Church Polity from the New Testament to St. Ignatios

[Note: Lengthy post. Updated (4:00pm CDT) with links to the message board discussion I refer to.]

I come from a church tradition which very strongly believed that for a church or group to claim that they were (a part of) the Church of Christ, they had to look, act, and believe like the New Testament Church. Thus, with respect to Church polity (it’s organization and structure), in the Restoration Movement churches in which I grew up, trained for ministry, and whom I served for a time as a minister, we believed that there ought be no church organization higher than the local congregation, and that the leaders of the church were men who served as elders and deacons. We rejected any notion of the ministry of a bishop, or the very ancient practice of the Church being led by bishops, priests and deacons.

Recently, I engaged some members of the Restoration Movement on one of their message boards about this very thing. (The thread is about something else–as always happens on message boards–but the discussion I’m referring to turns to the topic under consideration in this blog post right about here. My comment precipitating the ensuing discussion is the second one from the bottom.) I was challenged to present a case that the first century, New Testament Church was indeed governed by bishops, priests and deacons. So I did. And I want to share this with you all today.

My argument is essentially this: In the New Testament there is a clear association of the ministry of apostle and bishop, and further that these roles were associated with the Lord’s Supper. Further, in the New Testament the Lord’s Supper is presented not only sacramentally, but sacrificially. Church leadership grows out of this association with the Lord’s Supper.

As I understand it, the contention has been that St. Ignatios’ ecclesiology is alien and an imposition on the NT. I claim that this assertion is false. I think it is based on a fundamental error, which is the fairly singular (not necessarily exclusive) reliance on the appearance/use of the terms for bishop/presbyter/deacon and on explicit delineation of Church structure.

I think this is mistaken for the following reasons:
1. The NT strongly suggests (as I will show) a much different account of local Church polity than that of presbyters and deacons, and that the beginning of the distinction between bishops and presbyters had already begun within the lifetime of the Apostles, and, indeed, that in the first century, the predominant term for one group of leaders in the local Church was that of bishop.
2. One element–often overlooked in these discussion–of Church leadership in the NT revolved around the sacrifice of the Lord’s Supper, which is tied to Jesus’ heavenly service.
3. Further, the continuity between these ideas revealed in the NT and then in the Didache, and then in St. Clement and then in St. Ignatios reveals a fairly clear historical pattern in which what began in the NT developed fully by the end of the first century (minimally at least in Asia Minor).

I am not arguing that St. Ignatios’ monoepiscopal structure is explicitly mentioned in the NT. But there is, I maintain, a very clear line tracing right back to the NT which serves as the foundation for what St. Ignatios talks about.

In other words, it is the will of God, as revealed in his written word, that the sacrificial sacrament of the Lord’s Supper be the foundation for the organization of his Church around bishops, priests and deacons.

What follows then, expanded and slightly revised, is the evidence for my case.

The New Testament

Consider the following brief points.

1 Peter 2:25: Jesus is called our bishop
Acts 1:20: The office of the bishop is tied to the Apostles.
Acts 13:2: When the prophets and teachers in Antioch were ministering (lit. “liturgizing”) the Holy Spirit indicated that Paul and Barnabas should be set apart for the work God had for them.
Hebrews 8:7: Jesus is our minister (lit. “liturgist”) in the heavenly tabernacle (cf. Romans 15:16 below)
Hebrews 10:11: speaks of Old Testament “liturgizing”; i. e., offering the sacrifices.
Romans 15:16: St. Paul refers to himself as a minister (lit., “liturgist”) who ministers the Gospel as a priest (lit. “priest-working”) (cf. Hebrews 8:7 above).
Acts 20:7: St. Paul meets with the Church at Troas specifically to observe the Lord’s Supper.
1 Corinthians 11:34: St. Paul says, in specific reference to the Lord’s Supper and its proper observance, that he will come and set things in order (or appoint, ordain, etc.).
1 Corinthians 10:16-21: The Lord’s Supper is explicitly tied to sacrificial offerings, both Old Testament and pagan, and the “table” of the Lord’s Supper is clearly depicted, in context, as an altar.
1 Corinthians 11:17ff: In conjunction with 1 Corinthians 10:16-21 above, the elements of the Lord’s Supper are united with the Body and Blood of Jesus
Hebrews 9:12-15; 10:10: Through the sacrifice of Christ’s Body and Blood we have a new and better covenant; which in conjunction with the 1 Corinthians passages above indicates a sacrificial understanding of the Lord’s Supper.
Acts 20:28: Some or all of the elders at Ephesus are said to have been made bishops by the Holy Spirit
1 Timothy 3: the office of bishop is described
1 Timothy 5:17: certain elders are said to have ruled well, and as such are said to be worthy of “double reward”; which may indicate remuneration
1 Corinthians 9:1ff: the Apostles were known at times to have received remuneration for their work
1 Peter 5:1-2: presbyters were told to exercise oversight (be a bishop) over their flocks.

In the New Testament it already is seen that we have the Lord’s Supper observed as a sacrifice of the altar, that the office of the Apostle is seen in a priestly typology with Christ, that bishops were tied to the office of the Apostles, and that a single Apostle (and thus bishop?) presided over the Lord’s Supper when it was observed. This is amazingly aligned with what St. Ignatios and St. Clement, and, surprise, the Didache say.

1 Clement, the Didache, and St. Ignatios

(Even though access to the early Church Fathers has been made much easier due to the internet, still these rich letters from our older Church family are very unfamiliar to us. So I will cite these documents with some fullness. If you don’t have access to these documents, you can read the Didache here, and St. Clement’s and St. Ignatios’ letters here.)

1. The Lord’s Supper is a sacrificial offering

And on the Lord’s own day gather yourselves together and break bread and give thanks, first confessing your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. And let no man, having his dispute with his fellow, join your assembly until they have been reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be defiled; for this sacrifice it is that was spoken of by the Lord; {In every place and at every time offer Me a pure sacrifice; for I am a great king, saith the Lord and My name is wonderful among the nations.}(Didache 14)

2. Prophets and teachers are the chief-priests

But every true prophet desiring to settle among you {is worthy of his food.} In like manner a true teacher {is} also {worthy,} like {the workman, of his food.} Every firstfruit then of the produce of the wine-vat and of the threshing-floor, of thy oxen and of thy sheep, thou shalt take and give as the firstfruit to the prophets; for they are your chief-priests. (Didache 13.1-4)

3. Bishops and deacons are to be appointed in the Church, who perform the service of the prophets and teachers (making them chief-priests).

Appoint for yourselves therefore bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men who are meek and not lovers of money, and true and approved; for unto you they also perform the service of the prophets and teachers. (Didache 15)

4. Clement unfolds a four-fold ministry as a type of the Old Testament order of high priest, priests, Levites and laymen. Christian worship is presented in sacrificial terms.

He has enjoined offerings [to be presented] and service to be performed [to Him], and that not thoughtlessly or irregularly, but at the appointed times and hours. Where and by whom He desires these things to be done, He Himself has fixed by His own supreme will, in order that all things being piously done according to His good pleasure, may be acceptable unto Him.Those, therefore, who present their offerings at the appointed times, are accepted and blessed; for inasmuch as they follow the laws of the Lord, they sin not. For his own peculiar services are assigned to the high priest, and their own proper place is prescribed to the priests, and their own special ministrations devolve on the Levites. The layman is bound by the laws that pertain to laymen. (1 Clement 40)

4. The previous mentioned OT typological ministry is explicitly applied to the Church at Corinth, a strict clerical order is enjoined. There is to be only one place for the sacrifice of the altar; that is, only one celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice.

Let every one of you, brethren, give thanks to God in his own order, living in all good conscience, with becoming gravity, and not going beyond the rule of the ministry prescribed to him. Not in every place, brethren, are the daily sacrifices offered, or the peace-offerings, or the sin-offerings and the trespass-offerings, but in Jerusalem only. And even there they are not offered in any place, but only at the altar before the temple, that which is offered being first carefully examined by the high priest and the ministers already mentioned. Those, therefore, who do anything beyond that which is agreeable to His will, are punished with death. Ye see, brethren, that the greater the knowledge that has been vouchsafed to us, the greater also is the danger to which we are exposed. (1 Clement 41)

5. The Apostles appointed bishops and deacons in the various cities.

The apostles have preached the Gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ [has done so] from God. Christ therefore was sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ. Both these appointments, then, were made in an orderly way, according to the will of God. Having therefore received their orders, and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and established in the word of God, with full assurance of the Holy Ghost, they went forth proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand. And thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the first-fruits [of their labours], having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe. Nor was this any new thing, since indeed many ages before it was written concerning bishops and deacons. For thus saith the Scripture in a certain place, “I will appoint their bishops in righteousness, and their deacons in faith.” (1 Clement 42)

6. The Apostles set up a means for the orderly succession of the episcopate, and those duly appointed who have served well should not be ejected from the episcopate.

Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, and there would be strife on account of the office of the episcopate. For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect fore-knowledge of this, they appointed those [ministers] already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry. We are of opinion, therefore, that those appointed by them, or afterwards by other eminent men, with the consent of the whole Church, and who have blamelessly served the flock of Christ in a humble, peaceable, and disinterested spirit, and have for a long time possessed the good opinion of all, cannot be justly dismissed from the ministry. For our sin will not be small, if we eject from the episcopate those who have blamelessly and holily fulfilled its duties. Blessed are those presbyters who, having finished their course before now, have obtained a fruitful and perfect departure [from this world]; for they have no fear lest any one deprive them of the place now appointed them. But we see that ye have removed some men of excellent behaviour from the ministry, which they fulfilled blamelessly and with honour.(1 Clement 44)

And then there are these citations from St. Ignatios. I’ve saved them till last not only for chronological reasons (they are the latest historically of the ones we’re considering), but also so that it can be seen that there is an unbroken continuity between St. Ignatios and the New Testament.

1. Bishops are God’s will and are installed throughout the Church. The unity of the Church is manifested through the bishop and presbyters.

For even Jesus Christ, our inseparable life, is the [manifested] will of the Father; as also bishops, settled everywhere to the utmost bounds [of the earth], are so by the will of Jesus Christ. Wherefore it is fitting that ye should run together in accordance with the will of your bishop, which thing also ye do. For your justly renowned presbytery, worthy of God, is fitted as exactly to the bishop as the strings are to the harp. Therefore in your concord and harmonious love, Jesus Christ is sung. And do ye, man by man, become a choir, that being harmonious in love, and taking up the song of God in unison, ye may with one voice sing to the Father through Jesus Christ, so that He may both hear you, and perceive by your works that ye are indeed the members of His Son. It is profitable, therefore, that you should live in an unblameable unity, that thus ye may always enjoy communion with God.(Ephesians 3-4)

2. The bishop unites through his service at the altar of the Eucharist.

For if I in this brief space of time, have enjoyed such fellowship with your bishop — I mean not of a mere human, but of a spiritual nature — how much more do I reckon you happy who are so joined to him as the Church is to Jesus Christ, and as Jesus Christ is to the Father, that so all things may agree in unity! Let no man deceive himself: if any one be not within the altar, he is deprived of the bread of God. For if the prayer of one or two possesses such power, how much more that of the bishop and the whole Church! He, therefore, that does not assemble with the Church, has even by this manifested his pride, and condemned himself. For it is written, “God resisteth the proud.” Let us be careful, then, not to set ourselves in opposition to the bishop, in order that we may be subject to God.(Ephesians 5)

3. As St. Clement above, St. Ignatios unrolls a fourfold ministry: bishop (presiding in God’s place), presbyters (apostles), deacons, and, in St. Clement’s terms, the laity who are being addressed. The clergy preside over the laity via the altar.

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 ye all then, imitating the same divine conduct, pay respect to one another, and let no one look upon his neighbour after the flesh, but do ye continually love each other in Jesus Christ. Let nothing exist among you that may divide you; but be ye united with your bishop, and those that preside over you, as a type and evidence of your immortality. As therefore the Lord did nothing without the Father, being united to Him, neither by Himself nor by the apostles, so neither do ye anything without the bishop and presbyters. Neither endeavour 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. Do ye therefore all 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.(Magnesians 6-7)

4. Being established in the doctrines of the Lord and the apostles means being subject to the bishop, presbyters, and deacons and to one another.

Study, therefore, to be established in the doctrines of the Lord and the apostles, that so all things, whatsoever ye 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 ye 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.(Magnesians 13)

5. Same as above. Apart from the bishop, the presbyters, and the deacons there is no Church–because there is no Eucharist.

For, since ye are subject to the bishop as to Jesus Christ, ye appear to me to live not after the manner of men, but according to Jesus Christ, who died for us, in order, by believing in His death, ye may escape from death. It is therefore necessary that, as ye indeed do, so without the bishop ye should do nothing, but should also be subject to the presbytery, as to the apostle of Jesus Christ, who is our hope, in whom, if we live, we shall [at last] be found. It is fitting also that the deacons, as being [the ministers] of the mysteries of Jesus Christ, should in every respect be pleasing to all. For they are not ministers of meat and drink, but servants of the Church of God. They are bound, therefore, to avoid all grounds of accusation [against them], as they would do fire. In like manner, let all reverence the deacons as an appointment of Jesus Christ, and the bishop as Jesus Christ, who is the Son of the Father, and the presbyters as the Sanhedrin of God, and assembly of the apostles. Apart from these, there is no Church. Concerning all this, I am persuaded that ye are of the same opinion. For I have received the manifestation of your love, and still have it with me, in your bishop, whose very appearance is highly instructive, and his meekness of itself a power; whom I imagine even the ungodly must reverence, seeing they are also pleased that I do not spare myself. But shall I, when permitted to write on this point, reach such a height of self-esteem, that though being a condemned man, I should issue commands to you as if I were an apostle? (Trallians 2-3)

He that is within the altar is pure, but he that is without is not pure; that is, he who does anything apart from the bishop, and presbytery, and deacons, such a man is not pure in his conscience. (Trallians 7)

6. Separation from the bishop is schism from the Church because it is schism from the altar of the Eucharist.

For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop. And as many as shall, in the exercise of repentance, return into the unity of the Church, these, too, shall belong to God, that they may live according to Jesus Christ. Do not err, my brethren. If any man follows him that makes a schism in the Church, he shall not inherit the kingdom of God. If any one walks according to a strange opinion, he agrees not with the passion [of Christ.]. (Philadelphians 3)

Take ye heed, then, to have but one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup to [show forth] the unity of His blood; one altar; as there is one bishop, along with the presbytery and deacons, my fellow-servants: that so, whatsoever ye do, ye may do it according to [the will of] God. (Philadelphians 4)

They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes. But it were better for them to treat it with respect, that they also might rise again. It is fitting, therefore, that ye should keep aloof from such persons, and not to speak of them either in private or in public, but to give heed to the prophets, and above all, to the Gospel, in which the passion [of Christ] has been revealed to us, and the resurrection has been fully proved. But avoid all divisions, as the beginning of evils. (Smyrnaeans 7)

See that ye all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as ye would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid. (Smyrnaeans 8)

The purpose of this exercise has been to demonstrate that the clear Eucharistic episcopal polity of St. Ignatios was not an aberration from New Testament Christianity, and, indeed, was also reflective of first century Christianity.

It is so abundantly clear that there is a single mind running from the New Testament through the Didache through St. Clement to St. Ignatios. Now it remains to discern what each of us should do in light of it.

2 thoughts on “Church Polity from the New Testament to St. Ignatios

  1. Very potent,honest,and helpful blogging here. The RM thread is remarkably so to me. May God keep you in his wisdom, truth, humility, and love in your mind and efforts.

  2. Thank you, Richard. There’s a prayer of the priest from the Liturgy I pray frequently throughout the day: “Help us, save us, have mercy upon us and keep us, O God, by Thy grace.” Admittedly, the thrust of my own praying of it is decidely circumscribed around my personal cares and is not so universally transcendent as at the Altar.

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