Friday, August 9, 2013

Church Planting and Martyrs

     While reading After Christendom: How the Church is to Behave if Freedom, Justice, and a Christian Nation are Bad Ideas, by Stanley Hauerwas, I was struck by his idea of the Church as a political body. A political body that had entirely different standards of ruling than any other political body. His ultimate illustration, and proof of this idea, was the martyr: “There is no more powerful witness to this understanding of salvation as enacted narrative than martyrdom.”[1] In its earliest conception, Christianity stood alone, over and against the beliefs of Rome, as a political body that offered humanity another way of life. When the two giant worldviews clashed, the most powerful witness against the ultimate weakness of Roman worldview was the martyr.
In our modern age, our ecclesiological pursuits have asked us to deal with the realities of consumerism, commodification, post-modernism, and individualism. This, I would say, is the age old struggle between the Church and Rome; so to speak. And it seems that we can learn much from the ancient Church’s struggle. “[W]hy has the church in North America produced so few martyrs? What kind of church is ours if, in an era of gluttony, imperialism, avarice, and bloodlust, we cannot produce people who threaten such an order?”[2] The work that follows is my attempt to make sense of the martyr, in the uniquely ancient Christian sense, and create a rubric by which we can focus and develop our ecclesiology.
It is not my intent to propose a new ecclesiology, or provide any different forms of church. Nor is it my goal to recount the history of martyrdom, or attempt in some way to change its original meaning to fit our contexts.  My goal is to provide a reasonable understanding of how we might engage a changing culture in transformative community; no matter what form of church we decide to employ.

Simply, martyrdom is “the suffering of death on account of adherence to a cause and especially to one's religious faith.”[3] In the Christian sense, martyrdom is the status of being a blood-witness; or belonging to the community of those who have bled out in obedience to Christ. Without recounting the entire history of martyrdom in the Church, we should suffice it to say that martyrdom is a kind of sacrament, in which a Christian is able to follow Christ in being physically killed due to identification as a Christian.
There has long been a conversation within the Christian community for who should be counted among such a community. The conversation also tends to include whether or not martyrdom is a sacrament, and could be used to gain entrance to the church (as many Christians never completed their catechism process before they were killed, and thus were not baptized yet). I recognize the conversation, and value it, but for the purpose of this paper will not explore such a deep topic. The working definition that I provide above must suffice.

I believe the initial challenge is getting the archaic experience of martyrdom to become a modern awareness and consideration. This is no small feat. For the experience seems to have no relevant purpose in present Christian spirituality, especially among the faddishness of new church models being churned out for the Emerging Church planter to consider. Granted, many of the conversations I have had, that molded the direction of this work, started with disbelief that martyrdom could have anything to do with the present day modern American church. The idea just won’t sell.
It is this attitude, I believe, that has gotten us in the ecclesial mess that we are in today. We try to focus on ideas and theologies that we believe will work. For me, it confuses the probable with the imperative. We forget about what we must do, in favor of what will most likely work; thus the overwhelming number of ideas and models for doing church.
It is important to note, in such an environment, that I propose no new church ecclesial model. Rather, I am interested (being a church planter myself) in developing a rubric by which we can navigate the often turbulent waters of Emerging Church. This is the crux of my consideration. Martyrdom, and the consideration thereof, is not a new way of doing church, or of being church. Instead, understanding martyrdom is key to being able to pass judgment on the myriad of new ideas and ecclesial models, and determine their place in the modern age, and the age to come.

In our day and age, we seem assaulted with varying ecclesial ideals and methods. We are asked to consider the megachurch, the cell church, the missional church, the purpose-driven church. Young church planters, and old alike, especially when planting churches without denominational ties are required at some point to select some sort of church organization, government, and function. We have to select how we form our church institution.
The ancient church struggled with institutional procedure and development much like we do. The form of institution is nowhere to be found in the Bible. There are descriptions of healthy churches, but no prescription with how to build one; in regards to form. The truth is: many of the Apostles and Church Fathers graded their churches, at least partially, on how well they produced Christians who could stand the test of martyrdom.

For my readings, I chose to read early church history, among other things. It is fascinating to see how those with apostolic authority chose to deal with the reality of themselves (along with those they were leading) being executed, if they did not renounce their faith in Jesus. Lessons of the faithful martyrs have had their place in the Church ever since. But the reality of the day was not one where every believer boldly proclaimed Christ even to their dying breath. Many people apostatized, renounced Jesus, and publicly sacrificed to the gods, as evidence that they were not a part of the Christian community.[4] The Church was oftentimes disgraced.
Thus, training Christians who could stand up against the ultimate test became a priority. Two common pictures were used to inspire and exhort Christians of the day. These images were very powerful then, as they are now.
     Being a Christian became being an athlete. The Christian faith required, it was taught, an intense training and discipline in order to ensure success. Paul writes to the Corinthians,
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.[5]

The image of athlete works. All of the training, and work, put in by the individual will become evident at an event in which their skill, discipline, and strength will be tested. The athlete knows that there is coming a time when they will either be embarrassed by their lack of preparation, or they will be honored by their preparation in victory. Thus the Ancient Church used martyrdom as an athletic event that must be trained for. Those who failed to pass the test were obviously unprepared.
     As the first Christians in Gaul were being executed for their faith, Church historian Eusebius quotes a letter sent from the Gallic church to others in Asia and Phrygia about how well the Church was doing in Gaul; and how well the Christians had been prepared to face martyrdom. “Then the rest fell into two groups. It was clear that some were ready to be the first Gallic martyrs: they made a full confession of their testimony with the greatest eagerness. It was equally clear that others were not ready, that they had not trained and were still flabby, in no fit condition to face the strain of a struggle to the death.”[6] Martyrdom thus became an Olympic event, and the Church became the community of Olympians.[7]
     The second image of martyrdom in the Ancient Church was that of battle. The Church was supposed to be able to arm its congregants, and train them to fight against Satan, in witness to the Lord. Tripp York, in his work The Politics of Martyrdom, develops well this notion.
Throughout early Christian literature, the chief combatants in the martyrs’ battle were not the Christian and the gladiator (or beast), but the battle between Christ and those powers in rebellion to Christ. This war was waged visibly in the bodies of Christians. Cyprian informs his listeners that on the day they are called to battle, they must ‘engage bravely, fight with constancy, as knowing that you are fighting under the eyes of a present Lord… He Himself also wrestles in us, Himself engaged—Himself also in the struggles of our conflict not only crowns, but is crowned.’[8] Tertullian contends that when Christians become martyrs, demons are defeated.[9] The arena, in effect, represents that place where the power of evil fully manifests itself in order to do battle with God.[10]

The image of Christian as warfighter works. The Christian expects a military event in which not just their skill, discipline and strength; but also their preparation and armament will be tested. The warrior knows that there is coming a time when they will either be struck down by their lack of preparation and armament, or they will be honored in victory. Thus the ancient Church understood itself as a community of warfighters arming for, and conducting battle.[11]
There is potential for our modern ecclesial struggles to be honed by this concept of martyrdom as test. The ancient and early Church found its job, its mission, to produce Christians who could be martyrs. It is well documented that the Church graded itself on how well they were able to produce such faithful heroes.[12]

We have well established how the ancient Church understood martyrdom, and its implications on early ecclesiology. There are many lessons to learn from their hard won experience. The Church was very well thought out in its approach to producing martyrs. They called it training, discipline, witness, fulfillment, etc.. In this section, I would like to develop these notions, and how they might inform an ecclesiological rubric. I will limit my discussion to three foundations: education, sacrament, and witness.

The first is that the church must take education very seriously. Martyrs are seldom made outside of instruction. The Letters and Epistles found in the New Testament are profoundly full of demands to the churches to instruct,[13] admonish,[14] exhort[15] and teach[16] the Church. The Apostles were aware that true discipleship does not happen outside of sound training.
The Church Fathers, as well, valued education and catechesis. Origen, who in his youth desperately desired to become a martyr, turned his attention to education; and in time, was found valuable by the Bishop Demetrius and placed in charge of an elementary school. He was well noted for his preparation of those going to be executed for being Christians.[17] His ability to train martyrs was his strongpoint, and his focus. Soon after his appointment to the school, Origen is mainly noted for his ability to educate pagans and make them ready to be martyrs.[18]
I believe we can safely say that education is a primary tenet of the martyrdom rubric. Though not from the perspective of training martyrs, Bretherton and Walker essentially agree with the principle:
What a deep church most needs today, however, is not an intellectual map of theological method and historical even-handedness, as helpful and as ecumenically prescient as this may be. The greater need is for a theology of Christian basics. In short: catechesis for all beginners in the Christian life whether they be infants or adults.[19]

It is perhaps for this reason that I am hesitant to embrace the “in-home” missional community ecclesiology which is often recommended by my peers. I find that there usually are not enough skilled teachers in small home environments. The end result usually winds up being an emphasis on community, at the expense of education. If my humble opinion matters, missional community oriented churches (such as the kind I intend to plant, and the kind I come from) we absolutely must take education and training seriously. Otherwise, we will not be able to produce the kind of Christians who can be faithful to Christ, even to death.

The second foundation of martyrdom is sacrament. St. Ignatius, in his letter to the Ephesian church, asked them to pray for him as he faced his own death. “[T]hat by your prayers I should obtain to fight with wild beasts at Rome, that I might be able, through martyrdom, to attain to being a disciple of him who offered himself for us as an offering and sacrifice unto God.”[20] St. Ignatius, among others of the Church Fathers, saw martyrdom as the final sacrament: truly drinking from the cup of Christ, and being baptized with the same baptism.[21] “Let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts,” Ignatius claims in his letter to the Roman church, “That I may be found the pure bread of Christ.”[22] Though I could find no direct claim from the Church Fathers, or Apostles, that martyrdom is to be considered a sacrament; I rest my claim on the constant use of sacramental language in their documents when discussing martyrdom.
If we can agree that martyrdom is rightly considered as the ultimate participation with Christ in His death and resurrection, then we can see how seriously we must take the other sacraments in our ecclesiology. If dying for our faith is the ultimate participation in the gospel, then our other methods of participation ought not be made light and easy. One of our methods to train ourselves is to participate in sacrament.
Sacraments prepare the martyr for his/her duty. Baptism then, is a preparation for death. The Eucharist is a participation in Christ’s martyrdom and claiming solidarity with the community of the resurrected, which in some way, ought to prepare us for our own death. The arenas of Rome were the testing ground of how well one was prepared for the consequences of their faith. “Christian worship was the means by which one prepared well for the contest. Prayer, charity, and the sacraments were understood to be fundamental habits that prepared one for the coming battle.”[23] Indeed, Cyprian argued that daily participation in the Lord’s Supper was essential to remaining faithful during an intense period of martyrdom.[24]
Our ecclesiology must include a robust emphasis on the proper participation of the sacraments. This is clearly laid out in scripture.[25] But the sacraments should also be used to prepare us for our own deaths, and aid us in our own dying to self.
Though from a different viewpoint, Karkkainen too stresses the importance of sacrament (especially the Eucharist) in our ecclesiology: “Human nature becomes consubstantial with the deified humanity, united with the person of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. This union is fulfilled in the sacramental life.” And later, he states, “[T]he basic ecclesiological rule that goes back to the fathers says, wherever the Eucharist is, there is the church. Or, the church makes the Eucharist, and the Eucharist makes the church.”[26]
This is why I tend to hesitate at any ecclesiology that does not take seriously the service of the Lord’s Supper or baptism. I also think that the American parachurch trend of baptizing youths at various retreats must be thought through more thoroughly.[27]

The third foundation of martyrdom is that of witness. The event of martyrdom is the supreme act of testimony to the power of salvation, to the publicq, spiritual powers, and other Christians.[28] It is perhaps the most powerful fulfillment of the Great Commission.
From the beginning of the Church, followers of Christ have struggled with how to most effectively and completely obey this sacred command. The witness of the martyr stands as the greatest achievement of the Church in an event that reveals Christ, and encourages obedience to His commands. Paul exhorts the Corinthian church thus: “For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men.”[29] As we have already established, successful faithfulness in the face of great persecution and death, relies upon a practice of evangelism and obedience in discipline. A martyr takes the command to spread the word so seriously, that they faithfully do so by way of their death.
Martyrdom is the severest and truest way to communicate the Christ story; to which we must stay faithful, and be faithful to tell others. Nicholas Lash asks, “What might ‘witness’ or ‘martyrdom’ mean, today? The form of the question… should rather be: What form might contemporary fidelity to ‘the testimony of Jesus’ appropriately take? And this is a practical and not merely a theoretical question.”[30] He claims that engagement with this question “is an aspect, but only an aspect, of the broader task of Christian interpretative practice, of the attempt to bear witness faithfully and effectively to God’s transformative purpose and meaning for mankind.”[31]
For this reason, I think that we ought to be cautious of any ecclesiology that does not take seriously the command to spread the Gospel, and teach converts to obey the commands of Christ, no matter the cost. We ought to have a suspicion of any claims made on an easy Christianity that does not require sacrifice in obedience to the Great Comission.

The martyrdom rubric, I hope, will enable the local church planter involved in the Emerging church movement to make sense of many of the practices that are proposed in today’s Christian marketplace of ideas. Indeed, it is not comprehensive, nor does it even encapsulate all lessons of the ancient Church, as it wrestled with martyrdom. However, I hope it proves helpful as a rudimentary tool.
In order for us to identify ourselves as a local expression of the Church, we must take seriously, and wrestle deeply with, the foundations of education, sacrament, and witness.
There are other problems, of course, that I have not wrestled with in this work. How do we stand over and against such giants as postmodernism, consumerism, commodification, and individualism? My work does not go into any detail, nor make any claims that the attitude of the martyr, or employing the martyrdom rubric, will be able to counter these ideas. Against such heresies, even the creeds can prove an unwieldy tool. (“I believe…” wait, maybe that pushes individualism?) I think that the burden of tackling those issues really relies on the Christian educators among us. I believe that the Holy Spirit still dwells in strength among the body of Believers; and with that reality, there is no limit on how learning and wisdom can help us in our ever changing battle against Rome.
I pray that this short work will serve as a good starting point for conversation in the Emerging church. In an attempt to mine our Christian past, I think that we will find the answers that we need to battle the ever changing Rome.



Barnabas, Clement I, Charles Hoole, Saint Ignatius, Saint Polycarp. The Apostolic Fathers: The Epistles of S. Clement, S. Ignatius, S. Barnabus, S. Polycarp, Togeher with the Martyrdom of S. Ignatius and S. Polycarp. Translated by Charles H Hoole. London: Rivingtons, 1872.

Bretherton, Luke, Christopher Cocksworth, Alan Kreider, Andrew Walker, Ben Quash, Mark Wakelin, and Andrew Walker. Remembering Our Future; Explorations in Deep Church. Edited by Luke, and Andrew Walker Bretherton. Colorado Springs: Paternoster, 2007.

Clark, Jason, Kevin Corcoran, Scot McKnight, Peter Rollins. Church in the Present Tense; a Candid Look at What's Emerging. Edited by Kevin Corcoran. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011.

Eusebius. The History of the Church. Edited by Andrew Louth. Translated by G.A. Williamson. London: Penguin Books, 1989.

Hauerwas, Stanley. After Christendom; How Church is to Behave if Freedom, Justice, and a Christian Nation are Bad Ideas. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1991.

International Olympic Comittee. Ancient Olympic Games. n.d. (accessed December 14, 2011).

Karkkainen, Veli-Matti. An Introduction to Ecclesiology. Madison: InterVarsity Press, 2002.

Lash, Nicholas. Theology on the Way to Emmaus. Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1986.

Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster Dictionary. n.d. (accessed December 12, 2011).
—. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. n.d. http// (accessed December 14, 2011).

Peterson, Eugene. The Pastor; a Memoir. New York: HarperOne, 2011.

York, Tripp. The Purple Crown; The Politics of Martyrdom. Scottsdale: Herald Press, 2007.

[1] Stanley Hauerwas, After Christendom; How the Church is to Behave if Freedom, Justice, and a Christian Nation are Bad Ideas, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1991) 38.
[2] Tripp York, The Purple Crown; The Politics of Martyrdom (Scottsdale: Herald Press, 2007), 22.
[3] Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster Dictionary. http// (accessed December 12, 2011).

[4] Eusebius, 5.1.33, for a good example; in almost every account of a mass martyrdom Eusebius is careful to mention (though not elaborate on) those who apostatized at threat of death and persecution.
[5] 1 Corinthians 9:24-26. English Standard Version.
[6] Eusebius, The History of the Church, Book 5.1:8.
[7] 1 Corinthians 9:25 speaks of being an athlete who receives a wreath, a gesture of victory common at the ancient Olympic games according to Official Website of the Olympic Movement, “Ancient Olympic Games,” International Olympic Committee, (accessed December 14, 2011).
[8] Cyprian. Epistle 8, 5:288.
[9] Tertullian, The Apology, 27, 3:86.
[10] York, 32.
[11] Ephesians 6:10-18 is the clearest example of apostolic instruction in war fighting language.
[12] York, The Purple Crown; The Politics of Martyrdom. Though I make a bold claim here, without much documentation, I have found that Tripp York does an excellent job of this in his work. Rather than spend most of my time trying to recreate his work, I would rather move on and discuss its implications for ecclesiology.
[13] Romans 15:14, 1 Corinthians 14:19
[14] 1 Corinthians 4:14, 1 Thessalonians 5:12-14
[15] 2 Timothy 4:2, Titus 2:15, Hebrews 3:13, 1 Peter 5:1
[16] 1 Timothy 4:11, 6:2, 2 Timothy 2:24, Titus 1:11, Hebrews 5:12
[17] Eusebius, History of the Church, Book 6.3:2.
[18] Ibid., Book 6.3:13-5:2.
[19] Andrew Walker and Luke Bretherton, Remembering our Future; Explorations in Deep Church, (Colorado Springs: Paternoster, 2007) 14.
[20] The Epistle of St. Ignatius to the Ephesians, 1:2.
[21] Mark 10:38-39
[22] The Epistle of St. Ignatius to the Romans, 4:2.
[23] York, 40.
[24] Saint Cyprian, Epistle 55; To the People of Thibaris, Exhorting to Martyrdom, Chapter 1.
[25] 1 Corinthians 11:17-34
[26] Veli-Matti Karkkainen, An Introduction to Ecclesiology; Ecumenical, Historical & Global Perspectives, (Dowers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002) 21.
[27] Perhaps a note for another work altogether; but I have serious misgivings about calling parachurch the “Body of Christ” as it is really a unique invention in light of organizations being able to take advantage of the modern charitable tax status. Why would the parachurch then be comfortable with offering sacraments?
[28] York, 27-37.
[29] 1 Corinthians 4:9
[30] Nicholas Lash, Theology on the Way to Emmaus, (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1986) 91.
[31] Ibid., 92.

1 comment:

Melissa Palmer said...

An interesting perspective to take on church planting: training Christians to be martyrs. It's a tough sale in today's church-going "market."

Are there even martyrs in American culture? No, but what about witnessing? Increasing at stunning rates are employers "no-tolerance" view on witnessing at work. Any job in the public sphere falls in this category. As a teacher, you can loose your job and have your licensed stripped for teaching about Christ.

Perhaps in your rubric for a church plant, start from what is close at stake-loosing your job for witnessing about the death of Christ and victory over sin- and then advancing into martyrdom.