Persecution is a terrible thing for the Christian to suffer and endure; nevertheless, the saints of church history teach us that persecution is a time for the Christian to rejoice. Yet as American Christians who are complacent in our modern wealth, we do everything we can to avoid persecution. Anytime we can’t do what we want as Christians, we cry wolf, “Christian persecution!”
While persecution comes in its major and minor forms (major such as martyrdom and minor such as ceasing public worship), church history teaches us persecution is a time of rejoicing. We’ll be looking specifically at St. Ignatius of Antioch in this study. As we read some of Ignatius, however, we must have Justin Martyr’s exhortation in the background, who cautions Christians not to pursue persecution “as a form of quasi-suicide” (Katanacho, 29).
In his letters to various churches, St. Ignatius wrote extensively on his persecution and imminent martyrdom. On these, Ignatius gained a new view on his personal discipleship in Christ. He writes, “For though I am in chains for the sake of the Name, I have not yet been perfected in Jesus Christ. For now I am only beginning to be a disciple” (Ignatius to the Ephesians, 3.1). Elsewhere, he writes, “For I myself, though I am in chains and can comprehend heavenly things… despite all this I am not yet a disciple” (Ignatius to the Trallians, 5.2). He says similar things in other letters to the churches in Asia Minor.
By saying this, I do not think it’s fair to say he did not believe he was a saved, disciple of Christ until his time of persecution and impending martyrdom. Rather, I believe he was beginning to intimately understand just what Jesus meant when He said, “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me” (Luke 9:23).
In my article, “Bearing Your Cross,” I wrote, “To faithfully follow Christ is to follow Him where He goes—all the way to Mt. Calvary on the cross where He died for you. To bear your cross is not to suffer for a little while; to bear your cross is to die, specifically for Jesus.” This, I believe, Ignatius was just beginning to fully realise.
Thus, perhaps for the first time in his life as a Christian, Ignatius was beginning to realise what it truly means to be a disciple of Christ. A disciple of Christ does not merely live for Christ; a true disciple of Christ also dies for Christ. As Ignatius himself writes, “I know who I am and to whom I am writing. I am a convict; you are secure. You are the highway of those who are being killed for God’s sake” (Ignatius to the Ephesians 12.1-2; emphasis mine).
This is something I believe needs to be urgently taught to our laity. Contrary to popular belief, Christianity is not a comfortable lifestyle; it is more often uncomfortable that, if the world has its way, leads to death.
There are several things we can glean from Ignatius’ experience with persecution and his forthcoming martyrdom: sober behaviour, churchly gathering, and rejoicing in persecution. First, however, a necessary digression.
The Church Thrives Despite Persecution
Also contrary to our usual way of thinking—especially in the efforts of Christian apologetics—Ignatius writes, “The work [of the Christian] is not a matter of persuasive rhetoric; rather, Christianity is greatest when it is hated by the world” (Ignatius to the Romans, 3.3). When you study church history, what Ignatius postulates is quite true.
My bachelor’s degree is in Christian Thought, which I received from Concordia University-Ann Arbor and graduated magna cum laude. My major had an obvious focus on theology, but in it I also studied ethics, philosophy, and church history extensively. My bachelor thesis was on the fear of the Lord, but if I were to go back and write a different thesis, my main statement would be this: Church history attests to the fact that despite the church’s considerable experience with outer persecution and inner turmoil, Christ is always faithful to His Bride and, therefore, as a consequence of Christ’s faithfulness, the church always perseveres.
The church has gone through a multitude of troubles, whether this comes from the outside due to persecution and martyrdoms, or due to the church’s own errors leading to inner turmoils in matters of doctrine and Christian living as she strives to live as a people set apart for God in the world. Through all these struggles, the church has always persevered not simply due to the remnant of faithful exegetes and systematicians or sheer dumb luck, but because Christ is faithful to His church.
While the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets,” it is “Christ Jesus Himself” who is “the cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:20). The church’s indefatigable resistance to collapse during outward and inward turbulence is not due to her own strength, but the Lord Christ Himself who has made Himself her cornerstone, who alone is not capable of shattering under the pressures of the ages.
Still, we can learn much from our Christian ancestors who now rest in the Lord, especially the Apostolic Fathers. So, let us now begin gleaning from some of Ignatius’ writings.
Self-Control During Persecution
As I scoffed American Christians above, anytime something minutely adverse happens to us, we decry the world, declaring persecution because our 1st Amendment rights are being violated. While the 1st Amendment is a tremendous blessing we have in our country, the way we typically respond to persecution is not entirely Christian. Instead of raising the banner of Christ and responding soberly, we raise our “Don’t Tread on Me” flags. Ignatius’ advice to the Ephesians is rather apt for us today:
Pray continually for the rest of humankind as well, that they may find God, for there is in them hope for repentance. Therefore, allow them to be instructed by you, at least by your deeds. In response to their anger, be gentle; in response to their boasts, be humble; in response to their slander, offer prayers; in response to their errors, be steadfast in the faith; in response to their cruelty, be civilized; do not be eager to imitate them. Let us show by our forbearance that we are their brothers and sisters, and let us be eager to be imitators of the Lord…Ignatius to the Ephesians, 10.1-3
Ignatius is perhaps drawing from St. Peter, “For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in His steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in His mouth. When He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when he suffered, He did not threaten, but continued entrusting Himself to Him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:20-23).
Thus, when we are persecuted and suffer just as Christ was, we do not behave in fleshly ways but as the Lord Himself behaved, acting soberly at all times and entrusting Himself to God the Father who judges justly.
As Ignatius later writes, “Let all, therefore, accept the same attitude as God and respect one another, and let no one regard his neighbor in merely human terms, but in Jesus Christ love one another always” (Ignatius to the Magnesians, 6.2).
Go to Church During Persecution
Yes, even when the government prohibits it, for the command for God’s people to gather is not a human command but God’s command. God commands this and Ignatius exhorts this not for ex opere operato, that is, not for the mere sake of going to church, but for our own comfort and for the purpose of thwarting the Devil. Ignatius writes, “You are the highway of those who are being killed for God’s sake… Therefore, make every effort to come together more frequently to give thanks and glory to God. For when you meet together frequently, the powers of Satan are overthrown and his destructiveness is nullified by the unanimity of your faith” (Ignatius to the Ephesians, 12.2; 13.1; emphasis mine).
Staying consistent with early church orthodoxy, Ignatius understands the Eucharist as being the centrepiece of our gathering, “which is the medicine of immortality, the antidote we take in order not to die but to live forever in Jesus Christ” (Ignatius to the Ephesians, 20.2). As the bride and groom place flowers and a candle as the centrepiece at their wedding table, so Christ places His true body and blood as the centrepiece at the wedding table of His Bride, the church.
Ignatius also writes, “Take care, therefore, to participate in one Eucharist (for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup that leads to unity through his blood; there is one altar, just as there is one bishop, together with the council of presbyters, and the deacons, my fellow servants), in order that whatever you do, you do in accordance with God” (Ignatius to the Philadelphians, 4).
Guard Yourselves from Heresy and False Doctrines
Another common motif throughout Ignatius’ letters is his exhortations to the churches to guard themselves against heresy and false doctrines during persecution, such as the Docetists who believed Jesus did not actually physically suffer but merely suffered in a phantom-like appearance. After all, if the church is proactive in guarding themselves from outside threats as they continue to gather together, certainly Satan would begin to attack the church from within. Thus, Ignatius is quite serious in his warnings.
For example, possibly drawing from Jesus’ own warning in Matthew 16:6, Ignatius writes, “Throw out, therefore, the bad yeast, which has become stale and sour, and reach for the new yeast, which is Jesus Christ. Be salted with him, so that none of you become rotten, for by your odor you will be convicted” (Ignatius to the Magnesians, 10.2). While speaking metaphorically on false teachers that could be in their midst, he is not metaphorical in his treatment of false teachers. The Magnesian Christians should literally throw them out of the church, lest the leaven infect the whole loaf and it becomes infected and rotten.
He speaks on the insidious deception of false teachers, “These people, while pretending to be trustworthy, mix Jesus Christ with themselves—like those who administer a deadly drug with honeyed wine, which the unsuspecting victim accepts without fear, and so with fatal pleasure drinks down death” (Ignatius to the Trallians, 6.2).
Because of their easy deception, Ignatius further urges the Christians in Philadelphia (not Pennsylvania), “For many seemingly trustworthy wolves attempt, by means of wicked pleasure, to take captive the runners in God’s race; but in your unity they will find no opportunity” (Ignatius to the Philadelphians, 2.2). Only by our consistent gathering together can we have unity in doctrine to guard ourselves against false teachers and their lies, of which the Devil is the author. Again, he writes, “Flee, therefore, the evil tricks and traps of the ruler of this age, lest you be worn out by his schemes and grow weak in love. Instead, gather together, all of you, with an undivided heart” (Ignatius to the Philadelphians, 6.2).
Most interestingly, Ignatius does not advise his flocks to speak with these heretics to win them over. Instead, he incites them to ignore and avoid them entirely. “Be deaf, therefore, whenever anyone speaks to you apart from Jesus Christ” (Ignatius to the Trallians, 9.1). False teachers are “people whom you must not only not welcome but, if possible, not even meet.” While he urges them not to even associate with them, he does encourage them, “Nevertheless, do pray for them, that somehow they might repent, difficult though it may be. But Jesus Christ, our true life, has power over this” (Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans, 4.1-2).
And again he writes, “It is proper, therefore, to avoid such people and not speak about them either privately or publicly. Do pay attention, however, to the prophets and especially to the gospel, in which the passion has been made clear to us and the resurrection has been accomplished” (Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans, 7.2).
While Ignatius might come across as desperate and impractical in his plea to avoid false teachers at all costs, there is wisdom to what he says. Heretics and false teachers are not looking to be convinced from their position; therefore, engaging in conversation with them in attempts to persuade them to orthodox (= correct) teaching is feckless. It is best, therefore, to avoid them altogether.
To use a modern example, this is why I no longer engage in online debates on social media (though I sometimes fail in this wise practice). Whether it’s politics, religion, or console gaming versus PC gaming, no one is looking for civil dialogue to be convinced from their position but to be further convinced of their position. Face it, aren’t you the same way?
So, when I state an opinion and then someone comments simply to create contention and hostility, I refuse to respond because, after many years of experience with such haughty individuals, they don’t want to consider your position as a possible viable option but only want to force their opinion onto you. This does not mean I’m not open to criticism, but on certain matters (such as orthodox church doctrine), I will not budge because Christ’s integrity is at stake. Neither will I become the troll by commenting adverse beliefs to the original post. However, if I want clarification on what someone has said, I will ask kindly and gently.
There is wisdom to Ignatius’ advice because of such futility in trying to persuade those who are utterly adamant from being persuaded to another opinion. What is the point of such endeavours? It only causes heartache and enmity.
Rejoice in Persecution
Finally, the crux of the matter. Not only do faithful Christians remain self-controlled during persecution while continuing to attend church together gathered around the Eucharist as the centrepiece of our gathering, and not only are we to diligently guard ourselves from heresy and false doctrine, but we are especially to rejoice in persecution.
That might sound weird, and that’s because it is. If you haven’t figured it out by now, Christians being a people set apart for God from the rest of the world are a people who look fundamentally weird to the rest of the world. We live differently than others do. When we don’t—when we look exactly like them—they rightly mock us and don’t take us seriously because we ourselves fail to take seriously our identity as God’s chosen race, royal priesthood, and holy nation (1 Peter 2:9).
Readers of Ignatius’ letters might find him to be a bit extreme in how he views his own persecution, but I think we ought to take him seriously in what he says. Church tradition says Ignatius was eaten alive by lions, which is likely due to these words and others:
Let me be food for the wild beasts, through whom I can reach God. I am God’s wheat, and I am being grounded by the teeth of the wild beasts, so that I may prove to be pure bread… Then I will truly be a disciple of Jesus Christ, when the world will no longer see my body. Pray to the Lord on my behalf, so that through these instruments I may prove to be a sacrifice to God… But if I suffer, I will be a freedman of Jesus Christ and will rise up free in him… May I have the pleasure of the wild beasts that have been prepared for me; and I pray that they prove to be prompt with me. I will even coax them to devour me quickly, not as they have done with some, whom they were too timid to touch.Ignatius to the Romans, 4.1-3; 5.2
Indeed, Ignatius looks really weird. He’s looking forward to being consumed by beasts! This even made me uncomfortable. Yet note the source of his joy: his joy is not in his persecution and imminent martyrdom themselves but in his promised resurrection in Christ Jesus. He rejoices in persecution because of the Light he sees at the end of the tunnel: Christ Jesus his Lord. St. John, in his Gospel account, writes that Jesus is the Light who came into the world to enlighten mankind with His salvation (John 1:4-5; 8:12). It is this Light Ignatius sees by faith.
Stranger still is Ignatius’ bizarre excitement to be consumed by the beasts. He hopes for a quick death not so it can be as painless and quick as possible, I think, but rather because the quicker he dies, the quicker he will be with our Lord.
What I find most beautiful in Ignatius’ saying above is that he sees himself as a sacrifice being offered up to God. By this I do not think he means he’s being made a sacrifice for the actual atonement of peoples’ sins, but that he is a sacrifice to point others to Christ. Ignatius credits his bishopric as the reason for his coming martyrdom. Thus, he is dying—being sacrificed—on behalf of his flocks. Therefore, his sacrifice points to the greater sacrifice of Christ who gave Himself up for His church.
Furthermore, if our persecution leads to martyrdom, we also should see the Light of Christ by faith at the end of this dark tunnel called life on earth. We ought to share his joy in being persecuted and dying for Christ:
Neither the ends of the earth nor the kingdoms of this age are of any use to me. It is better for me to die for Jesus Christ than to rule over the ends of the earth. Him I seek, who died on our behalf; him I long for, who rose again for our sake. The pains of birth are upon me… Allow me to be an imitator of the suffering of my God. If anyone has him within, let that person understand what I long for and sympathize with me, knowing what constrains me.Ignatius to the Romans, 6.1, 3
This is much like the attitude of the Apostles themselves, “And they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonour for His name” (Acts 5:41).
Therefore, let us imitate the Apostles and their disciples, and further imitate Christ, not for the sake of persecution itself but because of the hope that is in us—the resurrection we are to share in Christ Jesus. In such rejoicing, which appears insane and outlandish to the world, let the world see just how joyous and utterly life changing and life transcending is the Gospel promise of our God who has given us salvation in Christ Jesus. Whether our seeing His Light is at a peaceful end of our lives or the result of the Devil’s raging in the world, let us rejoice in the resurrection we shall soon experience as we slumber in the arms of our Lord.
Holmes, Michael W. The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007.
Katanacho, Yohanna. “Issue 3: Persecution and Suffering.” IFES Word & World (May 2017): 1-52. https://ifesworld.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/IFES-Word-World-Issue-3-Persecution-and-Suffering.pdf.