Ignatius of Antioch on the Structure of the Early Church

Called to Communion has a great post up exploring what St. Ignatius of Antioch said about the structure of the Church in his seven letters.  Ignatius was the second bishop of Antioch from about 70 A.D. to 107 A.D., when he was martyred for refusing to worship the emperor.  And his letters are chock full of (1) references to the three-fold structure of the Church (bishop, priest/presbyter, deacon); (2) instructions to obey your bishop; and (3) a recognition that each city had only one bishop.

I. Are Bishops the Same As Presbyters?

All of this is really helpful to note, for two reasons.  First, many Protestants argue that bishops and presbyters are different titles for the same office, because the Bible is less than clear on whether it’s one office or two being described.  At least part of this confusion stems from the fact that bishop, presbyter, and deacon mean “overseer,” “elder,” and “server,” respectively, and it’s not always clear when they’re using “overseer” as a formal title, and when it’s just as an adjective.  Ignatius clarifies any confusion about the structure of the Church, by referring to the bishop and the presbyters of the Magnesians by name:

“Since, then, I have had the privilege of seeing you, through Damas your most worthy bishop, and through your worthy presbyters Bassus and Apollonius, and through my fellow-servant the deacon Sotio, whose friendship may I ever enjoy, inasmuch as he is subject to the bishop as to the grace of God, and to the presbytery as to the law of Jesus Christ, [I now write to you].”

This is from Chapter two of the Epistle to the Magnesians.  If you pay careful attention, this passage also offers one possibility for why the Bible sometimes seems to treat bishops and presbyters as interchangable.  After all, Magnesia apparently has a total of one bishop, two presbyters, and a deacon (although, of course, it’s quite possible that there were more that Ignatius never met).  It’s certainly not unthinkable that in the earliest days of the Church, a single individual was the only ordained priest in a city with a small Christian population, serving both as both priest and bishop.

In fact, in nearly every letter Ignatius writes, he instructs the faithful to obey their bishop (singular) and the presbytery and the deacons.  I’m not going to go through all of the evidence, both since it gets repetitive quickly and because Called to Communion does, but other than his epistle to the Romans (which we’ll get to below), Ignatius hammers this theme constantly.  Whenever a church starts to go astray, he says, essentially, “Obey your bishop!”  He also notes that in his absence (since he’s been arrested), Syria is without a shepherd other than God Himself.  It couldn’t be much clearer that there’s a single bishop in charge of each city. 

II. Was Rome Run by a Group of Presbyter-Bishops?

But the second point of confusion that this lays to rest is this notion, created in recent years, that in the early Church, everything was run by a body, the presbytery.  This argument specifically comes up in regards to Rome.  One of the cleverest attacks on the notion of the papacy is that while Rome may have been pre-eminent in the early Church, She was run by a group of presbyters in college, not by a single bishop supported by presbyters.  Keith Mathison argues for it on page 51 of The Shape of Sola Scriptura:

Although Rome traces the origin of the papacy to the Apostle Peter, the historical evidence indicates that there was no monarchal bishop in Rome until sometime between A.D. 140-150 [footnote 5]. Instead of a single bishop, it appears that the Roman church was organized under a college of presbyters of presbyter-bishops. No evidence exists for any claims to jurisdictional supremacy by Rome in the first century. The first historical instances of Roman bishops claiming any type of jurisdictional priority outside of Rome occurred in the late second and early third century.

Mathison’s really making two points: the early Church at Rome had a two-fold structure, and Rome wasn’t in charge.  The book which Mathison is citing in footnote 5 for the first of these points is Antioch and Rome, and it’s pretty good, from what I’ve read of it.  It treats the Church Fathers seriously, although far too much is read into silence, and the notion that the early Church had a two-fold structure isn’t very supported.  Still, it’s worth hearing what the authors of Antioch and Rome say of Ignatius’ letter to the Romans (on page 202 of their book):

Ignatius’ greeting “to the church that presides in the chief place of the country of the Romans” is more fulsome and laudatory than that to any other church. The Church of Rome is “worthy of honor, worthy of felicitation, worthy of praise, worthy of success, worthy of holiness.” […] In particular, it is a church “preeminent in love” (see also 2:2, 3:2), a church that has never been jealous, indeed a church that has taught others (3:1).

All of this is true, and irrefutible, from Ignatius’ letter.  So already we see Ignatius being surprisingly deferential to the Church at Rome.  The reference to the Church at Rome as one “which presides” at Rome is frequently misread as if Ignatius is saying it “resides” at Rome.  He’s not.  He’s saying that the Church at Rome is running things from Rome.  That’s a claim to Roman primacy.  So is the idea that Rome is Church which is “preeminent in love.”  Recall Christ’s instructions for leadership in Luke 22:25-27, and you’ll see that Ignatius is saying that they’re leading lovingly, as they’re called to do.  Also, in John 21:15, the commission of Peter is tied to the fact that he loved Christ more than the rest of the Apostles did — as many commenters have noted, this establishes in no uncertain terms that Petrine leadership is to be done in love, not through blunt force.  So when Ignatius says that Rome is “preeminent in love,” these words should also recall Christ’s: “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these? […] Feed My lambs.” Finally, Ignatius recognizes that they’re already instructing other churches.  The authors of Antioch and Rome get what’s going on, at least partially.  On page 165, they say of Rome:

Any Christian community (especially a preeminent community with an apostolic heritage) may have had the right in Christ to correct another community, but in fact Rome seems to have exercised this right more frequently than any other church of the period and seems to have felt that such an exercise was expected. […] One can never discount the possibility that the church of the capital city of the empire felt some responsibility for Christianity throughout the empire; but the chief source of Rome’s care is more likely to have had religious rather than political roots.

So they acknowledge that Rome has an apparent role of religious leadership in the early Church (although they stop short of, and indeed reject, that this is jurisdictional primacy, since the authors are both liberal Catholic priests).  But they argue that Rome, and Rome alone, “still” has presbyter-bishops at this point.  And their arguments on this point are remarkably weak. First of all, they concede the argument in part I of this post, that Ignatius attests to the three-tiered structure of the Church:

Instead of a group of prophets and teachers, we find a clearly delineated three-tier structure of hierarchy of one bishop, a group of presbyters (the council of elders or presbyterion) and a group of deacons (e.g. Magnesians 2-3).
Clearly, the bishop is the leader. Without him, nothing is to be done, no rite is to be celebrated, including baptism and the eucharist.

But then they try and argue that Rome is the exception. Why? Two reasons. First, in Ignatius’ letter to the Romans, “No single-bishop is mentioned in Rome, probably because the church still had the twofold structure of presbyter-bishops and deacons.”  (page 202).  They repeat this argument from silence on page 163:

Indeed, the signal failure of Ignatius (ca. 110) to mention the single-bishop in his letter to the Romans (a very prominent theme in his other letters) and the usage of Hermas, which speaks of plural presbyters (Vis. 2.4.2) and bishops (Sim. 9.27.2), make it likely that the single-bishop structure did not come to Rome till ca. 140-150.

But then they make the polar opposite argument in a footnote:

As Meier has shown (p. 77 above) to explain Ignatius’ insistence on and defense of the threefold order, one must posit that the single-bishop model appeared in Antioch and Asia Minor ca. 100. In the period under discussion Rome shows itself slow to accept innovations.

So if Ignatius mentions a three-tiered structure, this must mean that nobody believed in it, and he has to “defend” it, and if he doesn’t mention a three-tiered structure, that must mean it didn’t exist in that city.  So no matter what he says or doesn’t say, we can thus conclude there were presbyter-bishops.  That’s pretty terrible scholarship.  After all, if Ignatius only wrote about the three-tiered structure to defend the notion of this novelty, we’d expect to see him only write about it to Rome, since apparently only Rome didn’t practice it.  Why would he be convincing the Christians who already agree with him, and then not bring it up to the Christians who don’t?  Anyways, here’s a much better conclusion from the facts: 
  1. Ignatius mentions, but doesn’t defend, the single-bishop structure.  That is, he recognizes it exists in the context of telling rabble-rousers in the churches he’s writing to that they need to obey their bishop.  Nowhere does he attempt to defend the idea that there are three tiers, he simply assumes his readers know it’s true — his emphasis isn’t “there are three tiers,” but “you need to obey all three tiers.”
  2. He doesn’t give this exhortation to Rome for two obvious reasons.  First, they’re already obedient: he makes this clear.  Second, unlike his other letters (which are encouraging the churches to obey their leaders), the letter of Rome is to thank them for their support on his way to martyrdom.  It reads almost nothing like the other letters, because the theme and tone are totally different.
  3. Ignatius mentions the single-bishop structure to the Romans, but doesn’t defend it.  Namely, he says in Chapter 2 of his letter, “Pray, then, do not seek to confer any greater favour upon me than that I be sacrificed to God while the altar is still prepared; that, being gathered together in love, you may sing praise to the Father, through Christ Jesus, that God has deemed me, the bishop of Syria, worthy to be sent for from the east unto the west.” In Chapter 9, he says, “Remember in your prayers the Church in Syria, which now has God for its shepherd, instead of me. Jesus Christ alone will oversee it, and your love [will also regard it].”  So he is treating the Romans as if they already are acquainted with the idea of having a single bishop.
This doesn’t require any absurd mental gymnastics, or any far-fetched conclusions from silence, the way that the conclusions in Antioch and Rome do.  That leaves the last bit of evidence in favor of “presbyter-bishops,” that Shepherd of Hermas refers to bishops, plural.  This is true, but irrelevant.  The section deals with the global Church, and everyone believes that there are multiple bishops throughout the Church. 


Given this, let’s go back to Mathison’s two claims: (1)the early Church at Rome had a two-fold structure, and (2) Rome wasn’t in charge.  The first of these isn’t true, as we’ve seen: there’s not any good evidence that Ignatius is innovating here; in fact, the overwhelming weight of the evidence is that he’s not.  Ignatius even says himself, in Chapter 3 of his letter to the Ephesians, of the single-bishop structure of the Church:

“For even Jesus Christ, our inseparable life, is the [manifested] will of the Father; as also bishops, settled everywhere to the utmost bounds [of the earth], are so by the will of Jesus Christ.” (c. 3)

So Ignatius is writing about how this is the global characteristic of the Church.  And we’re to believe that this was some novelty he’d crafted, and that it wasn’t practiced for another generation in Rome, the center of Christianity?  That explaination doesn’t hold any water.  The second of Mathison’s claims, that Rome wasn’t in a position of authority, is also false, and here, Antioch and Rome is instructive, since it draws out the fact that Ignatius viewed Rome as the presiding Church, preeminent in love, and teaching other churches.  Nope, Ignatius attests to a global three-tiered structure in existence as early as the beginning of the second century.  And Ignatius is a student of the Apostle John: we can trust that he isn’t intentionally perverting the structure the Apostles created, nor is he ignorant of what the structure of the Church they established is.  So if Ignatius says the Church has three tiers (and he does, over and over again), we can believe him.  Finally, if you’re interested in reading more about what the Church looked like in the time of Ignatius, you should check out Called to Communion’s post.

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