A Church Without Authority – Part 1

Over the next few weeks I will be exploring the theme of spiritual authority in the church, specifically as seen through the writings of Ignatius and his seven epistles to the church. How did he view the authority of the bishop? Was it a one-man operation or did he work in tandem with the other leaders and congregation? Did he have full and final authority over the body as Christ does? Have we, in our protestant tradition, subtracted the authority rightly due to our pastors and elders and substituted it for a less that Scriptural and historical approach? Yes Christ is our head, but have we deprived the authority due to our leaders based on a concept of individualism and spiritual spontaneity in our churches? My hope with this four part series is to show that the early church held a high regard for the bishop as the spiritual authority in the body and how we should seek to recover this notion in our current day evangelical practice.


Cyprian of Carthage once said, “Therefore the duty of a bishop of the Lord is, not to deceive with false flatteries, but to provide remedies needed for salvation.”[1] Without a doubt, the office of bishop was held in high regard from an early point in the Church of Jesus Christ. Scripture attests to the great responsibilities of elders, or bishops, in the church. These are men who are “above reproach…sober-minded, self-controlled…able to teach.”[2] The Apostle Paul continues by posing this question, “For if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?”[3] Likewise, texts such as the Didache state that a bishop is to “render sacred service (to you) of the prophets and teachers” as they are “dignitaries together with the prophets and teachers.”[4]

Clearly these short excerpts indicate a high view of the role of bishop functioning as a mediator between God and man, but to what degree did this role extend? Was a bishop merely a good example to look towards, or did he in fact hold a position of high spiritual authority over his flock? Was a bishop held accountable for this practice or was this simply a stepping-stone to higher authority and power within the community? As bishop, a man was seen as the God-appointed authority, therefore, was understood to be accountable to God for his teaching and ministry. This burden is often left unexpressed in today’s evangelical church practice. As a model for today’s evangelical churches, I intend to show that the office of bishop was seen as a spiritual authority accountable to God and given to the community for their own spiritual growth and unity and how our modern-day view of authority in the church has weakened this ancient concept of the office of bishop. I will also attempt to give some practical applications in light of these findings. Before doing so, let us look at the Scriptural qualifications for this office of elder or bishop.

The Scriptural Foundation

The New Testament describes the qualifications concerning the role of the bishop in the community. From where do we derive our initial understanding of the role of bishop or overseer? The key passage of Scripture for appointment to this office is 1 Timothy 3:1-7. From this command from Paul to Timothy we observe the high standards placed upon a candidate in this role. Morally, they are to be blameless. In regards to ability, they must have the gift of teaching. Paul further puts a stipulation on maturity, stating that they are not to be recent converts to the faith. These qualities help ensure authority in a community based on unity and seeking to remain free of heresy and “different doctrine.”[5]

Likewise, when speaking with Titus, Paul exhorts him to teach “sound doctrine.” As a qualified elder meeting the stipulations of 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Titus was endowed with the necessary spiritual authority to carry the title of teacher of “sound doctrine.”[6] The role bears much responsibility and belongs to, as Paul tells Timothy, men above reproach. Their task is a noble one. Titus, undoubtedly exhibiting these characteristics, firmly establishes himself by the command of Paul with the authority to teach and appoint other leaders as well as exhort and rebuke will all such authority. Titus inherits this authority from God, as his steward.[7] Paul’s instructions to Titus are exhaustive in regards to his responsibility to guard the faith and to “hold firm to the word as taught.”[8] Titus must defend the faith and implore his people to right practice and belief, and in doing so, he holds God’s authority over his people.

Plurality or Monarchy?

The New Testament, while establishing a basic ecclesiastical structure, does not promote a monarchy nor does necessarily promote a plurality of leadership.[9] New Testament writers, especially Paul, do point to a plurality in church function yet no prescriptive order is given in this regard. This is important for us to consider as we begin to look at Ignatius and his understanding of the bishop in the local church. Does he derive his view from a specific Scriptural location or does it come from a broader understanding of leadership derived from Scripture? Clearly leadership in the church has been a development throughout the centuries, yet has always tended to appeal to Scripture in some regard. In Scriptural fashion, Ignatius commends the bishop in Trallians 3.2 saying, “His demeanor is a powerful sermon, his gentleness a mighty influence – a man whom even the unbelievers, I am sure, respect.”[10] This description of their bishop exudes the high character as stated in Scripture and attests to the standard to which men who have received the office of bishop should be held.

It appears, in light of Ignatius’s epistles, that a single bishop emerged as the figurehead of local Christian assemblies. While he continues to urge people to follow the presbytery and diaconate, he ultimately appeals to the authority of the bishop. We could call this a leader among equals in some instances, but overall Ignatius puts more emphasis on the role of bishop among the presbytery. In his closing remarks to the Ephesians, Ignatius encourages the church to be “obedient with undivided mind to the bishop and the presbytery,” giving them a level of equality.[11] Yet in his opening to the Trallians, he urges the church to “do nothing without your bishop” only to mention obedience to the presbytery in a secondary sense.[12] In regards to leadership, there is a high regard for the complete representation of church leadership. In fact, it is rare that he mention the bishop without the presbyters and vice versa. In doing so however, he makes a clear distinction between the two and depending on the letter, relates the bishop to Jesus Christ or God the Father. He will occasionally do this with the presbytery, but often he relates this group to the Apostles. In this regard, he relates the bishop as the authority of the church in three specific ways: the bishop as a representative of Christ, the bishop as a representative of God and therefore, the bishop who has been appointed by God himself to carry forth his will.

Over the next few weeks we’ll discuss how Ignatius views the bishop and his role as well as implications for the church today. Be sure to come back!

– Coleman

[1] On the Lapsed, 14, ACW 25.

[2] 1 Timothy 3:2.

[3] 1 Timothy 3:5.

[4] Chapter 15, ACW 6.

[5] 1 Timothy 1:3, 6:3.

[6] Titus 1:9, 2:1, 10.

[7] Titus 1:7.

[8] Titus 1:9.

[9] The tendency leans towards plurality as the command is to appoint elders, not an elder, over the church as seen in the book of Acts (11:30, 14:23, 21:18) and other places in Scripture (1 Thess. 5:12-13, 1 Tim. 5:17, James 5:14, 1 Peter 5:1-2). There are figureheads of the faith, however, namely the Apostles and other such respected men (and women) who come forth. The point of this paper, however, is not to argue for one or the other as the prescriptive method for church leadership. Our focus will remain on Ignatius and the early emergence of a single bishop as the spiritual authority in the community as he so explains it in his letters.

[10] Ignatius to the Trallians, 76, ACW 1.

[11] Ignatius to the Ephesians, 68, ACW 1.

[12] Ignatius to the Trallians, 75.


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