Before he was martyred between 98 and 117 AD, Ignatius (a bishop in Syrian Antioch) wrote seven letters to various churches in Asia Minor. In these letters, among several other things, we learn that Ignatius was writing to warn the churches of false teachers. He was also writing to encourage unity in the churches. How would he do both at the same time? By telling the congregations to gather around the duly appointed leaders of the church: the bishops, presbyters, and deacons. Here are a few quotes that highlight this point.
“It is proper…in every way to glorify Jesus Christ…so that you, joined together in a united obedience and subject to the bishop (episkopos, and hereafter) and the council of presbyters (presbuteroi and hereafter), may be sanctified in every respect” (To the Ephesians, 2.2).
“Whoever does not meet with the congregation [i.e. the bishop and the whole church – earlier context] thereby demonstrates his arrogance” (Ibid., 5.3).
“Be eager…to be firmly grounded in the precepts of the Lord and the apostles…together with your most distinguished bishop and that beautifully woven spiritual crown which is your council of presbyters and the godly deacons (diakonon)” (To the Magnesians, 13.1).
“I…exhort you: persevere in your unanimity and in prayer with one another. For it is right for each one of you, and especially the presbyters, to encourage the bishop, to the honor of the Father and to the honor of Jesus Christ and of the apostles” (To the Trallians, 12.2).
“Be subject to the bishop as to the commandment, and likewise to the council of presbyters” (Ibid., 13.2).
There are quite a few more very similar phrases in his other letters. This is telling: in the early church, there were heretics who said that Jesus wasn’t really “in the flesh” or that he wasn’t raised from the dead, along with other such false teaching. Ignatius responds by saying the best way to avoid such teachers and foster unity in a church is to submit to and heed the bishop/preacher, the elders, and support and encourage the godly deacons. Generally, this is still good advice – where you find pastors and elders that submit to Christ and the apostles’ teaching, and where you find godly deacons, you do not have a sect or cult full of false teaching.
Taken from The Apostolic Fathers ed. M. W. Holmes 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008).