The Letter of Ignatius to the Ephesians: Bishops and Ecclesiastical Authority

"Bishops and Ecclesiastical Authority."

Sorry for the pompous sounding name of this post. I wanted to pull in the liturgical folk who might be searching for a topic like this.

We’re going to tackle Ignatius of Antioch’s comments about bishops, control, and church authority in today’s post. And we’re going to tackle it hard.

What Church Leaders Have Authority from God?

It’s been too long that those who have usurped Christ’s authority have claimed the church’s authority to do so.

The Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches have claimed that they are the only churches with leaders authorized by God. They’ve cited Matthew 16 as the authority for their claim, but they’ve cited Ignatius and other church fathers in order to interpret Matthew 16.

Let’s see if there’s a different way to look at the comments of Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, about bishops of the churches in general …

I’m printing just the last part of chapter one of Ignatius’ letter to the Ephesians, since I’ve already covered the first 2/3 of it on this blog and in my Early Church History Ezine.

Ignatius to the Ephesians, chapter one, around A.D. 110

I received, therefore, your whole multitude in the name of God through Onesimus, a man of inexpressible love and your bishop in the flesh, whom I ask you by Jesus Christ to love, and that you would all seek to be like him. Blessed be the One who has counted you worthy to be given such an excellent bishop.


We’ll have to go over this subject again and again as we go through the things Ignatius wrote because he wrote about bishops, their authority, and our need to submit to them over and over again.

This particular reference simply praises Onesimus, bishop of the Ephesians, but in other comments he tries to give them immense authority, a habit that caused John Calvin to deny that so eminent an authority as Ignatius even wrote these letters.

For example, in chapter four of the letter we’re looking at, he writes …

It is fitting that you should run together in accordance with the will of your bishop, which you do. For your justly renowned presbytery [i.e., the body of elders], worthy of God, is fitted as exactly to the bishop as the strings are to the harp.

It doesn’t stop there, and it doesn’t take much searching to find such comments by Ignatius. They’re in every letter, multiple times, except the letter to Rome (Why?).

The Authority of Ignatius

What Ignatius says matters. The Roman Catholics and Orthodox are right to point to Ignatius’ authority. He’s one of the earliest Christian writers outside the New Testament, having written in A.D. 107 or 116. He was bishop—head pastor, in modern parlance—of the apostle Paul’s home church—Antioch—and it’s likely that he was appointed to that position by an apostle.

The question is: why did he make all those comments about the authority of bishops? And further, why don’t we find such comments in other early writings?

The Situation of Ignatius

Imagine with me, if you will, that you are the head pastor of a thousand member church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. One day, several of your Sunday School teachers report some strange comments made by some of their students.

These are not just any comments. The students have suggested that the Word, the Light, and the Life mentioned in John chapter 1 are separate manifestations of the true God, each of which, at various times, rested on the purely human Jesus’ of Nazareth.

You know that Jesus is the Word, the Light, and the Life, but according to these deceived Sunday School students, your belief is a lie perpetrated by Jehovah, the false and ignorant God of the Jews.

Horrifying, isn’t it?

The following week, it gets worse. A young man who’s been visiting for four weeks comes up to you to thank you for baptizing him. Stunned, you ask what he’s talking about, only to find out that he’s been baptized by the same man who taught those Sunday School students the terrible heresies you heard about.

Incensed, you hunt the man down, speak to him, and run him down the road to infest some other church.

The next week, you find two more of your new people baptized. Worse, each was baptized at a separate house by two different men, both teaching the same heresies as the man you ran off.

Wouldn’t you immediately tell your church that there will be no more baptisms conducted without your approval or the approval of your board of elders? Wouldn’t you tell them that you would like to know exactly what’s being taught at Bible studies in people’s home, and then teach diligently against the heresies being spread by deceived men?

Ignatius was in that very position.

Ignatius and the Gnostics

Ignatius had men in his church and in other cities—who called themselves gnostics, or "knowing ones"—cities that were teaching that everything material was evil, and only spiritual things could be good. Thus, it was impossible that Jesus Christ rose bodily from the dead because all material things—including Jesus’ body—are evil.

In fact, any God that made material things had to be evil too … or at least ignorant. Thus their rejection of Yahweh, the God of Israel.

Ignatius wanted these men stopped.

Ignatius and the Gnostic Solution

Ignatius’ solution was to do what you would have done as head pastor in the scenario above.

He ordered that nothing would go on without the knowledge and consent of the bishop. He wanted the gnostic schools shut down and the gnostic teachers silenced.

To do this he requested the people do nothing without first running it by the bishop.

He also showered praise on the bishops of the churches to whom he wrote, hoping to help instill trust and submission into the brothers.

Ignatius and the Authority of the Bishop

Does this mean that everything in the early church was done only with the authority of the bishop?

No. It means quite the opposite.

The reason the gnostics could get away with what they were getting away with is because people were used to doing things apart from the bishop, and the reason that Ignatius had to plead for the bishop to know and approve everything that was going on is because the bishop didn’t always know or approve of everything that was going on.

In other words, Ignatius was issuing strong, pleading commands in order to change the status quo and put a stop to the gnostics.

His commands are not a testimony to the way things were in the early churches but instead are a testimony to the way things were not.

This does not mean that a bishop does not have authority. It’s the Bible itself, in Hebrews 13:7 and 17 that says that we should submit to our leaders. We don’t need Ignatius to say it for us to know it’s true.

But it does mean that Ignatius was not setting an ecclesiastical pattern that we are obligated to follow. In fact, since his pattern was not set in place by the apostles, it is a good idea NOT to follow it—except possibly on a temporary basis to deal with heresies.

Purpose of Early Christian Writings

The writings of the early Christians should be read by us for the wonderful encouragement to holiness they are, but also so that we can learn what the apostles taught.

I read the early Christian writings, especially the ones from the second century. They can be a terrific insight into interpreting the Scriptures and understanding the mind of the apostles.

But we can’t replace apostolic commands with 2nd century commands!

What Should We Believe

As a temporary measure to stamp out heresy, it may be a good and godly idea to have the leading elder, head pastor, or bishop know everything that’s going on and be at every baptism.

That is not the practice of the apostles, though, so it should not be our general practice, either.

Despite the incredible importance of baptism—which Paul said would put us in Christ (Gal. 3:27; Rom. 6:3-4), and which Peter said would save us (1 Pet. 3:21), providing we believe—the apostles let Philip, a non-apostle, baptize in Samaria (Acts 8:12-14), and Paul gave thanks to God that he let others baptize in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:14-16).

When the apostles sent Barnabas to see what was going on among the Gentiles in Antioch, he never reported back to them! Instead, he went to Tarsus to get Paul to labor with him. Afterward, the church in Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas out without any apostolic sanction. There is no indication that Barnabas had ever reported back to the apostles even at that point.

Authority comes from God, not from apostolic succession. Who can deny the authority that Paul had when he went out on the authority of 5 prophets and teachers from Antioch?

It is one thing to put a temporary rule into place to help a congregation stamp out heresy. It’s quite another to make it a blanket authority throughout the church and throughout the centuries.


About Paul Pavao

I am married, the father of six, and currently the grandfather of two. I run a business, live in a Christian community, teach, and I am learning to disciple others better than I have ever been able to before. I believe God has gifted me to restore proper foundations to the Christian faith. In order to ensure that I do not become a heretic, I read the early church fathers from the second and third centuries. They were around when all the churches founded by the apostles were in unity. I also try to stay honest and open. I argue and discuss these foundational doctrines with others to make sure my teaching really lines up with Scripture. I am encouraged by the fact that the several missionaries and pastors that I know well and admire as holy men love the things I teach. I hope you will be encouraged too. I am indeed tearing up old foundations created by tradition in order to re-establish the foundations found in Scripture and lived on by the churches during their 300 years of unity.
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4 Responses to The Letter of Ignatius to the Ephesians: Bishops and Ecclesiastical Authority

  1. Dave says:

    It's an interesting take. One I will most certainly consider. I have recently bought and am reading the 10 vol set of the Ante Nicene Fathers. I always saw Ignatius' stance as affirming the Apostolic doctrine, not coming up with a new innovation. It's always good to get many views on a subject. Iron sharpens iron and a multitude of counselors is a good thing.

    • shammahbn says:

      Thank you very much!

      We all have to look at the evidence ourselves. I present the best argument I can, but most people don't look at the argument. They look at the conclusion they prefer, and then they devote themselves to arguing that conclusion.

      I believe that my argument is based on really looking at what Ignatius wrote and the situation at that time. (For example, the Letter of Diognetus and 1 Clement are contemporary, and the Didache may be as well.) Thus, I think that those who actually look at the evidence will come to the same conclusion I did. However, it's worth something that people even are willing to look at it and conclude based on evidence rather than preference.

      On the topic of history, that's going to be the only way we are going to get to the truth, and the more honest researchers we have, the more minds we have to apply to what is sometimes a difficult task.

  2. britt says:

    this is awesome. just great. so in season for things we're discussing in our fellowship. thanks.

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