Ignatius of Antioch was one of the early church fathers. He grew up well educated in church doctrine because he was a disciple of the apostle John and Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna. Eventually, he became the second bishop of Antioch. In his role as bishop, he was a defender of orthodoxy, and he became known for his fight against two heresies that were growing in the early church: Gnosticism and Docetism. In everything he did, he strived to be like Christ. He boldly defended the word of God, which would eventually lead to his persecution by Emperor Trajan. Even in his death, he would imitate Christ. His martyrdom is a wonderful example of what it takes to live faithfully unto the Lord.
Ignatius’s Role in the Church
The church of Antioch was one of the most significant churches of the day. In fact, this was the very first Gentile church, so it had a prominent role in the early church. Yet, Antioch was home for some religious debates, and Ignatius regularly engaged in these debates.
During this time, Emperor Trajan was persecuting Christians because they did not give their sole allegiance to Rome. Trajan understood Ignatius’s beliefs and power because he was the bishop of the church of Antioch. So, Trajan felt the need to stop Ignatius’s work in the church, so Trajan condemned Ignatius to death in Rome.
In facing his death in Rome, Ignatius wrote seven letters to various churches. These letters are filled with warnings about heresies that would threaten to destroy the unity within the church. He had authority and would be understood because he was a well-known bishop.
Ignatius’s Letters to the Church
Ignatius against the Heretics. In his letters, Ignatius addressed two major heresies: Gnosticism and Docetism. Both of these heresies stemmed from the pagan belief in dualism. This belief advocated that the spirit is good and the flesh is evil. This belief of dualism led to a skewed view of who Jesus was because this advocated that Jesus was not fully God and fully man; the view of the hypostatic union was rejected. To the Gnostics, this dualism led to disbelief in Jesus’s divinity. They Gnostics would not say that God is omnipotent, but they would say God is limited in his power. To the Docetists, this dualism led to disbelief in Jesus’s humanity. They did not believe Jesus could associate with sinful flesh, but rather he came as some sort of phantom.
Ignatius firmly held to the orthodox teaching of the hypostatic union. He argued that these heretics were not truly followers of Christ because they did not understand his suffering. Further, Jesus could not make atonement for humanity’s sins if he was not fully God and fully man. His humanity was necessary because he could only heal that which he assumed. His divinity was necessary because only God could offer life-giving redemption. Thus, if Jesus was not fully God and fully man, then his death on the cross was meaningless.
Ignatius on Church Hierarchy. Alongside his defense of orthodoxy, Ignatius addressed church hierarchy because he was fearful that the heretics would destroy the unity in the church. He made a distinction between the roles of bishops and elders. The role of elders is mentioned in 1 Peter 5:1-3:
1So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 2shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; 3not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.
Ignatius came to the conclusion that there must be one bishop, or lead pastor. The bishop would be in charge of leading the church in orthodoxy. Under the bishop are the presbyters, or elders. The presbyters still had authority in the church, but they were rightly under the authority of the bishop.
After reaching writing his letters and reaching Rome, Ignatius was martyred by Emperor Trajan. Trajan may have felt victorious, but he was not. Ignatius’s role in early church history was significant. His role in teaching orthodoxy and fighting heresy was foundational in the early church, and his teaching is still relevant in the Church today.