Dealing with Difficult Disciples: A Lesson from Ignatius of Antioch

If you love good disciples, it is no credit to you; rather with gentleness bring the more troublesome ones into submission. “Not every wound is healed by the same treatment”; “relieve inflammations with cold compresses.”

– Ignatius of Antioch [i]

Writing at the beginning of the second century, Ignatius of Antioch wrote his fellow pastor Polycarp, encouraging him in the faith and ministry. Both men were disciples or “hearers” of the Apostle John. In the midst of this letter, Ignatius addressed an issue that all ministers deal with from time to time: difficult disciples. Ignatius gives brief wisdom on how to approach these “troublesome” disciples when we are tempted to focus our love and attention on those who are more agreeable.

Ignatius reminds us that not every situation requires the same response. Just as physical ailments require different treatments, so too spiritual problems must be diagnosed and then handled properly. Approaching every problem with heat (we may call this direct confrontation, direct rebuke, etc.) may not always be the best solution.

Hot Compress: Sometimes, heat is needed. Problems need to be addressed head on. Issues sometimes need to be handled in a manner that reflects the seriousness of the problem, but always with grace, offering hope, forgiveness, and restoration.

Cold Compress: Sometimes what a difficult person needs is simply kindness, or a gentle word of correction. Not all ailments are treated the same way. Sometimes a direct confrontation or  rebuke will only drive difficult disciples further away. If timed and handled with wisdom, a gentle word can melt a stubborn heart.

Do All in Love: In all dealings with difficult disciples, we must love as Christ. We must always remember that our goal is to bring difficult disciples closer into a flourishing walk with Jesus, not pushing them away or abandoning them. Therefore, we must demonstrate love in all our dealings with them. Sometimes love must be hot, sometimes it must be cool. The response must match the need of the moment, and knowing the correct response takes wisdom. In either case, the response must not be domineering, but should seek to remain humble. Perhaps the best perspective to maintain when sorting through how to respond to difficult disciples is to remember our own shortcomings, and the grace that Christ has shown us.


[i]  Ignatius of Antioch, “Ignatius to Polycarp,” in The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, translated by Michael William Holmes. Updated ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 195.

4 thoughts on “Dealing with Difficult Disciples: A Lesson from Ignatius of Antioch

  1. This was a really great reflection on Ignatius’ analogy. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Robert. Thanks for the thoughts. It’s great to glean the helpful wisdom of Church in ages past. Thanks for gleaning and applying this to us today.

    1. Absolutely! Thanks for stopping by!

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