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

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

Ignatius’s Epistle to Polycarp 5.2[1]

εἴ τις δύναται ἐν ἁγνείᾳ μένειν εἰς τιμὴν τῆς σαρκὸς τοῦ κυρίου, ἐν ἀκαυχησίᾳ μενέτω. ἐὰν καυχήσηται, ἀπώλετο, καὶ ἐὰν γνωσθῇ πλέον τοῦ ἐπισκόπου, ἔφθαρται. πρέπει δὲ τοῖς γαμοῦσι καὶ ταῖς γαμουμέναις μετὰ γνώμης τοῦ ἐπισκόπου τὴν ἕνωσιν ποιεῖσθαι, ἵνα ὁ γάμος ᾖ κατὰ κύριον καὶ μὴ κατ᾿ ἐπιθυμίαν. πάντα εἰς τιμὴν θεοῦ γινέσθω. If anyone is able to honor the flesh of the Lord by maintaining a state of purity, let him do so without boasting. If he boasts, he has been destroyed, and if it becomes known to anyone beyond the bishop, he is ruined. But it is right for men and women who marry to make their union with the consent of the bishop, that their marriage may be for the Lord and not for passion. Let all things be done for the honor of God.

Martyrdom of Ignatius of Antioch
Martyrdom of Ignatius of Antioch

Finally, Ignatius mentions those who “honor the flesh of the Lord by maintaining a state of purity.” These seem to be celibates—likely distinct from widows—who viewed Christ’s celibacy as paradigmatic for their lives.[2] Ignatius does not seem directly opposed to these ascetics, although he clearly demarcates acceptable speech concerning their celibacy, namely, that anything other than informing the bishop of this practice makes it worthless. It would seem Ignatius’s anti-docetic tendencies—especially his view that the union of flesh and spirit mark the true Church (IgnEph. 8.2)—stand in contrast to later Christian celebrations of asceticism, virginity, and monasticism.[3] In the end Ignatius advocates two guards against improper (a)sexual relationships: the authority and blessing of the bishop and the honor of God.

It is noteworthy that Ignatius’s commands concerning households come in his letter to a fellow bishop. In coordination with the messages of his other letters, this suggests that his conception of a “top-down” church hierarchy was pervasive: the bishop had the right, indeed the duty, to oversee all social activities of the Christian community, whether those involved were widows, married, or celibate. Marriage, in particular, finds an emphasis here that—despite the brevity of his remarks—suggests Ignatius viewed it as an important characteristic of the Smyrnaean community. Indeed, central to the purposes of this entire “household code” is the formation of a Christian communal ethic built around mutuality among persons under the authority of the bishop.


[1] Ehrman Apostolic Fathers I, 314-7.

[2] Schoedel, Ignatius, 273. Cx 1 Cor. 6:12-20; Tertullian, On Marrying 5.6; Cyprian, On the Dress of Virgins 3. Ideas that physical union adulterates relationships with God or that virgins are wedded to Christ may be at play here.

[3] Schoedel, Ignatius, 272. Grant, Volume 4, 134.


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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