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Ignatius of Antioch and Church Authority

Ignatius of Antioch and Church Authority

Jesus Christ
Oral and written tradition
The Gospel of Matthew
The Gospel of Mark
The Gospel of Luke

From ‘Notes on the Formation of the Gospels’, by John Wijngaards;
published in Background to the Gospels (Bangalore & Ann Arbor 1981)
and Together in My Name (London 1991).

Ignatius was Bishop of Antioch in Syria. He died as a Christian martyr in Rome.

The Christians of Antioch were held responsible for an earthquake that happened in 110 AD. During a brief, but vehement persecution a number of believers were executed. Ignatius, their leader, was condemned to be devoured by wild beasts in the Coliseum in Rome.

During his transport as a prisoner through Asia Minor, Ignatius wrote letters to the Christian Churches he passed on his way: Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Philadelphia, Smyrna and Rome.

Ignatius’ letters leave us a record of a clearly defined authority structure in the Christian Church. Communities in major cities had an overseer (episkopos, bishop) who held the ultimate responsibility for the people in the city and in the surrounding area. He was assisted by a council of elders (presbuteroi) who also carried individual authority. They were assisted by deacons.

Read about this in: C.C.RICHARDSON, The Christianity of Ignatius of Antioch, New York 1935; ‘The Church in Ignatius of Antioch’, Journal of Religion 17 (1937) pp. 428-443; V.CORWIN, St.Ignatius and Christianity in Antioch, New Haven 1960.

Ignatius was very much concerned with the Docetic heresy, according to which Jesus had been only human in appearance.

‘Close your ears if someone speaks to you minimising Jesus Christ.

He was from David’s family, the child of Mary, truly born.

He ate and drank, was truly condemned under Pontius Pilate and truly crucified.

He died within view of all who are in heaven, on earth and under the earth.

He was also truly raised from the dead . . . .

If, however, Christ only suffered in appearance as some godless unbelievers maintain, why do I carry these chains? Why do I even look forward to confront the wild animals?’ (IGNATIUS, Letter to the Church in Tralles 9.1 - 10.1).

The community, Ignatius says, needs the protection of a bishop who represents Christ, and of elders (presbyters, priests) who are like the Apostles. Read: J.H.S.RAWLEY, The Epistles of St.Ignatius, London 1913, pp. 18-19, 34-38.

  • ‘All must offer obedience to the bishop as Jesus Christ offers it to the Father. All must offer obedience to the presbyters as to the Apostles. Respect the deacons as you respect God’s Law’ (IGNATIUS, Letter to the Church at Smyrna 7,1).
  • ‘Jesus Christ, our inseparable life, is the mind of the Father. So also the bishops, established in the furthest parts of the world, are in the mind of Christ Jesus. Therefore it is right and proper for you to set yourselves in harmony with the mind of the bishop, as indeed you do. For your noble presbyters, worthy of God, are fitted to the bishop, as the strings to a harp’ (IGNATIUS, Letter to the Church in Ephesus 3-4; see also Ephesians 6; Magnesians 3; Trallians 2,3).

John Wijngaards

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