Ignatius was bishop of Antioch in Syria from AD69 to his martyrdom in AD107 – possibly the third bishop of that city (the first perhaps being Peter the Apostle). Most the seven letters now generally thought to be by him were written when he was under guard on a journey to Rome, where he eventually met his death. He seems to have been writing against the background of recent turmoil within the church at Antioch, which then subsided and was re-establishing itself – as Ignatius writes to the different churches he urges them to send ambassadors and messengers to Antioch as if to affirm and encourage them in their newly peaceful state. Ignatius’ letters were widely read over the following couple of centuries, specifically as an encouragement against persecution (Ignatius stands up bravely in the face of his coming persecution and to our 21st Century eyes seems rather dangerously, fanatically fixed on the idea of dying as a martyr (these are hard passages to read in times when ‘religious martyrs’ are frequently in the news – although it is clear that Ignatius’ type of martyrdom is different, in that it is about submission to what is about to happen, and does not draw anyone else into the suffering. Even so, the idea that martyrdom was to be actively sought as a method of achieving perfection, and of imitating Christ, is very disturbing.
Besides his impending encounter with death, Ignatius is particularly concerned with two other themes, which he treats as interlinked: first, there is a hatred, even fear, of schism and disunity (perhaps a reflection of the recent experience of the church in Antioch. And not only of the church – the translator and editor of my penguin classics edition, Maxwell Staniforth, also notes that more generally as a city, Antioch was noted as a hotbed of civic disorder). Ignatius is primarily seeking to steer the church down a middle way between docetism on one hand, and a pull back into Judaism on the other. His prime remedy is obedience to the bishop and clergy – a theme which comes through in almost every letter. At this stage (the first decade of the 2nd century) the Christian churches’ orders of ministry were neither quite as fixed, nor as universally observed, as would become the case in the post-Constantinian church. The roughly contemporary Didache, for example, spends more time discussing the authority of itinerant ‘missionaries and charismatists’ (as Staniforth translates ‘apostles and prophets’) than clergy. Ignatius on the other hand represents a strand of thinking within the churches which was turning much more fully towards institutional orders of ministry than charismatic leadership, and (without further research I am conjecturing here) it is not impossible that the popularity of Ignatius’ letters, and the esteem in which he was held, could not have done the cause of his conception of Christian authority and leadership any harm.
Where does all of this leave the question of discipleship specifically? What does Ignatius seem to understand that the ordinary Christian is to be and to do? The most obvious starting point is to note that Ignatius (unlike many contemporary sources) opts to use the word ‘disciple’ quite explicitly. Chapter 3 of his Letter to the Ephesians contains Ignatius’ much-quoted self-description:
I am a prisoner for the Name’s sake, but I am by no means perfect in Jesus Christ as yet; I am only a beginner in discipleship, and I am speaking to you as fellow scholars myself. In fact, it is you who ought really to have given me lessons – lessons in faith and admonishment and patience and toleration.
The theme of discipleship returns in similar fashion in the Letter to the Trallians:
Even for myself, for all my chains and for all my ability to comprehend celestial secrets and angelic hierarchies and the dispositions of the heavenly powers, and much else both seen and unseen, am not yet on that account a real disciple.
Both examples highlight some important themes in Ignatius’ understanding of the Christian life. First, discipleship is a state to be aspired to, not easily claimed but only achieved through great endeavour, suffering and sacrifice. (By contrast one thinks of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s conception of discipleship as beginning with the ‘first step’, even though Bonhoeffer is no less sure than Ignatius that suffering is central to discipleship). As with other contemporary letters and writings, there is a strong streak of perfectionism here – sanctification does not come easily, but is a lifelong undertaking. In his much more personal Letter to the Romans, Ignatius writes of the mistreatment he has experienced at the hands of his captors on route, but that it ‘does at least enable me to make some progress in discipleship, though that is not to say that my sins are yet wholly absolved’. The implication here is certainly that in this ‘first stage of my discipleship’ righteous suffering acts almost like a sandpaper for shaping and refining the disciple – and there is almost an implication that absolution will eventually take place through the crucible of martyrdom. Indeed, this is implied again in Ignatius’ letter to his younger friend and Episcopal colleague Polycarp of Smyrna. The quelling of the trouble in the church in Antioch is, Ignatius writes, ‘a God-sent relief from all my anxieties – so long as my suffering gives me a passport to God in the end, and through your intercessions I can be found a true disciple’. Ignatius even in passing suggests that his readers may desire the same fate as his.
For Ignatius, sanctification also comes through obedience to the local bishop and clergy – not as individuals in isolation, but as a sign and guarantor of full participation in the church community (‘to be inside the sanctuary [of the church] is to be clean to be outside it, unclean’). So in his Letter to the Ephesians Ignatius writes that glorifying God ‘if sanctification is to be yours in full measure, means uniting in a common act of submission, and acknowledging the authority of your bishop and clergy’. Here again, Ignatius’ pattern is Jesus:
In the same way as the Lord was wholly one with the Father, and never acted independently of him, either in person or through the apostles, so you yourselves must, never act independently of your bishop and clergy.
‘Not acting independently of your bishop’ is a common thread through several of Ignatius’ letters. It would be interesting to know to what level of minutiae this applied, and the extent to which it echoed the ‘heavy shepherding’ of some restorationist churches in recent history. It certainly contrasts to some other letters of the post-Apostolic period (notably those of Clement and Polycarp) who, whilst emphasising deference to local church leaders, tend primarily to see submission as mutual (submission to each other within the church). There are hints of mutual submission in Ignatius (e.g., ‘be as submissive to the bishop and to one another as Jesus Christ was to his Father’) but it appears a subordinate rather than dominant theme. Indeed, in his Letter to the Trallians, Ignatius (unusually) goes so far as to speak of ‘your obedience to your bishop, as though he were Jesus Christ’, and ‘for the rest of you to hold the deacon in as great respect as Jesus Christ’.
Across his letters Ignatius uses various images to describe the life of discipleship – with one exception these do not generally recur from letter to letter. The exception is that of the body of disciples as pupils of Christ – as appears in his Letter to the Ephesians chapter 3 (cited above), and also in the Letter to the Magnesians: ‘now that we have become pupils of his, let us learn to live like Christians’. Here again is the sense that discipleship is something to aspire to and grow into, rather than to take on lightly as a new status from the outset. For Ignatius, discipleship is not a matter of mere knowledge – in his Letter to the Trallians (see above) Ignatius is quite explicit that knowledge (of ‘celestial secrets… angelic hierarchies… dispositions of the heavenly powers’) is secondary when it comes to the life of discipleship, even as he also asserts the importance of right doctrine and seeks to combat heresy. actions are critical to the Christian life – without them, the name of Christian is hollow. ‘What it comes to is that we ought not just to have the name of Christians, but to be so in reality’. Likewise in the Letter to the Romans, Ignatius hopes ‘that I may be given sufficient inward and outward strength as to be resolute in will as in words, and a Christian in reality instead of only in repute’. These are challenging words for us who quite freely use the word ‘Christian’ to describe ourselves – can we live up to the name we profess? Inevitably we will fall short of perfection, but we must be willing to try our best.
Besides the image of the disciple as pupil, Ignatius also reaches for other images. In the Letter to the Ephesians the church together, under its bishop is ‘a whole symphony of minds in concert’ – ‘take the tone all together from God and sing aloud to the Father with one voice through Jesus Christ, so that he may hear you and know by your good works that you are indeed members of his Son’s body’. The Letter to the Magnesians, meanwhile, uses an image taken directly from the Gospels – that of salt: ‘have yourselves salted in him, and then there will be no scent of corruption from any of you – for it is by your odour that you will be proved’ – another reference to the necessity for a new identity to be validated by actions. This theme is also taken up in another biblical image of discipleship in Ignatius’ Letter to the Ephesians – that of fruitfulness: ‘as the tree is known by its fruits so they who claim to belong to Christ are known by their actions, for this work of ours does not consist in just making professions, but in a faith that is both practical and lasting’.
However, the most fully developed image of the life of discipleship is given in Ignatius’ letter to Polycarp, Bishop of the church in Smyrna. Ignatius has some specific words for Polycarp as bishop, urging him to press on in maintaining unity, carrying the burdens of the people, and being the ‘helmsman’ that difficult times such as these requires. But from chapter 6 the letter broadens out into a general exhortation to the whole church, which adopts similar military imagery to the (canonical) Letter to the Ephesians (no doubt very apparent to a prisoner being escorted by soldiers). It is worth quoting at length:
…everyone should work together in unison at this training of ours; comrades in wrestling and racing, comrades in its aches and pains, comrades in its resting and in its rising, like God’s good stewards and coadjutors and assistants. Make every effort to satisfy the Commander under whom you serve, and from whom you will draw your pay; and be sure that no deserter is to be found in your ranks. For a shield take your baptism, a helmet your faith, for a spear your love, and for body-armour your patient endurance; and lay up a store of good works as a soldier deposits his savings, so that one day you will draw the credits that will be due to you.
None of this is unique to Ignatius of course – the passage draws heavily upon the New Testament letters to the Philippians and Ephesians in particular. Familiar Ignatian themes such as obedience and sanctification are also found here. Some may baulk at the military imagery (although of all people, Ignatius, who was seeing the Roman military all too closely at work, should be permitted to use it). But it is nevertheless a vivid and dynamic picture of the life of the disciple patterned on Jesus. This in turn enables disciples to offer a pattern to others.
So what, specifically, does Ignatius expect of the Christian disciple, in terms of particular habits of mind and action? Underpinning all is faith in, and love for, Jesus Christ. As Ignatius writes to the Ephesians,
Given a thorough-going faith and love for Jesus Christ, there is nothing in all this that will not be obvious to you; for life begins and bends with these two qualities. Faith is the beginning, and love is the end, and the union of the two together is God. All that makes for a soul’s perfection follows in its train.
A similar theme is evidence in the opening of Ignatius’ letter to the Smyrneans:
Glory be to Jesus Christ, the Divine One who has gifted you with such wisdom. I have seen how immovably settled in faith you are; mailed body and soul, as it were, to the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, and rooted and grounded in love by his blood.
For Ignatius, this faith and love will foster several things. First, it will help guard against doctrinal error (for example, in Magnesians 11 ‘standing firm in the precepts of the Lord and his Apostles’ offers a sure way for things to go well). Second, it produces perseverance through contempt and material hardship. As Ignatius writes to the Ephesians,
…. Imitate the Lord by seeing which of us can put up with the most ill-usage or privation or contempt – so that in this way none of the devil’s noxious needs may take root among you, but you may rest in Jesus Christ in all sanctity and discipline of body and soul.
In Ignatius’ Letter to Polycarp there is an allusion to the games arena: ‘the mark of the true champion is to stand up to punishment and still come off victorious’.
Faith and love for Jesus also produces humility. As Ignatius writes to the church in Tralles: ‘I am careful of my own limitations, for fear boasting should be the downfall of me’. By contrast, ‘I have need of that great humility which is the prince of the world’s undoing’. Likewise in the Letter to the Romans, Ignatius writes: ‘…good does not reside in what our eyes can see… the work we have to do is no affair of persuasive speaking; Christianity lies in achieving greatness in the face of a world’s hatred’. Earthly desires need to be crucified in order to focus on Christ, but this even appears to extend into a quelling of passions of all kinds: as the Letter to the Romans continues, … in me there is left no spark of desire for mundane things, but only a murmur of living water that whispers within me, “come to the Father”. In the Letter to the Philippians this quenching of earthly desire is expressed even more starkly, as Ignatius praises the local bishop for ‘the passionless serenity of a life that is lived in such heavenly mildness’. This is strange language for us today, in a society attempting to escape from a Victorian obsession with continence of behaviour. Nor can it be said that Ignatius himself lived this out – although clearly a very mild-mannered man the fashion of his deliberate facing of arrest and death hardly look ‘passionless’. Certainly gentleness appears more than once as a theme in Ignatius’ letters – particularly in relation to the desired character of a bishop. But the idea of restraint also occurs in Ignatius’ pleas for self-discipline in personal and family life – no one who ‘defiles a household’ can expect to share in the Kingdom of God, he says.
In this sense, for Ignatius, discipleship concerns outward actions as well as inward dispositions. Ignatius does not explore the detail of the holy life comprehensively in his letters, but in essence sanctification is fundamentally about living up to the name of Christian that we have been given. Ignatius urges the Magnesians that ‘what it comes to is that we ought not just to have the name of Christians, but to be so in reality’. Likewise to the Romans Ignatius asks his readers to pray that ‘I may be given sufficient inward and outward strength as to be resolute in will as in words, and a Christian in reality instead of only in repute’. Reading the letters, I found myself wondering whether Ignatius implicitly saw this integrity of inward and outward character as the thing which made Christians distinct from some of the heresies which he spent quite a proportion of his letters condemning. In his Letter to the Smyrneans, Ignatius writes:
Look at the men who have these perverted notions about the grace of Jesus Christ which has come down to us, and see how contrary to the mind of God they are. They have no care for love, no thought for the widow and orphan, none at all for the afflicted, the captive, the hungry or the thirsty.
Ignatius writes in a similar vein to the Magnesians:
Everyone should observe the closest conformity with God; you must show consideration for one another, never letting your attitude to a neighbour be affected by your human feelings, but simply loving each other consistently in the Spirit of Jesus Christ.
In this respect, Ignatius is concerned for unity in church and family, and for doctrinal conformity, not just for their own sake, but because he genuinely believes there is a reciprocal connection with loving action and the health of the common life of the community.
 Maxwell Staniforth (ed. and tr.), Early Christian Writings (Penguin, London, 1968), p. 67
 Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Ephesians, chapter 3
 Ignatius, Letter to the Trallians, chapter 4
 Ignatius, Letter to the Romans, chapter 5
 Ignatius, Letter to Polycarp, chapter 7
 Ignatius, Trallians, 7
 Ignatius, Ephesians, 2
 Ignatius, Letter to the Magnesians, chapter 7
 Ignatius, Magnesians, 11
 Ignatius, Trallians, 2, 3
 Ignatius, Magnesians 10
 Ignatius, Magnesians, 4
 Ignatius, Romans, 3
 Ignatius, Ephesians, 4
 Ignatius, Magnesians, 10
 Ignatius, Ephesians, 14
 Ignatius, Letter to Polycarp, 6
 Ignatius, Ephesians, 14
 Ignatius, Smyrneans, 1
 Ignatius, Ephesians, 10
 Ignatius, Letter to Polycarp, 3
 Ignatius, Trallians, 4
 Ignatius, Romans, 3
 Ignatius, Romans, 7
 Ignatius, Philadelphians, 1
 Ignatius, Ephesians, 16
 Ignatius, Magnesians, 4
 Ignatius, Romans, 3
 Ignatius, Smyrneans, 6
 Ignatius, Magnesians, 6