Ignatius of Antioch on Unity in the Church

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Icon of St. Ignatius, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

In a letter to the church at Philadelphia (the ancient one, not Rocky’s city), Bishop Ignatius exhorts the church to unity under Christ as he prepares for his impending martyrdom.  Christ, he says, “is our eternal and enduring joy” particularly when the church is “in unity with the bishop, the presbyters, and the deacons.”  He sounds downright Pauline when commanding them to run from division:

“Wherefore, as children of light and truth, flee from division and wicked doctrines; but where the shepherd is, there do ye as sheep follow. For there are many wolves that appear worthy of credit, who, by means of a pernicious pleasure, carry captives those who are running towards God; but in your unity they shall have no place.”

Ignatius suggests serious consequences for schism, which, while quite harsh to Protestant ears, reflects a view of church discipline that is sorely lacking in most communions today:

“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.”

Talking schism is all the rage now in the United Methodist Church.  Jack Jackson of Claremont argued breaking up was “hard, but the right thing” for the denomination last year.  As if whispers and worries over a split were not bad enough, recently a Facebook group was formed named Clergy For a New Methodist Denomination (though, happily, it hasn’t picked up much steam).  The newly formed Wesleyan Covenant Network is not proposed as a new denomination, though it sounds (in its title and its core values) very much like the new ECO Presbyterian denomination that has been stealing prominent churches – like John Ortberg’s Menlo Park – from the PCUSA.  I could easily see something happening with the Wesleyan Covenant Network that has happened with the Fellowship of Presbyterians and ECO: what begins as a network of likeminded folks within a denomination very quickly gives way to schism.

Ignatius is a strong tonic against such temptations, which treat the unity of the church as a small matter.  How telling it is that one of the original Apostolic Fathers, possibly a disciple of John himself, writes with such conviction in the generation after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension? This is not some medieval Catholic reactionary speaking, but one of our earliest witnesses to the faith.  We could learn much from his teaching that the unity of the Church is both the will of God and to the benefit of the gospel’s proclamation, as he also indicated in a letter to the Magnesians:

“As therefore the Lord did nothing without the Father, being united to Him, neither by Himself nor by the the apostles, so neither do ye anything without the bishop and presbyters. Neither endeavor 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 joy undefiled. There is one Jesus Christ, than whom nothing is more excellent.”

In the icon above, Ignatius is depicted at his martyrdom, torn apart by lions.  There are many forces that seek to tear the UMC apart, from different directions.  My prayer is that we can avoid the fate of other Mainline denominations and find a way to live together.  What God has joined together, let us not tear asunder.  As Jesus said, “May they be one.”

(Quotes courtesy of the Church Fathers Lenten Reading Plan).

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5 thoughts on “Ignatius of Antioch on Unity in the Church”

  1. I agree with Ignatius. Since our GC is the closest we have to his equivalent, and they have ruled consistently on that which is incompatible with Christian teaching, then who, exactly, are the wolves and lions threatening our unity? Not those you name above. I think both Ignatius and Paul would advise we purge the evil doers from the assembly who refuse to repent so as to preserve the unity of the church.

    This is why we have church discipline, like Jesus instructs in Matt 18. Our problem is failing to obey that.

  2. One more thought: do you really think Ignatius would have called for “deep listening” when pastor rebelled against the church’s authority?

    Perhaps we should do what he and the Pope today would do and excommunicate those who disobey church law? That’s how unity in the RCC is preserved.

  3. The good bishop says, “…flee from division and wicked doctrines” but you appear to want us to flee from division even at the cost of embracing wicked doctrines. I’ve discovered that if you appeal to ancient texts, one must take the entire text and in context least it be a pretext.

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