Presently I’m reading a book called Rediscovering the Church Fathers which includes a chapter on Ignatius of Antioch. Ignatius is one of the earliest Christian writers outside the first century. He died a martyr in Rome in about the year 107, and shortly before his death he wrote a number of letters to various churches throughout the empire. Arguably the most dominant theme of these letters is Ignatius’ repeated insistence on the importance of the “bishop” in the life of the local church. Ignatius lived in a day when false teaching concerning Christ abounded and the unity of many churches was threatening to fall apart; to him the answer to each of these problems was found in consolidating all administrative authority and responsibility for ministry in the office of the bishop (another word for bishop might be overseer).
You can’t blame the guy, on one hand. To me at least it looks like his motives were pure. His desire was simply to protect the life of the churches and maintain unity, an honorable goal. It’s just that he went about it all wrong.
Look at it this way: Compare what Ignatius of Antioch said to what John (the apostle) wrote in his letters. Here you have two men who are facing similar situations-the threat of disunity, loss of the centrality and supremacy of the Lord Jesus Christ, and false teaching. And what makes it all the more interesting is how close in time the writings of these two men may have been to each other. The traditional date for John’s letters is the late 90’s if I’m not mistaken. Though it’s possible he wrote earlier, perhaps as far back as the 60’s, still it is believed by many that his letters, along with his gospel and the book of Revelation, make up the tail end of first-century, apostolic writing. And Ignatius wrote his letters shortly before his death in 107. So it’s possible that these two men wrote within 20 years of each other. That’s not a lot of time difference. And yet look at how differently they dealt with similar situations! First you have John talking about anti-christs who will go out from us proving that they were never really of us, bringing all sorts of different ideas about the Lord Jesus. Yet he trusts the ability of the Spirit within God’s people, telling them, “You yourselves know the truth. You need no man to teach you. You have an anointing within you from the Holy One, causing you to understand all things.”
Ignatius, on the other hand, fearful of what might happen if God’s people forsake the true gospel of Christ and break the unity of the Spirit, resorts to methods of mere human expediency to stem the tide of spiritual decline: “Do nothing without the bishop. Follow the bishop as Christ follows the Father. Where the bishop is present there the church should also be.”
Do you see the difference? Man, what a difference! I’m thoroughly convinced for myself that the higher way lies in the apostolic counsel of looking to Christ, following the living anointing within, and trusting the Spirit Himself to lead and guide God’s people. While I have no doubt that Ignatius meant well, the brother was simply off on this point. The one-man ministry that prevails in most Christian assemblies today can be traced all the way back to these letters which were penned by a dear servant of the Lord who was on his way to die a glorious witness to Christ in the heart of the Roman empire. Thank God for his life, but not so much for his ecclesiology! As for me and my house, we shall stick with with the apostolic tradition.