Bishops in Ignatius of Antioch

I wrote this paper a long time ago. English translations of Ignatius can be found here.

Otherwise titled:

The Wagon Wheel:
A non-hierarchical model for the episcopate in Ignatius of Antioch

Speaking of ecclesiological development from the first to the fourth century is difficult without mentioning Ignatius of Antioch, for in his letters the concept of a monarchical episcopate first emerges. In earlier texts of the New Testament and even in 1 Clement, the exact nature of bishops had been unclear, and some have even speculated that the ἐπίσκοπος and πρεσβύτερος roughly referred to the same thing.1 Even if ἐπίσκοπος (episkopos “bishop”) and πρεσβύτερος (presbyteros “elder”) were not synonymous, the elementary references to these offices in the NT appear very different from the supreme bishop as understood centuries later. Because Ignatius counsels his audiences to keep close, in faith and love, to their ἐπίσκoποι, of which there is only one in each congregation, he is seen by some scholars raising ecclesiology to a higher level.

ignatiusIn the present age when authority, especially ecclesiastical authority, has lost its potency in many circles, scholarship is quick to classify these references to ecclesiastic offices and centralized authority as evidences of an authoritarian hierarchy.2 Nevertheless, this hierarchical model fails to account for the doctrines of love, faith, and unity present in the writings of Ignatius. For such a detailed hierarchy to be present, Ignatius’ audience would expect him to at least include a delineation of command, but presbyters are never once commanded to be subject to bishops. If anything the presbyters’ authority is equal to that of the bishop. Furthermore, it is not the bishops which Ignatius calls his fellow servants, but the deacons. Ignatius’ concept of a monarchical bishop is a manifestation of the schismatic nature of his opponents and not of a delineated hierarchy, in which the bishop is supreme.

Two Episcopal Functions

The function of the bishop’s office in Ignatius is twofold. First, the bishop functions as a unifier in a time of schismatic crisis. Such a crisis manifests itself earlier in 1 Clement, when Clement responds to the Corinthians having expelled their bishop and presbyters.3 Whether Ignatius anticipated the threat through knowledge of the Corinthian crisis or whether he knew firsthand of schismatics attempting to overthrow the leadership of each congregation, it is unknown.4 But whether the threat is present or merely imminent has no bearing on the fact that Ignatius feels that it should be combatted by submitting to the bishop and presbyters. Although he rails against multiple “heresies,” such as Docetism and Judaism, the strategy seems to be the same for defending against all “false” teachers: stay with the bishop. According to Ignatius, Christians should not do anything within the church without the bishop’s authority. To the Smyrnæans, he writes, “Τοὺς δὲ μερισμοὺς φεύγετε ὡς ἀρχὴν κακῶν. Πάντες τῷ ἐπισκόπῳ ἀκολουθεῖτε, ὡς Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς τῷ πατρί.”5 The Magnesians receive a similar message: “Ὥσπερ οὖν ὁ κύριος ἄνευ τοῦ πατρὸς οὐδὲν ἐποίησεν, ἡνωμένος ὤν, οὔτε δι’ ἑαυτοῦ οὔτε διὰ τῶν ἀποστόλων, οὕτως μηδὲ ὑμεῖς ἄνευ τοῦ ἐπισκόπου καὶ τῶν πρεσβυτέρων μηδὲν πράσσετε.”6 Those who separate themselves from the bishop do so at the expense of their membership in Christ’s church. To the Smyrnæans, he continues,

Ὅπου ἂν φανῇ ὁ ἐπίσκοπος, ἐκεῖ τὸ πλῆθος ἔστω, ὥσπερ ὅπου ἂν ᾖ Χριστὸς Ἰησοῦς, ἐκεῖ ἡ καθολικὴ ἐκκλησία. Οὐκ ἐξόν ἐστιν χωρὶς τοῦ ἐπισκόπου οὔτε βαπτίζειν οὔτε ἀγάπην ποιεῖν· ἀλλ’ ὃ ἂν ἐκεῖνος δοκιμάσῃ, τοῦτο καὶ τῷ θεῷ εὐάρεστον, ἵνα ἀσφαλὲς ᾖ καὶ βέβαιον πᾶν ὃ πράσσεται.7

Ignatius claims this understanding of episcopal authority was affirmed by divine oracle through him: “Ἐκραύγασα μεταξὺ ὤν, ἐλάλουν μεγάλῃ φωνῇ, θεοῦ φωνῇ· Τῷ ἐπισκόπῳ προσέχετε καὶ τῷ πρεσβυτερίῳ καὶ διακόνοις,”8 and later, “μάρτυς δέ μοι, ἐν ᾧ δέδεμαι, ὅτι ἀπὸ σαρκὸς ἀνθρωπίνης οὐκ ἔγνων. Τὸ δὲ πνεῦμα ἐκήρυσσεν λέγον τάδε· Χωρὶς τοῦ ἐπισκόπου μηδὲν ποιεῖτε.”9

The second role of the bishop is to function as the theological center of the congregation, which is dependent upon him for salvation. The bishop is God’s literal representative on earth. To the Ephesians, Ignatius writes, “πάντα γὰρ ὃν πέμπει ὁ οἰκοδεσπότης εἰς ἰδίαν οἰκονομίαν, οὕτως δεῖ ἡμᾶς αὐτὸν δέχεσθαι, ὡς αὐτὸν τὸν πέμψαντα. Τὸν οὖν ἐπίσκοπον δῆλον ὅτι ὡς αὐτὸν τὸν κύριον δεῖ προσβλέπειν.”10 Therefore, unity with the bishop is tantamount to unity with God, and inversely, disunity with the bishop is to cut oneself off from God. It is the bishop who gives life to the congregation through the Eucharist.11

The Church’s Unifying Hub

1wm_oldwest_004Nevertheless, this understanding of the bishops’ role in the congregation is sometimes understood to be more hierarchical than Ignatius portrays it. Some scholars have noted that Ignatius’ understanding of the role of clergy may be nothing more than central figures around whom the congregation unites. Schoedel, for example, notes that Ignatius’ understanding of church structure is not much different from the NT Pastorals’:

But if our understanding of this matter is correct, it [Ignatius’ ecclesiology] is not as advanced as is often thought. The situation in the Pastoral Epistles is not entirely clear, but it appears that the churches known to Ignatius have at most but a step beyond them. And Ignatius’ somewhat more emphatic personal view of the authority of the bishop seems comprehensible in light of his situation.12

If Ignatius’ view of the bishop’s authority is more emphatic than in the Pastorals, it may be because of the urgency for unity in the face of heretics and schismatics, and not necessarily because of the inherent elevation of the office. Romanides goes even further to assert that Ignatius’ ecclesiology does not even imply ecclesiastical (let alone episcopal!) supremacy over the congregation. “The clergy,” says Romanides, “are not over the local body, but are themselves members of the local body who are given the special charisma of being the center of unity and the relegating force which protects and increases the life of corporate love in Christ.”14 In other words, Ignatian ecclesiology should not be understood as a hierarchy but rather as a wagon wheel, in which the bishop and clergy are the hub which keeps the congregation together.

κοινωνία between Bishop and Congregation

This wagon wheel model fits not only an urgent need for unity against schismatics and heretics, but also accommodates some of Ignatius’ more puzzling statements which do not fit a hierarchical model. For instance, it cannot be demonstrated anywhere in the text that the bishop’s authority is explicitly higher than the presbyters’. Instead, there are several instances where presbyters’ authority carries at least as much weight. For instance, the Trallians are told that they are to be “ὑποτασσόμενοι τῷ ἐπισκόπῳ ὡς τῇ ἐντολῇ, ὁμοίως καὶ τῷ πρεσβυτερίῳ.”15 The Philadelphians must pay attention to the bishop, the council of presbyters, and the deacons.16 Polycarp’s congregation is told (through Polycarp), to be obedient to bishops, presbyters, and deacons.17 It seems that the bishops and presbyters are alike in every way but two: 1) the bishop is one man as opposed to a council of men, and 2) the presbyters apparently do not have to sign off on ordinances such as Eucharist18 and marriage.19 Otherwise their authority, especially in injunction, is virtually equal.20

For all his lauding of the episcopal office, Ignatius calls only the deacons his “fellow servants.”21 He tells Polycarp that bishops ought not to select representatives to other churches, but that they should rather let the congregation elect one.22 The bishop is not seen as a presiding overlord, but rather as a fellow member of a local congregation with responsibilities he does not share. The Philadelphians are told, “Ὃν ἐπίσκοπον ἔγνων οὐκ ἀφ’ ἑαυτοῦ οὐδὲ δι’ ἀνθρώπων κεκτῆσθαι τὴν διακονίαν τὴν εἰς τὸ κοινὸν ἀνήκουσαν οὐδὲ κατὰ κενοδοξίαν, ἀλλ’ ἐν ἀγάπῃ θεοῦ πατρὸς καὶ κυρίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ·”23 That this is a ministry εἰς τὸ κοινὸν should indicate the commonality which the bishop shares with his congregation members.

Perhaps the most telling statement of Ignatius’ concept of the place of a bishop is his poetic advice to Polycarp to toil alongside his congregation’s members: Continuing his athletic metaphor from 1:3, “Συγκοπιᾶτε ἀλλήλοις, συναθλεῖτε, συντρέχετε, συμπάσχετε, συγκοιμᾶσθε, συνεγείρεσθε ὡς θεοῦ οἰκονόμοι καὶ πάρεδροι καὶ ὑπηρέται.”24 This statement has two parts; the first being a recommendation to labor and share life together as brethren and equals. The second part is perhaps more striking in its definition of all members at Smyrna; all appear to be clergy of sorts. Schoedel notes that this section is probably addressed not only to Polycarp but to all Smyrnæan Christians due to its plural imperatives.25 Additionally, its opening commandment to follow the bishop would be awkward if addressed specifically to the bishop himself.

The Ignatian corpus exhibits much more egalitarian rhetoric than some scholars acknowledge, and its presence confounds efforts to classify Ignatian ecclesiology in a hierarchical framework. The bishop is not necessarily a superior but rather one of several people responsible for the welfare and salvation of a congregation. That he does not share his unique responsibility for church functions and meetings does not necessarily indicate supremacy, but rather capability, as a single leader, to unify a congregation without strife. There are no explicit traces in Ignatius of the supreme sovereign episcopate present in later Christian literature.

1. H. Beyer, “ἐπίσκοπος,” TDNT 2:615-617

2. P. Nautin, “Ignatius of Antioch,” in Encyclopedia of the Early Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

3. 1 Clement 3:3; 44:1, 3, 6; 47:6

4. Judith Lieu has theorized that Ignatius may only be imagining the threats. see Judith Lieu, Image and Reality : The Jews in the World of the Christians in the Second Century (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 25-26.

5. Smyrn. 8:1 “Flee divisions as the beginning of evils. All of you follow your bishop as Jesus Christ follows his father.”

6. Magn. 7:1 “Just as the Lord did nothing without his father (because he was united with him) neither through himself or through the apostles, likewise do not you do anything without the bishop and presbyters.”

7. Smyrn. 8:2 “Wherever the bishop appears, there let the multitude be, just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church. It is not permitted to baptize or make a love-feast separate from the bishop, but rather whatever he recognizes as genuine, this is delightful to God also, so that everything you do is trustworthy and valid.”

8. Phld. 7:1 “I cried out when I was with you; I spoke in a loud voice—God’s voice: ‘Pay attention to the bishop, the council of presbyters and deacons.’”

9. Phld. 7:1-2 “It is my witness, in which witness I am captive, that I do not know from human flesh. Rather, the spirit declares these words, saying ‘Do nothing apart from the bishop.’”

10. Ig. Eph. 6:1 “All whom the master of the house sends into his own household, we should receive as he who sent him. So we must obviously view the bishop as the Lord himself.” c.f. Magn. 3; Trall. 2:2; 3:1; Phld. 2:1; Smyrn. 8:1

11. Smyr. 8:1;

12. William R Schoedel et al., <Ignatius of Antioch : A Commentary on the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 23.

14. John S. Romanides, “Ecclesiology of St Ignatius of Antioch,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 7, no. 1-2 (1962), 71.

15. Trall. 13:2 “Subject to the bishop as to the commandment, likewise to the council of presbyters also.” cf. Trall. 7:2

16. Phld. 7:1

17. Ign. Poly. 6:1

18. Smyr. 8:1

19. Ign. Poly. 5:1

20. A possible objection to this might be that Ignatius compares the bishop to the Father, and the presbyters are only compared to apostles. And yet, in Trall. 3:1, deacons are compared to Jesus Christ, and yet they are not necessarily higher than presbyters.

21. Phld. 4; Smyr. 12:2

22. Ign. Polyc. 7:2

23. Phld. 1:1 “The bishop, I know, not from himself nor through men, has received a ministry which is unto the common fellowship, not of vanity, but in the love of God the Father and of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

24. Ign. Poly. 6:1 “Train together, compete together, run together, suffer together, lie down together, rise up together as God’s stewards, assistants, and servants.”

25. William R Schoedel et al., Ignatius of Antioch : A Commentary on the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch, 275.


Lieu, Judith. Image and Reality : The Jews in the World of the Christians in the Second Century. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996.

Nautin, P. “Ignatius of Antioch.” In Encyclopedia of the Early Church, 404-05. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Romanides, John S. “Ecclesiology of St Ignatius of Antioch.” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 7, no. 1-2 (1962): 53-77.

Schoedel, William R, Ignatius, and Helmut Koester. Ignatius of Antioch : A Commentary on the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch., Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.

One Response

  1. […] Articles on the Fathers Jonathon Harmon on The Sunday Page posts a paper arguing for a non-hierarchical model of St. Ignatius of Antioch. […]

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