Everything to Know About Ignatius of Antioch’s Letters Before He Died


When Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, was sentenced to death in AD 107, he was escorted from Antioch to Rome to be martyred.[1] Along the way, he was visited by Christians who encouraged him and brought reports of how their churches were doing. Ignatius wrote six Letters or “Epistles” to some of these churches and a Letter to Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna. The letters had several themes in common, but the most important theme was church unity.

According to Ignatius, the most important thing for the churches to do to maintain unity was to treat their own leaders with honor.[2] The bishop of each city’s churches should be honored and obeyed like God Himself, the elders should be honored and obeyed like the apostles, and the deacons should be treated with honor too.[3] Although it was important for every Christian to honor one another,[4] honoring and obeying church leaders was important to the unity of the church.

Ignatius recognized two hinderances to this unity among the churches. One was heresy, or incorrect doctrinal teaching—especially about the person of Jesus Christ. During Ignatius’s day, a heretical group called the Docetists infiltrated the church. The Docetists believed Jesus was fully God, but they could not imagine His being fully human. They taught that Jesus only seemed to be human, but like a ghost, He was too spiritual to be a fully physical being.[5]Ignatius warned his Christian friends to beware of false teaching and instead embrace the full humanity and deity of Jesus.[6]

The other hinderance to unity among a city’s churches was separatism, or believing that there could be factions within each city’s churches who operate separately from the bishop. Ignatius advised Christians not to do anything apart from their bishops because they were all part of the same body of believers.[7]

While unity within each city’s churches was the most important theme in Ignatius’s letters, he also emphasized the importance of good behavior. He taught that people with bad doctrine behave badly, and people with good doctrine should behave well and worthy of the name of Christ.[8] In other words, the fruit people bear is indicative of what kind of doctrine they hold, and God will judge all people, both good and bad, in the end.[9] This good behavior would not only promote unity within the church but also would pave the way for the world’s hearing and seeing the Gospel lived out in the lives of the church.

One letter Ignatius wrote is different from the other six because it is written to Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna. It was like a letter from an older bishop to a younger one. As a fellow bishop, Ignatius encouraged Polycarp to “press on” and keep doing his ministry carefully.[10] In Polycarp’s efforts to “bear the struggles of all,” Ignatius urged Polycarp not only to pay attention to the needs of the good disciples but also of those who are more troublesome too.[11] When heretics might try to persuade Polycarp of their views, he should “stand firm as does an anvil that is hammered.”[12]Ignatius encouraged Polycarp to care for the widows and slaves in his congregation and encouraged slaves, wives, husbands, and single people to be content in their relationship with God.[13] While the letter was written to Polycarp, Ignatius knew Polycarp’s congregation would be listening in on the details, so he reminded them to do all things, including marriage, with the approval of their bishop, paying attention to him in all things and not deserting him or the church. Rather they should be patient with one another in humility as God is patient with them.[14]

Although Ignatius was facing the end of his life, his emphasis was on the unity of the church, which should be centered on the leadership of local churches and an accurate understanding of Jesus Christ. Ignatius’s pleas for Christians to live in unity, truth, and good behavior continue to be emphases of the church throughout the centuries.




[1] The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, s.v. “St. Ignatius of Antioch,” second edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

[2] Ignatius, Epistle to the Magnesians, 6.

[3] Ignatius, Epistle to the Ephesians, 6; Epistle to the Magnesians, 3, 6; Epistle to the Trallians, 2-3, 13; Epistle to the Smyrnæans, 8-9.

[4] Ignatius, Epistle to the Magnesians, 13.

[5] Ignatius, Epistle to the Trallians, 10; Epistle to the Smyrnæans, 1, 2-5. Alister McGrath, Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 111-6.

[6] Ignatius, Epistle to the Ephesians, 7, 18-20; Epistle to the Magnesians, 1, 8; Epistle to the Trallians, 9; Epistle to the Smyrnæans, 1, 3. 

[7] Ignatius, Epistle to the Ephesians, 5-6, 13; Epistle to the Trallians, 7; Epistle to the Philadelphians, 2-4, 7-8; Epistle to the Smyrnæans, 8-9. 

[8] Ignatius, Epistle to the Ephesians, 15; Epistle to the Magnesians, 4; Epistle to the Smyrnæans, 6.

[9] Ignatius, Epistle to the Ephesians, 11.

[10] Ignatius, Epistle to Polycarp, 1.

[11] Ignatius, Epistle to Polycarp, 1-2.

[12] Ignatius, Epistle to Polycarp, 3.

[13] Ignatius, Epistle to Polycarp, 4-5.

[14] Ignatius, Epistle to Polycarp, 5-6.