How the church lost the biblical definition of martyrdom and the Reformers recovered it (temporarily)

In scripture, martyrdom has a much broader meaning than physical death. Not until the second century is the meaning of martyrdom narrowed down in the church in this way.[i] Even then, and for centuries after, Christian writers like Clement, Origen, Athanasius, Jerome, and Sulpicius Severus sought to keep a broader concept of martyrdom alive in the church. They used terms like “bloodless” or “white” martyrdom to describe the rigorous spiritual disciplines found among monks and ascetics.[ii] Celtic Christians, like the writer of the Cambrai Homily in the seventh or eighth century, distinguished three “colors” of martyrdom: red (physical death), green or blue (dying to self through practices like fasting, repentance, and self-control), and white (dying to the world through ministry service, exile due to faith, or spiritual detachment from one’s home, belongings, and culture).[iii]

But these definitions of martyrdom are still narrower than what is found in scripture. They conceive martyrdom as an act of human will (i.e., self-sacrifice), voluntarily undertaken by disciplined Christians serving in special roles in the church (i.e., not ordinary laypeople).

Scripturally, martyr-witness is Christ’s work upon us through his word, not our own act of will. In the words of Edith Stein (who would later be martyred under the Nazis), “one can deliver oneself up to crucifixion, but one cannot crucify oneself.”[iv] An understanding of the multiple “colors” of martyrdom is important, because multiple aspects of martyrdom are present in scripture. But in scripture, martyrdom—whatever the color—is not self-sacrifice inspired by Christ. It is always the work of God on us, while the Holy Spirit holds us in place so that we are able to bear it. So white martyrdom should not be understood merely as our voluntarily dying to the world but as the word crucifying us to the world and the world to us, as Paul writes in Galatians 6:14. Green martyrdom is only in the smallest sense our voluntarily dying to our dreams, desires, plans, and hopes; it is in the broadest sense the word putting these things to death. Our role is receiving this putting-to-death with joy, and receiving it as being from the Lord.

A good example of this comes from the paternal grandmother of Dr. Amal Marogy, an Iraqi Christian. The grandmother had had two homes destroyed by anti-Christian violence over the years. Marogy writes that as her grandmother stood amidst the rubble of the second home, she “eulogised it and shed tears for 15 minutes, after which she stood up and said, ‘All the material things are mere dirt of our hands, blessed be God for ever!’”[v] The grandmother’s martyrdom was not in offering up her home to the Lord before it was destroyed but rather afterward.

The Protestant Reformation not only recovered the plain meaning of scripture; in doing so, it also enabled the recovery of the broader scriptural meaning of martyrdom. This is rarely if ever noted by historians or theologians, and unfortunately the recovery of the scriptural meaning of martyrdom proved short-lived and incomplete. Nevertheless, writings like Foxe’s Acts and Monuments do reflect the restoration in Protestantism, at least temporarily, of scriptural aspects of martyrdom that had been lost or de-emphasized early in the church age. These include martyrdom as the initiative and work of God (not humans) and martyrdom as the daily experience of ordinary Christians.

The writings of the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther can also help us to recover a broader, more biblical theology of martyrdom. Luther does not use terms like bloodless/bloody martyrdom or white/green/red martyrdom, but he does write about two deaths all Christians experience. He refers to these as the “little death” and the “big death”[vi], or the “temporal death” and the “eternal death”. “Temporal death”—the “little death”—happens when body and soul part at the end of physical life. It is temporary, since all are resurrected for judgment. Because it is a temporary death, Luther notes, it is referred to in scripture using terms like “sleep” or “rest”. And because it is temporary, for Luther it is “little” even when it occurs through persecution. “Eternal death”, on the other hand, is “the death of sin and the death of death, by which the soul is released and separated from sin and the body is separated from corruption and through grace and glory is joined to the living God.” Through baptism, we enter the “big death”. Luther equates this “eternal death” with “eternal life”. He calls it “good, very good” and says it is “the principal theme in Scripture.”[vii]

All these terms—“big death”, “green martyrdom”, “white martyrdom”, “bloodless martyrdom”— place the emphasis of martyrdom on the ordinary daily experience of all Christians. Martyrdom is not just the heroic end of life for noble, self-sacrificing spiritual giants living in places opposed to Christianity. It is intended to be the everyday experience of ordinary Christians.


[i] Stancliffe, C. (1982). Red, White and Blue Martyrdom. In D. Whitelock, R. McKitterick, & D. Dumville (Eds.), Ireland in Early Medieval Europe: Studies in Memory of Kathleen Hughes (pp. 21–46). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, p. 33.

[ii] Stancliffe, 1982., pp. 29-31.

[iii] Davies, O., & O’Loughlin, T. (Eds.). (1999). Celtic Spirituality (Kindle Edition). Mahwah, NY: Paulist Press, pp. 54, 301.

[iv] Wallenfang, Donald. (2017). Human and Divine Being: A Study on the Theological Anthropology of Edith Stein (Veritas Book 23). Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, p. 197.

[v] Marogy, A. (2014, July 24). The Suffering Christians of the Middle East: Where is God in All This? Retrieved March 14, 2020, from https://lanuovabq.it/it/the-suffering-christians-of-the-middle-east-where-is-god-in-all-this.

[vi] Richey, E.G. (2011). The Property of God: Luther, Calvin, and Herbert’s Sacrifice Sequence. ELH, 78(2), 287-314. Retrieved March 15, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41236545, p. 292.

[vii] Luther, M. (1972). Luther’s Works: Lectures on Romans; Glosses and Scholia. (H. C. Oswald, Ed.) (Kindle Edition, Vol. 25). Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, Locs. 7081-7091.

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Chinese pastors’ letter becomes 4,400-signature petition

Voice of the Martyrs Korea sent the Chinese Embassy in Seoul a copy of a letter originally written and signed by 439 Chinese pastors, with one addition: 28 pages of signatures from 4,400 Christians from Korea and around the world showing their support and concern for the pastors.

The signatures were gathered through an online petition website set up by Voice of the Martyrs Korea, www.chinadeclaration.com. The website shared the original Chinese document, along with translations of the document into Korean, English, and Russian. It invited Christians around the world to add their signatures in solidarity with the original signors, 439 pastors from across China. The signatures were collected over the past year.

In September 2019, 439 Chinese pastors published a document entitled, “A Joint Statement by Pastors: A Declaration for the Sake of the Christian Faith”. It was written by Wang Yi, the pastor of Early Rain Church in Chengdu who was later arrested along with more than one hundred members of his church. Pastor Wang remains imprisoned, and many of the other pastors who signed the document are now facing similarly serious difficulties. We set up www.chinadeclaration.com to give Christians around the world the opportunity to show the Chinese government that we stand with these pastors and will continue to closely monitor and publicize how they are treated.

More than 4,400 Christians signed the petition—that’s more than 10 Christians for every Chinese pastor who originally signed the document.

The joint statement published by the pastors contains four declarations:

1.            Christian churches in China believe unconditionally that the Bible is the Word and Revelation of God. It is the source and final authority of all righteousness, ethics, and salvation.

2.            Christian churches in China are eager and determined to walk the path of the cross of Christ and are more than willing to imitate the older generation of saints who suffered and were martyred for their faith.

3.            Christian churches in China are willing to obey authorities in China whom God has appointed and to respect the government’s authority to govern society and human conduct.

4.            All true churches in China that belong to Christ must hold to the principle of the separation of church and state and must proclaim Christ as the sole head of the church.

In addition to the declaration and the 4,400 signatures, Voice of the Martyrs Korea sent a cover letter in Chinese. A translation follows:

Dear Honorable Ambassador,

Herewith please find attached a petition consisting of 4,400 signatures from Christians in Korea and around the world, to be added to the signatures of the 439 Chinese pastors who authored ‘A Joint Statement by Pastors: A Declaration for the Sake of the Christian Faith’, which was originally published for your government’s consideration in September 2019.

These 439 Chinese pastors are members of the one body of Christ which extends around the world and across history. As members of the same body, the 4,400 signors of the attached petition do hereby signal our intent to continue to monitor closely the treatment of your government toward the pastors who originally authored this declaration.

We implore you to remember that as you treat them, you are thus treating the Jesus Christ himself, the Lord of heaven and earth, and the one authority before whom every knee will one day bow.

Be reconciled to God and to his servants, including the 439 Chinese pastors who authored this declaration. They remain your faithful servants for Christ’s sake. They also remain beloved members of the Christian body around the world. On their behalf we will be diligent to update the leaders and fellow citizens of our countries—from South Korea to Russia, from the USA to Europe, from Chile to Cameroon—on your treatment of each of them.

With prayers for you as commanded by Christ,

The Voice of the Martyrs Korea

Individuals interested in learning more about Voice of the Martyrs Korea’s work in partnership with the house church Christians of China can visit https://vomkorea.com/en/china/.

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An uncrucified body is a lowly body

I had a very interesting experience last year. We have a cross hanging on one wall of our apartment. It is a rather nondescript wooden one that came from a Christian bookstore, as I recall. It is not large, less than a foot tall. It is not even very attractive. Not unattractive either. Just your standard issue retail cross.

On a particularly difficult morning in a particularly difficult stretch of time that comes from time to time in our line of work, I was in Dr. Foley’s and my apartment alone one day. Tears and sobs had finally come to me in great number, and I felt close to passing out due to the dizziness they induced. I had been sitting on our couch, but I got up and went to the cross. I grabbed the left side of the tiny crossbeam with my left hand and the right side of the tiny crossbeam with my right hand. And I let go of all my weight. It was obvious to me–axiomatic, really–that the cross would merely come off the small nail on which it was hanging, and I would crash down to the floor, with the cross likely bouncing off the top of my head. But instead, the cross held. In our lives, it is the only thing that has held.

In life, there is the cross and there is everything else. The cross is the wisdom and power of God. It is not merely one expression–or even the best expression–of that wisdom and power; it simply IS the wisdom and power of God, in totality. The cross is not God’s response to human sin. It is not God’s response to anything. It is God’s nature. It is wisdom and power, in the rawest form and also in the most refined.

On the cross it is the self-saving life which ends. The laying-down life of the righteous God triumphs over it. Christ’s victory is not a victory over the cross. It is the victory of the cross. On the cross, self-saving life is put to death, and the way is opened for humans to live from now on by Christ’s laying-down life. Thus, we should not anticipate eternal life as a kind of post-war period where we may safely and comfortably resume our quest for self-fulfillment, now that sin, death, shame, and Satan have been defeated.

On the cross, our self-saving life was defeated just as fully as sin, death, shame, and Satan were defeated. Our self-saving life had always conspired with these principalities and powers against the Lord. On the cross, that conspiracy was permanently defeated.

Christ does not toss aside the cross when he exits the open tomb, like handcuffs discarded by a freed prisoner. Instead, the cross is revealed to be the outward expression of God’s innermost nature. That nature is the same yesterday, today, and forever. It does not change during Christ’s death on the cross or at his resurrection or when he will return in glory.

Likewise, we ourselves will not toss aside the cross when we die or when Christ returns. Instead, what will be revealed then is that we have been made like him. The external cross we bore will no longer be needed, not because it has been overcome but because we have been overcome by it and now our hearts perfectly bear its imprint. God’s promise to give us new hearts will be fulfilled. Our new hearts will be cross-shaped.

Shame will end. Suffering will end. Opposition to Christ will end. But the cross will not end; it will be fulfilled, like all of God’s promises. The cross will end as an outward tool, but only because it will have accomplished its full work of circumcising our hearts.

When Christ is resurrected, he bears forever the marks of his crucifixion on his hands and his side. He no longer carries the cross because now he embodies it, i.e., it is imprinted on his resurrected human body. The same will be true for us in our resurrected bodies. As Paul writes in Philippians 3:21, “The Lord Jesus Christ . . . will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body.” An uncrucified body is a lowly body; the Lord’s body is glorious because it forever bears the imprints of his crucifixion, the external manifestation of his nature.

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