Ignatius and the Bishop

By Weylan Deaver

Among other books, I’m currently reading The Apostolic Fathers, translated from the Greek by Michael W. Holmes. The so-called “apostolic fathers” are ancient authors who have left us the earliest uninspired Christian writings (from late first to mid-second century). One of them, Ignatius, may have been martyred early in the second century. His letter to the church in Ephesus (as well, his letters to other congregations) is disturbing for its seeming portrayal of congregational structure foreign to the New Testament pattern. For example, Ignatius wants the Ephesians to be “subject to the bishop and the council of presbyters” (To the Ephesians, 2:2). He writes that “it is proper for you to run together in harmony with the mind of the bishop, as you are in fact doing. For your council of presbyters, which is worthy of its name and worthy of God, is attuned to the bishop as strings to a lyre” (ibid., 4:1). Though the gospel knows nothing of a church bishop who is distinct from and superior to a “council of presbyters,” Ignatius goes so far as to say, “For everyone whom the Master of the house sends to manage his own house we must welcome as we would the one who sent him. It is obvious, therefore, that we must regard the bishop as the Lord himself” (ibid., 6:1). That is quite a claim! Ignatius writes, “I dedicate myself to you Ephesians, a church that is famous forever” (ibid., 8:1).

Whether or not “famous forever,” the Ephesian church figures prominently in the New Testament. The apostle Paul wrote a letter to them in the mid first century. Paul also wrote to Timothy, telling him to “remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine” (1 Tim. 1:3, ESV). Evidently, “different doctrine” was a genuine threat to the church at Ephesus. Toward the late first century, Jesus himself sent to the church at Ephesus, “I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent” (Rev. 2:4-5). Earlier, Paul, in a face to face meeting with the Ephesian church’s elders, told them that “after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30).

It is possible that, within a hundred years of the church’s beginning in Jerusalem, there were already departures in the leadership structure God put in place for congregational rule. But an error is not made right just because it is old. And, if “the bishop” in Ephesus is a scary thing to contemplate at such an early time in the church, we can take encouragement from the fact God had—through Paul—already warned the Ephesian elders years earlier that trouble would rise from themselves. Such warning is testimony to God’s omniscience, Paul’s inspiration, and the truth that Christians are never, whether back then or now, to veer from the gospel’s original design.

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