Part 1 of this series on Church is available here
Martyrdom is something that most people in the Western church (myself included) are not all that familiar with. Oh sure, we may be familiar with the Jesus Freak books by DC Talk, and we probably know some stories that someone told us about someone they know that was tortured or killed for their faith. Probably by this point, we’ve also heard the tragic news of the 21 Coptic Christians being martyred by ISIS a few weeks ago.
Responses to this act have run the gamut. The Coptic Church responded by canonizing the 21 martyrs as Saints. Egyptian forces responded by bombing ISIS in retaliation for the acts of violence. Some American Christians are asking for more American military intervention, while others are asking for less. Some of the martyrs’ family members are thanking ISIS for giving them the opportunity to become martyrs for the cause of Christ. Others are mocking the martyrs families for expressing that gratitude.
Which all just raises the question, how is the Church supposed to respond in the face of persecution and martyrdom?
I think the best way to answer that question is to go the best source we have on the Church and early persecution: the book of Acts.
In the book of Acts, Christians experience periods of great growth, but it’s punctuated by periods of intense persecution. The type of persecution that sounds similar the things we’ve been hearing about in the news. Peter and John are flogged for preaching in Acts 5. Stephen is stoned to death in Acts 7. James is killed by Herod. Peter is arrested again. Saul who’s now Paul gets arrested a few times. And this is a book that gives the highlights of the early Church
So when we ask how the Church should respond in the face of persecution and martyrdom, we’re fortunate to have a precedent right here. The early church was persecuted and we have a record of their response: They rejoice and they preach.
What’s strangely absent from the Early Church’s response to persecution is any attempt to put a stop to it. None of the Christians start any violent uprisings in the book of Acts. None of them go to the Sanhedrin and ask politely that they be more lenient. Instead, they adopt persecution as a part of their identity. They wear their martyrdom like a badge of honor. They seem to take it as a given that being a follower of Christ is going to mean they are treated unfairly, taken advantage of, and possibly even tortured and killed.
But that’s not the response of the Church today, is it? I listened to a sermon from a church in the Dallas area where the minister called the Congregation to support the military and to do whatever it took to stop ISIS from persecuting the church. That is a logical, well-thought out response to the violence towards Christians in the Middle East. But it’s not a scriptural one. It’s a response of self-interest (Because you’ll notice the church doesn’t get quite so worked up about violence against atheists in the Middle East).
The Church in America is shrinking. We don’t really experience persecution (because saying Happy Holidays doesn’t count), and any slight resistance we do encounter is met with cries of how this is a Christian nation and we should be treated fairly (if not preferentially). Do you know where the Church is growing though? China. Korea. Iran. India. In places where the Church experiences real persecution and martyrdom, the Church grows. In places where the Church bucks persecution and seeks equal treatment, the Church shrinks.
Persecution and Martyrdom is part of the DNA of the Church. The whole idea of Christianity is predicated on an act of martyrdom. It’s named after a martyr. Persecution is the womb the Church was birthed out of. To reject martyrdom is to reject the Church. The apostles rejoiced in being flogged and killed for their faith, whereas the western Church gripes when we don’t get our way. The Church is at its healthiest when it experiences suffering and oppression. Yes, that’s backwards. No, it doesn’t make sense, but it’s the way God has chosen to interact with the Church.
So rather than rejecting persecution, or seeking asylum from it, perhaps the Church would be better served by embracing it. While we can mourn the loss of life when ISIS captures and kills Christians, we should also rejoice that these people are able to fully experience the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
This isn’t an easy teaching. Embracing the reality of the persecuted Church isn’t just something you do lightly. It fundamentally alters the way we engage in the world. It opens ourselves up to the reality that following Christ might mean following him onto the Cross. But if we’re serious about being followers of God as a part of his Church, the Church has to accept its identity as a persecuted entity.
If the Church is truly following Christ, she will experience persecution. She will experience hardship. She will experience martyrdom. But maybe that’s not something we’re supposed to fight against. Maybe that’s something to embrace and rejoice in. Maybe we’ll truly experience the presence and the power of Christ when we fully surrender ourselves to the reality of our religion that is predicated in the suffering and death of its members. May we be willing to be his followers, even if it means becoming his martyrs.
Part 3, The Universal Church, is available Here.