I call upon You, Lord, God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob and Israel, You who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of your mercy, was well-pleased towards us so that we may know You, who made heaven and earth, who rules over all, You who are the one and the true God, above whom there is no other God; You who, by our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, give to every one who reads this writing to know You, that You alone are God, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical and godless and impious teaching.

St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Persecution and the Expansion of the Church

I must agree with Philip Schaff, that the “chief positive cause of the rapid spread and ultimate triumph of Christianity is to be found in its own absolute intrinsic worth, as the universal religion of salvation, and in the perfect teaching and example of its divine-human Founder.”[1]  Either Christ and his life and doctrine are final truth and reality or they are not.  These are the only two options.  Because the former is the veritable truth, the utter supremacy and sublimity of the Christian faith is its strongest draw card.  Regarding methodology, the Father has given an elect people to be his Son’s own; the Son accomplished their redemption and promised that “[he] will build [his] church” (Matt. 16:18), and this begins by the Holy Spirit descending on the “little flock,” to whom it is the Father’s “good pleasure to give…the kingdom” (Lk. 12:32).  The expansion of the early (or latter) church is ultimately the result of the infinite wisdom, plan, and power of its Author, the triune God.  Ultimately, therefore, the essential value and altogether worthiness of its Object of devotion, Jesus Christ, was, is, and always will be its final, ultimate means of growth. 

Of course, the synagogues, which scattered the Hebraic religion and worldview through the Roman Empire like seeds, and Roman highways, the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek (i.e., the Septuagint or LXX), the pax Romana or Peace of Rome, the degradation of the heathen moral and religious world, as well as the despaired condition Judaism after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple all served, in the providence of God, as preparatory antecedents for the arrival of the kingdom in the Son of God, who came in the “fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4).  However, persecution appears to have been (and continues to be in many societies the Church finds herself in) the primary means of expansion.  The weighty and oft quoted words of early Church Father Tertullian are of a truth.  Speaking to the Roman rulers, “Nor does your cruelty, however exquisite, avail you; it is rather a temptation to us.  The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.”[2]  It was unflinching faith in the supremely worthy Christ that watered the seed of blood spilt by the martyrs.  “As war brings out the heroic qualities of men, so did the persecutions develop the patience, the gentleness, the endurance of Christians, and prove the world-conquering power of faith.”[3] One of the most faith-invigorating experiences I had in my earlier walk was reading through Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.  Learning of the legacy of suffering by grace through faith, upon which the Christian faith was built, really helped to put into perspective the minor resistances I had experienced in my own faith and evangelism. That season was one of great personal growth in faith.  Reading the early Church Fathers continues that growth today.

The Lord Jesus himself both prescribed and predicted this means in Matthew’s Gospel.  He prescribed to the disciple that when they were persecuted in one town or city to “flee to the next” and take with them the gospel there (Matt. 10:23).  Later, when pronouncing the seven woes on the Sanhedrin, Jesus predicted their persecution of the fledgling church would be “from town to town” (Matt. 23:34).  This is precisely the plan we see unfolding in the book of Acts, as the persecution which arose about Stephen “scattered” Christians throughout the surrounding regions, thus fulfilling the divine purpose for reaching the concentric mission fields laid out in Acts 1:8; “they that were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the word” (Acts 8:4; cf. 8:1; 11:19).  Again, from Schaff, “History reports no mightier, longer and deadlier conflict that this war of extermination waged by the heather Rome against defenseless Christianity…Thus this bloody baptism of the church resulted in the birth of a Christian world.”[4]  In less than 300 years, by pouring out their own blood rather than the blood of others, the early church conquered the known world.  Are these means of missionary growth still in effect today?  Of course they are.  First, God’s glory, beauty, and infinite value cannot be diminished one iota.  And since Christ Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever, the intrinsic worth of the faith will continue to grow the Church.  Second, in most Two-Thirds countries, the Global South, persecution is the norm, and is one of the primary means of evangelism.  A visit to Voice of the Martyrs (www.persecution.com) or a reading of the outstanding biography of Sergei Kourdakov The Persecutor suffice to demonstrate this point.   

[1] Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 2: Ante-Nicene Christianity A.D. 100—325, (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2006), 16.

[2] Tertullian, “The Apology,” pp. 17—55 in Ante-Nicene Fathers: Tertullian (I, II, III), vol. 3, (Peabody, Mass. Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1994), 55, italics original.

[3] Schaff, History, 33, italics added.

[4] Ibid., 33, 32 respectively.

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