Polycarp: A Model For Ministry In The Post-Christian West


Polycarp (Πολύκαρπος), whose name might be translated as fruitful was the leading pastor (ἐπίσκοπος) of Smyrna (today, Izmir, Turkey) on the Agean coast of Asia Minor. We do not know a great deal about his life. He was friends with Ignatius, the pastor of Antioch, who was (presumably) martyred about AD 115. One of the letters we have from Ignatius is to Polycarp, who was already pastor of the church in Smyrna. We may be reasonably sure that Polycarp had a long ministry and life since, according to the Martyrdom of Polycarp (9.3), he served the Lord 86 years. There is debate about how to interpret the clause “For eighty-six years I have been his servant…” but if we date his death circa AD 155–60 and he received a letter from Ignatius circa AD 115 then his ministry lasted least about 40 to 45 years.

According to Irenaeus

…Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true (Adv. Haer. 3.3.4; ANF).

According to Irenaeus, it was Polycarp who persuaded Anicetus to turn away from Gnosticism to orthodox Christianity. It is from Polycarp (according to Irenaeus) that the Apostle John fled the bath house in Ephesus when he learned that the Gnostic heretic Cerinthus was present saying, “Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within” (ibid).

Polycarp also opposed Marcion face to face. Marcion is said to have asked him, “Do you know me?” to which Polycarp replied, “I know you. You are the first-born of Satan.”

Papias, the pastor of Hierapolis, fragments of whose Expositions of the Sayings of the Lord were preserved by Eusebius, distinguished between the Apostle John and John the Presbyter (Fragments of Papias, 3.5 in Michael W. Holmes, Apostolic Fathers) and that it was John the Presbyter from whom Polycarp received the Apostolic tradition (ibid., 3.7; 5.2).

The Epistle to the Philippians, which Polycarp regarded as the very same congregation founded by the Apostle Paul (see Acts 16), is the one text we may attribute to Polycarp with a high degree of confidence. Chuck Hill has argued that Polycarp is the most likely author of the treatise to Diognetus but the authorship of that work is vigorously disputed.

A word about polity in the Ancient Church. Though the title of Polycarp’s (and Papias’ and Ignatius’) office is usually translated as “bishop,” we should not read later developments in church polity back into the church of the first quarter of the second century. He held one office among three in the church: overseer, presbyter, and deacon (5.1, 3–6.3). There is no evidence that Polycarp held an office from which the others were derived (i.e., a monepiscopacy).

The Gospel And The Christian Life In Polycarp

One sometimes read (typically American evangelical) people suggesting that the Christian faith and gospel more or less disappeared after the apostles only to be partially recovered in the Reformation and more fully recovered in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Epistle to the Philippians, which is thoroughly theological and Christ-focused, refutes any such theory. Written early in the second century (Polycarp assumes that Ignatius has been martyred but asks for confirmation; 1.1; 9.1; 13.2. See Holmes, 275)  the epistle is a witness that the gospel was clearly and profoundly taught by faithful pastors.

Though Polycarp is connected by Irenaeus to the Apostle John the epistle reads more like a Pauline epistle. He identified himself and began speaking to them of God’s grace from the outset. Contrast this epistle with 1 Clement, in which, though the gospel is clearly and briefly articulated,  one finds chapter after chapter of exhortation to humility and peace in the congregation. In 1.3 Polycarp alludes to 1 Peter 1:8 and then declares, “knowing that by grace you have been saved, not because of works, by by the will of God through Jesus Christ.” He may well have had Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians memorized and the work is rich with quotations and allusions to the New Testament epistles of Peter and Paul (again, in contrast to 1 Clement).

He also boldly and clearly called the Philippian church to growth in sanctification and obedience as a consequence of God’s grace to us sinners in Christ (e.g., 3.1–6.3). He clearly articulated the Christian sexual ethic:

…For it is good to be cut off from the sinful desires in the world, because every sinful desire wages war against the spirit [Spirit?] and neither fornicators nor men who have sex with men (whether as the active or passive partner) will inherit the kingdom of God nor will those who do perverse things” (5.3)


Polycarp’s rather pointed denunciation of heterosexual and homosexual sin (and his even more graphic distinction between the sexual roles among homosexuals) signals some of the challenges facing the ancient church as pagans were converted and brought into the church. They had to leave behind their former ways of life, including their identity as heterosexual fornicators and homosexual partners. One need not guess at Polycarp’s response to pornographic pastors or Side-B Christians.

As he had opposed the Gnostics and Marcion so he expected the churches not to tolerate anyone who “does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.” Anyone who denies the incarnation “is antichrist” and whoever denies the “testimony of the cross” is “of the devil” (7.1). He warned them about Valens, a presbyter who, as people say now, apparently “deconstructed” and apostatized because of his love of money (11.1–2). Remarkably he urged the congregation not to regard Valens as an enemy but to pray for his repentance (11.4).

What is our basis for our hope of acceptance with God and salvation? “The guarantee (τῷ ἀρραβῶνι) of our righteousness” is “Christ Jesus, who bore our sins in his own body upon the tree” (8.1). Jesus “committed no sin and no deceit was found in his mouth.” Rather for our sakes “he endured all things, in order that we might live in him” (8.1). Here as elsewhere he articulated a substitionary principle. Christ obeyed and died in our place. Anyone who tells you that Anselm invented the substitutionary doctrine of the atonement must be unfamiliar with Polycarp and Athanasius.

We obey because of and in light of Christ’s obedience for us (8.2). We should follow the Lord’s example, be immovable in (the) faith, showing charity to one another and especially keeping “an irreproachable standard of conduct among the Gentiles” (i.e., the pagans) so that the Lord might not be blasphemed because of us. We can learn from Polycarp about how to make our way in the post-Christian West. He prayed that the Lord would edify the congregation, grant them gentleness, freedom from anger, patience etc (12.2). He does call us to pray for magistrates, kings, and rulers; 12.3) and even for those who persecute and hate them for the sake fo the cross.

Polycarp’s ministry was fruitful. The account of his martyrdom reveals a man who was influential not in the culture but in the church because of his manifest faith and piety. When the police officers arrested him they were ashamed of themselves because he was obviously harmless and manifestly pious (Martyrdom, 7.3).

The Chief of Police (εἰρήναρχος) tried to persuade him to save himself by renouncing Christ, by swearing by the genius of Caesar, and by making an offering to the Roman gods, he refused (Martyrdom, 8.2; 9.2). When the chief urged him to say, “Away with the atheists!” Polycarp turned to the pagan mob crying for his blood and said, “Away with the atheists.” Finally he replied to the chief, “For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and [Jesus]  has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” (Martyrdom, 9.3).

Thus, Polycarp the faithful witness (martyr) went to see the Lord, at the stake, in the midst of fire.

He was not culturally influential but he was a relentlessly faithful preacher of the gospel of Christ. To the end he gave witness to the Savior who, by grace alone, through faith alone, saved him and all who believe from the wrath to come (Martyrdom, 11.2). May the Lord grant us such faithfulness.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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