When I was an evangelical Protestant, I was committed to congregational church government: one man, one vote, the foundation of American democracy! Never mind that the New Testament clearly speaks of bishops, as in Acts 1:20, where the Apostle Peter says to his co-workers concerning the place left open by Judas' demise, "his bishopric let another take" (KJV). We danced around the issue because there are places in the New Testament where "bishop" and "presbyter" seem to be used interchangeably. In seminary, we were taught that bishops were a late innovation of the Church.
Then along comes St. Ignatius of Antioch. He was consecrated bishop of Antioch 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 Testament wasn't even written yet. Now, if you're not supposed to have bishops in the Church, wouldn't the Apostles have raised some kind of fuss?
Then I discovered that Ignatius wasn't the first bishop, but the third! The Apostle Peter was the first bishop of Antioch. While reading "The Apostolic Fathers," a collection of Christian writings from the first and early-second centuries, I discovered yet more first-century bishops.
One passage from Ignatius' Letter to the Trallians sums up his teaching on the office of bishop and absolutely squares with the Scriptures. He writes, "Subject yourselves 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 the bishop a ruler over the church. But in Orthodox understanding, he is the leader within the Church, part of our community. He is not layers and layers above us, but in our midst as our father. This understanding eased my concerns greatly.
To quote the saint again: "Therefore, it is necessary that as is actually the case, you do nothing apart from the bishop, but be subject also to the presbytery as to the Apostles of Jesus Christ our hope; for if we live in Him, we shall be found in Him. Those who are deacons of the mysteries of Jesus Christ must please all men in every way. For they are not ministers of food and drink but servants of the Church of God." Then he writes, "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't call 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 think that even the godless revere him." This is a great comfort to those of us who 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 and many other passages of his writings, my mind swept back through the New Testament. You've got the church in Corinth. Immorality sets in, with all kinds of divisiveness. Who straightens out this mess? The Apostle Paul, the bishop of Corinth, if you will. Congregational government would never have worked for them.
A Protestant friend from many years back said to me: "We have a split in our church, and I'm the pastor, and I can't heal it. I was thinking, 'If I were Peter Gillquist, I would have a bishop.' If I had a bishop, he could heal this."We Orthodox Christians don't know how blessed we are to be part of the Church our Lord Himself founded, that Church that has moved from the pages of the New Testament into and through history, governed by her bishops together with the presbyters, the deacons, and the people. It has withstood the test of time. With St. Ignatius of Antioch, we can see how the bishop shepherds his holy flock.