I was raised in a serious and devout Christian home, and among my earliest memories was the deep conviction that Jesus was my Friend and Savior. I vividly recall my childhood home as a school of piety. We also belonged to a local church, where the things I learned at home were very much reinforced. In most ways, in fact, our congregation was just an extension of our family.

But there was another element to be found at church, something different and somewhat alien from the experience of the home. I gradually learned that our local church was part of something bigger and more elaborately organized, and the reminder of this larger connection was the annual visit from The Bishop. Representing an organization more "official" and abstract, the bishop apparently had nothing to do with the actual life in Christ.

I suppose many Christians can sense that "disconnect." Beyond their local congregations, they vaguely know of a larger institution of some sort, if not a diocese, then a judicatory body of some kind, an assembly of pastors and elders, perhaps, or maybe an organizing convention. Although these organizations may enjoy great authority, I suspect that few Christians think of them as much related to their real life in Christ.

In my 20th year, however, I was rather suddenly obliged to reassess that distinction adopted in my youth. A godly teacher encouraged me to start a systematic, chronological reading of the Church Fathers, and he suggested that I begin with the letters of Ignatius of Antioch. I did so.

Ignatius, the second bishop of Antioch, was condemned to death by the Roman government in the year 107. On his westward way to martyrdom in Rome, he found time to write seven rather short letters to various local churches, encouraging ...

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