For those coming from a Protestant background, like myself, St. Ignatius' focus on the role and authority of the bishop is startling. He frequently links submission and obedience to the bishop to our submission and obedience to Christ Himself. To Ignatius, the bishop is the hinge on which unity swings.
Wherefore it is fitting that ye should run together in accordance with the will of your bishop, which thing also ye do. For your justly renowned presbytery, worthy of God, is fitted as exactly to the bishop as the strings are to the harp. Therefore in your concord and harmonious love, Jesus Christ is sung. And do ye, man by man, become a choir, that being harmonious in love, and taking up the song of God in unison, ye may with one voice sing to the Father through Jesus Christ, so that He may both hear you, and perceive by your works that ye are indeed the members of His Son. It is profitable, therefore, that you should live in an unblameable unity, that thus ye may always enjoy communion with God. Letter to the Ephesians, ch 4
Let no man deceive himself: if any one be not within the altar, he is deprived of the bread of God. For if the prayer of one or two possesses such power, how much more that of the bishop and the whole Church! He, therefore, that does not assemble with the Church, has even by this manifested his pride, and condemned himself. For it is written, 'God resisteth the proud.' Let us be careful, then, not to set ourselves in opposition to the bishop, in order that we may be subject to God. ibid, ch 5
It seems fairly obvious that the bishop would play a significant role in the unity of the church. If all the churches in his region were under his authority, then by virture of his position he could keep all the churches on the same page. By conferring with other bishops and coming into theolocial and ecclesiological agreement, the bishop could thus preserve unity within the larger church. So from an entirely pragmatic perspective, the office of bishop is a useful, and perhaps needful, thing. I can scarcely imagine with things would be like in America today if all of the local churches were to subject themselves to a bishop in order to bring about unity. This is an impossibility, I know, but still an attractive idea.
But here is where St. Ignatius' thinking becomes most unsettling -
For we ought to receive every one whom the Master of the house sends to be over His household, as we would do Him that sent him. It is manifest, therefore, that we should look upon the bishop even as we would upon the Lord Himself.ibid, ch 6 emphasis mine
This removes all pragmatic considerations from the table, or at least relegates them to the kiddie table off to the side. To Ignatius, the bishop is not merely a functionary of unity; he is an icon of Christ. The bishop manifests Christ to us in a unique way and it is more than just a derivation of authority, for we are not told to respect him like we would Christ or to obey him as if he were the Lord, but to "look upon the bishop as we would upon the Lord Himself." The implications of this are, to say the least, immense. If St Ignatius's writing accurately reflects the understanding of the earliest Christians - and despite the controversy surrounding some of his (alleged) writings and likely interpolations, it appears widely assumed that it does - then the office and role of the bishop are a central question to the Chrisitan faith. It is little wonder that Calvin repudiated all the Ignatian epistles as spurious; they are clearly opposed to Protestantism at almost every level.
This, of course, ties into my earlier posts (here and here) on the impossibility of consensus between the early church and the Reformation. This by itself is not a conclusive argument about the potential error of the Reformation, however. It is entirely possible for a modern Christian to dismiss these differences as inconsequential, to say the early church's practices were culturally determined or influenced and are not normative for the present day. But if this is true, how do we know her theology was not similarly adulterated? How can we trust the canon she produced or the doctrines she promulgated? This kind of argument would seem to leave us foundationless, with only a tenuous connection to Christ and His Apostles.
Assuming the early church's praxis is normative for the moment, what are we modern Christians to do with that? More specifically, what am I supposed to do with it? Yeah, yeah, I think I already know the answer, but man, things would be a whole lot easier if it were different.