Good Old Ignatius


Jim van Heiningen

On his way to be thrown to the lions in Rome and… full of joy!
Yet… all was not well.

         Summoned to Rome

All the way from Antioch in Syria, over land and by sea, Ignatius, the ‘bishop’ of the church in Antioch, traveled on, facing certain death in the imperial capital. Summoned there by Emperor Trajan, he counted it an indescribable honor to go and lay down his life for his dear Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Seven epistles

As he passed by the churches of Asia Minor, he remembered the Apostle John, who had lived and labored there, and whose disciple he himself had been. John hadn’t been dead all that long, only about 15 or 20 years. He also remembered Polycarp, another of John’s disciples, and now the ‘bishop’ of the church in Smyrna, and so, as he passed by Smyrna, he wrote to Polycarp. Seven such letters from Ignatius, all written to different churches on his way to Rome, have come down to us. In them he spoke of the immense privilege of dying for his Lord and of his great joy, entreating the brethren solemnly not to interfere by interceding with the authorities on his behalf.

The “Bishop”

Ignatius’ letters stand out for another reason. He is one of the so-called ‘church fathers’, who have left us numerous writings that greatly help us understand the post-apostolic times and the development of church teachings and practices in the early centuries. Though there is much in these seven letters that is very admirable, there is also a specific emphasis, that should raise our eyebrows. It is the one placed on the role of ‘the bishop’ in the local congregation.

The innovation

Roman Catholics, Episcopalians and others, who believe in what has come to be known as “apostolic succession”, naturally take Ignatius’ remarks as proof of the soundness of their stand. They like to believe that since the times of the Twelve Apostles there has been an unbroken line of succession. The very first bishops, they argue, were ‘ordained’ by the Apostles, and the Apostle Peter himself was the first ‘Bishop of Rome’, or, in other words, the first ‘Pope’. It is one of their foundation stones. The first bishops then, so the theory goes, ordained the next generation of bishops, etc., etc., right down to modern times. Now in reality it is impossible to find anything about all that in Ignatius’ epistles. It was only centuries later that the concept of “apostolic succession” developed. But, yes, he did write about the bishop in the local congregation, and he did so in a completely new way, new that is, in comparison to the writings of the New Testament, and new also in the light of what other ‘church fathers’ wrote at the time.

One-man ministry

So what was so spectacular and innovative in what Ignatius expressed? By this time – it was year AD 115 – it had already, and quite amazingly, become customary in a number of places to have just one ‘bishop-overseer’ in the local church, in clear contrast to what the New Testament model of a plurality of elders-bishops-pastors had laid down (e.g. in Acts 14:23; 15:2-6; 20:17-38; Phil. 1:1; Titus 1:5-9). Only Diotrephes in 3 John could be said to be a model of the lone ‘bishop’, but, of course, in his case John makes it quite clear that precisely this brother was not to be emulated.

Episcopal authority

Ignatius went further than just propagating a one-man-ministry, he also tells his readers this one man must be invested with all authority among his fellow believers. Without the bishop the congregation is not a real church and cannot function. His rule must be absolute. Only he can administer baptism and the Lord’s table. Even a love feast requires his presence. By the vehemence in which Ignatius writes, we must conclude that important sections of the Christian church were not in agreement with his stand and they voiced their opposition.

Protestants catch on

Yet, in spite of such initial opposition to these new ideas, it only took some 120 years for them to spread far and wide and be generally accepted. The bishop’s position of that time has come to be known as that of the “monarchical bishop”. It was different to the modern idea of a bishop being over a ‘diocese’ that consists of a number of ‘parishes’, each parish having its own local ‘priest’. Actually, when we look into it, we find that it is the professional ‘pastor-minister’ of almost all the mainline Protestant denominations of today, who fits the role of the ancient ‘monarchical bishop’ rather well.

Changing the blueprint

Ignatius, and those who stood with him, changed the order for the local church as it had been given in the “blueprint” of the New Testament. That was serious enough. However, something much more drastic and tragic occurred. It wasn’t just a matter of order, something outward, that was being changed.

Keeping the sheep safe

Ignatius was a good man and he loved his Lord, he was also deeply concerned about the fact that the great enemy, going about as a lion, was making too many inroads among the Lord’s sheep. A true ‘shepherd’ at heart, Ignatius meditated on the most effective ways to keep the ‘sheep’ out of Satan’s clutches, what with Judaizers, Gnostics, Manichaeans and others all doing what they could to cash in on the tremendous increase in new Christians. His quandary was exactly the same as what the churches’ leaders in China are facing today: millions are coming to Christ, and Satan is hard at work to try and ‘stem the tide’. But while persecution is harsh and unrelenting, another strategy is proving to be much more effective: bringing in strange and destructive heresies. And they are popping up all over the place. What to do?!

God’s CEO

It became clear to Ignatius that certain measures were called for. If the local bishop had more authority, more “executive powers”, he would be in a position of strength to stop the marauding heretics in their tracks. For that to become a reality, every congregation would have to pledge allegiance to its bishop. He would become the hub of the wheel, he would have to be seen and recognized as “lording it” over “his” flock. And all believers would have to become “yes-men”.

Mixing in the yeast

Did Ignatius realize where his ideas were taking him, that he with others was setting in motion something that would prove unstoppable, and that would have the direst of consequences right to the end of the age? Did he take into account Matthew 20:25-28? Did he weigh the parable of the woman with the dough, who was obviously supposed to be making ‘unleavened bread’, just like mother Sarah had done for her Lord, and with exactly the same amount of flour (Gen. 18), yet, in contrast to Sarah, took some of the old dough, now ‘leaven’ or ‘yeast’, and quietly mixed it in with the new, so that it would work its way all through (Mt. 13:33)?

Antioch of all places

We don’t know all that went through Ignatius’ mind and how he got to decide about so drastic a change in what his Lord had laid down. We just know it was implemented, and that this was done in Antioch of Syria, in that exemplary congregation, where Barnabas had beheld God’s amazing grace at work (Acts 11) among Jews and Gentiles alike, and where God’s Spirit, at full liberty to speak, had sent out the first missionaries into the wider world (Acts 13). We know equally well that Ignatius’ efforts to influence other churches could not remain without effect. The effects are with us today.

The depend-on-flesh syndrome

But let us give him the benefit of the doubt: his motives were fine. He was after ‘practical’ solutions for ‘practical’ problems, solutions that would “guarantee” full protection for the flocks and that would insure a stable and uniform order. But motives do not justify the means. His motives weren’t focused right. Instead of simply focusing on the Lord of the church, he focused on Man in that church. Ignatius suffered from the Jeremiah 17:5-6 syndrome: “This is what the Lord says: ‘Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who depends on flesh for his strength and whose heart turns away from the Lord…’” Turning his back on the glorious reality in Christ of the blessing of verses 7 & 8, he started to trust in Man, depending on ‘flesh’ for his strength, and so, albeit unconsciously, embracing the “wastelands, the parched places of the desert and the saltland where no-one lives.”

Emasculated grace

In practical terms, what were the effects? In Antioch God’s grace and God’s Spirit were being shackled, the Lord Jesus Christ was being asked to kindly vacate his central place of control in the midst of his children. That place was henceforth to be the bishop’s and his alone. Of course, the Lord’s presence and blessing were still seen to be vital, there continued to be prayer for these. But He was no longer the central, the absolute, the only LORD of his church. He was still being ‘revered’, but one of his children would now be the “Reverend”, would now be “running” the church, taking most of the decisions, doing most of the ‘ministry’, getting a stipend and appropriating much of the glory.

Heresy’s hotbed

It was the beginning of the end of that marvelous and shining testimony in Antioch. One hundred and fifty years after Ignatius, Paul of Samosata became bishop. He was perhaps the first example of outright ‘Christian’ heresy, in other words: heresy not infiltrating from the outside, but rising from within the church, teaching as he did that Christ was no more than a man. When another century had gone by, we find the “School of Lucianus” in Antioch, propagating and further ‘enhancing’ that same false doctrine far and wide through its students. Two of them were Eusebius of Nicomedia and Arius of Alexandria. Especially the last one caused untold chaos and havoc in the early churches with his powerful teaching on Christ being a ‘creature’, not the ‘Creator’.

The “clergy” thing

If ever a well-intentioned measure backfired spectacularly, it was Ignatius’ idea of a “one-man-ministry-with-decisive-control” over the congregation of God’s people. Far from keeping error out, it embraced the basic error of separation and discrimination among the Lord’s own: the odious establishment of clergy-over-laity, which may well have been what our Lord was getting at, when he spoke about his hatred of the teachings and practices of the Nicolaitans (Rev. 2). (If, indeed, that is what our Lord was referring to, it would show, of course, that the idea didn’t exactly start with Ignatius, but had already started to rear its ugly head a number of years before him.)

The branches and the birds

It opened the door to an increasing influx of extra-Biblical ideas, attitudes, doctrines and practices. God’s redeemed, all ‘priests-unto-him’, were sinking into lethargy, they weren’t on their faces before their Lord anymore, not unanimously looking for his guidance and grace to experience victory, rather content now to leave everything in the hands of the bishop-pastor. The growing ‘mustard plant’ with its most admirable and dynamic growth was spreading its ‘branches’ throughout the empire. It was also having these branches invaded by the ‘birds of the air’ (Mt. 13:32 with 13:4 & 19 & Rev. 18:2, Acts 20:29-30, 1 Tim. 4:1-3). Today it is not otherwise. Whenever human rule, training, titles, talents, ordination, wisdom, eloquence, enthusiasm, organization, liturgy, buildings, programs, etc., in any group of the Lord’s people, are substituted for that simple and total submission to the Lord Jesus, it spells the beginning of the end.

Avoid the cross and…

The principle established by the Lord for “anyone-wanting-to-come-after-him,” i.e. the basic principle of the cross (Lk. 9:23), can be avoided, but only at a huge cost (24-26). That is the case both individually and congregationally. Avoiding it will not make all blessing disappear overnight, for the Lord is gracious, but the curse of Jeremiah 17 is being courted and it will produce sterility.

True love waits

Ignatius loved the Lord. There can be no doubt about that. Yet he forgot that even ‘love’ must be continually checked, conditioned, corrected and channeled by the Word as the believer spends time reading and meditating (2 Tim. 3:15-17). If not, that love, though capable of surrendering the body to the flames or the wild beasts (1 Cor. 13:3), will be a ‘love’ that is seriously marred by the deviousness of ‘self-love’. True love waits! It waits for the Lord’s will, as He has revealed it in his Word. How can it try to circumvent the will of the Beloved…?

Martha, Peter, Ignatius

Was there any doubt about Martha’s love? Yet loving-and-serving-Martha saw fit to try and impose her ideas on him, to try and get him better “organized” and “streamlined”. We read the story in Luke 10 and say: ‘How pitiful!’, then we turn round and do the same thing… Peter, the Lord’s beloved disciple, was called “blessed” by Jesus one minute, yet the next he was addressed as “Satan” (Mt. 16:17-23). And there we have Ignatius, so full of love for his Lord, yet… opening the door wide for Satan to have his way! Peter learned his lesson, Martha most probably did too. Ignatius didn’t have much time left to learn, but if he didn’t learn on earth, he will have learned in heaven, too late though to do anything about the harm caused by his letters.

The judgment-seat of Christ

When our Lord comes for his own (1 Th. 4:13-18), we’ll have to give an account, together with all the other millions of redeemed – an account of all the things done while in the body. Then we’ll receive what is due to us (2 Cor. 5:10). Perhaps there we’ll find out the proportions of what Paul called “gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay and stubble” (1 Cor. 3), employed by Ignatius, i.e. how much of these various ‘materials’ he used to build on the one ‘foundation’. And how much of his efforts will, as useless contraptions, be reduced to ashes in the Day of Christ, or… how much will emerge unscathed.

Let the fire fall..!

But before we get all curious at brother Ignatius’ fate at the Judgment Seat of Christ, we’d do well to let the Lord’s Spirit and the Lord’s Word search our own lives, allowing him to burn up now whatever of our wisdom and efforts is fit for the fire.