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 them to hold fast to the Christian faith in those trying times.

During those early years of strife in the second century, Ignatius insisted on the orderly structure and organization of the church, emphasizing the role and authority of the bishop in the church. These letters are full of admonitions regarding obedience to the Larger Institution, exactly the sorts of things I would have expected from a bishop.

What I was not prepared for, however, was the discovery that Ignatius loved Jesus more intimately and intensely than anyone I had ever met in my whole life. His constant references to Jesus as Lord and Savior were more poignant and personal than anything I could remember from my earlier experience of being a Christian. As I read his letters, I kept finding an incredible ardor of love for and devotion to the living person of Jesus. On nearly every page I found lines like, "Him I seek, who died on our behalf; Him I desire who rose again." And, "Arm yourselves with gentleness and be strengthened in faith, which is the flesh of our Lord, and in love, which is the blood of Jesus Christ." And, "as for me, my charter is Jesus Christ, the inviolable charter is His cross and His death and resurrection, and faith through Him."

Here, obviously, was a true Christian, and lo, he was, of all things, a bishop! It had never occurred to my young mind that bishops had anything more than an "official" function. What Ignatius did for me was combine in his own person two things that the experience of my childhood had never really brought together: the personal life of intense love for Jesus Christ and the official organization of the larger Church.

Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois, and a senior editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity.

Read Ignatius' letters online at the Christian Classics Etherial Library.

One good collection including Ignatius' letters and many other early Christian writings is Early Christian Fathers, edited by Cyril C. Richardson.