As Southern Baptist leaders expressed Christian solidarity and outrage over the murder of 21 Coptic Christians in Libya, others began raising questions about the validity of calling these men Christian martyrs. Some of the confusion comes from the fact that the International Mission Board listed the majority of Egyptians (which would include many Coptic communities) as an unreached people group, those needing missionary focus. The question they raised was, “How can unreached peoples be considered Christian martyrs?”
To be honest, when I first heard this question I wondered why anyone could respond this way to an act the entire world was condemning. However, upon further reflection I thought that perhaps the question deserved a response from a Southern Baptist theologian and missiologist. I cannot judge the motive of those asking the questions. If anyone has less than honorable intentions, they may never be convinced. But those who are legitimately curious have a right to expect a theological and missiological answer from one who has ascribed martyrdom to the men.
- We must remember there is a difference between people group and personal faith.
I have not talked to anyone at the International Mission Board about this particular situation, but I have been inside the mission community long enough to understand how things work. When a mission agency studies a country one of the first questions they ask involves natural groupings of people. This information is used to guide missionary strategies for the different people groups. In many predominantly Muslim countries there are historic Christian minorities (we actually owe our very faith to their legacy, but that is a story for a different day). These people are born into this social group without regards to any personal expression of faith. They are also involved in cultural and religious activities which are tied to this social group. They are identified as “christian” socially. When evangelical mission agencies make decisions about “reached” and “unreached” they are asking different questions – questions about personal faith in Christ. This nuance is often lost when the conversation moves beyond the missionary community.
Southern Baptists have not suddenly changed our definition of what it takes to become a Christian. However, it is indeed possible for a cultural group, a people group, to bear the name “christian” yet remain almost entirely unreached. It is also possible for individuals within an unreached people group to be genuine Christians. In such cases, we are dependent on what we can see of their individual witnesses.
2. This side of heaven, we only know the genuineness of a person’s faith based on their testimony and lifestyle.
The 21 men who were killed on the beach in Libya were killed BECAUSE of their professed faith. The sadistic evil doers made this profession on their behalf before the murders. Their captors confessed that these men were “people of the cross.” In this testimony I hear the echoes of Daniel’s enemies who said they could not find any fault in him unless it was his faith. These men were killed because their captors believed they were Christians.
I can assume (and yes, it is only an assumption) that these Islamic extremists would have pressed for, and been content with, these men converting to Islam. Based on my knowledge of these types of situation, I imagine these men were provided opportunities to renounce their faith and embrace the faith of their captors. Clearly they did not. They were murdered because they were men “of the cross.” On the basis of this testimony through the lips of their captors, and their lifestyle “not loving their lives even unto death,” Southern Baptists (and the rest of the Christian world) are right to hallow these men as martyrs and identify with them as brothers in the faith.
Our show of solidarity is not a declaration that the entire Coptic community is Christian. Rather, it accepts the testimony of these 21 men as valid based on profession and demonstration. We accept the testimony of a Baptist and would mourn their martyrdom even if we had not known them personally, though we all know that many who carry the label Baptist are not regenerate. In the same way, it is good and right that we identify with our brothers “of the cross” whose lives were taken because of this testimony.
Our solidarity with them does not make an entire people group Christians, and was never intended to do so. But based on what we have seen from a clear witness in front of a watching world, that same solidarity should also not be interpreted as cowardly or in any way abandoning the faith.
May these men receive the reward of their faith and may the Lord judge their murders with justice and most of all, may he grant to us all the faith to face whatever opposition we will with the same faithfulness they demonstrated on that Libyan beach.
Remember the prisoners, as though you were in prison with them, and the mistreated, as though you yourselves were suffering bodily
Scott Hildreth is the director of the Lewis A. Drummond Center for Great Commission Studies. He frequently speaks on issues of missions, spiritual formation, missiology, and theology. Scott also contributes to SEBTS faculty blog www.betweenthetimes.com