Sunday, July 31, 2011


One of the Church Fathers that made a big impression on me was St. Ignatius of Antioch. He was born around 50 AD, and had been a student of the Apostle John. He was the third bishop of Antioch (the Apostle Peter was the first), and was arrested and taken to Rome, sentenced to die in the Colosseum, eaten by lions sometime between 98 and 117 AD. On his way from Syria to Rome, he wrote seven letters that have been preserved to this day.

The first thing that amazed me about these letters was the description of the structure of the leadership of the churches. Ignatius always spoke of each church as being led by a single bishop, assisted by a group of presbyters and a group of deacons. While the words for bishop, presbyter, and deacon appear in the New Testament, the words for bishop and presbyter appear to be interchangeable, and there is not a clear indication of only a single bishop in a local church. This 3-tiered structure is what we find later in church history, and continues today in the Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches. I was amazed, however, to find this structure spoken of by someone so close to the Apostles. Also, Ignatius was not proposing this structure, but he spoke of it as if everyone knew that this is how churches are structured.

The other thing that made an impression on me was St. Ignatius' concern for unity within the churches. This was not a new issue for me; the Apostle Paul had written very strong words against the divisions in the church at Corinth. Even back when I was a college student reading 1 Corinthians, I thought that St. Paul would not approve of the present existence of so many denominations, with rival churches sometimes on the same city block. Although St. Paul spoke against the divisions at Corinth, he didn't provide a practical, structural way of solving it, short of his own personal intervention. However, St. Ignatius said that the key to unity was the single local bishop. This one man was to be the point around which the church would gather, and nothing was to be done in the church apart from the bishop. His language was shocking in its absolute tone.
Take care to do all things in harmony with God, with the bishop presiding in the place of God, and with the presbyters in the place of the council of the apostles, and with the deacons, who are most dear to me, entrusted with the business of Jesus Christ, who was with the Father from the beginning and is at last made manifest.
—Letter to the Magnesians 2, 6:1
As I thought about a single person being the point around which a church maintains unity, it made sense to me. History repeatedly shows the failure of other methods. Co-leaders, or a small group of leaders don't work because factions form around the various leaders, and there is no one with the authority to arbitrate between them. A document like a constitution, confession, statement of faith, or even the Bible, is not sufficient by itself as a point of unity. The problem with a document is that different people can interpret it differently. Unless there is someone who can judge how the document applies in a given circumstance, division is bound to occur with no mechanism for resolving it.

The theme of unity came up again while reading the Venerable St. Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People. He is very concerned about the lack of unity between the Celtic Christians, who follow traditions they developed through many years of separation from the rest of the Christian world, and the English Christians, who have been evangelized by missionaries from Rome, and thus follow Roman practices. The biggest difference was how they calculated the date of Easter. What got my attention is that there were no doctrinal issues dividing them like we have between Protestant denominations. These days we would say there were cultural issues dividing them, and once adequate communication took place between the cultures, they were able to be united.

As I thought about the problem of unity of the world-wide Church, which Jesus prays for in John 17:21, I saw how the principle of unity around one man that St. Ignatius described for the local church could be extended throughout the whole Church. The bishops of the various local churches would need a man that would be the point of unity that they would gather around. Although there could still be councils, committees, and documents, the existence of one man that could arbitrate when these other structure broke down seemed necessary. The Catholic Church claims that Jesus set up such a structure when he chose the twelve Apostles as the foundation of the Church, and chose Peter as the leader of the Apostles. The Church in the beginning consisted of those who were united to the Apostles, who were led by Peter. As Peter and the other Apostles died, they were replaced by bishops. The Pope, the bishop of Rome, is seen as the successor of Peter because Peter was the leader of the Roman church when he was executed. The Catholic Church today consists of those who are united to those bishops who are united to the Pope.

Jesus only uses the word "church" twice in the Gospels, both occurring in Matthew. The second occurrence, Matthew 18:17, indicates that there is a church which can resolve disputes (not invisible). The first time the word is used is after Peter makes his confession of Jesus as "the Christ, the Son of the living God" (16:16). Jesus gives him the name of Peter, and says, "on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (vv. 18-19).

The same passage that confers some kind of special authority on Peter is the passage where Jesus says "the gates of hell shall not prevail" against the Church. There seems to be a link between the authority of Peter and the permanence of the Church. Kingdoms and empires have come and gone, but the Papacy has lasted for almost 2000 years. We know the name of every Pope from Peter to Benedict XVI. There is no other institution in human history with that kind of longevity.

I came to a strong conviction of the truth of the claim of the Catholic Church to be the Church that Jesus founded, and that in order to be obedient to Jesus' desire for unity, I should do my part by becoming Catholic. However, I did not want to leave my friends in the Charismatic Episcopal Church (CEC). I went through several weeks of agony over what to do, only telling two people in the leadership of my diocese about my thoughts, and they both encouraged me to stay. They provided some counter arguments for staying, none of which were convincing, but eventually I came to the conclusion that God had put me with the CEC, and I should stay there until I saw I clear path otherwise.


kkollwitz said...

Thanks for this, esp. the Ignatius excerpt, which I may use in class when we discuss Acts.

Greg Graham said...

Thank you for the comments; they encourage me to keep writing.