outlined by Trajan, the accused had to be punished for their contempt of the authority of the emperor and the courts. It is not known exactly why or by whom Ignatius was accused.
As he passed through Asia Minor on his way to Rome, Ignatius was visited by Christians, and wrote seven letters to churches and individuals along the way. From Smyrna, where Polycarp was bishop, Ignatius wrote letters to the Ephesians, Magnesians, Trallians, and Romans. He urged the Romans not to interfere with his martyrdom. He wanted to imitate Christ, and by giving his life for the cause he would become a “witness.” From Smyrna Ignatius was taken to Troas, where he wrote to the Philadephians, the Smyrnaeans, and Polycarp. The journey ended in Rome, where Ignatius was put to death in AD 116.
In these letters Ignatius appears to be the first to argue for the “monarchical bishop” in the local congregation. He describes a three-tiered ministry of bishop, elders and deacons in each church. In Ignatius’ view the term bishop is reserved for a single member of the presbytery who is so exalted above the elders that he presides in the place of God himself. “Let the bishop preside in God’s place, and presbyters take the place of the apostolic council, and let the deacons...be entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ” (Epistle to the Magnesians 6.1).
Ignatius was partly motivated by his concern for unity in the church. There were factions and doctrines in Antioch that he had opposed as heretical. He thought having a single bishop presiding over a church and demanding obedience as if he were Jesus Christ would prevent divisions. Ignatius wrote to the Philippians, “Pay heed to the bishop, the presbytery, and the deacons.... Do nothing apart from the bishop; keep your bodies as if they were God’s temple; value unity; flee schism; imitate Jesus Christ as he imitated his Father” (7.1-2). In his letter to the Smyrnaeans he wrote, “Flee from schism as the source of mischief... Nobody must do anything that has to do with the Church without the bishop’s approval.... In that way everything you do will be on the safe side and valid” (6-9).
This was not a prevalent view in the early second century, but rather was a new trend in the church. Although Ignatius addresses Polycarp as “bishop of the church of the Smyrnaeans” (Epistle to Polycarp), Polycarp identifies himself simply as “Polycarp and those who are with him as presbyters” (Epistle to the Philippians). Polycarp was simply one of a plurality of overseers; there was no “monarchical” bishop at Philippi (Everett Ferguson, Early Christians Speak 175). Ignatius does not even mention a bishop in Rome, which supports evidence from Clement and Hermas that the church in Rome was governed by a plurality of elders at the beginning of the second century (Ferguson 174). The “monarchical bishop” eventually spread among the churches, as attested in the writings of Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria, but not until later in the century. The authority of the bishop was apparently not being extended beyond the local congregation in Ignatius’ day (Ferguson 175).
First century churches were autonomous, each governed by a plurality of elders (Acts 11:30; 14:23; Titus 1:5). The New Testament calls them “bishops,” “elders,” or “pastors,” using those terms to describe various functions of those who oversee or shepherd the local church (Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Pet. 5:1-3). Ignatius was thus one of the first to advocate a pattern for church government that deviated from the New Testament model.