Coptic Christians beheaded on the beach. Russian believers told they will be stripped of their religious freedoms. And Syrian Christians driven from their homes. The bad news bombards us. And add to these the fact that, due to war and persecution, the number of the world’s displaced people has reached 60 million—half of them children. (This number represents more people than at any time since World War II.) With all this persecution making headlines, believers frequently hear a familiar quote: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Some of us have heard the words so often we have to remind ourselves it’s not in the Bible.
The saying comes from The Apology, chapter 50 (c. AD 197), by Tertullian, a church father in the then-province of Africa, who wrote to his governor to refute false charges against Christians. Tertullian argued that the followers of Jesus, being subjects of the empire, should not be persecuted. Yet even if suffering persisted, he said, “kill us, torture us, condemn us, grind us to dust; your injustice is the proof that we are innocent. . . . The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.”
Beautiful words. And words that have often sustained the persecuted. Yet they’re words that have sometimes desensitized us. Because many of us, on hearing of our brothers’ and sisters’ suffering for the faith, cheer ourselves at the prospect for church growth. And, sadly, our response stops there.
The reality is that the effect of persecution is not always church growth. The late Glenn Penner, who spent his life advocating for the persecuted, raised the question, “Is the blood of the martyrs really the seed of the church?” In an article with the same title, he made some sobering observations:
- By 1993, under intense persecution, members of the Evangelical Christian Baptist denomination in the former USSR dropped from about one million people in 1926 to just under 249,000 in 1993.
- Only a dozen or so Christians were found to have survived Albania’s attempt to create a completely atheistic state when a policy of religious liberty was reinstituted a decade ago.
- Some Communist nations almost succeeded in wiping out the church within their borders.
- We could add, among other things, persecution-related exoduses of Christians from majority Muslim countries. Such migrations shrink already-small minorities of Christians.
The threat is real. So let us pray fervently for our spiritual family and advocate for their freedoms. But meanwhile, let us also adjust our perspective about life stateside….
Not long ago, Alan Noble, cofounder of Christ and Pop Culture, wrote an article for the Atlantic titled, “The Evangelical Persecution Complex.” In it he noted that Christians tend to see victimhood as an essential part of our identity—even when our suffering is minimal (after all, our Lord said we would suffer). That’s not to say Americans live free of religious discrimination. But as members of the largest faith group in America, we are more often accommodated than actively harmed.
Randy Alcorn put it this way: “Many Christians have become perpetually unhappy, complaining whiners, coming across as victims rather than ‘more than conquerors through him who loved us’ (Rom. 8:37). The gospel we proclaim becomes unattractive when instead of saying ‘look at the Jesus we follow,’ people hear, ‘look at how we’re being mistreated.’
“I see too many long-faced Christians who seem continuously angry, disillusioned and defensive by what’s going on politically. We dare not base our happiness on having all our Christian liberties restored and maintained. While it’s good for Christians to serve in political positions, our effectiveness in living out the gospel doesn’t hinge on having such power. For God’s people, it never has. The Christian faith may never return to its central public role in our culture, but Christ’s gospel is bigger than every obstacle. Sometimes a less popular church becomes a more faithful, dynamic and joyful church.”
Let us never exaggerate our own suffering while minimizing the agony of others. And may we never rejoice at the potential for good to come from evil "over there" while failing to see the same reality here. May we never be guilty of whining. Instead, let us pray.