The Unity of the Church


I recently re-read St. Ignatius of Antioch’s letters. These are among the earliest extant writings that we have from the church outside of the New Testament.

There are seven letters, including a letter to St. Polycarp of Smyrna. Ignatius and Polycarp have similar histories. Both were bishops, both were martyrs, and both are believed to be disciples of an apostle: St. John the Evangelist. Not too shabby. These letters were written while Ignatius was en route to Rome, where he was fed to wild beasts in the Colosseum. Ignatius died in c. 108, so these letters are from the first decade of the second century. And as bishop of Antioch, he was bishop of a very important city for the apostolic mission and burgeoning church — and, eventually, an honored patriarchate in the Orthodox Church.

Like Irenaeus in the subsequent generation, Ignatius is concerned with heresy, such as a docetic christology. It is actually quite astonishing, the intensity of Ignatius’ concern with heresy, all the while being led to his glorious death (as he assures us in exuberant language). The concern is evidently much to do with the unity of the church. This is a prominent characteristic of his letters. Importantly, Ignatius’ appeal for church unity and the rejection of false teachers is directly and explicitly tied to the authority of the bishops.

Bishops are a big deal for Ignatius. Sure, he’s a bishop himself, but he can hardly be accused of personal aggrandizement. I will not discuss the extensive scholarly commentary on ἐπίσκοπος (episkopos) and πρεσβύτερος (presbuteros/presbyter) in the NT. Others can draw-out any relevant points.

I provide some excerpts below — with ellipses omitted for the most part — and my thoughts afterwards.


Letter to Ephesus

—I hasten to urge you to harmonize your actions with God’s mind. For Jesus Christ – that life from which we can’t be torn – is the Father’s mind, as the bishops too, appointed the world over, reflect the mind of Jesus Christ. Hence you should act in accord with the bishop’s mind, as you surely do.

—It is written, moreover, ‘God resists the proud.’ Let us, then, heartily avoid resisting the bishop so that we may be subject to God.

—It is clear, then, that we should regard the bishop as the Lord himself.

Letter to Magnesia

—Now, it is not right to presume on the youthfulness of your bishop. You ought to respect him as fully as you respect the authority of God the Father.

—Hence I urge you to aim to do everything in godly agreement. Let the bishop preside in God’s place, and the presbyters take the place of the apostolic council….

—As, then, the Lord did nothing without the Father…because he was at one with him, so you must not do anything without the bishop and presbyters.

Letter to Philadelphia

—As many as are God’s and Jesus Christ’s, they are on the bishop’s side; and as many as repent and enter the unity of the church, they shall be God’s, and thus they shall live in Jesus Christ’s way. Make no mistake, my brothers, if anyone joins a schismatic he will not inherit God’s Kingdom.

Letter to Smyrna

—Flee from schism as the source of mischief. 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. …Where the bishop is present, there let the congregation gather, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.

—He who pays the bishop honor has been honored by God. But he who acts without the bishop’s knowledge is in the devil’s service.


In the letter to Smyrna, we have the first instance of “Catholic Church,” and it is connected with the authority of the bishop. I could have provided many more excerpts, from these letters alone, pertaining to the authority of bishops.

And it should be striking how strongly this authority is expressed. We are instructed to “regard the bishop as the Lord himself.” The respect that you owe the bishop is “fully as you respect the authority of God the Father.” “Let the bishop preside in God’s place…,” and on and on.

You can read these letters in Cyril Richardson’s Early Christian Fathers, which you can download from CCEL. Richardson’s edition was originally published in 1953 as a part of the still widely-used Library of Christian Classics series from Westminster Press, now WJK Press.

It is true that Ignatius does not articulate an explicit doctrine of apostolic succession, as Irenaeus does (not long afterwards). But it is hard to not see an implicit doctrine of apostolic succession. At the least, it is easy to see how Irenaeus (et al.) would make this explicit in his teaching on episcopal authority. For these fathers, the unity of the church and its orthodoxy were inextricably connected with the authority of bishops, especially in the apostolic sees like Antioch. Of course, this becomes a bit more complicated when you have Arian bishops in the 4th century, but nonetheless the basic principles for unity and authority were well established — and, unless you were a Cathar in Southern France, continued well into the middle ages.

It was only fundamentally disrupted, in many principalities, with the Protestant Reformation. The result is well known. Unity can only ever be a pneumatological reality in Protestantism, certainly not a visible, episcopal reality.



  1. As an FYI, Library of Christian Classics are generally on Amazon for less than 5 bucks each + s/h (used). I realize you can get them for free on the web, but having hardcopy handy has been invaluable.

    • Yeah, I actually have most of the whole series — in hardback, used but very good condition — without paying much for each volume. The new paperbacks from WJK Press are definitely overpriced.

    • Also, this volume from Richardson on the 2nd century fathers is the only LCC volume that is free on the internet. As far as I know, the other volumes have to be purchased — such as Zwingli/Bullinger and Calvin’s Institutes (McNeill/Battles).

  2. I read all of Ignatius’s letters (digitally) for the first time either early this year or late last and was also struck by his ecclesiology. Also he seems to assume most people in the church will agree with him. Debates about early church ecclesiology often focus specifically on the pope – okay, that’s important, but what about their conception of the general nature of the church?

    But man, the whole “I can’t wait to be martyred” part of Ignatius’s personality really is kind of creepy, isn’t it? Though I do like the part where he tells the emperor off.

    I’ve also read parts of Irenaeus. Unfortunately Irenaeus is hard to read in depth because 1) Against Heresies is very long and 2) He spends so much time refuting highly detailed gnostic cosmic schemes that were important at the time but sound like a comic book multiverse now! Though the fragments have some interesting bits.

    • Yes, he does assume that most people in the church — at least those under the authority of important places/bishoprics like Ephesus, Philadelphia, Rome, etc. — will agree with him. And that does tell us a lot about their conception of the church in general.

      But man, the whole “I can’t wait to be martyred” part of Ignatius’s personality really is kind of creepy, isn’t it?

      Yes, it’s quite something. I wouldn’t say it is creepy though. I think he was just overwhelmed by the love of God in Christ’s sacrifice and wanted to imitate this love in his own life/death.

      I have only read portions of Irenaeus, mostly related to ecclesiology/authority. There is also Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Scandal of the Incarnation: Irenaeus Against the Heresies, which is a fairly short, accessible survey of Irenaeus’ works.

  3. I like to think of Ignatius as the Patron of my writings 🙂 So kudos for bringing this up.

    I remember when I first read this, and I was troubled by the implications for Protestants or non-Roman Christians. But it was a passing terror, instrumentalized by poor historical reading and the kind of pragmatic (dare I say unethical) manipulation of these texts to bully Evangelicals into the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox church.

    There’s that initial question: Apostolic Succession of what? Irenaeus uses the term, but refers to a body of teaching. Of course, he traces this teaching genealogically through particular persons. But it’s the content that is important. As you say, Irenaeus never had to deal with the catastrophic nature of the Arian conflict.

    It wasn’t till Augustine that there was some sacramental belief about the transference of office. Hands-being-laid created the chain of bishops, not the passing on of a particular ‘regula fidei’. So Irenaeus, and Ignatius, get co-opted into Augustine’s developed doctrine.

    I get a delight when Lutherans (episcopal ones) and Anglicans turn this back on Rome. Now, many of these people take their arguments too seriously and believe in non-sense like the Branch Theory. However, they bring a certain absurdity upon the Roman historical fantasy of a harassed, corrupted, but essentially bounded and pure church. What about properly ordained bishops who broke with others? Vincent of Lerins does not institute a democracy of belief. Who’s say who’s the heretic and who’s the faithful remnant?

    We ought to consider, as well, that Ignatius, by speaking of particular bishops, probably knew them. It was personal, not official, fidelity.

    This all fits into a world Ignatius properly identifies. Christ is beset on all sides. The Prince of Life is despised by the Darkness. Of course, we can read an American Evangelical martyr complex into this, but it was no joke. Life is a war between light and darkness, and our bourgeoisie sensibilities and easy living deceive us to think differently. We are blind to the misery. Ignatius would probably find more in common among pastors in the 3rd world, than us, even those who read him sympathetically.

    Ignatius’ fierce denial of Docetics has a lot of reconstructive value. Namely, the Docetic tendency to get out of martyrdom (namely lying or acquiescence) through a deeply dualistic, and antagonistic, view of the soul and the body. In a sense, by Ignatius demanding the Humanity of Christ and the Bishop’s affinity to Christ, he is saying the leader ought to be the first to die. Ignatius has the duty to be the first to stand against the darkness, and it is such a right that others follow and obey. He is the first to die. This is more idealistic than actual, but it’s pretty stunning.

    We forget the agonism seen in death. It wasn’t merely this love affair with tragedy vis. German Romantics. It was a battle against Satan. It’s something I hope to recover in my own heart and my own life.

    2 cents,

    • You have a good point about Ignatius’s fascination with martyrdom – it’s easy for me to say it’s weird and morbid from a comfortable modern western perspective.

      But on the rest, it seems clear that Ignatius and Irenaeus (also Clement of Rome) place very high value on visible institutional unity and that they view apostolic succession in terms of both teachings and persons passing down authority (the two are inseparable for them). I have read attempts to interpret Irenaeus as seeing apostolic authority mostly in terms of faithfulness to scripture and the chain of succession/apostolic office as an incidental secondary part of his thought, and I wasn’t convinced.

      Sure, a full sacramental theology of succession may not have been there yet, but I can definitely see a framework from which sacramental ordination is an easy development, and I don’t think that’s just projecting later theology backwards. The Trinity isn’t fully developed in the early fathers either (and anti-Trinitarians sometimes accuse people of just hitchhiking them to Nicea). I agree that popular Catholic/Orthodox apologists can get carried away on these things, but it’s still a real difficulty for (tradition-minded) Protestants.

    • Joel expressed many of my thoughts. It seems that both Ignatius and Irenaeus are teaching about an episcopal authority in formal terms, not just on the basis of the material (gospel, rule of faith) in defense. Ignatius at least does not justify the authority of the bishop on the basis of (or in condition of) holding the apostolic faith. And while it’s true that Ignatius knew some of the bishops, I do not see his claims as “personal, not official, fidelity,” especially the way in which he exhorts or even commands fidelity to the bishop as such.

      The Arian controversy is really what complicates matters for this understanding of episcopacy and apostolic succession. It required a shift or development toward the authority of councils, as a way to guarantee the defense of the apostolic faith — at a time when even the bishop of Constantinople was an Arian (Demophilus). Of course, Rome was quite proud to be on the right side of both the trinitarian and christological debates — other than Pope Honorius in the 7th century, though I think the monothelite controversial is sufficiently complex to warrant some sympathy.

      Those are just some quick thoughts for now. I like your comments on Ignatius’ martyrdom vis-a-vis docetism.

      • This is where I disagree. We are reading back when certain questions seem unapproachable. At the time, episcopal election was not a solidified matter. Was it passed from episkopos to episkopos, did the presbyteroi select the next one, what did the voice of the congregation matter? There was no solid theology or institutional unity in that question. We can only weight Ignatius so much in the light of quick letters on his way to the butcher. Not that it makes them less dogmatically sound (on the contrary!), but the urgency cannot be translated into authoritarian tendencies.

        Nowhere did I say that visible unity was called into question. But I honestly think that a “bishop” deviating from the proper genealogy would cause some deep existential tremors. How could God allow a leader to “reject Christ” in a way.

        We need to be careful when we say “institutional unity”. What institution are we talking about? What Augustine was talking about and what Ignatius or Irenaeus were talking about were, despite historical rewriting, markedly different. Hence why Newman saved Rome from collapsing into authoritarian tendencies (i.e. Cardinal Manning’s pseudo-Post Modern it’s history because the Magisterium says so).

        No, the “Trinity”, as Nicaea sees it, was not in the early Fathers explicitly, but no one ought to be arguing that. The historical context of any of these theologians needs to weigh in. Why would Justin talk about the Holy Spirit when he’s having a hard enough time getting Trypho to follow Philo in postulating a Word of God that is distinct but the same as God? People don’t arbitrarily write dogmatics, it’s in response to a historical contingency.

        It should be more telling that Irenaeus does not get closer to an Augustinian approach than he does, give he weighs heavily on genealogy. No one he is saying something akin to the Protestant position, however it’s also not the Roman option either. It’s not an easy hop either way.


  4. A minor thing:
    “These are among the earliest extant writings that we have from the church outside of the New Testament.”

    You would know the scholarship better than me, but isn’t the Didache older, and possibly a couple of others?

    • Yes, the Didache is probably older — maybe a decade earlier than Ignatius’ letters. Also, Clement of Rome’s letter is older — also dated to the 90’s, I think.

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