Ignatius of Antioch, second century bishop and martyr, wrote to the church several epistles in which he explains the importance of unity under leadership and practice. Specifically, he implores his readers to look to the bishop. As an authority in the body, the bishop is both representative of God the Father and in certain aspects, God the Son. This is a relationship. The bishop is relating to the body in a similar fashioned as displayed in the relationship of the God-head. So why such a heavy insistence on leadership under bishop? Simply understood, it displays the unity that the church should have under God as led by one who shows forth characteristics worthy of such a role. He is chosen to not only lead the body, but to dispense the Eucharist, which is the ultimate expression of unity and relationship in the body of Christ. So how can we see this to apply us today? I have set forth my final thoughts and suggestions on how Evangelical churches can and should return to such a view of bishop as authority in the church. Let’s wrap this up!
Thoughts for Today
Ignatius has given us a detailed portrait of the bishop’s role and authority in the early church. Bishops represent both the Son and the Father in various fashions and are promoted as God’s chosen men to perform God’s will for his people. But how can this be applied to our Evangelical churches today? Have we not rejected this model of leadership and authority? Have we also not seen what ills can come of men who vie and jockey for positions of authority only to exercise them for their own gain? Surely history has taught us the failings of man in regards to holding ecclesiastical offices, but should we render this model useless because of bad examples? I would venture to say we have sacrificed the authoritative position of our pastors on the altar of modern autonomy. To say that the bishop or pastor should not have this authority because there have been examples of misuse is similar to saying that America should not have a president based on the poor personal choices of some. So what am I proposing in light of our look at Ignatius’s view of the bishop as the spiritual authority in the community? I have established three clear principles worth considering for our modern day church practice, no matter what tradition you may find yourself in.
First, we must uphold the biblical standard for overseer in the strictest sense. Do we truly evaluate our leaders based on 1 Timothy 3:1-7? Do they hold the unquestionable character of Christ in their practice of life and faith? Ignatius praised individual bishops, not because of gifts of speaking, rather, because of their ability to edify based on their lack of speaking. This is to say that Ignatius looked past the qualities we tend to promote and sought to encourage those which were in line with Christ-like humility and submission. We must be willing to strictly and exhaustively seek elders and pastors who embody the qualities of Christ as laid forth in Scripture. Perhaps with this in mind, our leaders will look less like celebrities and more like Christ.
Second, we must begin to view our elders and pastors as representatives of Christ. If we have fully investigated and tested their character in line with the Scriptural qualifications, then this next point will be much easier to implement. We are not to consider these men as infallible or perfect, yet if we truly hold Christ in high regard, then we should be willing to follow the direction of these men as we would Christ. When they call us to fast, we fast. When we are called upon to pray, we pray without ceasing. When a direction is given, we follow as if it were Christ himself. Perhaps you might think this is a slippery slope, but maybe that tendency in your thinking comes from a deep-rooted individualism that is unwilling to submit to any other authority besides your own. Perhaps this is a deeper issue than worrying whether or not a leader will abuse this authority. If we have fully scrutinized their qualifications prior to their appointment and if we trust in the presbytery and fellow members of the body of Christ, then our level of fear and worry should be greatly diminished and our desire should be to follow our pastor, elder or bishop as our “bishop in the flesh.”
Lastly, we must begin to change our attitude regarding authority in the church. Similar to my second point, this last recommendation drives the issue deep to its core. As citizens of a free country with rights and privileges, we have been taught to question authority and submit to no one apart from those with whom we agree. This is NOT the summons given by Ignatius. Rather, Ignatius cries out to us that we are to do nothing apart from the bishop. We have replaced the authority of the bishop or pastor with the authority of the self and following pastoral leadership has become pastoral suggestions to consider. How dare we neglect our Scriptural obligation to follow our leaders! Our overseers are accountable to God and therefore are to be seen in a higher regard than our modern day Evangelical faith practice often gives to them. If only we were to submit to our authority, trusting that our spiritual growth is tied to our obedience and submission rather than personal desires! Only then will we understand what true surrender means and only then can we begin to fulfill our obedience to Christ our Lord. If we cannot submit to an earthly authority, how can we begin to submit to the Lord Almighty, creator of heaven and earth?
In closing, I believe Ignatius furnishes us with a high view of the role of bishop in the church as the spiritual authority of the community. This is established for us for our growth as we submit to him and follow his lead. This role is authorized by God and gives us a representation of both the Son and Father in our visible church assembly. As we follow the bishop, we are following Christ. As we submit to the bishop, we are submitting to the Father. This presents the world with a picture of unity and Christ-likeness in the community of faith. I believe we have lost this high view of spiritual authority to our own detriment and a consideration to return to this notion is needed if we are to experience true spiritual growth and unity in the church. We remain untrusting and unwilling to confer upon our leaders this authority, and in the mind of Ignatius, this would be destructive behavior for the body of Christ. May we seek to return this spiritual authority in our churches in which we may say as Ignatius charged the church in Smyrna, “Where the bishop appears, there let the people be, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”
 We must not be so naïve as to think that just because traditional Evangelical churches are not structured in an manner like early and medieval church episcopacy that there is not a struggle for position as a bridge to authority. Certainly we continue to see this desire for power and authority no matter what the ecclesiastical structure may be. The difference is found between the man-centered view of authority in leadership roles and the God-centered authority given to a man in a leadership role. Ignatius view conforms to the latter.
 See Hebrews 13:17.
 Ignatius to the Smynaeans, ACW 1, 93.