Is persecution the seed of the church?

Christianity Today has a short article challenging Tertullian’s famous statement about Christian martyrs: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Does persecution really cause Christianity to grow? According to one study, the answer is no. Here’s an excerpt:

According to the Pew Research Center, 74 percent of the world’s population live in a country where social hostilities involving religion are high, and 64 percent live where government restrictions on religion are high. Does this explain why Christianity is likewise growing worldwide?

Not necessarily, says missiologist Justin Long, who recently compared Pew’s latest tally of religious freedom restrictions to Operation World’s latest tally of Christian growth (see chart). His conclusion: Church growth is “not strongly” correlated with either governmental or societal persecution. However, Christianity “tends loosely” to change more rapidly (grow or shrink) when governmental restriction is high, and stays relatively stable when such pressure is low.

This isn’t the last word on this question, but you should read the rest of it anyway. Three quick thoughts in response:

1. We should be mindful of and prayerful for the persecuted church across the world. We rightly admire the courage of brothers and sisters being faithful through horrendous suffering, and we should pray that their suffering would end and that God would break the teeth of the wicked (Psalm 58:6).

2. We should remember that there are some places in the world where persecution threatens to exile or extinguish Christian communities. For these brothers and sisters, persecution is not a strategy for growth—at least not one that they would choose. It may providentially strengthen them in some ways, but that is not a reason to hope for evil that good may come (Romans 3:8).

3. We should be careful about glib statements about persecution in our own context. I have heard people say things like, “What we need in the American church is a good persecution.” Usually, a line like that is spoken by someone who wants to see genuine spiritual renewal in our land. But still, it’s spoken like a true American—one for whom real bodily suffering is a theoretical thing rather than a reality. No one who is shedding their blood for the gospel talks like this. They pray for deliverance, and we should too. Here’s a better way to pray for and think about potential persecution in our own context:

“I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, in order that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.” -1 Timothy 2:1-2


  • Daryl Little

    Funny how 1 Timothy 2:1-2 get’s overlooked in those discussions.

    And I include me in that. I’ve often said that we need persecution, but you raise a good point.

    Not to mention that if we truly believe God is sovereign then what we need is God and God doesn’t need any particular situation on the ground.

  • Christiane Smith

    I suppose that saying about ‘the blood of the martyrs’ IS connected to something that drove Church growth in the earliest times of the Church, this:
    that when people witnessed to Christ in their willingness to die for Him rather than forsake Him, they confirmed the most startling new teaching that the Church had brought to the world, that CHRIST HAD RISEN.

    No other news impacted the known world so greatly in those days as the announcement of the Resurrection. That is why, when believers went to their deaths willingly rather than renounce Christ, they were called ‘witnesses’ . . . the word ‘martyr’ means ‘witness’.

    As to the blood of the martyrs being the ‘seed of the Church’,
    there are two ways to examine this:
    1. Those who had seen Christ after the Resurrection . . . many died as witnesses to the Risen Lord. Their deaths were seen as a confirmation of the truth of the Resurrection and their deaths drew many new converts to the Church.
    2. It was true that the remains of the martyrs were collected and kept in Churches and that many of the first Churches were built on the sites of where a martyr had shed his or her blood. These first century Churches were written about by St. John in Revelation Chapter 6 in this verse:
    “9 When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained . . . “

  • Dal

    I’d have to say that while churches are yet not in the “Line of fire” that soon they will be. Viewing now people not joining a church because “They don’t like homosexuals” and thus, they are being vilified for their stance on the Bible.

  • Phil Coulson

    While the debate may be on whether there is causation or a correlation between persecution and church growth, you cannot ignore the fact that in the early church history, some of the greatest growth came during times of severe persecution.

  • Kenneth Abbott

    The context, from Tertullian’s ‘Apologeticum’: “You say we are just another spin-off of philosophy, then. Well why don’t you persecute your philosophers, then, when they say the gods are fake, or bark against the emperors. Perhaps it is because the name of ‘philosopher’ does not drive out demons like ‘Christian’ does.

    “We are not a new philosophy but a divine revelation. That’s why you can’t just exterminate us; the more you kill the more we are. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. You praise those who endured pain and death – so long as they aren’t Christians! Your cruelties merely prove our innocence of the crimes you charge against us. When you chose recently to hand a Christian girl over to a brothel-keeper rather than to the lions, you showed you knew we counted chastity dearer than life.

    “And you frustrate your purpose. Because those who see us die, wonder why we do, for we die like the men you revere, not like slaves or criminals. And when they find out, they join us.”

    Perhaps Tertullian’s observation was not meant to be axiomatic so much as descriptive of his experience. Our records from the second and third century are admittedly incomplete (at best); who’s to gainsay him?

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