|The Martyrdom of Bishop Teodor of Vrsac, Serbia.|
Before exploring the contemporary debate, we might be wise to take a look back at a previous age of martyrdom to see how the Church survived a very similar trial.
The question of Christians committing apostasy in order to save their lives, and how to deal with those who did so, was experienced on a widespread scale in the middle of the 3rd century when, under Roman Emperor Decius (249-251), a fierce new outbreak of persecution against the Church was launched.
From Fr. Alexander Schmemann, The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy:
One of the primary reasons for the decline in Christian intensity had undoubtedly been the lull in the persecutions. From the death of Marcus Aurelius (185) until the middle of the third century, the Church lived in relative security...
The persecution that suddenly burst upon the Church in the year 249 seemed a terrible and unexpected trial and exposed in full clarity how far many, many Christians had departed from the original intensity of faith and way of life...
[Emperor Decius] gave first priority to the restoration of state worship, and this inevitably led to conflict with Christianity. Except for Nero, Decius was the first representative of Roman power to take the initiative in these persecutions as opposed to the system of private accusation followed by test. In a special edict he ordered all his subjects to prove their loyalty to the national gods by making the sacrifice.
The Church again responded with the blood of martyrs, including not only Origen... but Bishop Flavian of Rome, Babylas of Antioch, and Alexander of Jerusalem. But what startled the Church was the mass apostasy.
“Fear struck them,” wrote Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria, “and many of the more influential Christians gave in immediately, some giving way to fear, others, as civil servants, to the requirements of their positions, still others drawn along with the crowd. Some were pale and trembling, as if it were not they who were making sacrifices to the idols but they themselves who were being brought to sacrifice; and therefore the crowd mocked them.”
The same picture appears in the letters of Cyprian of Carthage: “There were some who did not even wait to be summoned to climb onto the Capitol, or to be questioned to renounce their faith. They ran to the Forum themselves, they hastened to their [spiritual] deaths, as if they had wished it for a long time. And — O ultimate crime! — parents brought their children with them, so that they might lose in their childhood what they had received on the threshold of their lives.”
The persecution passed liked a whirlwind and quickly abated, but it left the Church in ruins. The question arose as to how to deal with those who had lapsed, who now rushed back for forgiveness and reconciliation. While the Church had recognized a “second repentance” at the beginning of the century, now the question was posed anew and more acutely.
In the earlier time, lapsed Christians had been the exception, so that a second repentance was also an exception, but now it was a mass occurrence. When we remember what the witness of martyrs meant to the Church — that it was the witness of the Church to itself, the proof of Christ’s strength which lived in it — then it becomes clear why the problem of the lapsed caused a lengthy dissension, the last in the series of “temptations of the Church” that marked the late second and early third centuries.
Against this background of dissension the figure of the great African bishop, St. Cyprian of Carthage, stands out clearly. Like Tertullian, he represented the “pure” Christianity that characterized the brief but magnificent history of the African Church...
In the spring of 251 Cyprian returned to Carthage and summoned a synod, which decided the problem by relaxing the discipline of repentance. It divided the lapsed into two categories, depending on the degree of apostasy, and established two forms by which they might again be accepted into the Church. Some could be received only on their deathbeds, while others could rejoin after more or less prolonged periods of repentance.
The heart-rending spectacle of mass apostasy of Christians during the persecution of Decius nearly rent the Church herself in two, so intense was the clash of Novatian and the rigorists, who held that only the pure (cathari) could constitute the true Church, versus the Confessors, joined by Cyprian of Carthage who, appealed for unity. From Fr. Alexander Schmemann's text again:
Formally, Novatian was right when he invoked tradition in his protest against accepting the lapsed. Cyprian himself had been a typical rigorist before the persecution of Decius. But the teaching of the Church is not a logical system and is not constructed in syllogisms.
Novatian, who was true to logic, was torn from the life of the Church, while Cyprian, outwardly self-contradictory, could still boldly state that he had introduced nothing new with the question of the lapsed Christians, for he had taken his doctrine from the life of the Church.
In fact, nothing had changed in the nature of the Church or its sanctity, but it had become more deeply conscious of the dichotomy between old and new in its earthly life. Novatian and his followers, for the sake of their principles, were left outside the Church; such is the logic behind every schism. They withdrew in proud scorn for the sullied Church of the lapsed. But in the pastoral heart of Cyprian and his truly catholic way of thinking, this Church of the lapsed remained the same holy bride of Christ, which has no room for sin but exists to save sinners.
Cyprian’s life ended in the glory of a martyr’s death...
The Christian Church ultimately was strengthened by the horrific trial of not only the persecutions under Decius, but by the depth of Her compassion as She re-embraced those who had committed apostasy. The Church's final and greatest trial under the Roman Empire would reveal Her inner strength. Fr. Schmemann writes:
With the end of the [third] century came increasing persecutions. The empire was falling, its whole structure rocked under the terrible attacks of Germanic tribes from the north and the Goths and Persians from the east. In these troubled years, when it was natural to seek scapegoats for so many misfortunes, it was not difficult to inflame hatred against the Christians. Edict followed edict, and throughout the empire new names of martyrs were added to the martyrology of the Church.
The persecutions probably never reached such intensity as under Diocletian (303), just on the eve of the conversion of Constantine. The largest roster of names of martyrs comes to us from this period. It was as if the Church were revealing, for the last time before its victory, all the strength, beauty, and inspiration of the courageous suffering by which it had survived the first centuries — the strength of its witness to the kingdom of Christ, by which alone it ultimately conquered.
For an excellent discussion of a variant form of Christian apostasy under the Ottoman Muslims, see Confessors or Apostates? The Crypto-Christian Dilemma, by Mother Nectaria McLees (Road to Emmaus, # 31). From Mother Nectaria's introductory paragraph:
Although many Christians under the Turkish yoke did apostasize and embrace Islam, there were also thousands of conscious martyrs, and millions of other Christian victims, killed randomly without time to reflect or the opportunity to make a choice.1 But what are we to think of those who – either lacking the courage to “resist unto death,” or being responsible for families, parishes, or communities that, after their protector’s martyrdom, might fall victim to slavery, concubinage, and forced conversion to Islam – took a third path, declaring themselves Muslim while continuing to secretly practice Christianity?
One must certainly consider the experience of the Russian Catacomb Church during the Soviet regime. During the seventy year period which saw tens of millions of Christians martyred, a hidden, secret remnant persevered, always knowing that there might one night come the dreaded "knock at the door," heralding the end of their sanctuary and their moment to shine as confessors and witnesses for Jesus Christ.
Millions of Christians today, mostly in the Islamic world, live under such a real and deadly threat, and we must look to them, and to the confessors and martyrs of every age, as our models.
Archimandrite Daniel Byantoro, a convert to Orthodox Christianity from Islam and the founder of the Indonesian Orthodox Mission, confronts the possibility of martyrdom every day in Indonesia, which has the world's largest Muslim population. Outbreaks of Muslim persecution against Christians is a constant danger there, prompting Fr Daniel to note:
If there is no possible way to escape (even if we have been trying to be good and obey the laws of society), if we become known as a believer, if they stigmatize us as unbelievers as heretics or whatever, then it is obvious there is no other way – if martyrdom comes, then we have to accept it. If you cannot escape being a martyr, do it! Go for it! I teach this in church, and I say, even to myself, that there is no other way.
Ultimately, the new wave of persecution is coming here to North America. In fact, it is already here, as we Christians are being forced to choose between "getting along" in the world, or resisting the ever more strident efforts to force us to support evil, anti-human and depraved practices, whether it is public funding for abortion through our tax dollars, or a Christian baker compelled by law to create a wedding cake for a homosexual couple.
Hieromonk Seraphim Rose of Platina taught a radical, martyric ethos as the only way to prepare for our own approaching trials. He repeatedly stressed the witness of persecuted believers in Russia to help make it real for his listeners, as in this example:
The debate between Christians over saving their lives under increasing Muslim persecution may seem distant from us in our comfortable lives. Yet we are daily confronted with the same choice, whether to honor God, take up our cross and follow Christ, or not.
Once Fr. Dimitri [Dudko] was asked about how much better off religion was in the free world than in Russia, and he answered: "Yes, they have freedom and many churches, but theirs is a spirituality with comfort. We in Russia have a different path, a path of suffering that can produce real fruit." [...]
We should remember this phrase when we look at our own feeble Orthodoxy in the free world: [If] ours is a spirituality with comfort, we will not have the spiritual fruits that will be exhibited by those without all these comforts, who deeply suffer and struggle for Christ. In this sense we should take our tone from the suffering Church in Russia [...] Our eyes must be on heaven above, the goal we strive for, not on the problems and disasters of earth below.
Orthodox Christians Facing the 1980s, Lecture given by Father Seraphim Rose at the St. Herman Summer Pilgrimage, Platina, CA, August 9, 1979.)
Even if the temporal stakes may not seem as extreme as those confronting our Middle Eastern, African, and Asian Christian brothers and sisters, the eternal value of each and every decision we make is just as weighty, just as eternal. God help us be true and faithful to Jesus Christ, for I fear the devil may reap a much greater harvest among us here in the comfortable West than he ever will among our persecuted brethren in the Islamic world.Christians Debate: Is it OK to 'Act Muslim' to Save Their Lives
by Thomas D. Williams, PhD, Breitbart News — August 26, 2015
A debate is raging among African and Arab theologians regarding how far Christians can go in good conscience to hide their faith and pretend to be Muslims in order to save their lives at the hands of Islamist extremists.
It often happens that during jihadist raids, militants will try to ascertain quickly whether persons they are attacking are Christians or Muslims by asking them questions about Islam or having them recite the Muslim creed in Arabic.
For example, during the 2013 terror attack at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, al Shabaab gunmen paused for a moment to announce in English: “Muslims, get out of here!
An Indian man stepped forward, but when the gunmen asked him, “What is the name of Muhammad’s mother?” he couldn’t answer, and so they shot him.
Another of those trying to escape was a student named Joshua Hakim, who covered up the Christian name on his voter card as he showed it to the gunmen. Hakim was allowed to go.
Other terror attacks by radical Islamists have followed a similar pattern. Those who could show they were Muslim—by reciting a prayer in Arabic or answering questions about Islam—were allowed to go free. Those who couldn’t were killed.
As a result, some Christians have started sharing tips on how to “act Muslim” and so avoid being killed by attackers. These tips—shared by word of mouth or even on the internet—include activities such as learning to recite the shahada—Islam’s central creed—in Arabic.
Christian theologians, however, are divided on whether such a practice amounts to a denial of Christ or “apostasy.”
One Kenyan pastor, David Oginde, the head of the 45,000-member Christ is the Answer Ministries, says that such pretending to be Muslim is unworthy behavior for a Christian. “A true Christian must be ready to live and to die for the faith,” he said.
Others disagree. Two professors at St. Paul’s University, an Anglican institution in Nairobi, have said that the answer isn’t that clear-cut. Reciting the shahada doesn’t amount to denying Christ, says Samuel Githinji, a theology lecturer.
“Christians are obligated to save their lives and others’ lives as much as possible,” Githinji said. “Denying the faith is more subtle than the mere voicing of certain words.”
Christian persecution from the Islamic State and other jihadist groups has provided ample opportunities for Christians to show their mettle.
One of the twenty-one Egyptian men beheaded on a Libyan beach last February, Mathew Ayairga, was asked the question, “Do you reject Christ?” Though Ayairga was not even a Christian up until then, he chose to identify with the other Egyptians and their Christian faith. His reply to his captors was, “Their God is my God!” and he was killed with the rest.
The question of what constitutes apostasy and how Christians should act in situations of persecution is as old as Christianity itself. During the most severe Roman persecutions, notably those of Emperors Nero, Decius, Valerian. and Diocletian, apostasy was fairly common, since holding to one’s faith meant the loss of property, position, citizens’ rights, and even one’s life.
Even in those early centuries, Christians debated over what compromises were licit and which could never be engaged in. When persecutions slowed, the Church had to address the question of how Christians who had apostatized should be dealt with.
George Sabra, president of Near East School of Theology in Lebanon, says Christians should rely on the guidance of the Holy Spirit in such situations. Sabra says that Christians should not say the shahada, but if they do, they should be treated with compassion.
“To be a Christian is not about learning tactics for survival,” he said. “But denying Christ is not an unforgivable sin. We may not despair of God’s love and mercy. Even Peter, the head of the disciples, was a denier of Christ.”