Women in the Apostolic Fathers: Familial Expectations in Polycarp

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

St. Polycarp
St. Polycarp

If Ignatius’s remarks on household order are brief, then Polycarp’s are nearly non-existent, both in terms of length and the treatment given to them by existing scholarship.

Polycarp’s Epistle to the Philippians 5.3[1]

ὁμοίως καὶ νεώτεροι ἄμεμπτοι ἐν πᾶσιν, πρὸ παντὸς προνοοῦντες ἁγνείας καὶ χαλιναγωγοῦντες ἑαυτοὺς ἀπὸ παντὸς κακοῦ. καλὸν γὰρ τὸ ἀνακόπτεσθαι ἀπὸ τῶν ἐπιθυμιῶν τῶν ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ, ὅτι πᾶσα ἐπιθυμία κατὰ τοῦ πνεύματος στρατεύεται καὶ οὔτε πόρνοι οὔτε μαλακοὶ οὔτε ἀρσενοκοῖται βασιλείαν θεοῦ κληρονομήσουσιν, οὔτε οἱ ποιοῦντες τὰ ἄτοπα. διὰ δέον ἀπέχεσθαι ἀπὸ πάντων τούτων, ὑποτασσομένους τοῖς πρεσβυτέροις καὶ διακόνοις ὡς θεῷ καὶ Χριστῷ· τὰς παρθένους ἐν ἀμώμῳ καὶ ἁγνῇ συνειδήσει περιπατεῖν. So too let the young men be blameless in all things, concerned above all else for their purity, keeping themselves in check with respect to all evil. For it is good to be cut off from the passions of the world, since every passion wages war against the spirit, and neither the sexually immoral, nor the effeminate, nor male prostitutes will inherit the kingdom of God; nor will those who engage in aberrant behavior. Therefore we must abstain from all these things, and be subject to the presbyters and deacons as to God and Christ. And the virgins must walk in a blameless and pure conscience.

Polycarp appears to have been far more concerned with the purity of young men than he was with the purity of young women, the later appearing only as an afterthought in this citation.[2] The 1904 Oxford Committee concluded that Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians stands behind this passage, which seems likely, although this does not account for the emphasis on male purity.[3] Paul Hartog suggests that the passage’s intended audience was young men;[4] whether this was because of a particular problem among the men in Philippi, the assumption of the importance of virginal purity, or something else cannot be said with any degree of certainty. Polycarp goes somewhat further than Ignatius in his address, as he admonishes the young men to cut off all worldly passions. For Polycarp, not only outward action, but inward thought—πνεύματος and συνειδήσει—are the battleground of the passions. The solution to immorality and impure passions is both abstinence and the subjection of the self to the presbyters and deacons. While Ignatius’s ever-present bishop has been replaced by lower church orders, the implications are basically the same: for Polycarp, purity of body and spirit among men and women alike should be done in fellowship with church hierarchy and order.

Dura Europos House Church
Dura Europos House Church

In the epistles of Ignatius and Polycarp an emphasis on church order and hierarchy informs the presentation of household codes and reflections on purity. Whether the members of a Christian community are widows, slaves, married, celibate, young men, or (female) virgins, all of their actions should be orderly and honorably undertaken under the auspices of God and His regents on earth. For Ignatius, the bishop should be involved in the care, support, and affirmation of proper interpersonal interactions. For Polycarp, it is the presbyters and deacons who are to guard the purity of male and female body and spirit. For both, purity only exists through coordination, among individuals, spouses, and the authority of God invested in the Church.


[1] Ehrman Apostolic Fathers I, 340-1.

[2] Hartog, 122. Cx. 1 Clem. 1.3. 1 Tim. 1:5, 19; 3:9; 4:2. Gal. 5:17. 1 Pet. 2:11.

[3] Oxford Society, The New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1905), 85.

[4] Hartog, 121.


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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