The persecuted church is often represented as a type of ideal. When we speak of the persecuted church we admire their commitment (often in the face of death) to hold to convictions. We envy its ability to reproduce and attract adherents – something that seems to elude even our most sophisticated church growth gurus. And that (its proliferation) in the face of incredible obstacles and restrictions. We have been taught to revere the persecuted church as a good model for the commitment that it takes to really live out the convictions we have about our faith. Our Anabaptist history in fact has made heroes of martyrs like Conrad Grebel and Hans Denk (I always got a kick out of the Freudian echoes in that name).
I will confess that I have always held a small amount of doubt about how strongly I should revere the persecuted. Honouring their commitment to the faith is one thing but elevating them to the status of exemplary gives me pause. That pause comes at the point of wondering about the actual convictions that persecuted and martyred people are holding to. I wonder if we assume that those convictions are accurate and theologically sound. The logic seems to follow that by nature of being persecuted the 'faith' that these people hold to must be more pure because we assume that something worth dying for must be accurate. And we also assume that when persecution comes, superficial and extraneous doctrines and issues quickly fall away to the more central and pertinent issues of theology. I have heard no less from many preachers and teachers.
Consider for a moment the effects that stress (and persecution would certainly qualify) has on the human body. The body functions most effectively under the just the right amount of stress. Too much stress or too little stress leads to pathology (dysfunction). It is true that certain aspects of the body are more active when the body is highly stressed but these same aspects can lead to major problems especially over an extended period of time. In fact one of the common effects of heightened stress is the tendency for the person or animal to give up (this helps to explain stress related depression). So then the question must be asked, "Does the stress of persecution make the individuals more likely to give up in the face of ongoing stress or are things like imprisonment and martyrdom actually an act of resolute determination?" Not only that, what can we say about the convictions themselves? We know that a brain that is under perpetual stress increasingly loses its capacity to reason and make accurate judgements of the stimuli present. This is how, for instance, it is possible for paramedics and police officers to remain on the job while repeatedly facing large amounts of stress. They actually become numb to it. So then we ask, "Can the convictions (the theological tenets) of people under stress be accurate?" Now to be sure, this is hardly an issue of controversy – nobody is jumping up and down protesting theological perspectives of persecuted people very much these days.
One of the reasons the early church (Acts) is revered is because it seems to put faith into its simplest forms and to be sure the pressure and stress that it faced was the forging fire of most of our expanded theological system. In fact it is not uncommon to have Jesus death on the cross characterized as an act of martyrdom which is not entirely accurate. Jesus death in fact was more like a premeditated suicide if understood properly – one that was required for the redemption of sin – not an act of superior moral conviction in the face of extreme opposition.
Now I have to admit that even asking questions about the persecuted church makes me uncomfortable largely I think due to how strongly they have been idealized in my mind. Once again I am likely off my rocker so feel free to pick away…