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