I’ve been a low church evangelical for many years now. I entered Christianity through a sectarian Pentecostal group (some doubted we should celebrate Christmas because it was of “pagan origin”, so you imagine the type of ecumenism I was taught). I have thought about the teachings of Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Anglicanism/Episcopalianism and there are times when I find these groups quite attractive and other times when I find these groups to be concerning. Currently, I worship with a (modern, not Amish-like) Mennonite church, which I like because of their commitment to serious discipleship, and their emphasis on the Kingdom of God and the reconciling hope of their eschatology. Yet I worry at times that Mennonites are similar in some ways to my Pentecostal friends in that there is a lack of catholicity with little emphasis on the Lord’s Supper/Communion/Eucharist tradition that has enriched the church for hundreds of years.
As I have mentioned (see here) I have decided to participate in a group called “Read the Fathers”. One figure whose writings are listed early is Ignatius of Antioch (CE 35/50-98/117), a Bishop in the early church who is said to have been one of the more immediate successors of the Apostle Peter and a student of the Apostle John. I haven’t studied this figure enough to have an opinion on such claims, but that he was writing not too long after documents like the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelation were composed demands attention.
There have been several statements made in his epistle that seem to foreshadow the teachings of the more developed church, the ecclesiology to which aforementioned groups like Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Anglicans appeal. As someone who is worshipping with Mennonites, who has been educated by Baptists and Reformed thinkers, who has taught in churches with roots in Lutheranism and Pentecostalism, and who (admittedly) prefers “low church” Christianity (though I have grown fond of some form of liturgy and practices such as following a form of the liturgical calendar), I thought I’d post some excerpts here for conversation.
The first to grab my attention is from Ignatius’ Epistle to the Ephesians (V) where he writes:
“Let no man deceive himself: if any one be not within the altar, he is deprived of the bread of God. For if the prayer of one or two possesses such power, how much more that of the bishop and the whole Church! He, therefore, that does not assemble with the Church, has even by this manifested his pride, and condemned himself. For it is written, “God resists the proud.” Let us be careful, then, not to set ourselves in opposition to the bishop, in order that we may be subject to God.”
This seems Eucharistic (though I am trying to avoid anachronism). The Bishop performs the rite at the alter providing the bread to the people, and to deny the assembly is of grave concern. He writes later (XIII):
“For when ye assemble frequently in the same place, the powers of Satan are destroyed, and the destruction at which he aims is prevented by the unity of your faith. Nothing is more precious than peace, by which all war, both in heaven and earth, is brought to an end.”
And then (XX):
“…breaking one and the same bread, which is the medicine of immortality, and the antidote to prevent us from dying, but [which causes] that we should live for ever in Jesus Christ.”
What we have in this epistle is the need to gather with the church, the importance of the Bishop, and the centrality of the Eucharist in worship. I struggled even more with a statement he made in his Epistle to the Magnesians (II):
“Since therefore I have been permitted to see you in the person of Damas, your godly bishop, and the worthy presbyters, Bassus and Apollonius, and my fellow-servant, the deacon Zotion, of whom may I have joy, because he is subject unto the bishop as unto the grace of God, and to the presbytery as unto the law of Jesus Christ.”
The Bishop of one church represents the whole local church to the other church through that local church’s Bishop. Later in the epistle he writes (XII):
“…that in everything which you do, you may be prospered in flesh and spirit, by faith and love, in the Son and Father and in the Spirit, in the beginning and in the end, along with your bishop who is worthy of all honor, and the fitly-woven spiritual coronal of your presbytery, and the deacons who are according to the mind of God. Submit yourselves to the bishop and to one another, as Jesus Christ [was subject] to the Father [after the flesh], and the Apostles to Christ and the Father, that there may be union both of flesh and spirit.”
Submitting to the Bishop brings unity, and it models Jesus’ submission to the Father, and the Apostles to Christ and the Father. He writes in his Epistle to the Trallians (II), “For, since you are subject to the bishop as to Jesus Christ, you appear to me to live not after the manner of men, but according to Jesus Christ, who died for us, in order, by believing in His death, you may escape from death.”
Subject to the Bishop as to Jesus Christ?
Now, as I said, I want to avoid anachronism. I realize that a “Bishop” doesn’t seem to be as authoritative as it might come to be later. There doesn’t seem to be Archbishops. It could be argued that at this stage in the history of the church a Bishop was like the “Sr. Pastor” over the church in a city. There was no acknowledgement of anything like denominations, so you wouldn’t have a Lutheran pastor, a Presbyterian pastor, and so forth and so on. You’d have one, single pastor (Bishop) who oversees other leaders (Presbyters and Deacons). We know from the emergence of groups like the various gnostic sects that this idea is challenged, and that catholicity is “in flux” for the perspective of historicism, but for those of us who affirm that Spirit’s guidance in developing the church to become what most of us would consider “orthodox” (e.g., Trinity, deity of Christ, nature of Christology, function of canonical books) what do we say to this (and other statements by Ignatius in other epistles)?
Also, for pragmatic purposes, in light of Ignatius’ words, what do you think he would have said if someone said, “My ‘Bishop’ is John Shelby Spong! Should I remain under his authority?” How would Ignatius have advised people under the episcopal rule of Spong? or Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori? or an Arian Bishop or a gnostic Bishop?
Your thoughts on this subject are welcome, whether you be of a tradition with Bishops or without Bishops. What do you think of the need for Bishops today? What do we do if we think Bishop lead churches have strayed from the Gospel?