Polycarp and Persecution


Chapter 4. Quintus the apostate

Now one named Quintus, a Phrygian, who was but lately come from Phrygia, when he saw the wild beasts, became afraid. This was the man who forced himself and some others to come forward voluntarily [for trial]. Him the proconsul, after many entreaties, persuaded to swear and to offer sacrifice. Wherefore, brethren, we do not commend those who give themselves up [to suffering], seeing the Gospel does not teach so to do.

Chapter 5. The departure and vision of Polycarp

But the most admirable Polycarp, when he first heard [that he was sought for], was in no measure disturbed, but resolved to stay in the city. However, in deference to the wish of many, he was persuaded to leave it. He departed, therefore, to a country house not far distant from the city. There he stayed with a few [friends], engaged in nothing else night and day than praying for all men, and for the Churches throughout the world, according to his usual custom. And while he was praying, a vision presented itself to him three days before he was taken; and, behold, the pillow under his head seemed to him on fire. Upon this, turning to those that were with him, he said to them prophetically, I must be burnt alive.

Chapter 6. Polycarp is betrayed by a servant

And when those who sought for him were at hand, he departed to another dwelling, whither his pursuers immediately came after him. And when they found him not, they seized upon two youths [that were there], one of whom, being subjected to torture, confessed. It was thus impossible that he should stay hidden, since those that betrayed him were of his own household. The Irenarch then (whose office is the same as that of the Cleronomus ), by name Herod, hastened to bring him into the stadium. [This all happened] that he might fulfil his special lot, being made a partaker of Christ, and that they who betrayed him might undergo the punishment of Judas himself.

Chapter 7. Polycarp is found by his pursuers

His pursuers then, along with horsemen, and taking the youth with them, went forth at supper-time on the day of the preparation with their usual weapons, as if going out against a robber. And having come about evening [to the place where he was], they found him lying down in the upper room of a certain little house, from which he might have escaped into another place; but he refused, saying, The will of God be done. So when he heard that they had come, he went down and spoke with them.

“The Martyrdom of Polycarp” was a story of comfort for Christians and an encouragement to be faithful until the end. Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, was executed around 155AD. His story was passed on to others soon after. But the document also gave info on how one should behave in a world that is hostile and where persecution and death for one’s faith was a very real possibility.

“The Martyrdom of Polycarp”

Based on this section, the following guidelines can be given:

  • Don’t voluntarily turn yourelf over to the persecutors. Quintus did exactly that and the writer is not surprised that he apostated under torture. The writer notes that turning oneself over voluntarily is not in line with the Gospel record. It is true that Jesus hid from His enemies on at least two occasions in the Gospels… and Matthew 10:23 suggests that this may have happened quite regularly. There are, clearly, limits to “turning the other cheek.”
  • Submit to the will of God, but don’t be too quick to determine what His will is. Polycarp believed prophetically that he would be executed and yet still sought to extend his life. Eventually, he decided it was time to stop hiding, but only after his hiding led to some being tortured.
  • Don’t live in fear, but live prudently. Don’t fear death, but don’t seek it out either. Act wisely and cautiously to live and serve.
  • It is fine to surrender oneself to the enemy… but not to surrender another. Again, this is in line with the Passion story, where Jesus is seen as surrendering Himself at the appropriate time to the enemy, but this is not seen as excusing the betrayal of Judas.
  • Once escape is not an option, use the opportunity to be a witness in both word and action.

These may seem actually pretty reasonable. But they are worth thinking about. Historically, and even today, there are those who seem to think that faithfulness involves intentionally placing oneself in harm’s way. St. Ignatius of Antioch a few decades earlier than Polycarp appeared to be rather excited about the idea of being executed/martyred. However, by this time there seems to be a different view. The view in this story is much in line with the George S. Patton guidance to his men that the goal of a soldier is NOT to die for his country. (After all, a country can’t really do much with dead soldiers.)

Additionally, some have sought to take a radical obedience stance based on their interpretation of Romans 13 such that if one is summoned by the government, one must comply… it’s the law after all. But obeying an evil law is still… ultimately being complicit with that evil (regardless of what “umbrella” theorists suggest). Others take the Muslim idea that one can morally deny one’s faith to “the unfaithful” to preserve one’s life. While this is certainly pragmatic, but is ultimately unchristian. (However, refusing to forgive those who did deny is also unchristian.)

It is sad that today there is as much danger in being faithful to God in some places as there has ever been. Voluntary religion and freedom of conscience are things that we struggle with— even in places open-mindedness is allegedly promoted. But in such places, the goal is not to live in fear… but caution and prudence are good. When there is no other option to avoid the enemy, remain faithful.

How is that lived out day to day— I don’t know. For example, John Chow recognized the strong possiblity that he would die going to North Sentinel Island. Was this an act of courage or foolishness. I don’t know. Frankly, I don’t know about St. Paul either, who ignored the prophecies of church leaders, and boldly headed off to be arrested, imprisoned for 5 years, and eventually executed. Was this the right decision? I have no idea, but it seemed like a bad idea (and Luke sounds pretty ambivalent about the whole situation as well).

I asked a number of my students a few months back what they would do if they were being sought out by the government because of their faith. (Several of them come from countries where that is actually a possibility.) Most of them said that they did not know what they would do. Personally, I think that is a good answer. As much as it sounds impressive to say for sure what we would do, most of us don’t really know. In this story, there were several different responses.

  • Quintas voluntarily submitted to governmental summons, and then publically rejected his faith under threat.
  • Two servants betrayed Polycarp under torture.
  • Polycarp was turtured and executed without rejecting his faith.
  • The author of this story, presumably, successfully hid from persecuors and was then able to share this story with the world.

But all of these people were probably sure they would be faithful to God to the end. It is wise to pray that that faith never be tested to the limit.

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