Bishops in Ignatius of Antioch
April 7, 2009

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. (more…)