St. Ignatius of Antioch on Obeying the Bishop

St. Ignatius of Antioch sounds the great theme of unity, especially around the person of the bishop, the visible sign of God’s presence and power in this world.

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[Editor’s Note: This is the sixth in a multi-part series on St. Ignatius of Antioch]

There is one very striking feature about the letters of St. Ignatius, which, like a thread running through the entire correspondence, stitches everything together. And that is the sense of solidarity, both profound and heartfelt, expressed by those who, at no little risk to themselves, have come to see him along the way, whether to offer comfort and encouragement to a condemned prisoner, or to receive counsel and instruction from a holy and prophetic man of God.  

This is certainly the case with the Letter to the Ephesians, the first of four sent from Smyrna, a city on the coast of Asia Minor, to which a number of delegates have come to see him. Among these are two important figures, one of whom is the bishop himself, a shy and retiring fellow (we are told) called Onesimus, who is there to represent the Church of Ephesus in its unity and love. The other is a deacon named Burrhus, who will later accompany Ignatius as far as Troas, acting along the way as his secretary.

Ignatius is no end of grateful to receive these men, telling the Ephesians how, “In God’s name, I received your large congregation in the person of Onesimus, your bishop in this world, a man whose love is beyond words. My prayer,” he adds, “is that you should love him in the spirit of Jesus Christ and all be like him. Blessed is He who let you have such a bishop. You deserved it.”

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He is no less affirming about the deacon, Burrhus, whom he describes in the Pauline way as “my fellow slave,” an acknowledgment that, in Christ Jesus, we are all slaves, none are to be regarded as superior to any other. But Burrhus, “your godly deacon, who has been richly blessed,” has especially endeared himself to Ignatius. “I very much want him to stay with me. He will thus bring honor on you and the bishop. Crocus, too,” he continues, 

who is a credit both to God and to you, and whom I received as a model of your love, has altogether raised my spirits (May the Father of Jesus Christ grant him a similar comfort!), as did Onesimus, Burrhus, Euplus, and Fronto. In them I saw and loved you all. May I always be glad about you, that is, if I deserve to be!                   

Who are these men, whose names are lost to us, along with so many other godly souls known only to God? Where have they gone and how might we reach them? They have all gone over into the great silence of God, their voices joined to the blessed Communion of Saints. “And what the dead had no speech for,” explains T.S. Eliot in Four Quartets, “when living, / They can tell you being dead: the communication / Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.”  

So, yes, they have all gone home to be with God, to share in the life of God, and thus they are like Him in glory. But in the world of the early second century, in a place called Smyrna, where exactly are they?

They are with Ignatius, a fellow Christian, a kindred soul, who very much needs their support in this time of acute and protracted struggle. Not only are the pagan pieties harnessed to the machinery of the Imperial state arrayed against him, but such Powers and Principalities as have from the very beginning been joined against the human race, these are likewise determined on his destruction. And the threat posed by the fallen angels is yet greater than any mischief Trajan may do. 

Thus, the special warmth of their witness to God in the midst of such enemies of God must be especially fortifying for Ignatius to have. If we do not go to God alone, why should we have to suffer alone? Solidarity is all.  

In thus extolling the company of godly men, without whom no real kinship in Christ is possible, Ignatius sounds the great theme of unity, especially around the person of the bishop, the visible sign of God’s presence and power in this world. “United thus in your submission,” he assures them, “and subject to the bishop and the presbytery, you will be real saints.”

It is all finally a matter of love, isn’t it? A free movement of the will, urged on by a mind that knows it has been redeemed, to fall completely in love with God, who bears a unique and unrepeatable name, Jesus the Christ. And while Ignatius will not issue orders as if he were himself God, wrapping himself up, as it were, in the divine Pleroma itself, he is nevertheless very sure of his standing as bishop, of the authority he exercises when speaking the Name—even as he knows himself to be as yet not worthy of the Name. “For even if I am a prisoner for the Name, I have not yet reached Christian perfection. I am only beginning to be a disciple, so I address you as my fellow students,” in constant need therefore of “coaching in faith, encouragement, endurance, and patience.”   

Apostasy as an option, in other words, is always on the table. And who can doubt but that in circumstances of extreme duress, even the most heroic among us may be tempted to betray Christ. Still, Ignatius hangs tough, exhorting the Ephesians to remain resolute as well, “harmonizing your actions with God’s mind. For Jesus Christ—that life from which we cannot be torn—is the Father’s mind, as the bishops too, appointed the world over, reflect the mind of Jesus Christ.”

In other words, they are to remain always in perfect sync with the mind of the bishop. As indeed they are, says Ignatius. “Your presbytery,” he tells them, 

which deserves its name and is a credit to God, is as closely tied to the bishop as the strings of a harp. Wherefore your accord and harmonious love is a hymn to Jesus Christ. Yes, one and all, you should form yourselves into a choir, so that, in perfect harmony and taking your pitch from God, you may sing in unison and with one voice to the Father through Jesus Christ.

A lovely image, yes, and redolent of his musical style. But fragile, too, which is why it matters so much that the music be played inside the Church, where the orchestration is pitch perfect owing to the bishop holding the baton. “Make no mistake about it,” he warns, 

If anyone is not inside the sanctuary, he lacks God’s bread. And if the prayer of one or two has great avail, how much more that of the bishop and the total Church. He who fails to join in your worship shows his arrogance by the very fact of becoming a schismatic. 

Which is why he adds, quoting the Book of Proverbs, “God resists the proud” (3:34).

“Let us then,” he concludes, “heartily avoid resisting the bishop so that we may be subject to God.”        


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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