What I Learned From Polycarp About Pearls, Swine, And Modern Evangelicals

In the fall semester I teach two courses on the ancient church. One is a seminar in which we read the Apostolic Fathers (a somewhat arbitrary collection of texts from the second century) as well as other important writers from the period. Close engagement with the fathers every year has had a salutary effect. It helps to re-orient me away from the questions that we think are important to the questions that they thought were important. That said, learning from our (much) older brothers and sisters about how to live in a predominantly pagan world as a marginal people has been invaluable. As I watch people talk about how to rebuild Christendom and how Christians can recapture the culture, etc. I can tell who has and who has not read the fathers. Apparently, not many evangelicals read the fathers.

One of the more striking texts and episodes that we consider is the Martyrdom of Polycarp. We do not know who wrote the narrative and it is certain that editorial hands later added less than historical bits to burnish Polycarp’s reputation (for sainthood). Nevertheless, there is a reliably historical core to the narrative. Polycarp was the Episkopos (Επισκοπος) of Smyrna (today’s Izmir, on the coast of Turkey). Whereas we simply transliterate (i.e., express the Greek word in English letters) the offices of deacon (dιακονος) and presbyter (πρεσβυτερος), when it comes to the Episkopos, we usually translate it with Bishop. Of course, when we see that word, we fill it up with our notion of a regional manager of a large ecclesiastical bureaucracy. Polycarp was not that. The office of episkopos did not really even begin to function that way until the mid-3rd century (e.g., Cyprian). The hierarchical church polity that developed in the East and the West did not yet exist in the early to mid-century. Polycarp was a leading pastor but pastor he was.

Indeed, it is difficult to overstate his importance to the church in first half of the second century. According to Irenaeus, Polycarp formed a bridge between the apostles and the post-apostolic church. Further, we know that he lived at least to age 86 after serving as a faithful, godly pastor for decades. He became well known not only among the Christians but also among the pagans. The latter group resented him for, in their view, luring people away from the Roman polytheistic pantheon to Christianity. They resented the loss of business. They resented the refusal of Polycarp and the Christians to conform to the Roman status quo. They had a state-religion and to defy the state-religion was to defy the state, to defy the culture, and to become, in their view, a “hater of humanity,” as one critic put it. I suppose that the only people in the USA who really understand how the Romans felt about the importance of conformity are my people, the people of American Plains, for whom conformity and going along to get along is next to cleanliness and godliness in importance. There are reasons for it, chief among them being small-town life. When one lives in a phone booth, manners become very important. Try explaining to a small-town why your church will not play softball on the Christian Sabbath and you will begin to understand how the Romans looked at the Christians.

We have one letter from Polycarp to the church at Philippi (presumably the same congregation to which Paul wrote). Depending on how one answers some questions, it is either one document or two and it dates to about AD 125–35. In any reading, it is quite early and a clear, orthodox articulation of the Christian faith. Unlike a number of Christians today, Polycarp, who almost certainly knew the Apostle John, knew that he was not an apostle. He knew what the good news was and what ought to be the outcome in the life of the church of being given new life and true faith in Jesus. It is a warm, gracious, but firm instruction in the faith and it addresses wisely and well some serious problems that had cropped up in the congregation.

The next time we see Polycarp, in The Martyrdom of Polycarp, he is being hunted by the Roman authorities. The narrator gives us two examples of martyrs, one to follow and one to shun. Germanicus (ch. 3) was a heroic martyr, who did not go seeking martyrdom, but when it came he faced it courageously. May the Lord give us all the courage of Germanicus should it be our privilege to suffer “like a good soldier of Christ” (2 Tim 2:3; NIV) and give our lives for the gospel of Christ and thereby, with Paul, to “fill up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Col 1:24), i.e., to be privileged to be so identified with Christ that the pagans do to us what they would to Christ could they get their hands on him.

Our narrator tells us of another, Quintus, whom he characterizes as a coward, who boldly put himself forward as a martyr but who, when he saw the wild beasts, recanted the faith, repudiated Christ, swore the oath of allegiance to Caesar as a god, and sealed his profession of faith (in Caesar) with a sacrificial offering. One can understand why the Novatianists were so incensed at those who “lapsed” even if we should not agree with them.

For his part, Polycarp knew he was going to die as a martyr. He managed to avoid arrest for a while but eventually the cops found him in a house outside of town. Apparently, someone in his retinue gave him away. The Roman authorities tortured one of his servants to get information. The decision had come down from a higher authority that it was time to make Polycarp recant like Quintus or to silence him permanently. When the cops found this threat to social order, what they found surprised them. He was an old man. He was so kind (he fed them) that when he asked for time to pray they said yes. He prayed for two hours, remembering everyone as pastors do.

They took him away on a donkey and brought him into town to the captain, who interrogated him (ch. 8). The captain tried to persuade him to say the words—the cops cared not what he believed privately. They only required outward conformity—but he refused. The captain got frustrated at his intransigence (this is what really infuriated the Romans about the Christians; modern Christians take note) and handled him a bit roughly.

Thence they took him to the stadium, to the crowd, and to proconsul. When the crowd got word that the cops had arrested Polycarp a great cheer went up. They wanted his blood. The proconsul followed Roman procedure by getting Polycarp’s name and again tried to persuade him to say the right words, to have respect for his age. They were, in effect, begging him to let them off the hook. They were used to dealing with criminals and they had no wish to put to death a harmless old man, but he refused. The proconsul called him to

swear by the genius of Caesar; repent; say ‘Away with the atheists!’ So Polycarp, solemnly looked at the whole crowd of lawless heathens who were in the stadium, motioned to them with his hand, and then (groaning as he looked up to heaven) said, ‘Away with the atheists! But when the magistrate persisted and said, ‘Swear the oath, and I will release you; revile Christ,’ Polycarp replied, ‘For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?’ (9:2–3)1

The proconsul continued to demand that Polycarp “swear by the genius of Caesar,” but he refused. He finally replied, “If you vainly suppose that I will swear by the Genius of Caesar, as you request, and pretend not to know who I am, listen carefully: I am a Christian. Now if you want to learn the doctrine of Christianity, name a day and give me a hearing.” Those words, of course, sealed his earthly fate. The words “I am a Christian” (Χριστιανός εἰμι) were a fatal confession. Still, the proconsul gave him an out:

Persuade the people. But Polycarp said: ‘You I might have considered worthy of a reply, for we have been taught to pay proper respect to rulers and authorities appointed by God, as long as it does us no harm; but as for these, I do not think they are worthy, that I should have to defend myself before them.’ (10:2)2

The story continues and you should read it, but we will pull up here.

The proconsul not only broke protocol, by offering him yet another opportunity to save himself—should the crowd be persuaded, the proconsul could argue that he was giving the people what they demanded as Pilate did with Barabas—but he gave Polycarp what our church growth experts and evangelicals everywhere would see as a golden opportunity. They were a captive audience and all Polycarp had to do was to open his mouth, preach the gospel, and win the lost to Christ.

Polycarp, however, was having none of it. Why not? Why did not seize the day for Christ? It was because Polycarp knew a verse that we mostly overlook: “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you” (Matt 7:6; ESV). In modern church growth theory and for most evangelicals (certainly the evangelical culture that I met in the 1970s), there are no swine, only pearls. Today, I suppose, should I say, “pearls before swine,” most people might think of a comic strip. Yet, for our Lord and for Polycarp, there are those who are not fit to hear the Good News (the pearls), who are in that sense “swine.” I do not think that this is a judgment that we should make casually or often but it is a biblical judgment. Polycarp had every incentive to preach to the mob. Who knows whom the Lord might have brought to faith? Every moment he preached was a moment he was not being attacked by wild animals or set on fire.

Still, he refused. He valued the gospel. He knew that they were not willing to hear, that they were only filled with blood lust. This is not to say that the Lord would not soften the hearts of some who saw Polycarp die that day or that some of them did not seek out a Christian to ask why Polycarp chose to die rather than to recant formally and live out his natural life. We will likely never know. We do know, however, that Polycarp refused to deny his Lord, who had loved him, who had given himself for him, and whom he had served all his 86 years. He knew that when he died, it would be a change for the better (11:1). He feared God more than the beasts and the fire.

So, we remember Polycarp, the faithful but discriminating witness. Yes, the Synod of Dort is quite right: the gospel should be preached and offered seriously to all (CD 5.8, 9). Polycarp is no case against the free, well-meant offer of the gospel, but it is a reminder of the intrinsic value of the gospel message. It is for sinners, not the sinless, but there are times and places when it is not fitting. May the Lord give us wisdom to know the one from the other.


1. Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, Updated ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 235.

2. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers,, 235.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. No doubt Polycarp’s pearl of great price would have been trampled underfoot what with such raging, collective blood lust stopping all ears and dimming all eyes. Cynics, all…those who (Oscar Wilde) know the price of everything, and the value of nothing.

  2. Another thing I get from Polycarp: his epistle is almost a pastiche of New Testament quotes. So, how is it that Polycarp, in the first half of the 2d century, quotes many of the NT documents, if they weren’t made canonical until Constantine? Please, people, Dan Brown is a writer of fiction!

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