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Lessons on Discipleship from Witnesses in the Apostolic Church

Discover how Sts. Ignatius and Polycarp model discipleship, and the lessons that can be learned from them.

by Dr. Kevin Clarke, Ph.D.

What Is Discipleship?

When considering the word “disciple,” the first notion that presents itself is that of “following.” The Greek word for “following” (akolouthia) derives from the word for “path” (keleuthos). One can imagine the peripatetic Greek students walking along in the same paths as their philosophical masters. A disciple is one who follows in the paths first traveled by a master.

But there is another notion perhaps more obvious on an etymological level: “disciple” comes from the Latin discipuli, which means “learner.” So also in Greek, each disciple is a mathētēs, or “learner.” Jesus identifies his servants as learners when he says, “A disciple is not above his teacher” (Mt 10:24). Christian discipleship, of course, involves instruction in the faith. We learn the central mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation, and many doctrines. Nevertheless, learning is insufficient without imitating the life of the Lord, including the outcome of his life. As Archbishop Vigneron noted in Unleash the Gospel, “in imitation of Christ, martyrdom is the pattern for fulfillment as a disciple of Jesus, and so preparation for this heroic witness is the measure for Christian formation" (Action Step 1.1, Unleash the Gospel).

One of the most important aspects of discipleship is bearing witness, in Greek, martyria. In John the Evangelist’s biblical economy, it is crucial that “they will look upon him whom they pierced" (See Jn 19:37 and Rv 1:7, quoting the prophecy from Zec 12:10). This is because the court of testimony is the cross. The Apostle in his first letter reminds us that from the cross of Christ, the water and the blood flowing from Christ’s side along with the Spirit are the three “witnesses” that testify to the Lord’s authenticity (1 Jn 5:6-8). 

This same Spirit takes up his testimony in the early Church, whose members wasted no time in following the path set forth by the Teacher. Shortly after Pentecost, as Jesus foretold, his disciples began to suffer and die for the sake of his name. Even before the passions of all the apostles, St. Stephen the protomartyr gives the first and most illustrious example of a death in imitation of the Lord’s own in a long line of martyrs. For the purposes of this article, we will look to two slightly more recent witnesses: Ignatius and Polycarp in the second century. 

Discipleship and Martyrdom in Ignatius and Polycarp

In the earliest Church, Sts. Ignatius and Polycarp stand out as particularly exemplary disciples. We have one of the best examples of “Christ-learning” in Ignatius, early bishop of Antioch, who died in the arena in Rome, likely in the first decade of the second century. Ignatius wrote seven letters to churches throughout the Mediterranean while imprisoned and being led away to Rome to be fed to the beasts. (More than seven letters are attributed to Ignatius, but these are the ones that are recognized by scholars as authentic: Ephesians, Magnesians, Trallians, Romans, Philadelphians, Smyrneans, and the letter to St. Polycarp.) He also coined the term “Christ-learning,” which as Gregory Vall points out, he likely derives from Paul (Learning Christ: Ignatius of Antioch & the Mystery of Redemption). Most famously, he writes a letter to the Church of Rome asking them not to intervene to save him from the beasts, but rather to pray for him that he may come to a perfect end in the arena. He uses eucharistic imagery identifying how he expects to be ground up like wheat in the teeth of the beasts in order to become “pure bread.” In his death, he becomes a kind of eucharistic offering, a sacrifice to God. 

Ignatius saw his final contest as the culmination of discipleship. It is important to recall that all the works we have from Ignatius’s hand were written in captivity. Yet, even though we certainly see evidence of his discipleship in his chains and sufferings, he had an acute sense of its lack of completion. He writes to the Trallians that “even though I have been bound and can understand heavenly things” his discipleship is incomplete, so that God can make up what is lacking in him (Trall., 5.2, translations from Ignatius’s letters are my own). In his letter to the Ephesians, he recognizes that by his imprisonment he has the “beginning” of discipleship; he asks their prayers as he prepares to fight the beasts “so that I may attain to be a disciple" (Eph. 1:3). All Ignatius’s “Christ-learning” was geared toward this final moment, walking in the way of Jesus to his own sacrificial death. “Then I will truly be a disciple of Jesus Christ, when the world will no longer see my body" (Rom. 4:2). 

The last Ignatian letter is one he wrote to the young bishop of the Smyrnaeans, Polycarp. Polycarp is most famous not for having received this letter but for the outcome of his life. Like Ignatius, he died in the arena. Unlike Ignatius, we have an account of Polycarp’s death, written by one of his disciples. In a mysterious way, the Martyrdom of Polycarp stands as a kind of epilogue to the letters of Ignatius. Ignatius’s own example as a witness was so excellent that another episcopal imitator, Polycarp, walks the same path. In fact, the liturgical imagery appears once again in the 86-year-old Smyrnaean bishop’s death, when at the final moment the whole arena fills with the aroma of frankincense—a sweet-smelling oblation indeed (MPoly., 15.2).

What Lessons Can We Learn from Them?

One cannot read the seven letters of Ignatius without noticing that he does not want to create his own independent following. He does not want his readers to place their trust in his discipleship until he has completed his testimony in the mouths of the beasts. It is always a temptation for those in ministry to view themselves as exemplary disciples. After all, when ministers come forward to serve the Church, they risk being followed in place of Christ. Ignatius would remind us that discipleship is not about creating our own followers but about “Christ-learning.” This is why he repeatedly emphasized throughout his letters to “do nothing apart from the bishop.” For Ignatius, factiousness harms the unity of the Church, but discipleship unites it (Philad., 8.2).

Indeed, one of the central messages about discipleship from Ignatius is this instruction to Polycarp, his fellow bishop: “If you love good disciples, it is not to your credit. Rather, subject the more pestilent ones in gentleness. Not every wound is treated by the same salve" (Polyc., 2.1. “Good” here could also be translated as “beautiful.”) This is a reminder not only to clergy but also to all in ministry that we must love not only those who are easy to love but also the troublesome ones. No one was more troublesome to Polycarp than the proconsul trying him, yet even in his trial gentle Polycarp extended him this invitation, “if you wish to learn (mathein) the account of Christianity, give a day and listen" (MPoly., 10.1).

Ignatius’s sense of his own training for discipleship and preparation for its completion is a particularly valuable lesson (mathēteia) for us today. A Christian disciple is ever on the path of his Teacher. Similarly, Polycarp does not ask what he is unwilling to do himself. He said, “let us then become imitators of His endurance, and if we should suffer for His name’s sake, let us glorify Him" (Poly., 7.2). While it is unlikely—though never out of the question—that the readers of this article will be fed to lions, it is nevertheless important to recognize that discipleship is always something “in progress.” This is why, of course, the martyrdom accounts of Polycarp, Perpetua, Felicity, and others recorded by ecclesiastical historians exist at all: the encouragement of the brethren. We can, then, consider the outcome of the lives of these witnesses and imitate their faith (Heb 13:7). All march daily toward their earthly end. Even if we will not perish in the arena, the hour of death comes for us all as an arena for our own final testimony. 

by Dr. Kevin Clarke, Ph.D.

Dr. Kevin Clarke, Ph.D.

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Sacred Heart Major Seminary is a Christ-centered Catholic community of faith and higher learning committed to forming leaders who will proclaim the good news of Christ to the people of our time. As a leading center of the New Evangelization, Sacred Heart serves the needs of the Archdiocese of Detroit and contributes to the mission of the universal Church.