When I was an evangelical Protestant, I was committed to congregationalchurchgovernment: one man, one vote, the foundation of American democracy!Never mind that the New Testament clearly speaks of bishops, as in Acts1:20, where the Apostle Peter says to his co-workers concerning the placeleftopen by Judas' demise, "his bishopric let another take" (KJV). We dancedaround the issue because there are places in the New Testament where"bishop"and "presbyter" seem to be used interchangeably. In seminary, we were taughtthat bishops were a late innovation of the Church.
Then along comes St. Ignatius of Antioch. He was consecrated bishop ofAntioch probably in 67 A.D. This is the home church of the Apostle Paul,right in the heart of the New Testament era. Half the New Testamentwasn't even written yet. Now, if you're not supposed to have bishops in theChurch, wouldn't the Apostles have raisedsome kind of fuss?
Then I discovered that Ignatius wasn't the first bishop, but the third!TheApostle Peter was the first bishop of Antioch. While reading "The ApostolicFathers," a collection of Christianwritings from the first and early-second centuries, I discovered yet morefirst-century bishops.
One passage from Ignatius' Letter to the Trallians sums up his teachingon the office of bishopand absolutely squares with the Scriptures. He writes, "Subjectyourselves to the bishop as to Jesus Christ." This means that in the Church,the bishop is the earthly shepherd of our souls, not a mere figurehead.
At first, I was arrested by this thought because I had considered thebishop aruler over the church. But in Orthodox understanding, he is the leaderwithin the Church, part of ourcommunity. He is not layers and layers above us, but in our midst asour father. This understanding eased my concerns greatly.
To quote the saint again: "Therefore, it is necessary that as isactuallythe case, you do nothing apart from the bishop, but be subject also to thepresbytery as to the Apostles of Jesus Christ our hope; forif we live in Him,we shall be found in Him. Those who are deacons of themysteries of Jesus Christ must please all men in every way. For they are notministers of food and drink but servants of the Church of God." Then hewrites, "For apart from these, no group can be called a Church."Whoa! Not only are we learning about episcopal church government here,but if you don't have it, according to St. Ignatius of Antioch, you can'tcall yourself a church. It was here I began to realize, "I need a bishop." Finally, Bishop Ignatius commends the bishop of the Trallians as a man"whose demeanor is a great lesson and whose gentleness is his power. I thinkthat even the godless revere him." This is a great comfort to those of uswho were expecting the bishop to be an authoritarian who"reads the riot act" to his flock. It's amazing to me that all this comes from 67 A.D. As I read this andmany other passages of hiswritings, my mind swept back through the New Testament. You've got thechurchin Corinth. Immorality sets in, with all kinds of divisiveness. Whostraightens out this mess? The Apostle Paul, the bishop of Corinth, ifyou will. Congregational government would never have worked for them.
A Protestant friend from many years back said to me: "We have a split inour church, and I'm the pastor, and I can't heal it. I was thinking, 'If Iwere Peter Gillquist, I would have a bishop.' If I had a bishop, he couldheal this."We Orthodox Christians don't know how blessed we are to be part of theChurch our Lord Himself founded, that Church that has moved from the pagesofthe New Testament into and through history, governed by her bishops togetherwith thepresbyters, the deacons, and the people. It has withstood the test of time.With St. Ignatius of Antioch, we can see how the bishopshepherds his holy flock.