Why was martyrdom important in the early Christian church?

Why Martyrdom was Important  in Early Christianity

Christianity is widely practiced throughout the world and its rise has seen great effort and acts of self-denial. The first few centuries saw an escalation of Christianity and by AD 100 it was notably a Gentile religion that was breaking from its Jews roots and was taking a new route. The 200 AD saw Christianity transverse regions of the Roman Empire and was mostly concentrated in urban areas.

The number of Christians by 325 AD was estimated to be seven million. This tremendous increase can be attributed to a variety of reasons that include its ability to act as a unifying factor, and its attractive doctrines. However, this could not have been achieved with ease as it may sound and therefore early Christianity required self-denial. The concept of martyrdom played a crucial role in increasing the number of Christians at large.

The concept of martyrdom refers to the voluntary tolerance of death about faith in Jesus Christ or an act of virtue about God. Those who embrace martyrdom are referred to as martyrs and are prepared to lose their lives prematurely due to human hostility for the sake of witnessing Christ.  The following article explores the importance of martyrdom in early Christianity.

1. zeal and zest of martyrs

Martyrs preached the gospel with zeal and zest. By doing so they were able to channel all their energies towards this noble act and as a result, they were able to convince many people and travel many places. The total belief in Jesus Christ and the willingness to imitate Him were a driving force behind their activities. They were certain that martyrdom marked the highest peak in spirituality and saw it as continuity between them and Jesus Christ.

This perspective made them fearless and acted as a comforting factor to their sufferings. They were therefore dedicated in their work and prepared to suffer, aspects that served to motivate them in evangelistic missions. This determination made them reach many people and overcome various obstacles and as a result Christianity spread at an alarming rate during early years. They were able to solidify their faith in Christ as well as assisting others to do so and were therefore instrumental in guarding the Christian faith by leading with example and persuading others to follow the steps of Christ. Their teachings were very ideal for the development and maintenance of the early church.

2. Logical and luring sympathy of the martyrs

Martyrdom created a stage for logical and luring sympathy. The martyr’s loyalty and belief in their religion was an attractive aspect that attracted those who witnessed the execution of the martyrs especially pagans. Pagans were attracted and impressed by the courage of these martyrs. The conservative nature of these martyrs and the unshakeable faith they portrayed were not only fascinating but also amazing. The rigidity of their decision and the joy they derived from such decisions were second to none.

They stood for their faith with absolute loyalty and passion and even in the face of execution, they remained unshaken and fearless. Such rare qualities attracted the pagans who were puzzled and wondered what it felt like to be a Christian. They were impressed and attracted by the submissive nature of Christians and their willingness to defend their faith.

By wondering and thinking about the true doctrines and motivation behind these martyrs, they were able to see the truth of Christianity and some immediately converted to Christianity. This conversion rate increased the capacity of the church and resulted in an increment in the Christian population. The majority of people gathered around the execution arenas and were attracted to the loyalty of the martyrs and their unwillingness to lapse. This courage and bravery connoted salvation and a better reward in the afterlife and was naturally attracted to those who witnessed.

3. Conversion of Roman Emperor Constantine

Furthermore, the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine in 312 AD resulted in an efflorescence of the martyrs’ salt. Following the previous nature of mass execution of martyrs, the Christians had been forced to exist in secrecy. However, with Constantine’s conversion, there was a green light and hope for peace and serenity. The Roman Empire was now perceived as a haven and sanctuary for Christians.

Christianity was no longer seen as a secret organized regime. The bastardization nature of this noble religion was to attain legitimacy and the Christians saw it as an act of salvation. The inclusion of Christians in the government attracted many to the religion and mass conversion was witnessed. With the emperor being a Christian, a stage was set to open for conversion and the willingly were accordingly converted. This conversion saw an escalation in the number of Christians in the Roman Empire and beyond. As a result, early Christianity experienced a massive positive shift in numbers and hence the church was strengthened.

4. Miracle performance by the martyrs

Early Christians also performed miracles. Being a true disciple of Jesus Christ required total submission to His teachings and faith in Him. It involved believing that a disciple would replicate the works of Jesus. Under such circumstances, the disciples believed that through the Holy Spirit and Jesus they could perform almost everything that their master did. They were therefore loving, caring, and charismatic. Some of them could even perform miracles actions which further served to accelerate the conversion to Christianity.

Jesus performed miracles and that ability drew a multitude of people who gathered to witness this rare occurrence and as a result found themselves following Him. Consequently, the martyrs’ ability to perform miracles created attention and a large following. The consistency and nature of these miracles were able to cause huge followings and a precipitous increase in the number of Christians and hence expansion of early Christianity. People are naturally attracted to that which is perceived as magic and therefore will gather in large numbers to witness it. Since seeing is believing, those who witnessed this were important candidates to subsequent conversion.

5. Women involvement in martyrdom

Martyrdom also involved women. The involvement of women in acts of martyrdom revolutionized the early concept of Christianity. Christianity was now an inclusive religion with a non-discriminatory aspect. It was diverse and accommodating and no door was closed to anyone. Salvation was for all and defending was a duty to all.

Many women were martyred for their faith and willingness to defend it. Some even requested that they be executed rather than be subjected to paganism and were proud of it and possessed a very conservative attitude towards it.  Women such as Perpetua of Carthage and the slave girl Felicitas also from Carthage are just but a few examples of martyred women who stood for their faith. These women loved and proved the love for their religion and were determined to defend it at whichever cost even if it involved dying for it.

Perpetua, a nursing mother, was imprisoned, tortured, and executed upon her request. She had accumulated great faith and developed large reservoirs of loyalty to her religion such that despite the open threat and hostility of the Roman Empire towards Christians, she openly declared her faith. She saw it noble to die by faith rather than participate in paganism which was not only upsetting but also unproductive here on earth and hereafter.

She was eventually executed after being attacked by wild animals in the arena and most interesting, with a smile, she directed the sword to her throat and the gladiator executed her through this assisted suicide. These acts of bravery only served as acts to admire and therefore those who witnessed were attracted and impressed by her heroic acts and some converted to Christianity increasing the number and expanding the church.

6. Virgin martyrs

Furthermore, virgin martyrs contributed greatly to the expansion of the church and the spread of early Christianity. These virgins were opposed to the cultural norm of marriage as expected by the society and were, therefore, outcasts in the society who required severe punishment. They instead chose to dedicate their lives to serving Christ rather than being married. Some of them were from wealthy families and therefore frustrated the arranged marriages that were meant to raise the family status while creating meaningful commercial and social bonds. For example, Cecelia in the 2nd Century rejected marriage in service of Christ and the result was execution. She was unsuccessfully beheaded, an act that made her die three days later. She persevered in her execution and felt that she would not give up her religion even if it would cost her life. Agatha, another virgin was sent to a brothel and later her breasts were cut off for the sake of Christ. She failed to abide by the marriage norm of society and was therefore subjected to torture and death. These examples did set the stage for the participation of women as nuns for the sake of Christ in early Christianity and were able to attract many who witnessed or heard the story.

In conclusion, it is evident that the spread of early Christianity faced many challenges and that martyrdom played an important role in its establishment. Martyrs engaged in acts of self-denial and endured severe suffering that cost their lives for the sake of Christ. They did so in a brave manner and as a result, we’re able to attract followers as explained above.

Gene Botkin

Gene is the director of the Theosis Christian Project. He studied physics and military science before founding the Project. Gene is currently pursuing his doctorate in systems engineering at an engineering college in the Ozarks. The Theosis Christian Project is his attempt to expand Holy Orthodoxy in America.

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