Becoming Catholic #6: Church Authority, and Saint Ignatius the Red Pill, Part 3
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The “Becoming Catholic” blog series is a multi-part, multi-year, bite-size, fact-focused attempt at describing the journey of a lifelong protestant to the Catholic Church.You can read all the individual articles here.
Part 1 covered Ignatius’ idea of Church authority in his epistles to the Philadelphians and the Smyrnaeans. Part 2 covered his epistle to the Ephesians. Part 3 (this one) will cover Ignatius’ epistle to the Magnesians.
As in his previous epistles, the idea of Church authority is exceptionally strong in Ignatius’ Epistle to the Magnesians. Magnesia was a Greek city located on what is today the southwest coast of Turkey.
As was typical for Ignatius, he begins his letter (in the second chapter) with a greeting to the congregation that identifies their bishop:
Since, then, I have had the privilege of seeing you, through Damas your most worthy bishop, and through your worthy presbyters Bassus and Apollonius, and through 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, [I now write to you].
In the third chapter, he emphasized the need to obey the bishop because of his office, no matter how young (very similar to Paul’s admonitions to Timothy). He also makes clear that obeying one’s bishop is not a matter of obeying man, but God Himself:
Now it becomes you also not to treat your bishop too familiarly on account of his youth, but to yield him all reverence, having respect to the power of God the Father, as I have known even holy presbyters do, not judging rashly, from the manifest youthful appearance [of their bishop], but as being themselves prudent in God, submitting to him, or rather not to him, but to the Father of Jesus Christ, the bishop of us all. It is therefore fitting that you should, after no hypocritical fashion, obey [your bishop], in honor of Him who has willed us [so to do], since he that does not so deceives not [by such conduct] the bishop that is visible, but seeks to mock Him that is invisible. And all such conduct has reference not to man, but to God, who knows all secrets.
In the longer version of this epistle (which some scholars are not certain was written by Ignatius), in the third chapter, Ignatius cited the examples of Daniel (quoting a part of Daniel included in the Catholic canon of Scripture, not the protestant), Samuel, Solomon, Josiah, and Timothy in support of his case for obeying Church authority. He emphasized that disobeying one’s bishop was akin to disobeying God Himself. He cited Moses and Samuel as examples of this:
It is becoming, therefore, that ye also should be obedient to your bishop, and contradict him in nothing; for it is a fearful thing to contradict any such person. For no one does [by such conduct] deceive him that is visible, but does [in reality] seek to mock Him that is invisible, who, however, cannot be mocked by any one. And every such act has respect not to man, but to God. For God says to Samuel, “They have not mocked thee, but Me.” [1 Sam. 8:7] And Moses declares, “For their murmuring is not against us, but against the Lord God.” [Ex. 16:8]
He then cited (again, in the longer version) numerous other biblical examples showing the seriousness of rebelling against one’s superiors, including the rebellion of Korah in Numbers 16, and also referred to in the book of Jude. What is particularly interesting is that Ignatius makes clear that these were rebellions against persons holding offices, and points out at least once that the rebellion was not against the law (i.e. Scripture) but against God’s anointed leader (in that case, Moses)—an offense of equal severity:
No one of those has, [in fact,] remained unpunished, who rose up against their superiors. For Dathan and Abiram did not speak against the law, but against Moses, and were cast down alive into Hades. Korah also, and the two hundred and fifty who conspired with him against Aaron, were destroyed by fire. [Num. 16] Absalom, again, who had slain his brother, became suspended on a tree, and had his evil-designing heart thrust through with darts [2 Sam. 18:14-15]. In like manner was Abeddadan beheaded for the same reason [referring to Sheba, in 2 Sam. 20]. Uzziah, when he presumed to oppose the priests and the priesthood, was smitten with leprosy [2 Chron. 26:21]. Saul also was dishonored, because he did not wait for Samuel the high priest [1 Sam. 15]. It behooves you, therefore, also to reverence your superiors.
In the fourth chapter, Ignatius summarizes the key point—Christians obey their superiors (i.e. their bishops), and when they don’t, they don’t disobey mere men, but God Himself:
It is fitting, then, not only to be called Christians, but to be so in reality: as some indeed give one the title of bishop, but do all things without him. Now such persons seem to me to be not possessed of a good conscience, seeing they are not steadfastly gathered together according to the commandment.
In the fifth chapter, Ignatius against emphasizes obedience, comparing it to life, and disobedience to death:
Seeing, then, all things have an end, these two things are simultaneously set before us—death and life; and everyone shall go unto his own place. For as there are two kinds of coins, the one of God, the other of the world, and each of these has its special character stamped upon it, [so is it also here.] The unbelieving are of this world; but the believing have, in love, the character of God the Father by Jesus Christ, by whom, if we are not in readiness to die into His passion, His life is not in us.
In the sixth chapter, Ignatius again exhorts the Magnesians to obedience, saying the bishop stands in the place of God, the presbyters (priests) in the assembly of the apostles, and the deacons as also included in “the ministry of Jesus Christ.” Ignatius believes that being united to one’s bishop is intrinsic to the Christian faith:
Since therefore I have, in the persons before mentioned, beheld the whole multitude of you in faith and love, I exhort you to study to do all things with a divine harmony, while your bishop presides in the place of God, and your presbyters in the place of the assembly of the apostles, along with your deacons, who are most dear to me, and are entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ, who was with the Father before the beginning of time, and in the end was revealed. Do all then, imitating the same divine conduct, pay respect to one another, and let no one look upon his neighbor after the flesh, but continually love each other in Jesus Christ. Let nothing exist among you that may divide you; but be united with your bishop, and those that preside over you, as a type and evidence of your immortality.
In the seventh chapter, Ignatius reflects again on obedience, associating obedience to the bishop by both clergy and laymen with Christ’s obedience to the Father within the Blessed Trinity, emphasizing that the Word Himself did not operate according to His own will, but that of the Father. He insists that this must be the basis for remaining united, referencing the “one altar” (no doubt the eucharistic sacrifice), and decrying schism:
As therefore the Lord did nothing without the Father, being united to Him, neither by Himself nor by the apostles, so neither do anything without the bishop and presbyters. Neither endeavor that anything appear reasonable and proper to yourselves apart; but being come together into the same place, let there be one prayer, one supplication, one mind, one hope, in love and in joy undefiled. There is one Jesus Christ, than whom nothing is more excellent. Therefore run together as into one temple of God, as to one altar, as to one Jesus Christ, who came forth from one Father, and is with and has gone to one.
In the thirteenth chapter, Ignatius ends the main body of the letter by emphasizing that obedience toward the leadership of the Church reflected Christ’s obedience to the Father, the Apostles’ obedience toward Christ, etc.:
Study, therefore, to be established in the doctrines of the Lord and the apostles, that so all things, whatsoever you do, may prosper both in the flesh and spirit; in faith and love; in the Son, and in the Father, and in the Spirit; in the beginning and in the end; with 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, and to one another, as Jesus Christ to the Father, according to the flesh, and the apostles to Christ, and to the Father, and to the Spirit; that so there may be a union both fleshly and spiritual.
In short, in this epistle, like the others, Ignatius of Antioch, a man who knew and was discipled by some of the Apostles himself, and barely 75 years after the death and Resurrection of Christ, took the authority of the Church very seriously, and took the tri-partite structure of Bishop, priests, and deacons for granted within the Catholic Church (he was the first to use the term).
This authority structure remains in place in the Catholic Church.
Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 1: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 60.
You can access my conversion story, as well as the writings of the Church Fathers (purchased and free) at the following links: