Bishop Ignatius of Antioch (AD 110)

Known as “God-Bearer,” Ignatius started serving as the bishop of Antioch around 83, after the death of Evodius. Ignatius was a disciple of the apostle John and a close friend of bishop Polycarp of Smyrna (modern Izmir). Ignatius started the practice of antiphonal singing (by two choirs) during church services, based on a vision he saw of angels singing praises to God in heaven.

Emperor Trajan demanded everyone worship pagan gods, and ordered that any Christians who refused to should be put to death. When he was visiting Antioch around 110, Trajan was told that Ignatius publicly confessed Christ and taught Christians not to worship pagan gods. Ignatius came voluntarily before Trajan and declared his faith in Jesus Christ. As a result, the emperor sentenced Ignatius to death and sent him to Rome to be thrown to wild animals.

Ignatius accepted his sentence of martyrdom with joy. On his journey to Rome, Ignatius wrote seven letters that give us insight into the faith of the early church. On December 20, the day of a pagan festival, Ignatius was led into Rome’s Coliseum. He turned to the people and declared, “Men of Rome, you know that I am sentenced to death, not because of any crime, but because of my love for God, by whose love I am embraced. I long to be with him, and offer myself to him as a pure loaf, made of wheat ground fine by the teeth of wild animals.” After this, the wild animals were released, and he was torn to pieces.

The Seven Letters of Ignatius

Bishop Ignatius of Antioch was condemned to death for his faith in Jesus Christ during the reign of emper- or Trajan. On his way to Rome, Ignatius wrote seven insightful letters that still exist today. From Smyrna (modern Izmir), he wrote to the churches in Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, and Rome. From Troas, he wrote letters to the churches in Philadelphia and Smyrna, and a personal letter to Smyrna’s bishop Polycarp. Polycarp collected Ignatius’ letters and sent them attached to his letter to the church of Philippi.

Ignatius and the Universal (Catholic) Church

Bishop Ignatius of Antioch was the first one to use the word catholic to refer to the church. He said, “Wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church.” The word catholic means universal and is not used in the New Testament. By the end of the 100s, the word was being used in the sense that the church was both universal, in contrast to being local, and orthodox, in contrast to heretical groups. The final version of the Nicene Creed states, “We believe in one, holy, universal (catholic), and apostolic church.”

Ignatius: Bishops, Elders, and Deacons

The apostle Paul ordained elders (presbyters or overseers) to serve the local churches he started during his missionary journeys (Acts 14:23). However, as the church expanded into the main cities of the Roman empire and even beyond, a new three-fold leadership structure emerged that included a single bishop (lead elder), a group of elders (presbyters or priests), and a group of deacons. Bishop Ignatius of Antioch refers to this three-fold leadership structure in his seven letters written around 110. In other words, a single bishop (lead elder) ruled a city and its surrounding territory, and became identified by the city where he lived and ministered. For example, bishop Gregory of Nyssa, bishop Peter of Sebaste, and bishop Papias of Hierapolis.

Eventually, the bishop (lead elder) of the capital city of a province became known as an archbishop or metropolitan bishop. He oversaw the bishops (lead elders) of his province, who later became known as suffragan (assistant) bishops. With the implementation of the Pentarchy, the bishops (lead elders) of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem became known as “Patriarchs.”

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, all bishops (lead elders) are recognized as equals, whereas the Roman Catholic Church insists that the Pope (bishop) of Rome has authority over all the other bishops in the world, a position that remains a major obstacle to the functional unity of the universal church.