|St. Ignatius of Antioch demonstrating how much it meant for him to be a bishop. He is wearing an omophorion, which, being made of wool and worn around the shoulders, symbolizes that he is a shepherd to his flock. He is also being torn apart by lions. |
He regards the role of the bishop (επίσκοπος, which means “overseer”) as greatly significant for the unity of the Christian communities to whom he was writing. The unifying, even divinizing, role of the bishop, along with the presbyters and the deacons, is a major theme of six out of the seven epistles of Ignatius. Yet, even as he constantly speaks of the bishops with exultant tones, he admires in them silence and meekness, and as a bishop himself, he gives an example of humility. The great importance of the bishop for Ignatius can scarcely be overstated. Though, even while he points this out, he would have them avoid self-importance.
Ignatius often speaks directly of the relationship between unity in the Church and the bishop. For example, he writes to the Ephesians, “I reckon you happy who are so joined to [your bishop] as the Church is to Jesus Christ… so all things may agree in unity” (5). The Pauline Epistle to the Ephesians applies this same image to the unity of a husband and wife (cf. Eph 5). With that comparison in view, it appears that Ignatius understands the union between a bishop and his flock to be real and intimate. The Magnesians, too, Ignatius exhorts to unity with their bishop, writing: “Let nothing exist among you that may divide you but be ye united with your bishop” (6). Division from the bishop, for Ignatius, is division in the Church, and even division from God. He writes to the Philadelphians, “Turn in penitence to the unity of God, and to communion with the bishop” (8). Unity with God and communion with the bishop appear here as two sides of the same coin. If a Christian would seek union with God, that Christian must also submit to the bishop.
The bishop unifies the community as a shepherd – an overseer to whom believers must submit like sheep. Referring to the bishop, Ignatius writes, “where the shepherd is, there do ye as sheep follow” (Philadelphians 2). A sheep follows a shepherd with great docility and obedience. Have you ever held a lamb? Every Christian should have that experience, I believe. Picking one up, I found the lamb to be the most yielding of creatures I have ever touched. It indescribably, shockingly, unhesitatingly, absolutely surrendered itself to me. I was moved. That Christians owe a similar response to their bishop Ignatius makes clear in his epistle to the Ephesians: “By a unanimous obedience ye may be perfectly joined together… and… being subject to the bishop and the presbytery, ye may in all respects be sanctified” (2). Obedience or self-subjection is the source of both unity and sanctity.
Ignatius would have the churches submit to the bishop and the presbyters united to him rather than to some other authority because he regards episcopal authority as divinely appointed. He tells the Magnesians to submit to their youthful bishop, “or rather not to him, but to the Father of Jesus Christ, the bishop of us all” (3). This is one of many times that Ignatius identifies submission to the bishop with submission to God. To the Ephesians, he writes, “We should look upon the bishop even as we would upon the Lord Himself” (6). He writes that the “bishop presides in the place of God” (Magnesians 6) and that “ye are subject to the bishop as to Jesus Christ” (Trallians 2). The bishops, he writes, has “been appointed according to the mind of Jesus Christ” (Philadelphians) and he tells the Smyrnaeans to “follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father” (8). These several examples make clear the divine origin of episcopal authority in Ignatius’ thought.
The bishop also unifies and sanctifies with his work at the altar . Ignatius writes to the Ephesians, “If any one be not within the altar, he is deprived of the bread of God…. Let us be careful, then, not to set ourselves in opposition to the bishop” (5). Here Ignatius makes clear that union with the bishop enables one to receive “the bread of God.” Elsewhere he calls this bread, “the medicine of immortality” (Ephesians 20). These terms refer to the Eucharist, which Ignatius, in his letter to the Philadelphians, also associates with the altar and describes in unifying terms. He writes, “Have but one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup to show forth the unity of His blood; one altar; as there is one bishop” (4). Unity with the one bishop (μόνος επίσκοπος) and the one Eucharist, makes the community one. Further, for Ignatius, the one Eucharist is not possible without the one bishop. He writes to the Smyrnaeans, “Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is administered either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it” (8).
Ultimately, the bishop is the guarantor of unity in all things. Ignatius says repeatedly to those communities he writes to, “Do nothing without the bishop” (Philadelphians 7, see also Trallians 2, and Magnesians 7). Speaking of deacons and presbyters as well as bishops, Ignatius writes, “Apart from these, there is no Church” (Trallians 3). For Ignatius, the bishops are the very basis of the Christian community. Without a bishop, there is no Christian community.
The great importance of the bishop for Ignatius, then, is indisputable. Yet, the natural tendency of a person in a position of great importance to become all too aware of their own importance Ignatius would have bishops resist. In a bishop, Ignatius repeatedly admires the virtues of silence and meekness. He writes, “The more any one sees the bishop keeping silence, the more ought he to revere him” (Ephesians 6). Writing to the Philadelphians, Ignatius admires their bishop, “at whose meekness I am struck with admiration, and who by his silence is able to accomplish more than those who vainly talk” (1). He further compares this meekness with that of “the living God” (1). Ignatius writes of the bishop of the Trallians, “His meekness [is] of itself a power” (3). I see in these expressions some sense of how one ought to be a bishop, which is interesting to note in the midst of Ignatius’ extensive writing about how one ought to obey a bishop.
Ignatius teaches most about how to be a bishop by example. Only once in his letters does Ignatius specifically mention that he is a bishop – in his letter to the Romans (2). Perhaps he does not point it out frequently in part because he is “ashamed to be counted one of them." He writes further, "for indeed I am not worthy, as being the very last of them” (Romans 9, see also Trallians 13 and Magnesians 14). This echoes the humility of Paul, who says that he is “the least of the apostles” (1 Cor 15:9), but Ignatius goes still further and indicates that he should not issue commands as if he were an apostle (Trallians 3) nor even as if he were some great person (Ephesians 3). Frequently, he refers to the deacon (διάκονος, which means “servant”) as his “fellow-servant” (σύνδουλος) (Ephesians 2, Magnesians 2, Philadelphians 4, Smyrnaeans 12). The bishop Ignatius referring to himself as a fellow-servant of servants seems to me to be another example of his humility.
In fact, Ignatius is among the greatest of bishops, and all the great things he says of bishops should be said of him. The humility he exemplifies is a good model for all Christians to follow, whether or not they have been made bishops, and goes a long way towards unifying the Church. The Church would also do well to remember the testimony he gives to the importance of the bishops in maintaining unity, particularly in this fractured age.