Ignatius’ Epistle to the Ephesians

Ignatius was and is one of the most revered Fathers.  He was the Bishop of Antioch (Origen says he was the 2nd, Eusebius says he was the 3rd) and he wore the martyr’s crown.  Some of his “epistles” were later seen to be spurious, so I will be summarizing only those that it seems clear can actually be attributed to him.  Also, most of his epistles have a shorter and longer version.  I will be summarizing the shorter versions, as it seems likely that the longer versions contain embellishments, though I am in no way qualified to back this up.

Ignatius’ Epistles to the Ephesians is an interesting book.  It is the first of the patristic writings to use the term “Catholic Church,” though he defines it simply as wherever Christ is among His followers.  It would be a serious mistake to read Medieval Catholicism, much less modern Catholicism, back into this reference.  He uses the term in the sense that the early Baptists likewise spoke of the “Church catholick.”

I believe we also see ecclesiological development in Ignatius’ writings.  In short, I believe that Ignatius calls for a greater distinction between bishops (episkopos) and elders/pastors (presbyteros) than we have seen heretofore.

Here’s a bit of historical background from Tom Oden:

“Though it did not take long for a distinction to arise between episkopos and presbyteros, it is probable that they were used for a time more or less interchangeably…However unclear their earlier relationship, it became generally acknowledged by the end of the first century that the distinction between bishop and presbyter could serve a useful function, assuming the premise of Christian freedom to order disiplinary matters usefully and expeditiously.” (Thomas C. Oden, Corrective Love: The Power of Communion Discipline, 156-157)

It seems to me that we begin to see this most clearly in Ignatius.  For instance, in ch.4, Ignatius writes:  “Wherefore it is fitting that ye should run together in accordance with the will of your bishop, which thing also ye do.  For your justly renowned presbytery, worthy of God, is fitted as exactly to the bishop as the strings are to the harp.”  And, in ch.21, we find a clear distinction between the two offices:  “…so that ye obey the bishop and the presbytery with an undivided mind…”

This distinction between the presbyter and the bishop (albeit a harmonious one, in Ignatius’ thought) will become more clear as we look at his other epistles.  Regardless, it is also clear the Ignatius is wanting to establish the bishop’s authority, an idea that we have seen before him.  So, for instance, the Ephesians are to love their bishop (ch.1), imitate their bishop (ch.1), thank God for their bishop (ch.1), view bishops as “the [manifested] will of the Father” (ch.3), obey their bishop (ch.4), and “look upon the bishop as we would upon the Lord Himself” (ch.6).

Yet it must not be thought that Ignatius had a blasphemous preoccupation with bishops.  On the contrary, he is very clear that Jesus is Lord and that the church operates under His lordship.  All statements concerning church offices, then, should be read within the context of Ignatius’ strong christology.

Other noteworthy aspects of this letter are Ignatius’ strong appeal for faithful church participation (“He, therefore, that does not assemble with the Church, has even by this manifested his pride.”), his call for strong Christian commitment (“For let us either stand in awe of the wrath to come, or show regard for the grace which is at present displayed – one of two things.”), his view of worship as an act of spiritual warfare (“Take heed, then, to come together to give thanks to God, and show forth His praise.  For when ye assemble frequently in the same place, the powers of Satan are destroyed, and the destruction at which he aims.”), his practical wisdom (“It is better for a man to be silent and be [a Christian], than to talk and not to be one.  It is good to teach, if he who speaks also acts.”), and what is possibly the first reference to the Lord’s Supper that we find in the fathers (“…breaking one and the same bread, which is the medicine of immortality, and the antidote to prevent us from dying, but [which causes] that we should live for ever in Jesus Christ.”)  We likely find in this last statement a growing sacramentalism in the Church.

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