By Patricia Paddey
The first time I told another Evangelical I was taking a course called “The Lives of the Saints: Then and Now,” the response to my enthusiasm for my subject was less than enthusiastic. An arched eyebrow. A slight tilt of the head. A look of mild distaste. And then, a one-word reply that communicated restrained surprise. “Really?”
I felt properly put in my place. Evangelicals don’t, after all, venerate Saints. We don’t invoke them, or ask them to intercede for us. I know that. But does that mean we have to ignore their role in Christian history? In our history? Particularly the shared part of Christian history –when all genuine believers were truly part of “one holy, catholic and apostolic church” (to put it in the words of The Apostles’ Creed) because there was only one church.
Long before East and West went their separate ways, long before the Reformation, long, long before there were Pentecostals, Baptists, Methodists and Mennonites – there were just Christians. And Christians respected saints.
It began with the Bible. While both Testaments refer to saints, context indicates different understandings of the term in the Old and in the New.
In the Old Testament, the Hebrew words used to denote a saint imply a person who is pious, holy or godly. If Jesus ever spoke of saints, the gospels do not mention the fact. Other New Testament writers, however, refer to saints frequently, and while the Greek word they use also denotes a person who is morally blameless, consecrated or holy, context suggests that the word is used to designate believers or Christians in general. The fact that all believers were called saints during the New Testament period says more about their standing as redeemed souls (due to the saving work of Jesus Christ) than it implies about any inherent goodness on their part.
But things began to change during the first few centuries of our era (from the time of Jesus until the Edict of Milan in 313 AD when Christianity became the religion of the State). That time period is known as “the age of the martyrs” and for good reason; unknown numbers of believers were martyred when they openly and willingly confessed their faith, and were put to death as a result of their confession.
Today, the word martyr connotes everything from a person who pretends to suffer as a strategy to gain sympathy, to a person who commits an act of terrorism—killing them self and others—as a strategy to gain paradise. But at the dawn of Christianity, a martyr was simply a witness, a person who testified to the reality of Jesus Christ as Lord. And it was innumerable brave Christian witnesses, many of whom were subjected to the cruelest of tortures and humiliations as they died, who were responsible for giving the word martyr its traditional association with death.
Those same witnesses would also become the first people to be revered as saints, so much so that in the earliest days of the Church, the words martyr and saint were almost synonymous. Admired for their courage and boldness in proclaiming their faith (even when doing so meant paying the ultimate price and they knew it) the martyrs were mere human beings like us who lived and loved and who were loved. But they chose to sacrifice their lives rather than their convictions. As a result, they were regarded as superior human beings, and held up as examples for all believers to emulate. Immediately after death, they were considered alive in the presence of Christ. The day of their death came to be thought of as their “birth day.” People began to gather at the martyrs’ tombs to commemorate their birthdays and to call on them for their prayers.
We have writers to thank for much of this state of affairs, because an entire literature developed—beginning in the second century—that was intended to keep the memory of the martyrs and their trials alive. Known as Acta, these written accounts recorded bits of the judicial process to which the martyrs were subjected, bits we can still read today.
Scholars have no doubt that these accounts depict an embellished view of reality, one that portrays the martyrs in the best possible light. But it is impossible to read the Acts of the Martyrs and not be moved. Through their stories, we see in these ancestors of our faith qualities that the early Church valued like: courage, integrity, truthfulness, trust in God, forgiveness for their tormentors, a recognition that their enemy was not Rome but Satan himself, a reliance on Christ for help and strength in the midst of torment, and a steadfast belief that death was not the end, nor was it to be feared as if it were.
But the stories also reveal a fact that persecuted Christians around the world today know to be true: martyrdom is not something to be sought or wished for. Persecution is an evil, wretched, bloody business.
Books beyond number have been written about Christianity’s earliest martyrs. And Evangelicals today do well to read them. They remind us that our faith is about far more than just a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It is and always has been about counting the cost, laying down our lives, taking up our cross and following him. For we are called to present our bodies as living sacrifices.
We have brothers and sisters in the faith, around the globe today, for whom that is more than just a metaphor.
The same Jesus who called the first martyrs to repent and follow him, calls us now. We owe our love, loyalty, concern, prayers, finances, and help to those who are compelled to follow him unto death today.
Patricia Paddey is a Faith Today senior writer and a student of theology. Subscribe to Faith Today now for one of the best deals ever.