The so called “Apostolic Fathers” are the earliest Christian writers after the New Testament period, and they constitute the bridge between the New Testament authors and the Apologists who wrote later in the second century. Their generation is often referred to as the “sub-apostolic age.”
A chief concern of the Apostolic Fathers was “order,” that is, standing together to build up the Church and ward off false teaching. This was true, for instance, of 1 Clement. He is believed to have written a letter from the Church of Rome in about AD 96 to the Church of Corinth. In short, the Corinthians had shown its leaders the door, resulting in massive division (it’s among the first accounts of a church split). Clement stresses the value of succession in church ministry—that leaders are not to be removed without due cause.
Another prominent voice of this period was Ignatius. While serving as Bishop of Antioch at the beginning of the second century, Ignatius was taken to Rome to be martyred. Traveling to his death, he wrote seven letters, five of which to congregations in Asia Minor, one to the Roman Church, and one to his friend Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna. In these letters he argues for a three-fold order of leadership: one bishop in a church, presbyters and deacons. The ardent manner in which he argues for this pattern suggests that it was not yet established; neither does he mention anything about a papal bishop in Rome. Once again, the fundamental need and concern was for Church order. Following are two quotes from Ignatius, the first of which conveys the need for church unity and the second describes his reliance on Christ in the face of martyrdom:
Shun division, as the beginning of evil. Follow your bishop, as Jesus Christ followed the Father; and the presbyters as the apostles; and to the deacons pay respect as to God’s commandment. Let no one do anything pertaining to the church apart from the bishop. A valid eucharist is one that is under the bishop or someone to whom he has committed it. Wherever the bishop appears, let the people be, even as where Jesus may be, there is the universal [catholic] church. (Ignatius, Smymeans 8 )
I want all men to know that I die for God of my own free will… Let me be given to the wild beasts, for through them I can attain to God. I am God’s wheat and I am ground by the teeth of wild beasts that I may be found pure bread. Entice the wild beasts, that they may become my sepulchre and may leave no part of my body behind, so that I may not, when I am fallen asleep, be burdensome to anyone. Then shall I truly be a disciple of Jesus Christ, when the world shall not so much as see my body. (Ignatius, Romans 4)
Our next post will consider Polycarp and the Didache.