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Students examine a missiology of suffering
July 21, 2003
By Jeff Robinson

David Sills

What is a martyr? Are Christians called to suffer or does the Christian faith exempt one from suffering?

Sixteen students sought to answer these questions during a class/conference held May 27-30 at Southern Seminary. The class, “A Missiology of Suffering, Witness, and Church Planting in the Midst of Persecution,” examined the questions in detail and the answers they found differed from some popular notions regarding both issues. The conference was co-sponsored by Southern Sem-inary’s Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth, the International Mission Board and the Long Run Baptist Association in Louisville. Its purpose was to equip students for cross-cultural ministry in strategic locations throughout the world.

The first task class members undertook was to define the term “martyr.” Properly defining this term alongside a biblical definition of a Christian holds important implications for missions. Many groups that compile statistics define both terms broadly and wrongly consider many countries as already evangelized.

“There are several sensational books about martyrs out there that say things such as, ‘There have been more martyrs in the 20th century than in any other in history,’” said David Sills, associate professor of Christian missions and cultural anthropology at Southern Seminary. Sills taught a section of the class on missions and suffering. “However, those statements include many groups, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, that we would not consider Christians. We took a much more narrow definition of who is a Christian and who is a martyr.”

Some missions groups define a martyr as anyone who suffers in any way or dies by any means while on the mission field, Sills said. For example, some groups might count as a martyr a missionary who dies in an automobile crash on the field.

Other groups that tally martyrs define a Christian as anyone who claims the title, ranging from Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons to nominal Roman Catholics and Protestants. Some would say that 97 percent of Latin America is Christian because many in the country subscribe to some form of Roman Catholicism, he said.

This inclusive definition of Christianity, coupled with a broad definition of a martyr, leads to grossly inflated statistics regarding the number of Christians who annually suffer for the faith, Sills said.

Worse, it causes millions of persons to be counted as having heard the Gospel when the authentic Christian message has never reached their ears, he said.

“The major problem with this is that some groups will say that such-and-such a country has already been reached with the Gospel because of this broad definition of ‘Christian,’” Sills said. “It also exaggerates the number of martyrs. If Latin America were to be wiped out by a communist country, for example, because of these broad definitions of ‘martyr’ and ‘Christian,’ [some groups] would say that there were a large number of martyrs among those killed.”

Because of these inclusive definitions, some groups estimate that around 160,000 Christians are martyred each year.

Sills said the class agreed with the IMB’s definition of a martyr, which is much more narrow. This definition says a person is not a martyr until he or she is killed because of their Christian faith.

Augustine, the church father, wrote, “The cause [the Christian faith] and not the suffering makes a genuine martyr.” Sills said the class agreed that Augustine’s understanding of martyrdom, like that of the IMB, is the most balanced definition. By this understanding, between 500 and 5,000 are martyred each year, he said.

Sills said perhaps another category should exist for those who die while on mission but are not killed expressly for their Christian belief. Sills and the class suggested the category of “hero of the faith,” for these persons.

“There is no way you can come up with a definition that encompasses all the reasons a Christian might die while witnessing,” Sills said. “If a person is not a martyr according to this definition that does not take away from their death or their service in any way.”

The class also examined a “theology of suffering” -- the biblical teaching that Christians are called to suffer. The New Testament is replete with evidence that Christians will suffer for the sake of Christ and the Gospel, he said. It is the blood of the martyrs that has provided the seed for the growth of the church through the ages, a biblical teaching Christians need to recover, Sills said.

“This was the basic theology of the [17th century] Puritans,” Sills said. “That is, we need to kiss the rod that afflicts us and not try to escape so we can live a life of ease. We need to embrace it when it comes.”

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