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Ignatius of Antioch:

Power and Freedom in the Early Church

Ignatius of Antioch, known to his friends as Theophorus ("God-bearer"), is perhaps the most important character in early church history.

The apostle John himself appointed "Theophorus" as a bishop [the rough equivalent of a head pastor] in the late first century. His church was Antioch—the apostle Paul's home church.

Ignatius of Antioch's martyrdom in RomeIgnatius of Antioch's martyrdom in Rome

Quite a resume!

But it's not done. Ignatius capped his testimony with a glorious martyrdom in Rome in A.D. 107 or 116. His boldness and bravery are legendary and have inspired Christians for 1900 years.

We can be excited that he left us seven letters on his way to being martyred.

They addressed to the churches in:

  1. Rome
  2. Ephesus
  3. Trallia
  4. Magnesia
  5. Philadelphia
  6. and Smyrna
  7. plus one to the bishop of Smyrna, his friend Polycarp [also appointed by John the apostle].

Polycarp was around 40 years old when he got Ignatius' letter. Forty-five years later, at the venerable age of eighty-six (or older!), he too would boldly give up his life for Christ. You have to wonder how much Ignatius' martyrdom inspired Polycarp a generation later.


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Ignatius' bravery was phenomenal, even in an age noted for Christian boldness in persecution. He is famous for this incredible statement to the Christians in Rome, who loved him and did not want to see him put to death before their eyes.

I beg you not to have a love towards me that is unseasonable [badly timed]. Leave me to the beasts, that through them I may be accounted worthy of God. I am the wheat of God, and by the teeth of the beasts I shall be ground, so that I may be found the pure bread of God. Greatly provoke the wild beasts so that they may be my grave and leave nothing of my body, so that I won't be a burden on anyone. Then I will truly be a disciple of Jesus Christ. (Letter to the Romans 4)

No wonder Tertullian was able to say, "The blood of the martyrs is seed" (Apology 50). Who would not be moved by this kind of faith?

The answer to that question is that many would be moved. Tertullian adds:

The more often you mow us down, the more of us there are. (Apology 50)

Early Christianity was free.

Ignatius is not only noted for his bravery and steadfastness when he faced martyrdom. He's also known for creating the early church (and maybe even the Roman Catholic) hierarchy by emphasizing the authority of the bishop.

This is not true.

Okay, let's grant here that in this case I may be a little biased. I like Ignatius. When a guy gives his life for Christ, encourages everyone around him, and fights for "the faith once for all delivered to the saints," then I don't want anything bad said about him. I'm on his side.

However, biased or not, I believe that my point of view is accurate. The common view doesn't make any sense. Let me explain.

It's apparent from his letters that he was battling gnosticism in the church. It was really eating at him.

No wonder. Gnostics may have been as numerous as orthodox Christians in early Christianity. The gnostics may have gotten to some Roman cities before orthodox Christians.

But it wasn't gnosticism as competing churches that ate at him. It was gnosticism in the church.

Gnostic Bishops

There had to have been gnostic bishops. Even as late as A.D. 170, when the gnostics were driven completely out of the church, Montanus (a false prophet, but not a gnostic) had won over Eleuthurus, the bishop of Rome ("Introductory Note to Irenaeus Against Heresies." Ante-Nicene Fathers. Vol. I.). Only the intervention of Irenaeus, who had listened to Polycarp in his early years, brought Eleuthurus back to orthodoxy.

Tatian, a disciple of Justin Martyr and author of the first harmony of the Gospels (the Diatessaron), was won over to gnosticism around the same time. Irenaeus, too, after helping Eleuthurus, had to win back an unnamed friend from the errors of gnosticism (ibid.).

Some even think that Ignatius doesn't mention a bishop in his letter to Rome because the Roman bishop was already gnostic. I think my explanation is much more reasonable.

His answer was to charge the saints to stick close to their bishop.

Follow the Bishop

Generally, this was a great plan, especially in A.D. 110. The apostles had only recently died, so church leaders were often still those appointed by the apostles. If not, they were likely only a generation removed. As I said, Ignatius himself was appointed by the long-lived apostle John.

Churches were still small in his day, so even if—as in John's churches—they had a single bishop in charge, the bishop nonetheless had a group of elders around him to keep him in check.

One of the elders' (and the bishop's) main jobs was to preserve the traditions of the apostles unchanged to the next generation.

This was a favorite argument of those in early Christianity who wrote against heretics. The apostolic churches could produce a roll of their elders back to the apostles. This was strong evidence that they taught the apostles', and thus Christ's, doctrine.

So Ignatius charged the saints to stick close to the bishop and elders. Don't baptize without them; don't eat the Lord's Supper without them; and don't teach what they don't approve. It will keep you in the doctrine of Christ.

So How Does This Show Early Christianity Was Free?

A lot of people read his letters as evidence of controlling authority in early Christianity. Not me. If Ignatius had to beg Christians to only baptize, take communion, and teach under the bishop's authority, then isn't it obvious that they weren't doing that?

Otherwise, why would he ask?

There were no public schools in the 2nd century. Anyone could style themselves a philosopher and open a school in their house. I've been to Myanmar (Burma), and that's how Bible schools are done there even nowadays. It's not like Plato and Aristotle had degrees in philosophy from Harvard or Yale.

Gnostics spread their doctrine by hanging a shingle in front of their house in town. Suddenly, that shingle made them a teacher, and they had a school.

Ignatius told them, "Don't do it. Stick with the bishop."

Interestingly enough, despite his effusive praise for and constant reference to the bishops in his other letters, it's his letter to Rome that never mentions a bishop at all.

No Bishop in Rome?

According to the Roman Catholics, the bishop of Rome was the Pope even back then. Of course, history shows he wasn't, and I believe history makes it obvious that Rome didn't even have an individual bishop yet. They still had a group of elders who were all bishops.

That would be the reason Ignatius didn't mention a bishop in his letter to Rome. They didn't have one! They had a group of elders.

Rome is the only one of Paul or Peter's churches to which Ignatius wrote. The rest were to John's churches. Those all had a bishop for Ignatius to mention.

The point is, early Christianity was free. There was not a lot of control exercised.

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