The phrase attributed to Tertullian is one thrown about a fair bit during times we hear about the suffering of Christians around the world. In some ways its true, the church has always grown it seems and theres always been resistance to the church worked out in violence.
Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
John 12:24-25 NIV
We may qualify what exactly ‘the seed’ is but I’ve always associated it with growth in light of the above passage. With recent events however I’ve begun to wonder if this is always true. Take a look at the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) today, home to people like Tertullian, where history tells us the church has been ground down over centuries of persecution in places that were once its heartlands.
Morgan Lee writing for Christianity Today actually addresses this directly in his article ‘Sorry Tertullian‘. In it he highlights the words of several experts on church growth who give mixed responses to the quote in the light of history years later. The most appropriate, I thought, came from Stuart George Hall.
Stuart George Hall, a historian at University of St. Andrews, notes the church isn’t mentioned in Tertullian’s original quote. Rather, Tertullian is arguing that martyrs have “done more to win people to patient endurance of pain and death than all the work of admirable philosophers like Cicero,” said Hall. “Their blood is not so much the seed of the church as the seed of virtuous living and dying.”
Morgan Lee 2014, ‘Sorry Tertullian’ in Christianity Today
To my understanding the original quote is more along the lines of ‘The blood of the Martyrs is the seed of Christians’. The quote can then be understand in terms of virtue in the face of suffering which is picked up by Justin Long who adds.
Long believes persecution initially harms churches because it interrupts networks and prompts emigration. But given that “in times of persecution, people choose what they believe and refine their faith,” he said, persecution can boost church numbers once suffering has ended.
Morgan Lee 2014, ‘Sorry Tertullian’ in Christianity Today
Statistically however the traditional understanding of this quotation isn’t true. We use this quote at times to take comfort at the sound of bad news for the church, I also think to make peace with a form of fatalism these events can inculcate in us. This fatalism can help us to keep going in times of struggle, but it can also leave us hesitant to change our circumstances or those of others, we just accept it. More pressingly, the quote neglects to touch on the existential nature of persecution for the church in some parts of the world, like that in the MENA region currently where we see ancient Christian communities disappearing altogether.
For many of us the suffering of many Christians happens without us knowing about it, when we do hear about it a saying like that of Tertullian’s can actually comfort us into inaction, such things are ultimately in the hands of God. This is problematic, because we have a responsibility for one another. The blood of the martyrs says more about us fellow Christians in our response to such things than the violence inflicted against Christians itself.
Domine quo vadis?
As Christians we shouldn’t shy from suffering, Jesus himself told us he didn’t come to bring peace but the sword. I think for many of us theres some fascination with the subject of suffering for the faith, because we hear so many stories in some ways so drastically removed from our own position in the West. Ever since I first heard the apocryphal story of Peter encountering Christ whilst fleeing persecution in Rome. Peter asks the Lord ‘Where are you going?’ to which Christ replies ‘I am going to Rome to be crucified again’ and Peter turns back to accept the martyrdom waiting for him. As a story its powerful but then part of me wonders, if I was a peer or friend of Peter – how would I respond? Happiness? Fatalism? Resignation? Would I join him? Beg for him to save himself? Simply watch from the sidelines? Peter himself was willing to fight to protect Christ when he was arrested but was that an exception for Christ? If its not should we likewise not resist the suffering of other Christians? Another relatively well-known saying of Tertullian was “Christ, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier.” Peter in this context was rebuked for protecting Christ, if the Church is Christ’s body should we hold to the same attitude?
If a person being persecuted was my neighbour would my response differ to that of someone a world away? I don’t know the answer to these questions. Part of me wonders if I should accept persecution for me and mine, to turn the other cheek. Yet I feel an obligation to help and support Christians in places where its far tougher to follow Christ, even ending their suffering if possible. Then I wonder should we have the same attitude for those close to us if they experienced similar things? Yet if I take Tertullian’s saying at face value the implication seems that I shouldn’t lament the suffering of other believers because its good for the church in its witness. Should we then not seek to alleviated the sufferings of believers elsewhere if it is a witness? To what degree do we consider other Christians expendable for the sake of the Churches witness to others? Or is it not about being a witness but instead responding appropriately to love of God? Do we really love one another if we’re not willing to save one another from the hands of persecutors?
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practise hospitality.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary:
‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Romans 12:9-21 NIV
I don’t know the answers to the questions I’ve asked here. I think though this saying of Tertuellian is wrong, or requires such nuance that it isn’t of much help. History bears out that martyrdom doesn’t correlate with the growth of the church quantitatively. If this doesn’t bear out in practice, it does little good for us the opposite to be the case. We can redeem some good from the martyrdom of others, but does this make martyrdom ultimately a good thing for the church? The martyr goes to be with God, but it is the Church left behind that suffers from their absence. What happens when the church in a region disappears entirely as a result? What happens when such persecution is systemised and legitimised in laws? Is it enough to shrug our shoulders, bring it to God in prayer and then leave it to him? Aren’t we in some measure responsible for one another?
On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act.
One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.
Martin Luther King Jr. – A Time to Break Silence, at Riverside Church