Centralizing Church Authority -- Is it Inevitable?
Third essay in series on Developing a Theology of Ministry
When did the rather diffuse forms of leadership that we see present in the earliest expressions of the church, begin to centralize? We see possible expressions of tightening of authority in Ephesians and the Pastoral Letters, but it’s not until early in the second century that we find defenses of centralized authority – in the person of the bishop. The best example is Ignatius of Antioch.
Ignatius (d. 115 CE) was bishop of Antioch of Syria during the first two decades of the Second Century, dying as a martyr in Rome sometime around 115. One of Ignatius’ legacies is a series of letters that give us a sense of the extent to which the church was institutionalizing very early in its history. These letters are addressed to the churches that lay along the route from Antioch to Rome.
The church of the second century faced a number of challenges that ranged from persecution to internal divisions. May we call Gnosticism a. heterodox challenge to the fledgling church’s identity? But, whereas Clement of Rome, an older contemporary, seems to show no evidence of a monarchical episcopate, Ignatius offers us with a rather developed understanding of a monarchical episcopate. Only twenty years earlier Clement spoke of a plurality of elders and used presbuteros and episcopos interchangeably, but Ignatius speaks of a separate order of bishop. It’s possible that Ignatius spoke of what he believed should be than what was, but the idea was emerging.
Ignatius distinguishes between presbyter and bishop, offering evidence that a move from a plurality of elders to the rule of the bishop was underway. W.H.C. Frend points out that for Ignatius the transition to the monarchical episcopate depended not on tradition or apostolic succession, but on his mystical theology. Ignatius equated the office of bishop with Christ's high priestly role, and centering around the Eucharist. Ignatius insisted that without episcopal authorization the church could not validly celebrate the Eucharist. Presbyters and deacons served as subordinates or assistants to the bishop. [WHC Frend, Rise of Christianity, (Fortress, 1986), 141. Kurt Aland, A History of Christianity, 2 vols., (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 1:123.]
Since I’m interested in how we might understand Christian ministry today, it might help us to understand how this early Christian leader envisioned Christian ministry in his letters.
For Ignatius the bishop presided over the local congregation. Since each congregation had its own bishop one might compare his view o bishop to our understanding of local church pastor. But he was in the process of laying the foundations for a much more developed ecclesial hierarchy – a threefold ministry of bishops, presbyters, and deacons. In his Letter to the Magnesians he spoke of the bishop as the representative of God. The presbyters replaced the apostolic council and the deacons fulfilled the outreach ministry of Jesus Christ.
Let the bishop preside in God's place, and the presbyters take the place of the apostolic council, and let the deacons (my special favorites) be entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ who was with the Father from eternity and appeared at the end [of the world] (Magnesians 6:1). [Letters of Ignatius are found in Richardson, Early Christian Fathers (Library of Christian Classics) Westminster, 1995]
Ignatius also insisted that the bishop had supreme authority in the church. Therefore, the church must act in concert with the bishop (Magnesians 7:1). Ignatius viewed the obedience to the bishop as paralleling that given to Jesus himself.
For when you obey the bishop as if he were Jesus Christ, you are (as I see it) living not in a merely human fashion but in Jesus Christ's way, who for our sakes suffered death that you might believe in his death and so escape dying yourselves. It is essential, therefore, to act in no way without the bishop (Trallians, 2:1-2).
Ignatius placed the ministry, and especially the episcopate at the center of the church's existence. He insisted that without this threefold ministry the church could not exist (Trallians 3). Having defined the relationship between the ministry and the church, he also insisted that one cannot encounter God outside the church.
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. It is written, moreover, "God resists the proud." Let us, then, heartily avoid resisting the bishop so that we may be subject to God. (Ephesians 5:2-3).
Ignatius strongly defended the oneness of the church and the link between that church and the bishops. Separation from one's bishop to join a schismatic body placed a person outside the bounds of Christianity (Philadelphians 3:2-3). In his letter to the church at Philadelphia he stated clearly that the bishop was the guarantee of the unity of the church. Cyprian would later develop this theme much more fully (Philadelphians 4:1).
Ignatius provides his strongest statement concerning the episcopate in Smyrnaeans 8.
Flee from schism as the source of mischief. You should all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ did the Father. Follow, too, the presbytery as you would the apostles; and respect the deacons as you would God's law. Nobody must do anything that has to do with the Church without the bishop's approval. You should regard that Eucharist as valid which is celebrated either by the bishop or someone he authorizes. Where the bishop is present, there let the congregation gather, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. Without the bishop's supervision, no baptisms or love feasts are permitted. On the other hand, whatever he approves pleases God as well. In that way everything you do will be on the safe side and valid. It is well for us to come to our senses at last, while we still have a chance to repent and turn to God. It is a fine thing to acknowledge God and the bishop. 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 (Smyrnaeans 8:1-9:1).
Though he places a strong emphasis on the role and authority of the bishop, the bishop's authority is localized. Ignatius himself did not write these letters claiming authority over these churches. He simply wrote to encourage the churches to hold fast to their leaders in dangerous times. We do not have here any sense of a patriarchate or papalism, but the seeds seem to have been planted.
In our own day, as we watch the church hierarchy seemingly being flattened, what should we make of these developments? Is such a development inevitable? That is, can a community of faith exist long term with a flattened sense of church? What are the options?