St. Ignatius of Antioch and the “Upstairs/Downstairs Church”

The Martyrdom of St. Ignatius of Antioch (From Wikimedia Commons)
The Martyrdom of St. Ignatius of Antioch
(From Wikimedia Commons)

The following is an excerpt from a series of lectures I am soon going to deliver on St. Ignatius of Antioch.

Men of flesh cannot act spiritually, nor can spiritual men act in a fleshly way, just as faith cannot perform deeds of unfaith or unfaith those of faith. But what you do in relation to the flesh is spiritual, for you do everything in Jesus Christ.

—St. Ignatius of Antioch, To the Ephesians 8:2

Once the proper relationship of the spirit to the body is established—that the spirit rules the body, not the reverse—then all of life becomes spiritual. There is no spiritual “part” of life. There is only life, which is spiritual. As Ignatius writes: “But what you do in relation to the flesh is spiritual, for you do everything in Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 8:2b).

This vision is decidedly different from those who try to inject the secularized vision of compartmentalization even into church life. Some people believe that there are “spiritual” parts of life in the parish and “business” parts, and they try to arrange authority and responsibility accordingly. The division that exists in their own lives, where some things are “spiritual” but other things are otherwise, is being projected onto the very Church of God.

This approach to church life is sometimes called the “upstairs/downstairs church.” That is, the “spiritual” part, governed by the clergy, happens “upstairs” in the church. Everything else, governed by the lay leadership, happens “downstairs” in the parish social hall. The laity don’t tell the clergy how to run the church services, and the clergy don’t tell the laity how to spend the money.

But such a division is alien to Ignatius. For him, everything the Christian does “in relation to the flesh is spiritual,” because he does everything in Jesus Christ. The Christian is always a God-bearer, whether he is serving the Divine Liturgy or scrubbing toilets, and so he is subject to the authority and ways of the Kingdom of God, not secular society. It is contradictory to suggest that there can be any “secular” side to either a Christian or his parish community, because God is always there with us.

Ignatius says, “Nothing escapes the Father’s notice; even our secrets are near him. We should therefore do everything on the assumption that he dwells in us, so that we may be his temples and he may be our God in us—as is the case, and as will be manifest before our face by the effects of the love which we justly bear toward him” (Ephesians 15:3). If we are temples where God dwells, everything that we are and everything we do is spiritual. If, as Ignatius says, we are “God-bearers,” then there can be no secular life for the Christian.

And there can also be no “upstairs/downstairs church” for a parish. All that is to be done can only be done as prayer, under the spiritual leadership of the bishop and his appointed representative. It is not that clergy are qualified to do everything—they need the expertise and experience of everyone in the parish. It is that everyone—including the laity—is a minister in the church, and the bishop or his presbyter is the chief minister, the one who directs all and helps all to see how we may “do everything on the assumption that he dwells in us, so that we may be his temples and he may be our God in us.”

6 comments:

  1. I am, coincidentally, about 1/2-way through Fr. Nicholas Ferencz’s book “American Orthodoxy and Parish Congregationalism”, which covers — in great detail — this exact topic. Great read.

  2. I’ve come to this exact realization of how we compartmentalizate our religious life that you detail so well in your posting. As I have embarked on becoming a lay Benedictine oblate, I have also had the benefit of ‘merging’ my religious life with the ‘rest’ of my life, the two are beginning to become one, whether I am at work, at rest or at church.

  3. This is a major issue within secular society, which insists that Christians compartmentalize their faith and keep it out of parts of their lives (such as the commission in Colorado which ruled that the cake maker had to remove all religious influence from his business–they actually phrased it that way, which was shocking to me).

    Sadly, I expect us to have to make many sacrifices in the future. We will all-too-often be required to either “keep our religion out of [insert business/community/life event here]” or be excluded.

  4. It’s always been my opinion (which is quite often mistaken) that much in our life is compartmentalized due to a Western over emphasis on Aristotelian Categories. That instead of viewing things holistically, i.e. Christ is all in all, we compartmentalize them into even more categories than Aristotle outlined.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *