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St. Ignatius of Antioch and the Early Church | Kenneth D. Whitehead | From
One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic:
The Early Church Was The Catholic Church
Sometime around the year 107 A.D., a short, sharp persecution of the Church of Christ resulted in the arrest of the
bishop of Antioch in Syria. His name was Ignatius. According to one of the harsh penal practices of the Roman Empire
of the day, the good bishop was condemned to be delivered
up to wild beasts in the arena in the capital city. The insatiable public appetite for bloody spectacles meant a chronically short supply of victims; prisoners were thus sent off to
Rome to help fill the need.
So the second bishop of Antioch was sent to Rome as a
condemned prisoner. According to Church historian Eusebius (ca. 260-ca. 340), Ignatius had been bishop in Antioch
for nearly forty years at the time of his arrest. This means
that he had been bishop there while some of the original
apostles were almost certainly still alive and preaching.
St. Ignatius of Antioch was conducted first by land from
Syria across Asia Minor (modern Turkey). He was escorted
by a detachment of Roman soldiers. In a letter he sent ahead
to the Church of Christ in Rome, this bishop described his
ardent wish to imitate the passion of Christ through his own
coming martyrdom in the Roman Colosseum. He warned
the Christians in Rome not to try to save him. He also spoke of his conflicts with his military escort and of their casual
cruelties, describing his guards as "ten leopards". The discipline of the march cannot have been unrelieved, however,
since Ignatius was permitted to receive delegations of visitors from local Churches in the cities of Asia Minor through
which the escorts and Ignatius passed along the way (To the
In Smyrna (modern Izmir), St. Ignatius met, not only with
the bishop of that city, St. Polycarp, but also with delegations from the neighboring cities of Ephesus, Magnesia, and
Tralles. Each delegation was headed by a local bishop. Ignatius wrote thank-you letters to the Christians in each of these
cities who had visited the notable but shackled bishop-prisoner. Chiefly through these letters, St. Ignatius of Antioch is known to us today.
Establishing these letters, written in Greek, as authentic
and genuinely from the first decade of the second century
was one of the triumphs of nineteenth-century British scholarship. Without them, this bishop of Antioch might have
remained no more than a name, as obscure as many another
early Christian bishop.
Escorted on to the Greek city of Troas on the Aegean Sea,
Ignatius wrote yet another letter to the Church at Smyrna,
through which he had passed. He also wrote personally to
Bishop Polycarp of that city. Finally, from Troas he wrote
still another letter to the Philadelphians; the local Church of
Philadelphia had despatched two deacons who overtook his
party at Troas.
Shortly after writing these seven letters to Churches in
Asia Minor, St. Ignatius of Antioch was taken aboard ship.
The remainder of his journey to Italy was by sea. Tradition
holds that he won his longed-for martyrdom in the Roman
amphitheater during the reign of Emperor Trajan (98-117).
But the letters he left behind afford us a precious and remarkable picture of what that Church was like not even two
full generations after issuing from the side of Jesus Christ on
The adult life of St. Ignatius of Antioch as a second-generation Church leader almost exactly spanned the period
of transition between the end of the first Christian generation and the beginning of the third. Thus, his witness about
the nature of the Church of his day is of the most profound
and fundamental importance.
What was the Church like around the year 107 A.D.? The
Church had already spread far and wide since the days of the
apostles. St. Ignatius was conducted over a good part of what,
today, is Turkey, encountering local Churches in most major
towns. At the head of each of these Churches was a principal
leader, a bishop. The geographical spread of individual local
Churches, each headed by a bishop, is obvious from the fact
that Ignatius was met by delegations headed by bishops from
each sizeable town along the route.
That St. Ignatius was met by these "official" delegations
indicates that local Churches were in close touch with one
another. They did not see themselves as independent, self-selected, self-governing congregations of like-minded people; they saw themselves as linked together in the one body
of Christ according to an already firmly established, well-understood system, even though they happened to be geographically separated.
The solidarity with which they all turned out to honor a prisoner being led to martyrdom, who also happened to be the
bishop of Antioch, tells us something about their respect for
the incumbent of that office. Antioch was to become one of
the great patriarchal bishoprics of the Church of antiquity, along
with Alexandria and Rome--and, later, Constantinople.
The letters of St. Ignatius are even more pointed concerning the role that a bishop ("overseer") held in the early
Church. The modern reader may be startled at the degree to
which these letters exalt the role of the bishop. "It is essential to act in no way without the bishop", Ignatius wrote to
the Trallians. "... Obey the bishop as if he were Jesus Christ"
(2:2,1). "Do nothing apart from the bishop", he wrote to
the Philadelphians (7:2). To the Smyrnaeans, he gave the same
advice: "You should all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ did
the Father .... Nobody must do anything that has to do with
the Church without the bishop's approval" (8:1).
The New Testament shows the apostles appointing others
besides themselves to offices in the Church. Peter and the
other apostles at Jerusalem very quickly decided to appoint
deacons to assist them (cf. Acts 6: 1-6). Paul similarly placed
someone in authority in the Churches he founded (cf. Acts
14:23; 2 Tim 1:6). These ecclesiastical appointments were
carried out by means of a religious rite: the laying on of
hands, either by those who already had authority conferred
on them by Christ (the apostles) or those on whom they had
conferred authority by the laying on of hands. These rites
were sacramental ordinations.
For a period of time in the early Church there seems to
have been no entirely clear terminology designating these
ordained Church officers or ministers. St. Paul spoke of bishops and deacons (Phil 1:1), though he also mentions other
offices, such as apostles, prophets, and teachers (1 Cor 12:29).
St. James spoke of elders (5:14). In the Acts of the Apostles
(e.g., 11: 30), we hear many times of elders or presbyters. Sometimes the designations bishop and elder seem to have been
In the course of the second half of the first century, however, a consistent terminology for these Church offices was becoming fixed. The letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch make
clear that leadership in the Christian community, in all the
Churches, is exercised by an order of "bishops, presbyters,
and deacons" (To the Trallians 3:2; To Polycarp 6:1). Of these
designations, bishop comes from the Greek episkopos, meaning "overseer"; presbyter from the Greek presbyteros, "elder";
and deacon from the Greek diakonos, "servant" or "minister".
Thus, from that time on, these were the offices in what
was already an institutional, hierarchical Church (this is not
to imply that the Church was ever anything but institutional
and hierarchical, only that the evidence for these characteristics had become unmistakably clear by this time).
By the way, the term priest (Greek: hierus) does not seem
to have been used at first for the Christian presbyter; the
nonuse of this particular term in the earliest years of the
Church was due to the need to distinguish the Christian
priesthood of the new dispensation from the Jewish Temple
priests, who were still functioning up to the time of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans in the
year 70 A.D. After that time, the use of the word priest for
those ordained in Christ began to be more and more common.
St. Ignatius of Antioch did not know of any such thing as
a "Church" that was merely an assemblage of like-minded
people who believed themselves to have been moved by the
Spirit. The early Christians were moved by the Spirit to join
the Church, the established visible, institutional, sacerdotal,
and hierarchical Church-the only kind St. Ignatius of Antioch would ever have recognized as the Church.
And it was for this visible, institutional, sacerdotal, and
hierarchical Church--an entity purveying both the word and
sacraments of Jesus--that this early bishop was willing to give
himself up to be torn apart by wild beasts in the arena. He
wrote to St. Polycarp words that were also meant for the latter's flock in Smyrna: "Pay attention to the bishop so that
God will pay attention to you. I give my life as a sacrifice
(poor as it is) for those who are obedient to the bishop, the
presbyters, and the deacons" (6:1). To the Trallians he wrote:
"You cannot have a Church without these" (3:2).
St. Ignatius certainly did not fail to recognize that, in one
of today's popular but imprecise formulations, "the people
are the Church." His letters were intended to teach, admonish, exhort, and encourage none other than "the people".
But he also understood that each one of "the people" entered the Church through a sacred rite of baptism, and thereafter belonged to a group in which the bishop, in certain
respects and for certain purposes, resembled, on the one hand,
the father of a family and, on the other, a monarch--more
than some democratically elected leaders.
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Kenneth D. Whitehead is a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education.
He has authored or coauthored several books, as well as many articles for
leading Catholic periodicals, and is the translator of some twenty published
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