Ignatius of Antioch was an early church father, and not much is known about him. What we do know is primarily drawn from his own writings. Ignatius was the bishop of the church in Antioch, Syria, and was martyred under Emperor Trajan around AD 110. He was apparently a disciple of John, the beloved apostle, along with Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna. Polycarp, Irenaeus, and Origen all refer to him or his epistles in their writings, confirming what we know of his life.
After presenting himself to Emperor Trajan and declaring his allegiance to Christ, Ignatius of Antioch was condemned to die in Rome. On his journey from Antioch to Rome, he was allowed to stop and visit Christians, and he wrote seven letters which have survived to this day. In these letters, he warned the churches about heresies that threatened their peace and unity and addressed points of ecclesiastical order that give us a glimpse of how the early church functioned.
The heresies that Ignatius of Antioch addressed were primarily Gnosticism and Docetism. The basis of these heresies was the pagan belief in dualism: spirit is good, flesh is evil. They recognized an eternal conflict between good and evil, mind and matter, idea and object. According to the Gnostics, Satan is the co-eternal opposite of the good God. With this view of the spirit world, people would be likely to say that God is limited in power and perhaps in knowledge and is doing the best he can with a sinful world. This heresy separated the divine Christ from the human Jesus and taught that the divine Christ came upon the human Jesus at His baptism and departed just before His death. According to Doceticism, since God is spirit, and spirit is good, but flesh is evil, then, if Jesus is God, He could not have taken on sinful flesh. The Jesus that lived among men and died on the cross was simply a phantom with an appearance like flesh. Ignatius argued that if Jesus did not truly take on human flesh and die as a man, then He could not have made atonement for our sins (Hebrews 2:9, 9:12, 10:12). His letters stressed the importance of communion as a means of stressing the reality of Jesus’ humanity. He believed that, if Jesus did not truly shed His blood, then His martyrdom was meaningless.
Ignatius of Antioch’s letters addressed the organization and authority of the local church. It is in his letters that we first find a clear distinction between bishops and elders. In the New Testament, the terms pastor, elder, and bishop are used interchangeably and clearly point to different aspects of one position. Pastor refers to the duties of feeding and tending to the flock of God as a shepherd. Elder refers to the position of honor and respect as the head of a family. Bishop refers to the duty of exercising oversight of others. The first churches appointed multiple elders who fulfilled all of these duties (Acts 14:23; 1 Peter 5:1–2). It is in Ignatius’s writings that we first find the terms bishop and presbyter set in opposition to each other. By the time of Ignatius, churches had come to the practical conclusion that there had to be one “senior” pastor, who was called the bishop, and the other elders, or presbyters, were ranked under him in authority and position. Ignatius’s letters acknowledged that the bishop was not necessarily the oldest among the elders, but was one whom God called to that position. Ignatius argued that there should be one bishop in charge of each congregation in order to prevent splits and ensure correct beliefs were preserved.
Men like Ignatius of Antioch followed in the footsteps of the apostles and formed the second generation of church leaders. The heresies and problems they addressed in their ministries still face us today, and we can learn much from their writings.