St. Ignatius of Antioch on the Church

By Bryan Cross


St. Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch was martyred in Rome in AD 107. What does St. Ignatius reveal to us about the Church? According to the early fourth century Church historian Eusebius, St. Ignatius was the second bishop of Antioch (from approximately AD 70 to 107) after Evodius, about whom little is known. Evodius, apparently, was ordained by the Apostle Peter, who according to the account in Acts 12, seems to have gone immediately to Antioch after being released from jail by the angel. St. Ignatius is thought to have been an auditor (i.e. hearer) of the Apostle John, who died around AD 100 AD. St. John Chrysostom (c. 347 – 407 AD), who grew up in Antioch, taught that St. Ignatius had been ordained at the hands of Apostles, including St. Peter. According to ancient tradition, St. Ignatius was the child whom Christ had held, as described in Matthew 18:4.


According to the eyewitness account of the martyrdom of St. Ignatius, recorded by Deacon Philo of Tarsus and the Syrian Rheus Agathopus, who had accompanied St. Ignatius from Antioch to Rome, in Emperor Trajan’s ninth year (AD 107) he sent for St. Ignatius on his way through Antioch, and ordered him to worship the Roman gods. When St. Ignatius refused, Trajan had him bound and sent to Rome “there to be devoured by the beasts, for the gratification of the people.” When he arrived at Rome he was in fact martyred in the amphitheatre by wild beasts.1


On his way to Rome St. Ignatius composed seven epistles, five of which were addressed to Churches of various cities along the way, one to the Church at Rome, and one composed to St. Polycarp (AD c. 69 – 155), the bishop of Smyrna. St. Polycarp knew St. Ignatius (they had met face to face) and wrote about St. Ignatius’s epistles in his Epistle to the Philippians. Smyrna was the first place that St. Ignatius stopped on his way from Antioch to Rome. There he wrote his letters to the Churches at Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles and Rome. Then, when St. Ignatius arrived at Troas, he wrote his letters to the Church at Philadelphia and to the Church at Smyrna, and he also wrote his letter to St. Polycarp.


In each of these seven letters we can learn something about the nature and structure of the Church at the beginning of the second century, and especially the structure and ground for the leadership of the Church.


In his Epistle to the Ephesians, St. Ignatius refers to Onesimus as the bishop of the Ephesians (c. 1). Then he writes:


“It is therefore befitting that you should in every way glorify Jesus Christ who has glorified you, that by a unanimous obedience you may be perfectly joined together in the same mind, and in the same judgment, and may all speak the same thing concerning the same thing,” [1 Corinthians 1:10] and that, being subject to the bishop and the presbytery, you may in all respects be sanctified.” (c. 2)


Notice here that he enjoins the Christian faithful in Ephesus to be subject to their bishop and the presbytery, as the means by which they may all be in “unanimous obedience.” He explicitly denies issuing orders to the Ephesians as if he is some “great person.” He points out that he can learn from them, and that he is exhorting them on account of love. He speaks of bishops being already established all over the world, writing:


“For even Jesus Christ, our inseparable life, is the [manifested] will of the Father; as also bishops, settled everywhere to the utmost bounds [of the earth], are so by the will of Jesus Christ.” (c. 3)


Then he continues in chapter 4, writing:


“Wherefore it is fitting that you should run together in accordance with the will of your bishop, which thing also you do. For your justly renowned presbytery, worthy of God, is fitted as exactly to the bishop as the strings are to the harp. Therefore in your concord and harmonious love, Jesus Christ is sung. And man by man, become a choir, that being harmonious in love, and taking up the song of God in unison, you may with one voice sing to the Father through Jesus Christ, so that He may both hear you, and perceive by your works that you are indeed the members of His Son. It is profitable, therefore, that you should live in an unblameable unity, that thus you may always enjoy communion with God.”


Notice that unity and harmony are, for St. Ignatius, made possible by hierarchical order. St. Ignatius is not teaching that unity takes place by a ‘flattening’ of authority to some form of egalitarianism. Rather, for St. Ignatius, it is precisely in the harmony of each person acting in accordance with his appointed office that true harmony is made possible.


Then in chapter 5 he writes,


“For if I in this brief space of time, have enjoyed such fellowship with your bishop — I mean not of a mere human, but of a spiritual nature — how much more do I reckon you happy who are so joined to him as the Church is to Jesus Christ, and as Jesus Christ is to the Father, that so all things may agree in unity!”


Here St. Ignatius again shows how being united to our divinely appointed ecclesial authority is analogous to the union of the Church with Jesus, and the union of Jesus to God the Father. Just as the gospel has come to us in an hierarchical fashion (from the Father, to the Son, from the Son to the Apostles, from the Apostles to the bishops), so likewise our present union with God the Father is through an harmonious hierarchy: first with the bishop, through union with him to the Apostles, through union with them to Jesus Christ, and through union with Him to God the Father.


At the end of that same chapter St. Ignatius writes,


“Let us be careful, then, not to set ourselves in opposition to the bishop, in order that we may be subject to God.”


The hierarchical nature of our union with God makes union with the bishop essential, and makes separation from our bishop a separation from the divinely appointed means by which we are united to God. Then in chapter 6 St. Ignatius writes:


“Now the more any one sees the bishop keeping silence, the more ought he to revere him. For we ought to receive every one whom the Master of the house sends to be over His household, (Matt 24:25) as we would do Him that sent him. It is manifest, therefore, that we should look upon the bishop even as we would upon the Lord Himself. And indeed Onesimus himself greatly commends your good order in God, that you all live according to the truth, and that no sect has any dwelling-place among you. Nor, indeed, do ye hearken to any one rather than to Jesus Christ speaking in truth.”


Notice the relation between following the bishop, preserving unity and avoiding any sect. For St. Ignatius, we receive and follow the bishop because He is sent by Jesus. And the bishop is sent by Jesus by having been sent by the Apostles, not by a secret inward call from heaven.


St. Ignatius commends the Ephesians for not heeding false teachers. (c. 9) Then in chapter 13 he writes:


“For when you 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.”


He points out that Satan is seeking to bring destruction and division. This is overcome through the “unity of our faith.” Especially in the last sentence he reveals that peace is not the cessation of war. Rather, peace and unity are that by which war is overcome. To bring peace we must ourselves enter the peace and unity of God. We cannot make peace or unity out of division and strife. We must find the existing peace and unity established by Christ Jesus, and enter into it. This principle applies also to sects and schisms between Christians. We cannot make unity out of division, without being united to an existing divinely-established unity.


Then in chapter 20 St. Ignatius writes:


“[S]o that ye obey the bishop and the presbytery with an undivided mind, 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.”


Here too St. Ignatius urges the Ephesian Christians to obey their bishop and the presbytery with an undivided mind, so that they can share together the Eucharist. We may be reminded of what St. Paul wrote: “Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread.” (1 Corinthians 10:17) We see here in chapter 20 of St. Ignatius’s letter that for him, this sacrament by which we are made one is deeply connected to our being joined together to our rightful shepherds. If we depart from the bishop, we no longer share in the one Bread, and thus are in some respect separated from the one Body.


In his Epistle to the Magnesians, chapter 2, Ignatius writes:


“Since, then, I have had the privilege of seeing you, through Damas your most worthy bishop, and through your worthy presbyters Bassus and Apollonius, and through my fellow-servant the deacon Sotio, whose friendship may I ever enjoy, inasmuch as he is subject to the bishop as to the grace of God, and to the presbytery as to the law of Jesus Christ, [I now write to you].”


Notice that the deacon is subject to the bishop (as by analogy to God the Father) and also to the presbytery (as by analogy to Jesus Christ).


In chapter 3, he writes:


“Now it becomes you also not to treat your bishop too familiarly on account of his youth, but to yield him all reverence, having respect to the power of God the Father, as I have known even holy presbyters do, not judging rashly, from the manifest youthful appearance [of their bishop], but as being themselves prudent in God, submitting to him, or rather not to him, but to the Father of Jesus Christ, the bishop of us all. It is therefore fitting that you should, after no hypocritical fashion, obey [your bishop] in honour of Him who has willed us [so to do], since he that does not so deceives not [by such conduct] the bishop that is visible, but seeks to mock Him that is invisible. And all such conduct has reference not to man, but to God, who knows all secrets.”


Chapter 3 in this way gives us an insight into the thought of St. Ignatius regarding the hierarchical way of being united with God in love and obedience. When we submit to the bishop, we are not submitting ultimately to the bishop himself, but ultimately to God the Father, because it is God who has sent and appointed the bishop as His representative. We thus serve God by way of following our divinely appointed shepherd, the bishop. To disobey the visible bishop (or feign obedience to him) is to disobey the Bishop who is invisible (i.e. God the Father).


In chapter 4 he writes,


“It is fitting, then, not only to be called Christians, but to be so in reality: as some indeed give one the title of bishop, but do all things without him. Now such persons seem to me to be not possessed of a good conscience, seeing they are not steadfastly gathered together according to the commandment.”


Some Christians, according to St. Ignatius, recognize a person as having the title ‘bishop’, but disregard their bishop in their activities, as if he has no authority. This behavior, claims St. Ignatius, is not in accordance with the commandment pertaining to the assembling of believers. Believers are supposed to assemble in union with their bishop.


In chapter 6 he writes:


“Since therefore I have, in the persons before mentioned, beheld the whole multitude of you in faith and love, I exhort you to study to do all things with a divine harmony, while your bishop presides in the place of God, and your presbyters in the place of the assembly of the apostles, along with your deacons, who are most dear to me, and are entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ, who was with the Father before the beginning of time, and in the end was revealed. Do ye all then, imitating the same divine conduct, pay respect to one another, and let no one look upon his neighbour after the flesh, but do ye continually love each other in Jesus Christ. Let nothing exist among you that may divide you; but be ye united with your bishop, and those that preside over you, as a type and evidence of your immortality.” (my emphases)


This paragraph again shows how St. Ignatius understands the basis for a divine harmony in the Church. There is an hierarchical order of bishop, presbyters, and deacons. They are united to each other in that hierarchy, and the laity are united to them in obedience and love. This is the key to unity, according to St. Ignatius, that we be visibly united to our bishop and the others under him in the hierarchy, so that we may reflect to the whole world the eternal order and unity in the Godhead.


In chapter 7 he writes:


“As therefore the Lord did nothing without the Father, being united to Him, neither by Himself nor by the apostles, so neither do ye anything without the bishop and presbyters. Neither endeavour that anything appear reasonable and proper to yourselves apart; but being come together into the same place, let there be one prayer, one supplication, one mind, one hope, in love and in joy undefiled.”


Here again we see that the unity St. Ignatius urges us the believers to maintain is based on an hierarchical order that comes from God the Father, through His Son Jesus Christ whom He sent, then through the Apostles whom Christ sent, and then through the bishops whom the Apostles appointed. For St. Ignatius, to be united together in true unity in the Church, we must be united to the eternal divine harmony that has become incarnated through Christ and continues in the enduring apostolic succession.


St. Ignatius finishes chapter 7 with the following statement:


“Therefore run together as into one temple of God, as to one altar, as to one Jesus Christ, who came forth from one Father, and is with and has gone to one.”


We are to run together as into one temple of God, not to multiple temples. The Church is one, because Christ is one, and because God the Father is one. How do we ensure that we run together into one temple of God? For St. Ignatius, the answer is this: by following the bishop whom God has appointed and established.


In chapter 13 he writes,


“with your most admirable bishop, and the well-compacted spiritual crown of your presbytery, and the deacons who are according to God. Be subject to the bishop, and to one another, as Jesus Christ to the Father, according to the flesh, and the apostles to Christ, and to the Father, and to the Spirit; that so there may be a union both fleshly and spiritual.”


Notice again St. Ignatius’s hierarchical conception order and unity. The unity of a plurality in which the plurality is in some sense preserved is always a unity of order. There is an order in the Trinity. So likewise, there is an order in the Church, of deacons to presbyters, and presbyters to the bishop. If we wish to imitate Jesus in His obedience to the Father, we are be obedient to the bishop, and thus, together in submission to our bishop, we are also to be subject to one another. For in this way, according to St. Ignatius, the Apostles were subject to Christ, to the Father, and to the Spirit. By being subject to those in the flesh who have been divinely established over us, we are also being subject to the Spirit.


In his Epistle to the Trallians, St. Ignatius writes in chapter 1 about Polybius as the bishop of the church at Tralles. He writes:


“I know that you possess an unblameable and sincere mind in patience, and that not only in present practice, but according to inherent nature, as Polybius your bishop has shown me, who has come to Smyrna by the will of God and Jesus Christ, and so sympathized in the joy which I, who am bound in Christ Jesus, possess, that I beheld your whole multitude in him.”


Polybius had come to Smyrna to visit St. Ignatius, and through him St. Ignatius beholds, as it were, the whole Church at Smyrna.


In chapter 2, St. Ignatius writes:


“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. It is therefore necessary that, as you indeed do, so without the bishop you should do nothing, but should also be subject to the presbytery, as to the apostle of Jesus Christ, who is our hope, in whom, if we live, we shall [at last] be found. It is fitting also that the deacons, as being [the ministers] of the mysteries of Jesus Christ, should in every respect be pleasing to all. For they are not ministers of meat and drink, but servants of the Church of God. They are bound, therefore, to avoid all grounds of accusation [against them], as they would do fire.”


Here again we see St. Ignatius distinguish the offices of bishop, presbyter, and deacon. He explains that the Christians are to be subject to their bishop as to Jesus Christ. They are to do nothing apart from their bishop, that is, nothing pertaining to the Church. They are to be subject to the presbytery as to the apostle of Jesus. So the authority of Christ and the Apostles continues in the Church, according to St. Ignatius, through the offices of bishop and presbyter. The deacon holds a different order. The deacon is distinct from the bishop and presbyter in the third place after the bishop and the presbyter. The deacon is not a minister of the “mysteries” (i.e. the sacraments), because he is not a priest. Deacons are not “ministers of meat and drink” (i.e. the Body and Blood of Christ). They are servants of the bishop, and in this way servants of the Church of God.


In chapter 3 he writes:


“In like manner, let all reverence the deacons as an appointment of Jesus Christ, and the bishop as Jesus Christ, who is the Son of the Father, and the presbyters as the sanhedrim of God, and assembly of the apostles. Apart from these, there is no Church. Concerning all this, I am persuaded that you are of the same opinion. For I have received the manifestation of your love, and still have it with me, in your bishop, whose very appearance is highly instructive, and his meekness of itself a power; whom I imagine even the ungodly must reverence, seeing they are also pleased that I do not spare myself.”


Here again the deacon is to be honored as an “appointment of Jesus Christ” while the bishop is to be honored (by comparison) as if Jesus Christ. This is a very early explanation of what it means for the bishop or priest to be in Persona Christi. The presbyters are to be honored as “the sanhedrin of God, and assembly of the apostles.” By describing the presbytery in both these ways, St. Ignatius draws a connection between the magisterial authority under the Old Covenant and that of the New Covenant, showing that under the New Covenant, the presbyters have succeeded the Sandhedrin, and by implication the bishop has the place of the high priest. He again in this chapter we see the three fold distinction in Holy Orders, from bishop, presbyter, and deacon.


In chapter 7 he writes:


“Be on your guard, therefore, against such persons [i.e. heretics]. And this will be the case with you if you are not puffed up, and continue in intimate union with Jesus Christ our God, and the bishop, and the enactments of the apostles. He that is within the altar is pure, but he that is without is not pure; that is, he who does anything apart from the bishop, and presbytery, and deacons, such a man is not pure in his conscience.”


St. Ignatius teaches here that if we remain humble and in intimate union with “Jesus Christ our God, and the bishop, and the enactments of the apostles” we will be able to avoid being deceived by heretics. This statement shows that in the mind of St. Ignatius, what was enacted by the apostles continues in the succession of the bishops. Therefore, to remain in intimate union with Jesus Christ, believers must remain united to their bishop, for in doing so, they remain joined to the act of the Apostles, and thus to Jesus Christ. If we remain in this divinely established order, according to St. Ignatius, we will be protected from heresy. St. Ignatius’s statement implies that in the succession of bishops set up by the Apostles, there is a promise of divine protection from heresy and schism.


In chapter 12, he writes:


“Continue in harmony among yourselves, and in prayer with one another; for it becomes every one of you, and especially the presbyters, to refresh the bishop, to the honour of the Father, of Jesus Christ, and of the apostles.”


By remaining in harmony with one another, and praying for another, we refresh our bishop, and honor God the Father and Jesus Christ, and the apostles [who appointed the bishops].2


In chapter 13, he writes:


“Fare well in Jesus Christ, while you continue subject to the bishop, as to the command [of God], and in like manner to the presbytery.”


St. Ignatius seems to believe that with the death of the Apostles, he as a bishop must remind the Christians that the apostolic authority continues in the succession of bishops whom the Apostles appointed. Only in this way can unity be preserved and heresy avoided.


In his Epistle to the Romans, St. Ignatius writes in a very different manner from the tone in his other letters. He never enjoins the Christians at Rome to submit to their leaders. Instead he asks them to pray for him. It is worth recalling that at this time there was a recognized primacy in the three apostolic churches: Rome, Antioch, and Alexandria. They held a primacy not because of their size or importance, but because of their relation to St. Peter.3 But St. Ignatius here shows deference to the Church at Rome, in contrast to the tone he adopts in his other letters. This seems to be an indication of his recognition of the primacy had by the Church at Rome, even among the three apostolic Churches, since he himself was the bishop of the Church at Antioch.


In chapter 2 he identifies himself as “the bishop of Syria,” writing “that God has deemed me, the bishop of Syria, worthy to be sent for from the east unto the west.” He clearly does not seem himself as one among many different equal bishops of Syria. Then in chapter 9 he writes, “Remember in your prayers the Church in Syria, which now has God for its shepherd, instead of me.” His role as “the bishop of Syria” has been to shepherd the believers in Syria. It is not that while he was the bishop of Syria the Church there in Syria did not have God as its shepherd. What he means here is that now (upon his absence from Syria) the Church in Syria has only God as its shepherd (or bishop).


From Troas, St. Ignatius wrote his Epistle to the Philadelphians. In chapter 2 of this epistle he writes:


“Wherefore, as children of light and truth, flee from division and wicked doctrines; but where the shepherd is, there follow as sheep. For there are many wolves that appear worthy of credit, who, by means of a pernicious pleasure, carry captive (2 Timothy 3:6) those that are running towards God; but in your unity they shall have no place.”


How are we to flee divisions and wicked doctrines? The answer St. Ignatius gives is to follow the shepherd (i.e. the bishop). That answer would be of no use if there was no objective way to distinguish true shepherds from imposters. Only if there is a basis for assurance of divine protection among the successors of the Apostles can staying with the successors of the Apostles be the means by which the sheep keep themselves from wolves, thieves, and robbers, i.e. those self-appointed persons who climb into the role of shepherd by some other way than through the gate, by the authorization of the gatekeeper in apostolic succession.4


In chapter 3 he writes:


“Keep yourselves from those evil plants which Jesus Christ does not tend, because they are not the planting of the Father. Not that I have found any division among you, but exceeding purity. For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop. And as many as shall, in the exercise of repentance, return into the unity of the Church, these, too, shall belong to God, that they may live according to Jesus Christ. Do not err, my brethren. If any man follows him that makes a schism in the Church, he shall not inherit the kingdom of God. If any one walks according to a strange opinion, he agrees not with the passion [of Christ.].”


By “evil plants which Jesus Christ does not tend” he means those who are separate from the bishop. “For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop”. But God is merciful, so that if any return in repentance to the unity of the Church, they shall belong to God. St. Ignatius makes a very strong claim about schism. To create a schism or to follow those who create a schism, is to imperil one’s soul. We are not to walk according to “strange [novel] opinion,” but according to what has been handed down to the bishop.


In chapter 4, he writes:


“Take heed, then, to have but one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup to [show forth] the unity of His blood; one altar; as there is one bishop, along with the presbytery and deacons, my fellow-servants: that so, whatsoever you do, you may do it according to [the will of] God.”


St. Ignatius here enjoins the believers in Philadelphia to be united to their bishop, so that they may have only one Eucharist and in this way show forth the unity of Christ’s blood. St. Ignatius’s here again clearly distinguishes between the three offices: bishop, presbytery and deacon. In being joined in our actions to the bishop, the presbyters and the deacons, we are ensuring that we are acting according to the will of God.


In chapter 7, he writes:


“For, when I was among you, I cried, I spoke with a loud voice: Give heed to the bishop, and to the presbytery and deacons. Now, some suspected me of having spoken thus, as knowing beforehand the division caused by some among you. But He is my witness, for whose sake I am in bonds, that I got no intelligence from any man. But the Spirit proclaimed these words: Do nothing without the bishop; keep your bodies as the temples of God; love unity; avoid divisions; be the followers of Jesus Christ, even as He is of His Father.”


St. Ignatius here exhorts the Christians to “love unity” and “avoid divisions.” How are they to do this? By “giving heed to the bishop, the presbytery, and the deacons.”


In chapter 8 he writes:


“I therefore did what belonged to me, as a man devoted to unity. For where there is division and wrath, God does not dwell. To all them that repent, the Lord grants forgiveness, if they turn in penitence to the unity of God, and to communion with the bishop.”


According to St. Ignatius, God is a God of unity, peace and order. He does not dwell where there is division and wrath. So if we wish to be united to God, we must return to the “unity of God.” How do we return to the “unity of God”? By seeking communion with the bishop.


In chapter 10 he writes:


“[A]s also the nearest Churches have sent, in some cases bishops, and in others presbyters and deacons.”


He St. Ignatius reports that some of the churches bishops, and others sent presbyters and deacons. It is very clear that there is in the mind of St. Ignatius a clear distinction between the bishop and the [mere] presbyter.


In Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, Ignatius writes in chapters 7-8:


“But avoid all divisions, as the beginning of evils. See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid.”


How do we avoid divisions (which are the beginning of evil)? For St. Ignatius, the answer is: Follow the bishop even as Jesus Christ follows God the Father, and follow the presbytery as we would the apostles, and reverence the deacons as being the institution of God. Here we see in St. Ignatius the three primary Holy Orders as having been established and perpetuated by God, so that to follow those holding these Holy Orders is to follow God. Likewise, according to St. Ignatius there is a very important relation between Holy Orders and the other sacraments, particularly the Eucharist. Only that Eucharist is proper which is administered by the bishop or by one to whom the bishop has entrusted it (i.e. a presbyter under him). According to St. Ignatius, the same is true of baptisms. The people are to follow the bishop. Where the bishop is, there is the Catholic (i.e. universal) Church. In other words, the bishop forms the backbone, so to speak, of the Body of Christ. We are all joined together in an organic unity insofar as we are joined to the bishop.


In chapter 9, he writes:


“It is well to reverence both God and the bishop. He who honours the bishop has been honoured by God; he who does anything without the knowledge of the bishop, does [in reality] serve the devil.”


Here St. Ignatius teaches in the strongest language that those who reject the authority of the bishop are serving the devil. This is because the bishop has been authorized by Christ, by way of the succession from the Apostles. Just as those who reject Jesus are rejecting God the Father, so also those who reject the successors of the Apostles are rejecting the Apostles, and those who reject the Apostles are rejecting Jesus Christ. The bishop is a continuation of Christ’s ministry on earth. So to honor and reverence the bishop is to honor and reverence Christ, and to reject the bishop is to reject the One who sent him, i.e. Jesus Christ.


In chapter 12 he writes:


“I salute your most worthy bishop, and your very venerable presbytery, and your deacons, my fellow-servants, and all of you individually, as well as generally, in the name of Jesus Christ, and in His flesh and blood, in His passion and resurrection, both corporeal and spiritual, in union with God and you.”


Here again he distinguishes the three offices of Holy Orders, corresponding to the high priest, priest, and Levite in the Old Covenant.


Lastly, in his Epistle to Polycarp, St. Ignatius writes in chapter 5:


“If [the man who chooses to remain a virgin for Christ] begins to boast, he is undone; and if he reckon himself greater than the bishop, he is ruined. But it becomes both men and women who marry, to form their union with the approval of the bishop, that their marriage may be according to God, and not after their own lust.”


Through this letter we get to look on as an old bishop at the beginning of the second century passes down the tradition to a young bishop, i.e. St. Polycarp. Notice that for St. Ignatius, consecrated celibacy is a higher calling, but the person who has been called to consecrated celibacy is still to be subordinate to the bishop. Similarly, the marriages of Christians should be approved by the bishop. Here already we see the sacramental and ecclesial character of Christian marriage, as well as the superiority of consecrated celibacy over the vocation of marriage.


In chapter 6, in speaking of the duties of the flock he writes:


“Give heed to the bishop, that God also may give heed to you. My soul be for theirs that are submissive to the bishop, to the presbyters, and to the deacons, and may my portion be along with them in God!”


Here again we see the three-fold distinction in Holy Orders, as well as the nature of the divine authority of those having Holy Orders. If we want God to give heed to us, we need to give heed to the bishop. If we rebel against the bishop, we are rebelling against God, and therefore cannot expect God to give heed to us.


In chapter 7 he says to St. Polycarp:


“It is fitting, O Polycarp, most blessed in God, to assemble a very solemn council, and to elect one whom you greatly love, and know to be a man of activity, who may be designated the messenger of God; and to bestow on him this honour that he may go into Syria, and glorify your ever active love to the praise of Christ.”


Here St. Ignatius explains that it would be fitting for St. Polycarp, as bishop of Smyrna, to assemble a very solemn council in order to choose someone to perform this particular task of going to Syria as a messenger on behalf of St. Ignatius.


What can we learn from these seven epistles regarding what St. Ignatius believed about the Church? In these epistles he reveals his concern for the preservation of the unity and orthodoxy of the Church. For St. Ignatius, the divinely established means for the preservation of the unity and orthodoxy of the Church is for all Christians, wherever they may be, to follow the bishop, because the bishop has divine authority from Christ through the Apostles. St. Ignatius also clearly and repeatedly distinguishes between the three Holy Orders in the Church: bishop, presbyter, and deacon. Also implicit in St. Ignatius’s ecclesiology is a belief in the perpetual divine protection of the unity and orthodoxy of the Church through the apostolic succession of the bishops, by virtue of its being a continuation of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, in His Mystical Body.


Of course this does raise the question whether bishops can fall into apostasy. What is explicit in St. Ignatius’s ecclesiology regarding the ordered relation of deacon, presbyter and bishop, implies that insofar as there is any hierarchical order among the bishops themselves, those subordinate bishops should likewise defer to those of greater authority. And this seems to be the case for the bishops of the three apostolic churches: Alexandria, Antioch, and Rome. St. Ignatius, as the bishop of the Church in the second highest place of honor and preeminence in the Catholic Church, clearly shows deference to the Church at Rome, and in this way gives an example to all bishops of lesser sees. Implicit then in St. Ignatius’s belief that the laity are assured divine protection as they follow their bishop are two conditions: namely, that the bishop in question remains in full communion with the bishop holding the highest authority in the Church, and that the bishop with highest authority in the Church has some unique divine protection from error.

See also chapter 11 of St. Ignatius’s Epistle to the Philadelphians. []

We cannot help here but be reminded of Hebrews 13:17. []

According to the tradition, at Rome St. Peter sent St. Mark to found the Church at Alexandria. []

cf. John 10:1-5 []