How many times have I heard someone quote Tertullian’s words, “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church“. I wish, though, Christians were required to actually read Tertullian before they used the line. Taken out of context we might be tempted to think Tertullian is saying that when Christians are persecuted and killed the Church will grow. Christians act like there is an automatic correlation between the amount of persecution a church faces and its ability to grow. I think this is behind the evangelical fascination with persecution; I have heard evangelists say that we should be ready to see revival in America because the American government is persecuting the Church. Here is the line of thought as I understand it.
- American churches are in decline
- The decline is because we do not take our Christian beliefs seriously
- If we are persecuted we will be forced to take our beliefs seriously
- Once our beliefs are purified God will begin to really work through us
- Once God begins to work through the church again revival will happen
Now that churches are facing some minor inconveniences from a “secular” government many Christians want to claim this amounts to persecution and revival is near. This type of thinking is behind words like John MacArthur’s “We now live in a secular culture, governed by secularists, driven by worldviews that are hostile to biblical principles. Expressions of religious faith are often banned from public discourse—sometimes by societal pressure, sometimes by legal injunctions.”. This mentality seems to motivate some churches as they interact with government authorities, again we can look to MacArthur’s recent conflicts with California. But behind this is the idea that “we as Christians are persecuted for our beliefs and if we maintain our beliefs we will endure and the Church will grow. MacArthur and others seem very concerned that our governments reflect Christian beliefs (specifically their understanding of Christian beliefs); and if a government does not reflect these beliefs it is persecution. The trouble with this view is that it implicitly and often subconsciously results in attempts to grab or maintain power. A fixation on the purity of beliefs leads us to try to ensure our beliefs are the norm and the expedient way to achieve this goal is political power. Meaning groups who want to make purity of belief the primary issue will always implicitly seek power.
I do not want to imply that beliefs are not important, they are. I want to be clear they must be subordinate to something else. When Jesus provides his greatest teaching, he subordinates beliefs to actions, blessed are those who act like God– not blessed are those who believe the right things about God. Belief in Jesus is important, but true belief always grows from and results in acting like Jesus. The myth that we in America are persecuted is itself a power grab by people who are more concerned with what people think than how they act. Such an attitude finds no fault with Christians who are hostile toward people who believe differently, because it is us vs. them in a war over the mind. Rather, true Christianity believes it is us vs. evil in a battle over the humanity. It is false to prioritize the understanding God will bless us and the Church will grow so long as we believe the right things and stick to those beliefs no matter what. God blesses the Church as we seek to love God and love our neighbor.
But this mentality does not hold water, and if we look a little closer at what Tertullian actually said we might find out why. Tertullian was responding to severe persecution in his day which he called unjust. But he did not think Christians were the only group to suffer injustices, rather he notes that philosophers had likewise suffered the same fate as Christians. These writers and philosophers encouraged disciples to be strong and courageous in the face of persecution and death. So why did persecution cause these other groups to grow, what is it that separated the Christians? What made Christianity bloom in the face of mounting trials was not beliefs but actions. We forget that some of Tertullian’s beliefs have been deemed heresy and these beliefs were held by many who died and are now called martyrs. It was not purity of thought which caught the attention of Roman citizens– every philosopher had that– Rome was captivated by the grace and compassion which accompanied Christians to their deaths. Tertullian recognized that Christian blood was the seed of the Church because Christians shed their blood willingly rather than give up the example of Jesus. Christians were not always united in their beliefs, rather they were united in the example of Jesus and the commitment that we live in a new kingdom, one run on the paradigm of Jesus. The Christians whose blood proved the seed of the Western Church were those willing to live like Jesus, to care for the poor and weak, to call out injustice and oppression, to minister to the downtrodden, to call out the areas of society which were detrimental to God’s plan of humanity.
There is for me a sense of irony that many pastor’s who seem to be committed to purity of belief will rely so heavily on Tertullian. Because the message I see when I look into that period of history is that our first priority is to try to love our fellow Christians as Jesus did. We are called to accept Tertullian despite some of his beliefs with the open arm of fellowship and to lead him toward Jesus, as he helps us follow the same path. Jesus modeled for us the suffering servant, one who loved his own and showed compassion on those who persecuted him. We are called to follow that model, not those who would scream persecution and demand their rights. In a time when Christians are increasingly seen as combative and hostile we must take this to heart– Our blood is only the seed of the Church when it is transformed by Jesus’ blood which created the Church.
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