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.

About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is the former International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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