Saturday, January 7, 2017

Saint Ignatius on Church Government

Saint Ignatius of Antioch, 35-108AD

The Church of Rome, the Eastern Orthodox churches, and the Anglicans like to cite the Church Fathers in support of their government by monarchical bishops. While I have dealt with the biblical statements regarding bishops elsewhere (use the "church government" tag below), here I want to address one of those Fathers.

Saint Ignatius was the bishop of Antioch in the early Second Century, up until his martyrdom in Rome, during the reign of Trajan (between 98 and 117AD). Earlier in his life, he was a disciple of the Apostle John. I want to emphasize that his discipleship did not make him infallible. it does, however, give his opinions significance.

I want especially to focus on his Epistle to the Trallians 2:2 and 3:1: "It is essential, therefore, to act in no way without the bishop, just as you are doing. Rather submit even to the presbytery as to the apostles of Jesus Christ...  Everyone must show the deacons respect. They represent Jesus Christ, just as the bishop has the role of the Father, and the presbyters are like God's council and an apostolic band. You cannot have a church without these."

In both words, we see him referring to the "bishop" (Greek, "episkopos") . This is where the supporters of a monarchical episcopate like to focus. However, he didn't stop there. He also tells the Trallian Christians to submit to the presbytery, i. e., the council of elders (Greek, "presbuteros"). And then he includes the deacons (Greek, "diakonos"). Especially significant is his last sentence: "You cannot have a church without these."

We learn several things from this. First, when he says "bishop," he has no concept of a man in extravagant robes, ruling over all of the churches of a region. Rather, he is using it to refer to the person we now call a pastor. That's why the New Jerusalem Bible, a Catholic translation, translates episkopos as "chief elder," not as "bishop." Second, a bishop is not to rule in the church alone, but rather with a body of elders. And then the deacons are, not a class of lesser clergy, but rather a separate order of God-ordained officers. And third, and most-importantly, he says that there cannot be a church without all three orders of officers.

What does that say about the validity of the orders of clergy in the Catholic and other prelatic churches? The words of Ignatius, that they claim for their own, are actually against them, and in favor, instead, of the presbyterian form of church government.

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