Having examined the life of Polycarp including his journey to Rome concerning the date of Easter, we now turn to the epistle written by this Apostolic Father. Although history suggests that Polycarp wrote many letters during his time as bishop, only one survives down to our present time. Polycarp wrote this letter to the church in Philippi, prompted by their request to send to them words of encouragement as well as copies of letters in his possession from his friend, Ignatius of Antioch:
“The Epistles of Ignatius written by him to us, and all the rest [of his Epistles] which we have by us, we have sent to you, as you requested. They are subjoined to this Epistle, and by them you may be greatly profited; for they treat of faith and patience, and all things that tend to edification in our Lord.”
Further Polycarp seems to indicate that he had not yet received confirmation of Ignatius’ martyrdom, and hoped to learn from the Philippians more news of Ignatius and his companions: “Any more certain information you may have obtained respecting both Ignatius himself, and those that were with him, have the goodness to make known to us.”
Thus this letter to the Philippians dates to around the same time period of Ignatius’ letters and subsequent death, or shortly after, which places it a decade or so after the turn of the Second Century.
Polycarp’s letter consists primarily of exhortations to live moral lives in obedience to the commands of God. While the text is shorter than most of Ignatius’ writings, it is filled throughout with quotes from Scripture, especially the writings that would later become known as the New Testament. Polycarp is a wonderful early witness to the Christian use of these books for instruction and discipline.
However, the above passage concerning the writings of Ignatius – “…by them you may be greatly profited; for they treat of faith and patience, and all things that tend to edification in our Lord” – testifies to the fact that there was not an established norm defining which writings ought to be used by Christians for the purpose of instruction and formation in the faith. Indeed while Polycarp bears strong witness to the writings that would later form the New Testament, he seldom mentions them specifically by name, but instead points to Ignatius’ letters as a source for Christian “edification.”
It must be understood that the Bible was not clearly defined by this time in the Second Century, and many of the writings of the Church Fathers (including Ignatius, and Clement of Rome) were read at Christian worship services then copied and passed along to other churches in the same way that we would expect the New Testament to be preserved and cherished. For this reason, Polycarp also includes Ignatius as one who is worthy of imitation, along with Paul and the other Apostles:
“I exhort you all, therefore, to yield obedience to the word of righteousness, and to exercise all patience, such as you have seen [set] before your eyes, not only in the case of the blessed Ignatius, and Zosimus, and Rufus, but also in others among yourselves, and in Paul himself, and the rest of the apostles. [This do] in the assurance that all these have not run in vain, but in faith and righteousness, and that they are [now] in their due place in the presence of the Lord, with whom also they suffered.”
The Bible was not compiled into one book during Polycarp’s lifetime; he therefore does not distinguish between these writings as we would today. Nor does he rely on the Bible "Alone” (as some Christian denominations insist on today) as a guide for Christian doctrine and morals. Rather than the “Bible Alone” as guarantor of Christian unity and fidelity to Apostolic teaching, Polycarp points to the hierarchy of the Church. He strongly encourages the Philippians to avoid evil and sin and then he tells them to obey the ordained clergy:
“Wherefore, it is needful to abstain from all these things, being subject to the presbyters and deacons, as unto God and Christ.”
Just as we saw with Ignatius, Polycarp insists that the priests (presbyters) and deacons derive their authority from “God and Christ,” and to them we owe our allegiance. The Church, through her ordained ministers, ensures sound teaching, moral guidance, and protects the unity of all believers.
However, Polycarp also tells us of a presbyter named Valens who fell from grace through disobedience and sin:
“I am greatly grieved for Valens, who was once a presbyter among you, because he so little understands the place that was given him [in the Church]. I exhort you, therefore, that you abstain from covetousness, and that you be chaste and truthful. Abstain from every form of evil. For if a man cannot govern himself in such matters, how shall he enjoin them on others?”
Here Polycarp confronts an issue that many today would charge against the Catholic Church throughout the centuries. How can a church lead by sinners tell others not to sin? How can a church whose leaders are guilty of immorality be the same vehicle through which God exercises His own authority?
Polycarp’s letter demonstrates that even at this early date the Church grappled with this problem. Already they had encountered leaders who did not live up to their vocation. Polycarp realizes that if a man cannot “govern himself in such matters” it would be difficult for him to expect obedience from those under him. It seems that for this reason Valens was then removed from his office.
But Polycarp does not use this presbyter’s sin as an excuse to abandon the authoritative, hierarchical structure of the Church. To the contrary, he strongly insists on obedience to the clergy, even while in the same letter mentioning the disobedience of one of the presbyters. Polycarp recognized the sinfulness of some ranking members of the clergy, and yet continued to insist that God works through the Church leaders despite their sins. Polycarp calls for Valens to be reconciled with the Church:
“I am deeply grieved, therefore, brethren, for him (Valens) and his wife; to whom may the Lord grant true repentance! And be then moderate in regard to this matter, and do not count such as enemies, but call them back as suffering and straying members, that you may save your whole body. For by so acting you shall edify yourselves.”
There are many today who reject Catholicism based on the sins committed by members of the hierarchy. It must be admitted that these sins do occur and cause great scandal for the Church. In this matter we would do well to heed Polycarp. He sees here an opportunity for reconciliation and a healing of the Body of Christ. Some Christians down through the ages have called for rebellion and schism when faced with the sins of bishops, priests, and popes – but the early Church reacted with pity and an eye toward forgiveness, and always desirous to maintain unity among all believers. Because the Church is divinely instituted (established by Jesus and guided by the Spirit), the authority of the Church remains intact in spite of the sins of her members.