In the course of our guided reading group we’ve reached the sessions on the church – it’s nature and governance. In addition to the usual Grudem reading I’ll be getting our readers to look at two early letters written by Ignatius of Antioch to the Ephesians and Magnesians. Ignatius was bishop of Antioch in the early 2nd c. and was (so it’s claimed) a student of the apostle John. It was on his way to martyrdom in Rome, he wrote six letters. His chief aim in the letters was to tell his audience to resist heresy. The reason for sustained interest in his letters is Ignatius’ references to the threefold office – the episokopos, the presbytery, and the diaconate. The churches combat heresy by submitting to their bishop, and to their presbytery, and to their diaconate. Here’s a snippet from Ignatius’ Epistle to the Magnesians (chapter 6):
I advise you, be ye zealous to do all things in godly concord, the bishop (επισκοπου) presiding after the likeness of God (εις τοπον θεου) and the presbyters (πρεσβυτερων) after the likeness of the council of the Apostles (εις τοπον συνεδριου των αποστολων), with the deacons (διακονων) also who are most dear to me, having been entrusted with the diaconate (διακονιαν) of Jesus Christ, who was with the Father before the worlds and appeared at the end of time.
So what to make of this? Ignatius’ writings are not Scripture so are not infallible, but this is, nonetheless, a fascinating early example of church governance from someone with links to an apostle. So it could be evidence of how the apostles envisaged church government taking place, or it could be evidence of how quickly things can go wrong. Let’s suppose Ignatius is on the right track – is this evidence for something akin to contemporary Anglicanism or Presbyterianism. Not necessarily. Reading the letters in full gives a sense of what these roles entailed. The bishop seems to have been a local, on the ground, leader/preacher/pastor of a church in a particular location (i.e. Ephesus). That larger church may have been made up of house churches/home groups but the episkopos doesn’t seem to be over more than one local church – he’s a pastor. The presbyters seem to be a plurality of elders who work with, and follow the lead of, the episkopos. The deacons role is more vague, but seems to look like practical service. So I think Ignatius’ model looks like a senior pastor (episkopos) looking after a local church alongside a plurality of elders and deacons, and that local church submits to, and follows, the rule of the office-bearers. So, Ignatius does identify a threefold office, but one that is perhaps closer to contemporary free church models than contemporary episcopal or presbyterian. Thoughts?