Women in the Apostolic Fathers: Familial Expectations in Ignatius (Part I)

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Women in the Apostolic Fathers.

Ancient Greek HouseWhile the Apostolic Fathers by-and-large eschew the household codes which are so prevalent in Pauline and post-Pauline literature, Ignatius’s Epistle to Polycarp and Polycarp’s Epistle to the Philippians each contain a section reminiscent  of Greco-Roman household duties.

Ignatius’s Epistle to Polycarp 4.1[1]

Χῆραι μὴ ἀμελείσθωσαν· μετὰ τὸν κύριον σὺ αὐτῶν φροντιστὴς ἔσο. μηδὲν ἄνευ γνώμης σου γινέσθω, μηδὲ σὺ ἄνευ θεοῦ τι πρᾶσσε, ὅπερ οὐδὲ πράσσεις· εὐστάθει. Do not allow the widows to be neglected. After the Lord, it is you who must be mindful of them. Let nothing be done apart from your consent, and do nothing apart from God. You are already acting in this way. Be imperturbable.

Having completed his admonitions to Polycarp regarding more urgent matters, Ignatius touches on a number of areas of church life. First he mentions care of the χῆραι, for which Ignatius had considerable precedent (Acts 6:1; 9:39, 41; Jas. 1:27; 1 Tim. 5:9-16), although this passage has sometimes been viewed as Ignatius’s corruption of the egalitarian nature of the Jesus Movement and the beginnings of the gradual patriarchalism of the church.[2] Esther Yue has sufficiently problematized this conception of Ignatius and suggested that these remarks should be read in a context of admonishment again heresy, not the development of patriarchy.[3]

Ancient DoorIgnatius’s concern for the widows here seems to be two-fold. Initially, as Grant notes, the bishop seems to be fulfilling some semi-legal role.[4] This may be a reference to the Roman practice of tutor-ship or (more likely) the invocation of apostolic command. Additionally, Ignatius’s reminder to “let nothing be done apart from your consent, and do nothing apart from God. You are already acting in this way….” seems to indicate that in some locales there may have been some groups behaving contrary to their bishops.[5] Who, where, and whence this might be remains unclear. What is clear, however, is that Ignatius deems the widows (as with all other Christians) to owe obedience to the bishop as Christ’s representative on earth.


[1] Ehrman Apostolic Fathers I, 314-5.

[2] Schüssler Fiorenza, 313-5. Trevett, 220-1. Schüssler Fiorenza reconstructs this group as widows living together in a household who were accustomed to holding Eucharist. Ignatius’s commands thus encroach on the freedoms of these women, starting a gradual decent into patriarchy.

[3] Yue, 693-5. “No matter what interpretation we take, and if the consent of the bishop still had to do with the widows, then Ignatius was probably urging Polycarp to be a conscientious guardian or administrator such that the poor widows would not be defrauded by his neglect of them. On the other hand, the fact that Ignatius went on to urge Polycarp not to do anything without God’s consent would ensure that the guardianship was carried out honourably and ethically.” Yue, 695.

[4] Robert M. Grant, The Apostolic Fathers: A New Translation and Commentary: Volume 4: Ignatius of Antioch (Camden, N.J.: Thomas Nelson, 1964), 132.

[5] IgnPoly 4.1 μηδὲν ἄνευ γνώμης σου γινέσθω, μηδὲ σὺ ἄνευ θεοῦ τι πρᾶσσε, ὅπερ οὐδὲ πράσσεις· Schoedel, Ignatius, 269. The widows being under the authority of the bishop is alluded to or repeated elsewhere, including IgnSmyr. 6:2; PolyPhil. 4:3; Hermas, Sim. 9, 27, 2; and Justin, First Apology 1.67.6. Ignatius’s mention of widows here and in his IgnSmyr. could serve as an indication that an issue existed in Smyrna’s not too distant past.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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