Ignatius’ Epistle to the Magnesians

Ignatius’ Epistle to the Magnesians offers further evidence for the developing understanding of the threefold office: bishop, presbyter, deacon.  For instance, in ch.2, we see Ignatius commending (1) “Damas your most worthy bishop,” (2) “Bassus and Apollonius” the “worthy presbyters,” and (3) “my fellow-servant the deacon Sotio.”

The threefold office is illustrated thus:

“…your bishop presides in the place of God, and your presbyters in the place of the assembly of the apostles, along with your deacons, who are most dear to me, and are entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ…”

It is difficult to navigate ecclesiological developments in the occasionally murky waters of the ante-Nicene church, but it is safe to say that this threefold understanding of church officers represents a departure both from the biblical witness and the earliest records of the post-apostolic age.  I do not say that these developments are necessarily anti-biblical, just that they appear to be extra-biblical.

This hierarchical emphasis in Ignatius seems occasionally forced:

“As therefore the Lord did nothing without the Father, being united to Him, neither by Himself nor by the apostles, so neither do ye anything without the bishop and presbyters.”

This strained quality will become even more apparent in the later Ignatian epistles.

Igantius interestingly notes that Sotio the deacon “is subject to the bishop as to the grace of God, and to the presbytery as to the law of Jesus Christ.”  Furthermore, we find that the bishop is a young man and Ignatius, echoing Paul, pleads with the Magnesians “not to treat your bishop too familiarly on account of his youth.”

We also find in this epistle yet another emphasis on the need to be Christians in actuality and not merely in words:

“It is fitting, then, not only to be called Christians, but to be so in reality.”

Undoubtedly it was this attitude and conviction that enabled Igantius to face a martyr’s death with the dignity with which he faced it.

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