Ignatius of Antioch on Monarchical Bishops

Ignatius of Antioch on Monarchical Bishops January 25, 2024

This is an article related to my dialogue: St. Jerome, Papacy, & Succession (Vs. Gavin Ortlund) [1-20-24]. In that piece, and in an accompanying audio talk and its transcript, I explored in depth what St. Jerome had to say about ecclesiology (Church government, hierarchy, episcopacy, and apostolic succession). He lived from c. 343-420. I will be exploring what one of the earliest Church fathers, St. Ignatius of Antioch, wrote about how the Church was being governed, and in particular, how he viewed the offices of bishop, presbyter / elder, and deacon in relationship to each other.

Gavin and many Protestants hold that in the first few centuries of the Church, the prevailing model of local church leadership was a group of presbyters, rather than a single bishop (what is called a monarchical bishop, or a system of monepiscopacy). Many argue that bishops and presbyters —  and sometimes deacons are included as well — are synonymous terms. Let’s see what St. Ignatius, who was born in 50 AD and died around 110 or possibly as late as 117, can teach us about this.

Here are links to his seven letters, and abbreviations used below:

Epistle to the Ephesians (Eph)
Epistle to the Magnesians (Mag)
Epistle to the Trallians (Trall)
Epistle to the Romans (Rom)
Epistle to the Philadelphians (Phil)
Epistle to the Smyrnaeans (Smyr)

Epistle to Polycarp (Poly)

Sole Bishop as Highest Authority

Onesimus, a man of inexpressible love, and your bishop in the flesh, . . . an excellent bishop. (Eph, 1)

[Onesimus is mentioned in Col 4:9 and Phil 1:10, and is believed to have been the bishop of Ephesus following Timothy]

. . . being subject to the bishop and the presbytery, . . . (Eph, 2)

I . . . have enjoyed such fellowship with your bishop . . . how much more do I reckon you happy who are so joined to him as the Church is to Jesus Christ, and as Jesus Christ is to the Father, that so all things may agree in unity! . . . Let us be careful, then, not to set ourselves in opposition to the bishop, in order that we may be subject to God. (Eph, 5)

Now the more any one sees the bishop keeping silence, the more ought he to revere him. For we ought to receive every one whom the Master of the house sends to be over His household, Matthew 24:45 as we would do Him that sent him. It is manifest, therefore, that we should look upon the bishop even as we would upon the Lord Himself. (Eph, 6)

. . . obey the bishop and the presbytery with an undivided mind, . . . (Eph, 20)

I have had the privilege of seeing you, through Damas your most worthy bishop, and through your worthy presbyters Bassus and Apollonius,. . . (Mag, 2)

. . . be united with your bishop, . . . (Mag, 6)

. . . neither do anything without the bishop and presbyters. (Mag, 7)

. . . Polycarp, the bishop of the Smyrnæans. (Mag, 15)

Polybius your bishop . . . (Trall, 1)

God has deemed me, the bishop of Syria, worthy to be sent for from the east unto the west. (Rom, 2)

Wherefore, as children of light and truth, flee from division and wicked doctrines; but where the shepherd is, there follow as sheep. (Phil, 2)

For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop. (Phil, 3)

Do nothing without the bishop; . . . (Phil, 7)

To all them that repent, the Lord grants forgiveness, if they turn in penitence to the unity of God, and to communion with the bishop . . . (Phil, 8)

Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid. (Smyr, 8)

It is well to reverence both God and the bishop. He who honours the bishop has been honoured by God; he who does anything without the knowledge of the bishop, does [in reality] serve the devil. (Smyr, 9)

Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus, to Polycarp, Bishop of the Church of the Smyrnæans, or rather, who has, as his own bishop, God the Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ: . . . (Poly, Greeting)

. . . if he reckon himself greater than the bishop, he is ruined. (Poly, 5)

Give heed to the bishop, that God also may give heed to you. (Poly, 6)

Presbyters / Elders Subordinate to Bishops

Wherefore it is fitting that you should run together in accordance with the will of your bishop, which thing also you do. For your justly renowned presbytery, worthy of God, is fitted as exactly to the bishop as the strings are to the harp. (Eph, 4)

. . . your bishop presides in the place of God, and your presbyters in the place of the assembly of the apostles, . . . (Mag, 6)

. . . your most admirable bishop, and the well-compacted spiritual crown of your presbytery, and the deacons who are according to God. Be subject to the bishop, . . . (Mag, 13)

. . . you are subject to the bishop as to Jesus Christ, . . . without the bishop you should do nothing, but should also be subject to the presbytery, as to the apostle of Jesus Christ, . . . (Trall, 2)

. . . reverence . . . the bishop as Jesus Christ, who is the Son of the Father, and the presbyters as the sanhedrim of God, and assembly of the apostles. (Trall, 3)

. . . he who does anything apart from the bishop, and presbytery, and deacons, such a man is not pure in his conscience. (Trall, 7)

. . . it becomes every one of you, and especially the presbyters, to refresh the bishop, to the honour of the Father, of Jesus Christ, and of the apostles. (Trall, 12)

Fare well in Jesus Christ, while you continue subject to the bishop, as to the command [of God], and in like manner to the presbytery. (Trall, 13)

. . . Jesus Christ, who is our eternal and enduring joy, especially if [men] are in unity with the bishop, the presbyters, and the deacons, who have been appointed according to the mind of Jesus Christ, whom He has established in security, after His own will, and by His Holy Spirit. (Phil, Greeting)

[note that this is a very strong proclamation that the order of hierarchical governance in the Church comes from Jesus Christ Himself, and is therefore, part of the divine will for ecclesiology; not merely arbitrary “custom” or a relativistic ecclesiology according to the whims of any given congregation or denomination, as it were]

. . . there is one bishop, along with the presbytery and deacons, . . . (Phil, 4)

Give heed to the bishop, and to the presbytery and deacons. (Phil, 7)

. . . the nearest Churches have sent, in some cases bishops, and in others presbyters and deacons. (Phil, 10)

See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. (Smyr, 8)

[again, this arrangement is the “institution of God” . . . this is the Church government that God ordained, according to St. Ignatius]

I salute your most worthy bishop, and your very venerable presbytery, and your deacons, . . . (Smyr, 12)

My soul be for theirs that are submissive to the bishop, to the presbyters, and to the deacons, . . . (Poly, 6)

Deacons Differentiated and Subordinate

As to my fellow-servant Burrhus, your deacon in regard to God and blessed in all things, I beg that he may continue longer, both for your honour and that of your bishop. (Eph, 2)

. . . my fellow-servant the deacon Sotio, whose friendship may I ever enjoy, inasmuch as he is subject to the bishop as to the grace of God, and to the presbytery as to the law of Jesus Christ, . . . (Mag, 2)

It is fitting also that the deacons, [after just mentioning the bishop and presbyters] as being [the ministers] of the mysteries of Jesus Christ, should in every respect be pleasing to all. For they are not ministers of meat and drink, but servants of the Church of God. (Trall, 2)

. . . let all reverence the deacons as an appointment of Jesus Christ, . . . [then he differentiates the bishop and presbyters in the same sentence] (Trall, 3)

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Summary: St. Ignatius of Antioch (50-110 / 117) bears clear & strong witness to the early presence of sole “monarchical” bishops in cities & subordinate presbyters & deacons.


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