Completing my review of the Epistle of Ignatius to the Trallians…
From Smyrna I send you my greetings in which the churches of God that are here with me join. They have altogether raised my spirits – yes, completely. My very chains which I carry around for Jesus Christ’s sake, in my desire to get to God, exhort you, “Stay united and pray for one another!”
The idea of Ignatius’ chains exhorting the people to unity seems to have a couple angles to it. One is that they represent his impending martyrdom, which is a great glory for a Christian – to die for the Name of Christ. So that’s a positive connotation. Another angle to it is not so positive. If there was strife within a church – unity breached – it could be pretty easy for one faction to turn in another faction to the government for arrest. In that case, the chains could be a warning: stay unified lest you be destroyed! Ignatius’ command “pray for one another” is a crucial exhortation in the maintenance of the unity of any body, church or otherwise.
It is right that each one of you and especially the presbyters should encourage the bishop, in honor of the Father, Jesus Christ, and the apostles.
Leadership is a hard enough thing without government persecution, so to “encourage” the bishop is no minor matter. Why especially the presbyters, though? Wouldn’t you think that if anything, they’d need some encouragement too, since they share in the bishop’s leadership, assisting him in various duties? I imagine that since they’re closer in their role to the bishop’s position than lay people, their encouragement is more encouraging. That’s just a guess, though. Whatever the thought behind it, such encouragement is always to be in honor of God and the Apostles. In particular, this means that encouragement is not just a matter of puffing up somebody’s ego, as Ignatius has already addressed.
Out of love I want you to heed me, so that my letter will not tell against you. Moreover, pray for me. By God’s mercy I need your love if I am going to deserve the fate I long for, and not prove a “castaway.”
First encourage the bishop, now encourage me, he seems to be saying. And that makes perfect sense; he is, afterall, on his way to martyrdom, which, as he has hinted before, is fraught with spiritual dangers toward pride and self-glorification. To “not prove a castaway” is in the same vein as what Paul wrote at the end of 1 Corinthians 9, “I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” It’s the concern that they don’t turn away from God at the very end of life. Could that mean loss of salvation? Neither Paul nor Ignatius clarifies that in these contexts. At the very least, though, it would make for a very sour witness to others, Christian or otherwise.
The Smyrnaeans and Ephesians send their greetings with love. Remember the church of Syria in your prayers. I am not worthy to be a member of it: I am the least of their number. Farewell in Jesus Christ.
These are pretty standard greetings for the end of a letter, the likes of which we can see in most of Paul’s letters as well as those of Ignatius. Smyrnea and Ephesus are two of the locations he’d already traveled through and/or met delegations from. Syria is where Ignatius had come from – where he had been bishop. Prayers were particularly in order for them since they had just gone through a round of persecution resulting in their bishop being arrested and hauled off to Rome – a somewhat traumatic if not unusual experience. But Ignatius clings tightly to the humility due ever Christian, accounting himself “the least of their number.”
Something that can’t be understated here is the radical realization of and commitment to Church unity. Greetings exchanged between the Church in different regions, prayers offered for far-away parts of the Church – sure, there was a lot of travel back then and communication lines were more effective than we might typically imagine in the Roman Empire, but the average Joe on the street of Tralles probably still didn’t know anybody in Syrian Antioch. But the bond of Christian brotherhood is more powerful than geography and whether you know someone personally. If they’re Christian, they’re your family, and thus you love and pray for them whether you’ve met them or not. It’s beautiful, and it’s radical.
Submit to the bishop as to [God’s] law, and to the presbytery too. All of you, love one another with an undivided heart. My life is given for you, not only now by especially when I shall get to God. I am still in danger. But the Father is faithful: he will answer my prayer and yours because of Jesus Christ. Under his influence may you prove to be spotless.
Here’s the letter in summary: church unity, Christian love, his coming martyrdom and its ramification and dangers, and the promise and work of God.
Submitting to the bishop and presbytery is the other major ingredient of Church unity alongside the previously-described greetings and prayers exchanged. This, too, is a sadly radical concept today in this era of individualistic freedom. I often like to describe the bishops as the bones of the Body of Christ; they’re just as important to the life of the Body as any & every other organ, yet one of their primary functions is to hold the Body together. When the Body doesn’t cling to the bones (when the people don’t submit to their bishop) communion is broken, and the Body is divided. Again, though, this does not exalt the bishop as more important than the layperson. Note the very next thing Ignatius writes: “All of you, love one another.” The mutual submission of love between all Christians is still present and does not conflict with the submission to the authority of the clergy. And as Ignatius acknowledges here and throughout the letter, he too is a sinner in need of encouragement, prayer, and God’s grace.
Aren’t we all! Under God’s influence may we prove to be spotless. Amen.