How the West Was REALLY Won–By Bishop Ignatius of Antioch

October 17 is St. Ignatius of Antioch Day!  Below, for your reading pleasure (or perseverance), is a paper I wrote about Ignatius for a seminary class:


I.          Apostolic Christianity: Then and Now

The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, described in Acts 2, has often been referred to as the birth of the church.  If that remarkable day in the lives of the apostles’ generation marks the birth of the church, then the passing of the apostles can be likened to a grown child leaving home for the first time.  When the last apostles and other eyewitnesses to the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ had died, the church found itself in an awkward and vulnerable state.  It no longer had the apostles, but it did not yet have an authoritative canon (outside of the Hebrew Bible), creeds, or even a longstanding tradition of orthodoxy.

How did the fledgling church, born into a hostile environment with persecution from without and false teachers from within, ever survive through the next two millennia?  More specifically, how did the church move from the first century to the twenty-first century with its founding truths and principles still intact?

The answer to that question is multifaceted, but the reason the infant apostolic church not only survived but thrived is in large part due to the life, ministry, and death of Ignatius.  At the cost of his own life, this humble bishop from Antioch in Syria served as a bridge connecting the church’s apostolic past with its post-apostolic future.  Much more than a mere bridge, Ignatius was instrumental in launching the church on a trajectory that would ensure the preservation of orthodoxy for many centuries to come.  The church today owes much of its structure and purity of doctrine to Ignatius of Antioch, who laid down his life to bridge the gap between the apostolic era and the dawning age of the church.

While today’s church wrestles with issues of cultural relevance, the struggle in the early decades and centuries was one of preserving the separateness and truth of Christianity.  As Everett Ferguson writes, the closing of the apostolic age “was a situation that called not so much for keen or original thought as scrupulous fidelity in preserving intact Christian doctrine and practice.”[1]  What was needed was not so much the mere passing of a baton; the opposition was fierce, so it was more like handing off a football so the rest of the team can move the ball down the field toward the goal line.

The generation after the apostles—the generation of Ignatius—took seriously the words of the biblical writer Jude: “I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.”[2]  This compelling call was heeded by a few select men who have been labeled the Apostolic Fathers; this term applies to the men who authored the first orthodox writings of the church in the years immediately following the completion of the New Testament.   They were not apostles themselves, but they were discipled and educated by the apostles.[3]

As Ferguson writes, “In the second century developments occurred that have been formative for most Christian churches ever since.”[4]  Ignatius was right in the middle of those developments, giving him an influence that reaches across the millennia to touch the Christian churches of today.  At the heart of these second-century concerns was a desire to preserve the teaching of the apostles against heretics and legalists that came in many forms.  Apostolic authority was to be found in the Scriptures, but who was to say how the Scriptures should be interpreted?  In the second century, the church gave its answers: the bishops and presbyters were to be the guardians of apostolic (i.e. biblical) doctrine.[5]  This is largely due to the influence of Ignatius, which cannot be overstated.  Michael W. Holmes writes, “Because of the early date of these writings and the distinctiveness of some of his ideas, particularly with regard to the nature and structure of the church, Ignatius’s letters have influenced later theological reflection and continue to be a focus in scholarly discussion of Christian origins.”[6]

Ignatius seemed to recognize in advance an important reality that Bryan Litfin describes when he writes, “It is of vital importance that every Christian believer be found traveling along the same path of historic orthodoxy that the ancient believers first labored to create.”[7]  The Apostolic Fathers battled against “variant interpretations of the Christian faith”[8] that threatened to weaken orthodox Christian doctrine; the danger was that these heresies would become accepted as orthodox Christian doctrine.  Sensing the menace at hand, Ignatius responded by urging a strengthened institutional church structure.  A universal church with clearly established lines of authority would make it more difficult for heretics to breach the fortress of orthodoxy.  Such a church would need to be united.  Ignatius envisioned a church united around a common interpretation of the Scriptures, advanced and guarded by God-ordained bishops.  The term often used to describe the universal church—etched into the historical Christian consciousness by its inclusion in the Apostles Creed—is the “catholic church.”  Ignatius is the first writer known to have used the term in this way.[9]

As Ignatius was led in chains through Asia Minor en route to his martyr’s death, he was visited by representatives of local churches.  Through them, he strengthened and encouraged the churches in those cities.  Traveling toward his execution, however, he saw the importance of committing to writing his ideas about guarding the apostolic tradition.[10]  Thus, he bequeathed to the world a series of letters which carved a channel of orthodoxy through which church doctrine has flowed throughout the centuries.


II.        The Bishop of Antioch: Background

Who was this Ignatius?  Nicknamed Theophorus, meaning “God-bearer,”[11] very little is known about his life apart from the letters he wrote in the brief period he was in chains before his death.  Ignatius was a bishop in Antioch—according to tradition, the third in succession after the apostle Peter and Evodius[12]—who was martyred around A.D.110- 115.[13]

In Ignatius’s time, Antioch was the third greatest city of the Roman Empire (behind Rome and Alexandria).  As for its importance to the early years of Christianity, it was perhaps second only to Jerusalem.[14]  The church in Antioch is the one that dispatched Paul and Barnabas to the mission field (Acts 13:1-3).  Acts 11:26 reveals that followers of Jesus were first called Christians in Antioch.

With a devout commitment to protecting biblical Christology, Ignatius battled against the Gnostics and Judaizers in Antioch—the Docetists and legalists.  He was arrested in the reign of Emperor Trajan, who ruled from 98-117.[15]  Trajan’s policy toward Christians, made famous in his correspondence with Governor Pliny of Bithynia,[16] was to not seek them out but to persecute them if they were found out.  During this time, Christian leaders were often persecuted as representatives of the church, rather than a wholesale persecution of believers.  Under this policy, Bishop Ignatius of Antioch was arrested and condemned to death.

Like the apostle Paul, Ignatius was taken to Rome under guard.  The bishop’s route through Asia Minor (now southern Turkey) was very similar to that taken by the apostle on his third missionary journey.  During this passage, Ignatius wrote seven letters whose contents survive to this day.

In the August heat, the military detachment escorting Ignatius took a break in the city of Smyrna.  While there, he was visited by the city’s bishop, Polycarp.  Polycarp had been a disciple of the apostle John and would become a martyr himself.  Ignatius also received visitors representing the churches in Ephesus, Magnesia, and Tralles.  He was paid a visit by another bishop, Onesimus; speculation (however unlikely) has it that this might be the same Onesimus that Paul writes about in his letter to Philemon.

While lingering in Smyrna, Ignatius penned letters to the three churches who had visited him, and wrote a fourth to the church in Rome about his impending arrival.  When the detachment moved Ignatius on to Troas, he wrote three more letters: to the churches in Philadelphia and Smyrna, and to Bishop Polycarp in Smyrna.[17]

In describing Ignatius’s seven letters, Holmes describes them as “of extraordinary interest because of the unparalleled light they shed on the history of the church at that time, and because of what they reveal about the remarkable personality of the author.”[18]  The seven letters reveal three primary concerns for Ignatius as he traveled to Rome: First, the battle against false teachers; second, church unity and structure (which he saw as intimately related); and third, his approaching martyrdom.[19]  On the journey to his death, he viewed his impending execution as a powerful confirmation of the truth of his convictions.

Ignatius viewed his death for Christ as a blessed sacrifice.  In writing about his death, he sounds much like the apostle Paul, who wrote in Philippians 1:23, “I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far.”  In his letter to the Christians in Rome, Ignatius wrote, “The kingdoms of this world are entirely meaningless.  I am at the point where I would rather die for Jesus Christ than rule over the whole earth.  He alone is the one I seek—the one who died for us!”[20]  His all-consuming longing for Christ compelled him to lay down his life for the gospel when he was killed by wild beasts in the Roman Coliseum.


III.       Monepiscopacy

A key concept to understanding the major contribution of Ignatius to the church through the ages is his strong advocacy of the monepiscopacy.  He is the first one to promote this church structure in which each city has one bishop who oversees its churches.  In pastoring the city, each bishop is assisted by elders or presbyters.[21]  The team of presbyters is aided by deacons.  This is the threefold ministry[22] of Ignatius, a model which was widely adopted and functioned effectively to preserve orthodox Christianity in the years preceding creeds, councils, and a canonized New Testament.  Bishop, presbyter, and deacon are all biblical offices, but Ignatius adapts them for the post-apostolic era by arranging them in a particular fashion.[23]

It is important to note that “Ignatius provides a theological rationale for the authority and place of the bishop and does not base it, as does his near contemporary Clement of Rome, upon the concept of apostolic succession.”[24]  Unlike the bishops of the Catholic Church of later centuries, bishops in Ignatius’s view drew their authority not from tracing the lineage of their office back to the apostles; instead, their authority rested on their calling from God to serve humbly as His representative in the church.  In his letter to the church in Smyrna, Ignatius wrote, “Wherever the bishop appears, let there be the fullness of the church as wherever Christ Jesus appears, there is the catholic church.”[25]  The lack of the presence of living apostles was no hindrance for Ignatius, as the bishop, presbyters, and deacons provided all the authoritative leadership the church needed.  To the Christians in Magnesia, he wrote that “the bishop leads in the place of God and the presbyters in the place of the council of the apostles and of the deacons… who have been entrusted with the service of Jesus Christ.”[26]  In that same letter, Ignatius describes Jesus Christ as “the bishop of all,”[27] giving an insight into his view of the role that he and others held as bishops.

A.        Monepiscopacy: Protector of Biblical Doctrine

One of the most critical reasons for the monepiscopacy is the protection of biblical, orthodox doctrine.  Although persecution from outside the church was a constant peril to Christians in the first through the third centuries, Ignatius saw a potentially more destructive danger inside the church.  As Holmes writes, “To Ignatius the false teachers within posed a greater threat than the pagan society without.”[28]  The bishop of Antioch saw biblical truth as a valuable but delicate treasure that must be protected.  “The gospel,” he wrote to the Philippian church, “contains something excellent: the coming of the Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ, his suffering, and resurrection.”[29]  This “something excellent” was threatened by heresy, and Ignatius saw the monepiscopacy as the best solution to the problem.

For Ignatius, “God-given unity… was one of the distinguishing marks of the true faith.”[30]  The false teaching that kept seeping into the church continually threatened to bring division, which would shatter the precious jewel which had been entrusted to the church.  Ignatius had battled heretics and legalists and knew that more were on the way.  So as he travels to Rome to face the wild beasts in the Colosseum, he warns the church in Smyrna, “I am protecting you in advance from the beasts in human form.”[31]

In Antioch, Ignatius faced fierce opposition from legalists and from heretics, especially the Docetists.  In his letters, Ignatius continually addresses these false teachers.  The Docetists claimed that Jesus only appeared to be human but did not actually have a body of flesh.  The Judaizers insisted that all Christians, even Gentiles, follow Jewish laws and customs such as circumcision.[32]  They overemphasized the flesh.

One of the famous heretics of the New Testament is Nicolaus, a Gentile from Antioch.  He founded the Nicolaitans that Jesus scathingly rebukes in Revelation 2:6,14-15.  The Nicolaitans practiced loose moral standards; they were more concerned about merging Christianity with pagan culture—so as to draw more followers—than they were with following the teachings of Christ and His apostles.[33]  As forerunners of Gnosticism, the Nicolaitans left a strong heretical presence in Antioch, the city that God had called Ignatius to shepherd.

On the other extreme were the Judaizers.  As Litfin explains, “Ignatius realized it was vitally important for the early church to distance itself from legalism…  Since Christianity developed out of Judaism, there was always a tendency to fall back upon the law for salvation.  Ignatius stood guard against this temptation in Antioch.”[34]  To teach that salvation comes through the law is to undermine the heart of the gospel of grace, so Ignatius fought vigorously against legalism in the church.

To combat false teaching, Ignatius sought to strengthen the role of the bishop.  He saw the monepiscopacy as the best way for the church to stand firm against the constant threat of false teachers.  Litfin goes so far as to claim, “The monepiscopacy was such an effective strategy for safeguarding doctrine that the whole ancient church organized itself in this fashion.”[35]  Ignatius followed Paul in urging church leaders to lead the fight against false teaching.  Paul writes of “overseers”[36] in Titus 1:9-11:

He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.  For there are many rebellious people, mere talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision group.  They must be silenced, because they are ruining whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach—and that for the sake of dishonest gain.

Ignatius saw this charge as his job description and battle cry, and he held to it all the way to his death.

The reason the bishop could be so effective as a guardian of truth is that he could serve as a trusted, legitimate source of doctrinal authority for converts new and old alike.  In a time when many false teachers sought to impose their doctrines on the biblical doctrine of the apostolic church, there needed to be one point person in each city who could speak with authority.  That person, for Ignatius, was the bishop.  He was the one charged by God with keeping the church united by preserving and teaching the true gospel of Jesus Christ and all its implications as taught by the apostles.

B.        Monepiscopacy: Protector of Church Unity

Church unity and pure doctrine were inseparable for Ignatius.  The monepiscopacy served both purposes well.  In his letters, he advocates the bishop not only as the guardian of truth, but also as the protector of unity.  From the first days of the church, there had existed a plurality of leadership in local congregations.  Such was the church structure in key cities such as Jerusalem, Ephesus, Philippi, Corinth, Crete, and Rome, and possibly Alexandria.[37]  Ignatius did not displace a plurality of leadership; rather, he organized them.  In the face of divisiveness in churches with no clear authoritative leader, Ignatius structured the leadership and encouraged—in fact, insisted—that Christians obey their leaders.  In his writings, the bishop represents God, the presbyters represent the apostles, and the deacons symbolize the servant character of Christ.[38]  Ignatius is the earliest Christian leader to promote the implementation of this threefold ministry in each local congregation.[39]

Unity among Christians, and specifically obedience to leadership, represented to Ignatius the loving harmony in the Godhead.  In John 17:21, Jesus prays “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.  May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”  Such was to be the nature of the relationships between bishops, presbyters, deacons, and the people of the churches they served and led.

Examples of Ignatius’s emphasis on the essentiality of the monepiscopacy for the protection of church unity abound in his letters:

So let us be diligent not to oppose the bishop that we may be subject to God.[40]

Be subject to your bishop and to one another, as Jesus Christ in the flesh is to the Father and the apostles to Christ, the Father, and the Spirit.  The result is that your unity will be both physical and spiritual.[41]

When you are submissive to the bishop as to Jesus Christ, you seem to me to be living not in accord with human custom but in accord with Jesus Christ who died for us.[42]

Wherever the bishop appears, let there be the fullness of the church as wherever Christ Jesus appears, there is the catholic church.[43]

Pay attention to the bishop that God may do the same to you.[44]

The importance of the bishop as the authoritative leader and protector of church unity is a striking feature of Ignatius’s letters.  Perhaps nowhere is this clearer than when he writes to the church in Ephesus: “Everyone that the steward sends to look after his own stewardship we should receive as being like him who sent him.  So it is clear with respect to the bishop that we should view him as the Lord himself.”[45]


IV.       Martyrdom

Ignatius willingly died to leverage everything he had, even his very life, so that apostolic Christianity might prevail over its fraudulent competitors.  On the situation in the church during the time of Bishop Ignatius, Litfin writes, “The very future of the Christian religion was at stake—and Ignatius viewed the truth as something worth dying for.”[46]

In fact, the God-bearer bishop of Antioch went so far as to write to the church in Rome asking them not to interfere with his martyrdom.  He wrote to them: “Do not prevent me from being poured out to God as a libation… singing to the Father in Christ Jesus since God counted the bishop of Syria to be found worthy of being sent from east to west.  It is good that I should be like the sun setting from this world so that I may rise to God.”[47]

Had the Roman Christians succeeded in getting Ignatius released, it may have sparked rumors that he had denied the faith since apostasy was usually the only grounds for sparing a condemned Christian.[48]  So if the Christians in Rome had secured his freedom, they might have saved his life but Ignatius would have seen it as losing his life.  Since the word “martyr” comes from the Greek word for “witness,” Litfin’s statement is fitting that “Ignatius of Antioch bolstered the true teaching of Christianity against his opponents by laying down his life as a witness for the name of Jesus.”[49]

History loses contact with Ignatius when he leaves Troas for Philippi.  According to Irenaeus, who was not in Rome at the time but did arrive soon afterward, Ignatius was in fact killed by lions as he had anticipated.[50]  Like Peter and Paul before him, he died a martyr’s death in Rome.

For Ignatius, death was a victory that confirmed the superiority of apostolic Christianity over the false teachings of the Judaizers and Gnostics.  As he wrote to the church in Rome before his death in their city, “Let it all come upon me: fire and cross, fierceness of beasts, being cut up, torn apart, breaking of bones, beating of members, grinding of the whole body, torments of the devil.  Only this remains: I desire to reach Jesus Christ.”[51]


V.        Conclusion

Ignatius determined to make his life and death a victorious shout[52] for apostolic Christianity.  On the way to his martyr’s death, he wrote passionately to extol the tremendous value of the monepiscopacy and the threefold ministry in the church.  By the middle of the second century, this was indeed the structure of most churches.  By the end of the century, the position of bishop was generally strong enough to serve the purposes of protecting unity, guarding biblical doctrine, and speaking as an authoritative voice heard over the noise of the Judaizers and Gnostics.[53]  Today the church still benefits from its inheritance of orthodoxy that was safeguarded by the martyrdom of Ignatius.  His death accomplished the purpose he hoped for when he humbly wrote, “As scum of the earth I sanctify myself… for the church famous for ages.”[54]



Eusebius and Paul L. Maier. Eusebius: The Church History. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007.

Ferguson, Everett. Church History: Vol. 1: From Christ to Pre-Reformation. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005.

Holmes, Michael W. The Apostolic Fathers in English. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006.

Howell, Kenneth J. Ignatius of Antioch & Polycarp of Smyrna. Zanesville: CHResources, 2009.

Ignatius. Letter to the Ephesians.

_______. Letter to the Magnesians.

_______. Letter to the Philadelphians.

_______. Letter to the Philippians.

_______. Letter to Polycarp.

_______. Letter to the Smyrneans.

_______. Letter to the Trallians.

Köstenberger, Andreas J., L. Scott Kellum, Charles L. Quarles, eds. The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown.  Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2009.

Litfin, Bryan M. Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007.

Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language: Updated 2nd Edition. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1996.

Walsh, Michael. Ed. Butler’s Lives of the Saints. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985.

[1] Everett Ferguson. Church History: Vol. 1: From Christ to Pre-Reformation, 62.

[2] Jude 3.

[3] Ferguson. Church History, 50.

[4] Ibid., 106.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Michael W. Holmes. The Apostolic Fathers in English, 87.

[7] Bryan M. Litfin. Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction, 29.

[8] Ferguson. Church History, 57.

[9] Bruce L. Shelley. Church History in Plain Language, 28.

[10] Eusebius. The Church History, 109.

[11] Ferguson. Church History, 56.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Usually one of these two dates is given. For example, Eusebius gives a date of 110, while Litfin suggests 115.

[14] Litfin. Getting to Know the Church Fathers, 34.

[15] Ferguson, 55.

[16] Eusebius. Church History, 117.

[17] Litfin. Getting to Know the Church Fathers, 43-44.

[18] Holmes. The Apostolic Fathers in English, 87.

[19] Ibid, 88.

[20] Litfin. Getting to Know the Church Fathers, 51.

[21] Ibid. 42.

[22] Shelley. Church History in Plain Language, 70.

[23] Litfin. 42.

[24] Holmes. The Apostolic Fathers in English, 89.

[25] Ignatius. Letter to the Smyrneans 8.2.

[26] Ibid. Letter to the Magnesians 6.1.

[27] Ibid. 3.1.

[28] Holmes. The Apostolic Fathers in English, 88.

[29] Ignatius. Letter to the Philippians 9.2.

[30] Holmes, 88.

[31] Ignatius. Letter to the Smyrneans 4.1.

[32] Ferguson. Church History, 56.

[33] Litfin. Getting to Know the Church Fathers, 39.

[34] Ibid. 38.

[35] Ibid. 43.

[36] Titus 1:7.

[37] Ferguson. Church History, 107.

[38] Ferguson. Church History, 56.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ignatius. Letter to the Ephesians 5.3.

[41] Ibid. 13.2.

[42] Ibid. Letter to the Trallians 2.1.

[43] Ignatius. Letter to the Smyrneans 8.2.

[44] Ibid. Letter to Polycarp 6.1.

[45] Ibid. Letter to the Ephesians 6.7.

[46] Litfin. Getting to Know the Church Fathers, 36.

[47] Ignatius. Letter to the Romans 2.2.

[48] Holmes. The Apostolic Fathers in English, 89.

[49] Litfin. Getting to Know the Church Fathers, 44.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ignatius. Letter to the Romans 5.3.

[52] Litfin. 44.

[53] Ferguson. Church History, 107-08.

[54] Ignatius. Letter to the Ephesians 8.1.

Published in: on October 17, 2013 at 8:56 am  Leave a Comment  

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