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

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

Ignatius’s Epistle to Polycarp 4.3[1]

δούλους καὶ δούλας μὴ ὑπερηφάνει· ἀλλὰ μηδὲ αὐτοὶ φυσιούσθωσαν, ἀλλ᾿ εἰς δόξαν θεοῦ πλέον δουλευέτωσαν, ἵνα κρείττονος ἐλευθερίας ἀπὸ θεοῦ τύχωσιν. μὴ ἐράτωσαν ἀπὸ τοῦ κοινοῦ ἐλευθεροῦσθαι, ἵνα μὴ δοῦλοι εὑρεθῶσιν ἐπιθυμίας. Do not be arrogant towards male and female slaves, but neither let them become haughty; rather, let them serve even more as slaves for the glory of God, that they may receive a greater freedom from God. And they should not long to be set free through the common fund, lest they be found slaves of passion.

Roman SlavesThe second issue that Ignatius discusses involves slavery, where he avoids encouraging manumission, instead calling slaves to “serve even more as slaves for the glory of God….” Ignatius values freedom in God, rather than social and physical freedom, and suggests that Polycarp admonish the slaves—presumably both male and female—accordingly. The connection between slaves yearning for freedom and the potential for them to become δοῦλοι ἐπιθυμίας is not immediately clear. At stake could be the desire of money (since such persons would likely only receive their freedom from the common fund of the church, as Ignatius notes) or desire itself. Given Ignatius’s general approach to desire and celibacy, it seems more likely that love of money was the greater issue at stake here, although this position should be held tentatively.

Ignatius’s Epistle to Polycarp 5.1[2]

ταῖς ἀδελφαῖς μου προσλάλει, ἀγαπᾶν τὸν κύριον καὶ τοῖς συμβίοις ἀρκεῖσθαι σαρκὶ καὶ πνεύματι. ὁμοίως καὶ τοῖς ἀδελφοῖς μου παράγγελλε ἐν ὀνόματι Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, ἀγαπᾶν τὰς συμβίους ὡς ὁ κύριος τὴν ἐκκλησίαν. Instruct my sisters to love the Lord and to be satisfied with their husbands in flesh and spirit. So too enjoin my brothers in the name of Jesus Christ to love their wives as the Lord loves the church.
Depiction of Roman Marriage
Depiction of Roman Marriage

Next Ignatius instructs Polycarp on how to encourage wives and husbands in their marriages. The guiding principle for the sisters seems to be satisfaction (ἀρκεῖσθαι) both in terms of flesh and spirit.[3] Husbands are given the command from Ephesians 5:25, 29, to love their wives as the Lord loves the Church. While Schoedel suggests that these commands are given primarily as a means of communal definition and boundary marking, it seems just as likely that Ignatius’s thought—so formed by Pauline precedents—found it natural to speak about the relationship between husbands and wives after having discussed other social issues.[4] As is his custom, Ignatius concludes his remarks by admonishing Polycarp to make marriage the concern of the bishop, thereby ensuring that proper interaction and order persist in Smyrna.


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

[2] Ibid., 314-5.

[3] Schoedel, Ignatius, 272. A similar perspective exists in Josephus, Jewish War. 2.116; Epiphanius, Ancoratus 104.8; and Apostolic Constitutions 8.32.4.

[4] Schoedel, Ignatius, 272. Grant, Volume 4, 133-4. Lightfoot, 348.


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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