A Church Without Authority – Part 2

So what does the authority structure of your church look like? Are your pastors and elders seen as just good men, maybe with business experience of perhaps some charismatic personality traits, or are they viewed as chosen by God to represent Christ to the local body of Christ in which they serve? Is their prayer and instruction seen as authoritative or just helpful suggestions? Is your church pastor, though ordained through the laying on of hands and authorized to preach the word of God, still considered just a “go-to-guy” for fixing problems and doing wedding or funeral services?

Through this study of the role of a bishop/elder/pastor, we look specifically at what Ignatius of Antioch, from whom we have several epistles written in the early second century AD, has said on the matter. Why Ignatius? First, he represents a small number of apostolic fathers, or those who have had direct contact with the apostles and their teaching. Their writings are not canonical, yet they are helpful in the sense that they reveal the theology and practice of the church immediately following Christ and the apostles. Second, Ignatius’ writes to many of the same places to which the apostles wrote and did their work. This helps to show us the progression of these churches immediately following the New Testament witness. And lastly, Ignatius shows forth a view of bishop, or pastor, that parallels the roles of both God the Father and God the Son depending on his particular message. It’s interesting that there seemed to be an immediate recognition of a single leader as the source of authority in the early church. He is seen as a God’s chosen representative to shepherd the flock and administer the sacraments of Jesus Christ. This does not, however, deny the place for other elders and deacons.  For this second part, I’ll focus on how Ignatius describes the bishop using language of Christ and his role.

Bishop as God the Son

William R. Schoedel informs his reader that Ignatius’s view of church leadership is but one step beyond the leadership structure laid out in Paul’s pastoral epistles.[1] As stated previously, Ignatius closely relates the work of the bishop to that of the presbytery. Again, Schoedel remarks, “the ministry is still genuinely collegial…a requirement to obey the elders along with the bishop is taken for granted.”[2] Despite this fact, I see a clear distinction emerging in his writing. Take for instance Trallians 2.1 where he states, “Surely when you submit to the bishop as representing Jesus Christ, it is clear to me that you are not living the life of men, but that of Jesus Christ.”[3] Only later in verse 2 does he explain the need to follow the presbytery as representing the Apostles. Clearly here he makes a petition to Christ-authority in the role of bishop. Schoedel appears unwilling to make this assertion, preferring instead to appeal to Ignatius’s “personal view” in light of his situation.[4] Ignatius writes, however, that those who submit to his leadership are likewise submitting to Christ. Ignatius’s understanding of Christ as head of the church, more than a specific Scriptural mandate, dictates his view in this passage of the bishop as the head of the local body.[5]

Further in the same passage, Ignatius entreats his reader to “do nothing without the bishop.” James A. Kleist sees this as an instruction to not do anything without the bishop’s approval, that is, “independently of him.”[6] Are not believers commanded to do the same in regards to Christ? Surely, Ignatius might say, we are to remain in Christ and apart from him we can do nothing.[7] Believers are entrusted by God to their bishop, therefore, must not do anything apart from him. He is our head as Christ is the head, imbibed with authority coming along from God himself. Kenneth J. Howell maintains that as Christ represents the church universal, the bishop is an extension of that reality in a local context.[8] Therefore, we can have confidence that as we follow the bishop who is qualified and set apart for his work, we are following Christ. Apart from him, we can do nothing. Ignatius gives this concluding exhortation in Trallians 13.2: “Be obedient to the bishop as to the commandment.”[9]

The Christ-like Character of the Bishop

Throughout his Epistles, Ignatius speaks of submission. The community submits to the bishop as he submits to God. In Philadelphians 1.1, Ignatius describes the bishop in this manner:

Regarding this bishop I am informed that he holds the supreme office in the community not by his own efforts, or by men’s doing, or for personal glory. No, he holds it by the love of God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I am charmed with his sweetness of manner. He accomplishes more by his silence than others that talk to no purpose. No wonder; he is as perfectly in accord with the commandments as strings are with a harp. With all my heart, therefore, I laud his disposition to please God, a disposition virtuous and perfect, as I am very well aware; his unshaken constancy too, and his passionless temper, modeled on the transcendent gentleness of the living God.[10]

This description alludes to Philippians 2:3-8 as Paul describes Christ’s unselfish character for our sake. Ignatius appeals to the silent nature of this particular bishop. How are we to understand this description? Mikael Isacson gives his reader numerous ways to understand this description including silence being an example of gentleness, the contrast between those who talk without purpose, and Ignatius’s view of deeds over words.[11] I believe Ignatius to be appealing to Christ himself. The Gospels describe Jesus’s silence before his accusers in the Sanhedrin.[12] Similarly, the Gospel writers note his silence before Pilate.[13] His silence, in the eyes of an outsider, was condemning yet we know his silence served a greater purpose. Jesus had no need to defend himself; his will was to submit to the Father. The bishop described in Philadelphia is likewise described by his silence. He accomplishes much with silence, where as Christ fulfilled much by his silence. The attribute of silence, as described here for this particular bishop, can be seen as a Christ-like characteristic of great magnitude.[14]

Apart from these explicit descriptions of particular bishops, Ignatius praises bishops in so far as they are Christ-like. His attribute descriptions cause the reader to bring forth images of Christ in their minds. In Romans 9.1, he describes his absence from the church in Syria. Since his arrest and absences from the body, he states “Jesus Christ alone will be her Bishop.”[15] This suggests that the bishop truly is the one who shepherds as Christ does and in the absence of the physical person, the body must look to the spiritual Head, which is Christ.[16] Ignatius could not make such a statement if he did not believe that the bishop exhibited Christ-likeness in their leadership and character qualities. Christ is the Bishop, and any earthly one is simply a representation of the Supreme Authority. Clearly Ignatius makes an explicit comparison of Christ to the bishop, but to whom else does he draw a line of similarity? In further discussing the authority of the bishop, Ignatius draws comparisons to God the Father.

So the bishop represents Christ to the body. This role should weigh heavy upon those chosen to perform its duties. We are to choose our leaders not based solely on credentials (i.e. letters after their name) nor should we look to how many 20-somethings they can draw to our churches. Rather, we are to look for Christ in our leaders. Our elders, pastors and bishops are to show forth the characteristics of Christ, and carry the load of being a Christ-authority to their flock. We are to encourage them through submission and constant prayer and encouragement. Are you willing to see your leader in this regard? Have you chosen your leaders based on Christ-qualities, or man-derived ones? Perhaps Ignatius would say, “The bishop is Christ to you. Submit to him as you do to Christ and there show your willingness to serve the Lord and the body of Christ.”

– Coleman


[1] William R. Schoedel, Ignatius of Antioch. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985). 23.

[2] Ibid., 22.

[3] Ignatius to the Trallians, 75

[4] Schoedel, 12. Certainly we can say that there is no established episcopal succession at this point. I do not believe Ignatius argues for a succession from the apostles, yet his argument stems from the centrality of Christ in the community and the bishop being that authority on earth. I however am unable to understand how Ignatius’s situation, that is his eventual martyrdom, has anything to do with his view of the bishop in the church. Perhaps through a somewhat emotional appeal does he write in such a fashion, imploring his reader to look to the bishop in these troubling times. However, this is never developed in the way Schoedel suggests. Throughout the Epistles, Ignatius shows the bishop to be chosen by God to be his representative to the community as a means to unity and further spiritual growth.

[5] See Ephesians 5:23.

[6] ACW 1, 131

[7] See John 15:5.

[8] Kenneth J. Howell. Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna: A New Translation and Theological Commentary. (Zanesville: CHResources, 2009). 35.

[9] Ignatius to the Trallians, 79.

[10] Ignatius to the Philadelphians, 85.

[11] Mikael Isacson, To Each Their Own Letter: Structure, Themes, and Rhetorical Strategies in the Letter of Ignatius of Antioch. (Almqvust and Wiksell: Stockholm, 2004). 127-129.

[12] Matt. 26:63; Mark 14:61;

[13] Mark 15:4-5; John 19:10.

[14] Perhaps it is also appropriate to appeal to James 1:17-20 which relates silence, or slowness of speech, to the righteousness of God.

[15] ACW 1, 84.

[16] This statement shows forth Ignatius’s true view of bishop. The office is held in such high regard that in the absence of a qualified leader, Jesus Christ alone will lead. Admittedly, this makes me uncomfortable in the sense that it seems to challenge my view of Christ’s ultimate headship above any leader. Even so, I believe Ignatius is not merely saying that apart from a bishop we must settle for Christ. On the contrary, after further reflection, I believe him to be saying that this is going to be a time of testing of the church’s faith. Is our faith in an finite creature or the Creator? Ignatius here, while affirming the role and authority of bishop, makes it clear that Christ alone is the Bishop, that is the head to which the whole church submits. The bishop represents the local, while Christ represents the universal.

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