It is far from unusual to see contemporary churches embrace “seeker-sensitive” cultural integration. The most popular Churches are those with “concert-style” worship, flexible organisational structure, basic faith, and community engagement.
Agreed, contemporary Christianity can be an exciting adventure of faith. But we often overlook historic Christianity at our own peril. As hard as it may be to accept, we remain almost entirely ignorant about the historic origins of the Christian faith.
In my view, we need to recognise what has been achieved. The demand to do things differently need not take us away from relatable content in our shared spiritual consciousness.
Exploring early Christianity, and their leadership (fondly called Early Church fathers) can also be a fascinating journey of discovery. Let us now, therefore, turn our attention to the earlies of the Church fathers, St. Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35 – 107), who is widely regarded to be the epitome of bravery and courage. His life, ministry, and writings offer deep insights for the contemporary church.
Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35-107):
Historical obscurity shrouds the early life of Ignatius of Antioch. Nonetheless, we know that St. Ignatius was a key figure in the Christian community of Antioch, one of the important cities in the Roman Empire.
The journey towards Martyrdom
Bishop Ignatius of Antioch became famous for his martyrdom in Rome. Around 107 CE, the Roman persecution of Christians under Emperor Trajan resulted in the arrest of Ignatius.
He was callously tried for his religious beliefs and taken to Rome for execution. Perhaps the Romans wanted to make his death a public spectacle if not a warning to others.
Nonetheless, his arduous journey to Rome tells a powerful story of courage and determination. Moreover, his martyrdom symbolises his unwavering commitment to the Christian faith.
Ignatius’ significance lies not only in his leadership role as the Bishop of Antioch but also in his writings. During his journey to Rome as a captive, he wrote several letters addressed to various individuals and Christian communities.
- Letter to the Ephesians
- Letter to the Magnesians
- Letter to the Trallians
- Letter to the Romans
- Letter to the Philadelphians
- Letter to the Smyrneans
- Letter to Polycarp
These seven authentic letters illustrate his theological insights, pastoral concerns, and personal exhortations. Ignatius’ letters also provide invaluable insights into the early Church and its development.
The large tranche of writings is mere evidence of his spiritual depth and authenticity. Hence, it is spiritually refreshing to draw upon the repository of his theological acumen and spiritual experience.
Lessons from Ignatius of Antioch’s life and thought
When we read the writings of the Early Church Fathers, we stumble upon something profoundly wise. We experience the full effect of centuries of spiritual experience and resourceful reflection.
St. Ignatius of Antioch offers several valuable lessons through his life, ministry, and teachings.
1. A deep experience of Jesus
Firstly, Ignatius of Antioch had a profound understanding of Jesus. His experience with Jesus gave him something to believe in. Furthermore, his life, theology, and ministry were shaped by a deep experience of Jesus. Throughout his life, this experience of Jesus also accompanied his beliefs, and more importantly, ignited his faith.
The contemporary Church experience must also be illuminated by Jesus. In other words, the deep experience of Jesus must creep insistently into our everyday conversations about faith and life. This experience of Jesus is the remedy for the lack of real spiritual appetite in our pews.
2. Commitment to Faith
Secondly, we learn commitment to Faith. Ignatius exemplified an unwavering commitment to the Christian faith, even in the face of persecution and martyrdom. In fact, Ignatius saw martyrdom as an “opportunity” to participate in Christ’s passion.
To fault him for his readiness for martyrdom is our inability to capture the correct tone of the story. His life of resilience and courage reveals more than it conceals. His readiness for martyrdom helps us understand the level of his faithfulness and devotion to the cause of Christ. It is our blessing.
3. Christian Unity
Thirdly, we learn to value Christian Unity. Isn’t it true that unity is often discussed in hushed tones in our Churches? Murmured agreements, a hidden catalogue of deceit, a jumble of competing interests, and uncomfortable silence among believers are, however, a matter of deep concern.
Ignatius greatly emphasised the importance of unity within the Church. He called for Christians to set aside divisions and strive for harmony and love. Therefore, the Eucharist, for him, helps Christians to experience unity and fellowship.
What we learn from St. Ignatius is that unity between believers is of immense spiritual importance.
Fourthly, we learn Christlikeness. Ignatius urged believers to imitate Christ in their thoughts, actions, and character. His writings emphasise virtues such as love, self-sacrifice, obedience, and endurance.
It is also worth noting this emphasis on Christlikeness. It is here that our theology looks patchy. Spiritual experience has been replaced by a phoney test of spiritual exuberance. Not surprisingly, discipleship has become a drudgery, as it sometimes can be a distinctly joyless pursuit.
5. Spiritual Leadership
Finally, we learn spiritual Leadership. Ignatius of Antioch invites us to the actuality of lived experience.
His emphasis on the authority of spiritual leadership and the importance of their guidance and pastoral care underlines the need for competent and servant-hearted leadership within the Church. Further, he urged Christians to imitate this self-sacrificial love of Jesus.
Ignatius of Antioch’s life was antithetical to popular notions of power. Despite being a prominent leader, he viewed himself as a humble servant of Christ.
He exhibited humility and a servant’s heart. He endured personal loss, suffering, and insulting depictions. Ignatius’ life is a challenge to those charmed by the idea of being popular.
The lack of spiritual leadership in the Church is damaging. It is our collective failure to see through the façade of fake spirituality in the eye. Ignatius challenges us to call things as they are and seek spiritual leadership.
A touch of genuine classical elegance
The heroes of our faith, like Ignatius of Antioch, are routinely forgotten. However, exploring the life and ministry of Bishop Ignatius of Antioch offers guidance for living a courageous faith, unity, Christ-like humility, virtue, and faithful service.
Ignatius of Antioch adds a genuine classical elegance to the veneer of cultural relevance. His invitation to return to the basics reminds us that faith doesn’t have to get unnecessarily complicated. His writings lead us into a little more conversation around familiar themes in depth.
St. Ignatius of Antioch’s life and ministry challenge us that there is a different way to live out our worship, work, and witness. He continues to inspire and challenge us to deepen our commitment to Christ, love one another, and engage in the life of the Church.
In conclusion, reading the early Church fathers give us different ways to understand the Christian faith through the lens of history. Our forebears were shaped by Word, Worship, and Witness, and the repository of their experience connects us to the historic Christian faith.
Surely, there’s something precious in what the Church treasures.
Nonetheless, the contemporary Church faces a crisis of Unity, Spirituality, and Servant leadership. Hopefully, St. Ignatius of Antioch has shone a light. Herein lies our path to Spiritual redemption.