A Church Without Authority – Part 3

Does your church leader(s) carry the authority, and weight of responsibility, of someone who has been chosen by God? If so, is his preaching and teaching considered to be a mediation between God and the flock? This is how Ignatius of Antioch, second century church father, viewed the role of the bishop or pastor. He is a man of quiet yet strong authority, filled with the humility of Christ yet ordained to speak the truth of God over his people. A church without central authority is really no church at all. Whether its resides in a group of elders with a lead elder speaking for all, or a pastor or bishop who is ordained and supported by denominational leadership on various levels, churches throughout two millenia have seen priests/pastors/bishops as having real spiritual authority over their parishioners. This is a why James warns that not all should become teachers; the weight of judgment will be much greater for those responsible for the care of God’s people (James 3:1).

As we continue this look at authority in the church, I’ll share how Ignatius in his epistles compared the bishop to the person of God the Father. This reflects the position of authority, yet also the pastoral love and care exhibited in passages such as Psalm 23. I’ll also take a moment to describe the importance of the bishop’s presence in the administration of the Eucharist. How does this view compare to the practice of your church today?

Bishop as God the Father

While the bishop represents Christ to the community, the Ignatian testimony relates the bishop as the Father. Does Ignatius make this distinction presumptously? On the contrary, he uses such a description for a specific purpose in a different fashion from his Christ comparison. In Smyrnaeans 8.1, Ignatius implores the church to follow the lead of the bishop “as Jesus Christ followed that of the Father.”[1] Just as Christ submitted to the will of the Father, so too the church must follow that example. In this instance, the bishop acts as the Father, with a specific will and purpose in mind. In his letter to Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, Ignatius reminds the bishop that “nothing must be done without your approval; nor must you do anything without God’s approval.”[2] In saying this, Ignatius claims authority as derived directly from God. The church seeks the approval of the bishop because he has sought the approval of God.

Likewise, in Trallians 3.1, Ignatius relates the bishop explicitly to the Father. He gives credence to all ordained positions within the church stating, “Apart from these, no church deserves the name.”[3] This application is peculiar, as he specifically names deacons as representing Christ and reserves the comparison of the bishop to the Father. Why would he alter course and infer this comparison when he has in other writings associated the bishop with Christ? I want to suggest that in his exposition, his goal in this passage is to exemplify the role of the deacon. In 2.3 just prior, Ignatius relates the importance of the deacon’s role as “dispensers of the mysteries of Jesus Christ” and “ministers of a church of God.”[4] Here Ignatius’s wishes to bring forth how deacons relate to Christ in their function, therefore in this respect he can say they represent Christ in person. Wishing to complete the formula, the bishop according to Ignatius is a “type” of the Father in regards to the role he plays in light of the diaconate ministry. With approval and oversight, the bishop confirms the ministry of the deacons as fulfilling the will of God the Father.[5] I believe Ignatius chooses to make such a comparison because he further wishes to encourage the community to view their bishop as the authority under which they are to submit. As Christ willfully submitted to the Father, the church as Christ submits to the bishop as the Father. Ignatius must use whatever comparison he feels is justified in order for his message of unity and submission to be understood by his readers. So what gives him the freedom to make such these comparisons? Does Ignatius have a novel view of authority or is it rooted in something deeper?

Bishop as Chosen by God

Ignatius has made an appeal to his readers in regards to the authority of their bishop. They are to look to him for direction, unity, teaching and as an example of Christ-likeness. But how is it that Ignatius arrives at this high view of episcopal leadership in the community? Kenneth J. Howell takes us back to bishop as God the Son when he postulates, “The bishop is the fullness of the local church while Christ Jesus is the fullness of the whole church.”[6] He goes on to say, “The bishop embodies Christ Jesus on a local level…(the bishop) is the human and physical representative of Christ to a particular church.”[7] This statement is confirmed with Ephesians 6.1 where Ignatius says, “One should look upon the bishop as upon the Lord himself.” In 1.3 he describes Onesimus, their bishop, as “your bishop here on earth.” Literally translated, this is “your bishop in the flesh” from the word σάρξ. This gives the reader a sense of high authority and knowledge of an even higher authority that is not in the flesh. Likewise to the church in Philadelphia, Ignatius explains:

This Church I salute in the Blood of Jesus Christ. She is a source of everlasting joy especially when the members are at one with the bishop and his assistants, the presbyters and deacons, that have been appointed in accordance with the wish of Jesus Christ, and whom He has, by His own will, through the operation of His Holy Spirit, confirmed in loyalty. 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.[8]

The bishop and the leadership can function in their capacity based on the will of God. Because God requires obedience to himself, God requires obedience to the bishop.

Howell gives us this helpful observation, “The main word for obedience (hupotassomain) occurs eight times in the Ignatian letters along with other expressions which imply that obedience to the clergy is an obligation given by God himself.”[9] He goes on to say that “Ignatius can speak of obedience to rightful authority and love among members of the church shows how deeply he thinks that obedience arises from divine obligation.”[10] Clearly, the Ignatian presupposition to unity and authority is through divine means. To the Ephesians Ignatius commands, “Let us take care, therefore, not to oppose the bishop, that we may be submissive to God.”[11] When we act in unity with the bishop we submit to the will of God. I am convinced that Ignatius has instructed his readers to submit to the authority of the bishop as it shows their desire to conform to the will of God.

Bishop Authority in Eucharist

As God gives authority to the bishop, the bishop dispenses the proper allocation of the Eucharist. Without the bishop, the community cannot properly partake in the elements of the Lord’s Supper. To the Smyrnaeans he writes, “Let no one do anything touching the Church, apart from the bishop. Let the celebration of the Eucharist be considered valid which is held under the bishop or anyone to whom he has committed it.”[12] Clearly Ignatius allows for another person to administer the sacrament, yet this person can only do so on authority of the bishop. Further he says, “It is not permitted without authorization from the bishop either to baptize or to hold an agape; but whatever he approves is also pleasing to God.”[13] This statement shows a clear connection between the actions of the bishop and the authority of God. Whatever the bishop chooses to do, in line with right teaching and practice, God accepts.

In his letter to the Philadelphians Ignatius counsels the church in this regard:

Avoid the noxious weeds. Their gardener is not Jesus Christ, because they are not the planting of the Father…Surely all those what belong to God and Jesus Christ are the very ones that side with the bishop. Take care, then, to partake of one Eucharist; for, one is the Flesh of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and one the cup to unite us with His Blood, and one altar just as there is one bishop assisted by the presbytery and the deacons my fellow servants. Thus you will conform in all your actions to the will of God.[14]

By being unified under their bishop, the church conforms to God’s will and therefore is acknowledging the authority of their bishop as instilled by God himself. I consider Ignatius to hold the viewpoint that the community will not fulfill God’s will, hence will not grow in spiritual maturity, until they recognize their bishop as chosen by God and invested with full spiritual authority over matters of faith and practice. If they cannot partake of the Eucharist under the authority and unity of the bishop, then they will fail to reap true spiritual nourishment.

In the forthcoming part four, I’ll challenge us to look at our church practice today and see if there aren’t some things we should reconsider when it comes to authority in our churches. I’ll put forth my suggestion for authority and leadership practice as I see it established through early church practice and as rightfully developed for our church structure today. Some developments are good, some bad, and some just weird. What should we retain from Igantius and his views? What should we tweak? What should we reject altogether? I will attempt to answer these and wrap up this assessment in my final chapter in our look at “A Church Without Authority.”


[1] Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans, ACW 1, 93.

[2] Ignatius to Polycarp, ACW 1, 97.

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

[4] Ibid., 75-76.

[5] As a reader, one must be discerning in Ignatius’s juxtaposition of the bishop to either Christ or the Father. It is likely that he feels free to draw a comparison to both, even within the same letter, because he sees functions and roles of both Persons within the bishop. Therefore, it is perfectly logical for Ignatius to compare the bishop to Christ at one moment and then compare him to the Father in the next.

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

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ignatius to the Philadelphians, ACW 1, 85.

[9] Howell, 39.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ignatius to the Ephesians, ACW 1, 62.

[12] Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans, ACW 1, 93.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ignatius to the Philadelphians, ACW 1, 86.

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