Continuing my review of the Epistle of Ignatius to the Trallians…
For when you obey the bishop as if he were Jesus Christ, you are (as I see it) living not in 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.
Last week we saw that Ignatius “saw” the Trallian Church just by seeing their Bishop, and I commented about ‘representational headship.’ What Ignatius is beginning to do here is talk about the other side of the coin. In order for such a representation to be most effective among fallible human beings is to have a good relationship between the leader and the people. This is right in line with what the author of Hebrews said about church leadership, as well as Paul’s view of his apostolic authority.
This isn’t arbitrary authority, though; Ignatius identifies this obedience as the way Jesus Christ lived. After all, he was a powerful and authoritative teacher, prophet, and healer, and even he lived completely under the authority of His Father in heaven.
It is essential, therefore, to act in no way without the bishop, just as you are doing. Rather submit even to the presbytery as to the apostles of Jesus Christ. He is our Hope, and if we live in union with him now, we shall gain eternal life.
For the first time in Christian writing, Ignatius gives a clear distinction between Bishops and Presbyters. From the New Testament alone, as well as from 1 Clement, the line between overseers and elders (bishops & presbyters/priests) was somewhat hazy and open to interpretation. But Ignatius is our earliest source of explaining the distinction between them. The bishop is a single leadership position, and the presbyters are a group of ministers who assist him. Although there have been many analogies of how to conceive of these offices, the one Ignatius puts forth here is that the Bishop is like Jesus, and the Presbyters are like the Apostles.
But remember, just as Jesus and the twelve didn’t do everything, but also sent out many others, so too are the bishop and presbyters not expected to do everything on their own! The creation of these offices is not an act of clericalism. How does this above verse start? “Act in no way without the bishop.” This clearly indicates that non-ordained persons are expected to be ministers of the Gospel in some way or another; they just need to be sure to work in accord with their leaders, as the 70 or 72 or countless other disciples worked in accord with Jesus and the Twelve.
Those too who are deacons of Jesus Christ’s “mysteries” must give complete satisfaction to everyone. For they do not serve mere food and drink, but minister to God’s Church. They must therefore avoid leaving themselves open to criticism, as they would shun fire.
“Mysteries” is in quotes because the translator of this Epistle thinks it’s a reference to the “mysteries of God” that Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 4:1. Furthermore, “mysteries” is the main word used in Eastern Orthodoxy to refer to the Sacraments. (The Greek mysterion corresponds to the Latin sacramentum.) This sheds a double-meaning upon the rest of this verse. As one recalls from Acts 6, the Deaconate was first instituted in order to make sure the Greek widows were cared for, particularly in the distribution of food. This was a ministry of mercy and hospitality which called for specialists so that the presbyters and overseers could focus more on the ministry of the Word.
But now, with the language of “mysteries” introduced, and the descriptor “mere food and drink,” it becomes clear that Ignatius has the Eucharistic celebration mind. This makes sense – the Sunday liturgy of Word & Sacrament is a microcosm of the entire Christian way, truth, and life. And thus the ministries that people have in general are represented in the Sunday liturgy. From very early on, as Ignatius here indicates, the Deacons were assistants to the bishops and priests in the serving of the Eucharist. To this day, the Deacon typically is the one to set up the altar for the Priest, and to help him serve the bread & wine. So it’s really quite fun to see Ignatius alluding to this, or something like it, in the early 100’s AD.
Naturally, then, with this both spiritual and physical ministry carried out by the Deacons, it makes sense that they must also be careful to live respectable lives, like the bishops and presbyters. After all, Paul set out requirements for entering into the deaconate, not just the episcopacy.
Correspondingly, everyone must show the deacons respect. They represent Jesus Christ, just as the bishop has the role of the Father, and the presbyters are like God’s council and an apostolic band. You cannot have a church without these. I am sure that you agree with me in this.
Just a few verses earlier, Ignatius gave a slightly different analogy for the bishops and presbyters, but now he gives us this one. As Jesus was obedient like a servant unto the Father, thus we understand the role of the Deacons to the Bishop. The Presbyters, then, are in that weird in-between position of being God’s exalted “council,” yet still under His authority.
As his final sentence there indicates, Ignatius had no expectation that this would be the least bit controversial. Eastern, Roman, and Anglican Christians would agree. But for Protestants this is quite a huge issue. Protestantism rejected this Catholic Order, which Ignatius (along with the rest of the Early Church) considered fundamental to the existence of the universal church.
In your bishop I received the very model of your love, and I have him with me. His very bearing is a great lesson, while his gentleness is most forceful. I imagine even the godless respect him. While I could write about this matter more sharply, I spare you out of love. Since, too, I am a convict, I have not thought it my place to give you orders like an apostle.
These verses wrap up the chapter and bookend the section with another reference to the representation of their Church in their Bishop. The positive relationship between Bishop Polybius and the Trallians is evident, and Ignatius is pleased. But he also mentions some of Polybius’ good qualities – his coping with bad situations, his balance of gentleness and forcefulness. What Ignatius meant about writing “more sharply” seems to indicate that there may still be some obedience to be learned by the Trallians. But because he loves them, and because he’s a convict (a prisoner of Rome), Ignatius opts not to exert his apostolic authority on them.
That, I think, is a valuable lesson. Paul did the same thing numerous times – he would fiercely establish his apostolic authority, making it clear that he was called by God and they were obligated to listen to him, yet at the same time he would refrain from using his authority lightly. Same with Jesus: all authority in heaven and on earth was given to him, yet he didn’t use it to punish Peter for forsaking him, but instead restored him in love. So when people struggle with the “authority structure” of the Catholic Order, they need to be reminded that bishops are called to act with that same love as Jesus acted, and Paul acted, and Ignatius acted, and Polybius acted. Sure there are always bad eggs cropping up from time to time, but that doesn’t undermine the model set forth.
Along these lines, Ignatius will continue writing in chapter 4. But I’ll leave that for next week.