“I have heard how Christians long ago, were brought before a tyrant’s throne, they were told that he would spare their lives, if they would renounce the name of Christ” these are the lyrics of the first verse of Ray Bolt’s I pledge allegiance to the Lamb. The song writer witnesses about the strong resilience the Christians who preceded us long time ago had even in the face of persecution even if it meant death. The second part of this verse testifies: “But one by one, they chose to die, the Son of God, they would not deny, like a great angelic choir sings, I can almost hear their voices ring.”
Ray Bolt later had issues with his sexuality – he divorced his female wife with whom he has four children and entered into a gay relationship in his 50s making many to question his Christian faith. I am not interested in the person of Bolt but in the message in the song – he has written and sung a great deal in this song. He sung about the commitment and resilience of the Christians who chose rather to die other than renouncing Christ which affirms to the fact that even if they were “hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down but not destroyed.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9) as Paul passionately writes.
Persecution foretold by Jesus the head of the Church.
Persecution is not any foreign to Christianity right from the word go. In his early message – the sermon on the mount; Jesus out rightly said: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way, they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12). The prophets send by God often were persecuted. Elijah had to run for his life at the wrath of Ahab, Jeremiah suffered all sorts of humiliation for his ministry and we are told he was murdered, and several other Old Testament prophets.
Jesus’ forewarning of persecution did not only stop in the message of the sermon on the mount, when sending his seventy-two he said “I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.” (Luke 10:3). When praying for his disciples; Jesus prayed for their protection against the evil one well knowing what they will probably go through. He prays: “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.” (John 17:15). Jesus has never withheld his words when it comes to persecution, he has always emphatically talked about it.
Persecution of the apostles and immediate disciples
The book of Acts is an episode of the gospel growing amidst persecution. No sooner had the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles who started to boldly speak about the Way than the forewarn about persecution started. The first case is soon after a crippled man was healed at the beautiful gate of the Temple. When this lame beggar was healed, “he jumped to his feet and begun to walk. Then he went with [Peter and John] into the Temple courts, walking, jumping and praising God.” (Acts 3:8). Wouldn’t this be a matter for which all have to rejoice, having seen a poor crippled beggar being made well?
As they proclaimed Jesus Lord, that he resurrected from the dead and salvation is in no other but in Jesus Christ; the priests and temple guards were disturbed. “They seized Peter and John and, because it was evening, they were put in jail until the next morning.” (Acts 4:3). They were later threatened never to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus (Acts 4:18) and let them go.
Soon follows the martyrdom of Stephen “a man full of God’s grace and power” who “performed great wonders and signs among the people.” (Acts 6:8). He was falsely accused, seized and dragged before the Sanhedrin – the highest Jewish council then. Stephen faithfully and fearlessly witnessed for Christ in what has become one of the longest sermons in Acts of the Apostles. The heavens opened and Stephen saw the Lord Jesus sitting at the right hand of God. he was shortly dragged out of the city and brutally stoned – he died saying “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” and then he breathed his last. (Acts 7:60-8:1). Just before Stephen was stoned he saw Christ revealed to him.
This opened way for a mega persecution. “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. Going from house to house, he [Saul] dragged of both men and women and put them in prison.” (Acts 8:1-3). Soon Saul the persecutor meets Christ on his way to Damascus to persecute more Christians and he was transformed from Saul the persecutor to Paul the persecuted. Throughout the remaining parts of Acts Paul continued to preach the Gospel amidst persecutions that made him to write: “Persecuted but not abandoned.”
Outside the Acts of the Apostles the gospel continues to grow amidst persecution leading to a famous saying that “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” This is not a text in the Bible, it is a paraphrase from a second century Christian apologist called Tertullian. He was writing in defense of the Christians against the Roman governor.
Tertullian writes: “kill us, torture us, condemn us, grind us to dust; your injustice is the proof that we are innocent. Therefore, God suffers (allows) that we thus suffer. When you recently condemned a Christian woman to the leno (pimp, i.e. accused her of being a prostitute) rather than to the leo (lion), you made confession that a taint on our purity is considered among us something more terrible than any punishment and any death. Nor does your cruelty, however exquisite, avail you; it is rather a temptation to us. The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.”
The statement that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church doesn’t mean that the martyrs have died for the church and therefore are the foundation of the Church. Only Christ died for our redemption and that alone was enough (1 Peter 3:18). Rather, at Tertullian’s time, even so as we read in Acts 8:1-3; whenever the Christians were persecuted and others martyred, the church received a new strength and instead of it diminishing, it grew in numbers. It looked as though martyrdom was like seed that when spread, yields much hence Tertullian’s statement: “the oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.”
Persecution of Christians in Uganda
Since then, the gospel grew and spread throughout the globe despite the persecution the church has gone through. For Ugandan Christians, June 3, every year marks the Uganda Martyrs day when king Mwanga of Buganda in 1886 had martyred about 45 men who stood for Christ in their new found faith. These young converts “had diverted their loyalty to some other authority [Christ] and their allegiance at all costs could no longer be counted on” in regard to matters they deemed was against their faith. Earlier than this, the king had already murdered the Anglican Missionary Bishop Hannington and other folks who turned to Christ.
On the fateful day of June 3, 1886, 45 Christians ascribing to the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church were brutally and inhumanely killed – some dismembered and burned, others speared, others beheaded and burnt, some castrated while others were burned alive. Whereas many people try to contend the grounds on which these men and boys were killed, history clearly tells us it was their faith that made them to say no on things they regarded as contradictory to their faith. They chose to remain faithful to Christ at all cost even if it meant their lives other than obeying an earthly king on ungodly grounds. Like Bolt sang, they faced the tyrants throne, judged and executed because they would not deny the Son of God.
Lessons for us today
I have titled this piece as persecuted but not abandoned. In all these circumstances, those who faced wrath of earthly authorities for their faith in Christ seldom stand abandoned by Christ. Jesus Christ promised to be with us to the uttermost ends of the earth. We may be dragged, we may be tortured, we may even be killed but for us “to live is Christ and to die is gain.” As I write this piece, I am aware of several people facing persecution for their Christian faith. Christianity has continued to remain the most persecuted faith despite it being the largest world religion.
Many times when we talk of persecution of Christians, our minds think of the East – the predominantly Muslim countries and other secular states like China where churches continue to operate under ground because their freedom of worship is denied by states. Whereas I acknowledge this, Christianity even suffers tougher persecution in the West too. This may not be in the form of physical hunt down on Christians – it might be intellectual in Universities and colleges; it might be embedded in the positive laws of states.
As long as we want to remain faithful to Christ [and we should], there is but no means that we can escape being persecuted. Dietrich Bonhoeffer while writing on the cost of discipleship says; “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” We may not and should not seek for opportunities to get persecution, but when we find ourselves persecuted, we should know that it isn’t strange, it is what Christ has foretold coming to pass. And I must say again in Paul’s words that “even when hard pressed, we shall not be crushed. When persecuted, we shall not be abandoned.” Let’s therefore boldly live for Christ in and out of season without compromise of our faith in Christ.
This message is written by Rev. Julius Izza Tabi who is a pastor in the Anglican Church of Uganda, Ma’di & West Nile Diocese. Julius served as an assistant Chaplain and lecturer at the Arua Campus of the Uganda Christin University. He is currently a candidate of Master of Philosophy in Religion, Society and Global Issues at Det Teologiske Menighetsfakultet alias the Norwegian School of Theology, in Oslo, Norway. For pastoral assistance you can email him or check how you can reach him here.