By David W T Brattston
Hatred, opposition, unpopularity and persecution in one form or another come with the territory of being a Christian and did so at the very beginnings of our religion. Predictions of such adverse behaviour are attributed to Jesus in the four Gospels and in other Christian documents written while the oral teachings and Bible interpretations of the New Testament writers were still fresh in Christian memories. All of them cited in this article were written so early that there was no time for the Christian message to have been corrupted. The early Biblical and non-Biblical literature also contains instructions as to how Christians are to respond to such abuse, and gives reasons why we should respond in this manner. The following is not just one possible interpretation of the Bible among many but was handed down by people—or Christians not many generations earlier—who knew Christ or the apostles in the flesh and could ask them to explain what they had said and how they interpreted the Scriptures.
The most direct warning for people who would count the cost of following Jesus before deciding to do so is at Matthew 10.22: “you will be hated by all for my name’s sake.” The probability of adverse reaction by non-Christians is expressed elsewhere to be a blessing; yes, Christians who are hated, opposed, unpopular and persecuted for their discipleship are in some way in a blessed or enviable position:
- Matthew 5.10: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
- Matthew 5.11: “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”
- Luke 6.22: “Blessed are you when men hate you, and they exclude you and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, on account of the Son of man!”
- Polycarp of Smyrna, near Ephesus, a pastor who had frequently associated with the apostles, similarly wrote in the first half of the second century that heaven blesses “those that are persecuted for righteousness’ sake”.[i] Polycarp may have been “the angel of the church in Smyrna” addressed in Revelation 2.8.
- Diatessaron 8.35: “Blessed are ye when men shall hate you, and separate you from them, and persecute you, and reproach you and shall speak against you with all evil talk, for my sake, falsely.”[ii] Dating from the mid-second century A.D., the Diaressaron was a harmonised interweaving of the four Gospels and other early recollections of Jesus’ sayings. It was the standard text of the gospel in Syria until the fifth century. It gives us a supplementary and more co-ordinated view of Jesus’ teachings as they were perceived by early believers, the people to whom they were originally directed.
- In the Epistle of the Apostles, also mid-second century, Jesus is credited with a fuller description of Christians who rebuke and warn other people, who speak out against religious doubting, confusions, divisions, jealousy, envy, hatred, faultfinding and respect of persons of sinners. Such Christians shall be hated, mocked, despised, persecuted, thrust aside and ostracised.[iii]
Love Your Enemies
As is well known to Bible scholars, the ways in which Christians are to respond to such treatment are contrary to natural human inclination and its instinct to reply in kind. First, the teaching of the earliest Christian authors is that we are to love our enemies and those who hate us:
- Matthew 5.44: “Love your enemies”.
- Luke 6.27: “Love your enemies, and do good to those who hate you”.
- Luke 6.35: “love your enemies, and do good”.
- Epistle of the Apostles 18 says the same as Matthew 5.44.
- Diatessaron 9.18 expresses the same thought as Luke.[iv]
- Love for those who hate them was described as a characteristic of Christian behaviour by Justin, a philosopher and teacher who was martyred for the Faith around A.D. 165.[v]
- Irenaeus, a disciple of Polycarp and later a pastor-bishop in France, repeated the statement about love for enemies in the A.D. 180s[vi] and explained that in giving this command Christ extended the Law of Moses, even to loving our enemies in addition to family and neighbours.[vii]
- In the closing years of the second century, the church father Tertullian observed that because we Christians are to love our enemies, then we cannot hate anyone at all, not even persecutors.[viii] Tertullian was a prominent Roman lawyer who became a minister in Carthage in what is today Tunisia. He was the most prolific Christian author in the Latin language before Augustine.
- About the same time as Tertullian, the Letter to Diognetus in describing Christians’ relations with the world compares them to the soul, and the (unfriendly) world to the flesh of a body: “The soul loves the flesh that hates it, and [loves also] the members; Christians likewise love those that hate them. The soul is imprisoned in the body, yet preserves that very body”.[ix]
- A summary of these sentiments can be found in the Didache, a church manual dating from the late first or early second century. It counsels: “love them that hate you; and ye shall not have an enemy.”[x]
Pray For Your Enemies
A spiritual application of such love is to pray for one’s enemies and for those who hate, abuse, slander, persecute, exhibit violence to and despitefully use a Christian:
- Matthew 5.44: “pray for those who persecute you”.
- Luke 6.28: “pray for those who abuse you.”
- Around A.D. 125 the Christian philosopher Aristides of Athens described the Christians’ response to the slanders of Greek pagans against them:
But the Christians are just and good, and the truth is set before their eyes, and their spirit is long-suffering; and, therefore, though they know the error of these (the Greeks), and are persecuted by them, they bear and endure it; and for the most part they have compassion on them, as men who are destitute of knowledge. And on their side, they offer prayer that these may repent of their error.[xi]
- Polycarp exhorted the Philippian Christians to “Pray for all the saints”, kings, princes, and “for those that persecute and hate you, and for the enemies of the cross”.[xii]
- Didache 1.3: “pray for your enemies, and fast for them that persecute you.”[xiii]
- The Sentences of Sextus in the first half of the second century counselled Christians to consider nobody to be their enemy[xiv] and to pray that they might do good to whatever enemy they still might have.[xv]
- Justin Martyr, quoting the Gospels, wrote that it is standard Christian practice to “Pray for our enemies”[xvi] and to “pray for them that despitefully use you.”[xvii]
- Diatessaron 9.13: “pray for those that curse you…pray for those who take you with violence and persecute you”.[xviii]
- Irenaeus Against Heresies 2.32.1 is to the same effect, and adds that by such prayer and other Christianly response we can avoid imitating the “arrogance, lust, and pride of others.”[xix]
- Clement of Alexandria in Egypt was dean of the foremost Christian educational institution of the day. In the A.D. 190s he taught that the purpose of Exodus 23.4-5 and Deuteronomy 22.1-4 is “in order to teach those who are trained in these things to pray for their enemies.”[xx] Other types and figures of the Old Testament, he said, also teach this principle.
- In exegeting 1 Corinthians 6.1-6, Clement noted that “the Lord expressly enjoined ‘to pray for enemies’”[xxi] as did Paul. Looking at the other side of the coin, Clement said of Paul in this passage: “he teaches that he [the model Christian] is not mindful of injuries, and does not allow him even to pray against the man who has done him wrong.”[xxii] Clement’s thrust in this commentary is that praying for those who have done them wrong, as well as complete forgiveness of them, substantially contributes to a Christian becoming longsuffering and loving toward all people, which is what God wants.
- Quoting an earlier source, Tertullian enjoined Christians to “Love your enemies, and bless those which hate you, and pray for them which calumniate you.”[xxiii]
Bless Your Enemies
Akin to praying for someone is to bless them. The earliest Christian literature exhorts us to bless even people who hate, slander, curse or persecute us:
- Luke 6.28: “bless those who curse you”.
- Romans 12.14: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”
- Didache3 is to the same effect, as is
- Justin Martyr 1 Apology
- Tertullian also repeated Christ’s command to bless people who hate a Christian in a passage showing that Jesus was teaching a new and more thoroughgoing kind of patience.[xxiv]
Do Good to Your Enemies
In addition to these more purely spiritual manifestations of love and forgiveness, various writers admonished Christians to render practical good works of love to their enemies and to people who hate and persecute them. The gospel that is lived is more effective than a gospel that is merely preached or confined to the spiritual dimension:
- Luke 6.27: “do good to those who hate you”.
- Luke 6.35: “love your enemies, and do good, and lend, and expect nothing in return”.
- Romans 12.20, quoting Proverbs 25.21: “‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink’”.
- Artistides in a chapter on the characteristic behaviour of Christians: “their oppressors they appease (lit.: comfort) and make them their friends; they do good to their enemies”.[xxv]
- Diatessaron 9.13: “deal well with those that hate you”.[xxvi]
- Diatessaron 9.18: “love your enemies, and do good to them, and lend, and cut not off the hope of any man”.[xxvii]
- Clement Stromata 7.12, describing the model Christian:
Certainly, he relieves the afflicted, helping him with consolations, encouragements, and the necessaries of life; giving to all that need, though not similarly, but justly, according to desert; furthermore, to him who persecutes and hates, even if he need it; caring little for those who say to him that he has given out of fear; if it is not out of fear that he does so, but to give help.[xxviii]
Call Your Enemies Your Brothers
So great was this love, longsuffering and magnanimity that
- Theophilus, a pastor-bishop of Antioch in Syria in the third quarter of the second century, indicated that Christians applied and practised Isaiah 66.5: “Say to those that hate you, and that cast you out, Ye are our brethren”.[xxix]
- Also considering Isaiah 66.5, Tertullian added:
if they who are our enemies, and hate us, and speak evil of us, and calumniate us, are to be called our brethren, surely He did in effect bid us bless them that hate us, and pray for them who calumniate us, when he instructed us to reckon them as brethren.[xxx]
- Clement’s more encompassing comment was “if all are not yet brethren to us, they ought to be regarded in that light.”[xxxi]
Joy at Persecution
In the topsy-turvy world of Christ’s kingdom, where radical uncompromising love overturns natural human inclinations, our internal reaction to hatred, ostracism and slander on account of the Name is just as surprising:
- Matthew 5.12: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
- Luke 6.23: “Rejoice…and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.”
- Diatessaron 8.36: “rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets before you.”[xxxii]
- Tertullian Apology 46: “the Christian, even when he is condemned, gives thanks.”[xxxiii]
Good Results from Bad Treatment
What is God’s purpose in commanding such self-denying—even unnatural—responses? The ancient authors indicate four categories of objectives for the reactions described above:
First, to become like God. The early sources state:
- Matthew 5.45: “so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and unjust.”
- Luke 6.35: “you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and selfish.”
- Diatessaron 9.18: “ye may be the children of the Highest: for he is lenient towards the wicked and the ungrateful.”[xxxiv]
- In his exegesis of 1 Corinthians 6.1-6 Clement makes the same point as Matthew 5:45, and adds that complete forgiveness of enemies, lack of resentment and of other negative feelings toward them builds up longsuffering and conformity to the nature of the Almighty: “‘For God makes His sun to shine on the just and the unjust,’ and sent the Lord Himself to the just and the unjust.” Because God loves all humanity, it is through loving all people (including those who hate and cause trouble for a Christian) that the Christian becomes more like God, i.e. the sort of person God wants him/her to be.[xxxv]
Second, to train Christians in love for all people:
- Justin Martyr wrote that praying for enemies, blessing those who curse us, etc. was only a part about what Christ taught concerning “our love to all”.[xxxvi]
- Tertullian Apology 37: “If we are enjoined, then, to love our enemies, as I have remarked above, whom have we to hate?”[xxxvii]
- According to Clement’s Stromata12, the early Christian ideal was to be “equal and like” towards all people, be they neighbours, domestic servants “or lawful enemy, or whosoever”. As such, Christians are therefore to relieve and help everyone in need, including people who persecute and hate them.[xxxviii]
- My own general gleaning from ancient Christian literature is that loving one’s enemies is good practice and training for loving one’s family, neighbours, and fellow Christians.
Third: we exercise our Christian freedom. A Christian’s free love of people that injure him/her is an important application of the liberty that is in Christ, for s/he is independent of actions of other people. According to Irenaeus, Jesus extended the Law of Moses in such things as giving offerings generously in addition to tithes, prohibiting anger and non-retaliation for injuries in addition to murder, forbidding lust in addition to adultery, and loving one’s enemies in addition to neighbours and brothers. Jesus did this, wrote Irenaeus, so that a Christian can act in freedom, dignity and willingness towards everyone, including those who hate and do him/her harm. In this way the Christian conforms his or her mind and behaviour to God, “‘who maketh his sun to rise upon the evil and the good, and sendeth rain upon the just and the unjust.’”[xxxix]
The fourth and final purpose of the proper Christian response described in this article toward hatred, opposition, slander and persecution is that it may well lead to the reform and even conversion of our enemies and a consequent end to their hostility, whereas retaliation escalates hostility:
- Remember Aristides’ comment above that Christians pray for their detractors and persecutors “that these may repent of their error”.[xl]
- As Justin Martyr said to a Jewish opponent, “we pray for you and for all other men who hate us; in order that you, having repented along with us, may not blaspheme Him…Christ Jesus; but, believing on Him, may be saved”.[xli]
- The teaching for Christians according to Irenaeus is that “when themselves wickedly dealt with, to be long-suffering, and to show kindness towards those [that injured them], and to pray for them, that by means of repentance they might be saved”.[xlii]
- The last word goes to Clement:
For oblivion of injuries is followed by goodness, and the latter by dissolution of enmity. From this we are fitted for agreement, and this conducts to felicity. And should you suppose one habitually hostile, and discover him to be unreasonably mistaken either through lust or anger, turn him to goodness.[xliii]
Why Not Us?
Have you been harassed by persecutors because of your faith? Probably not. Me neither. If Christians are not opposed and spoken against in our daily lives in the twenty-first century, perhaps it is because we do not take a strong enough stand (or any stand) against injustice and evil in our world. Perhaps we are not open and vocal enough in opposing wrongdoing in our society or in advancing the kingdom of Christ among the people around us. If this is the case, we should pray and act such that we merit the negative reactions described above and thus receive the blessings God has promised there.
Scripture quotations in this article are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible © copyright 1946, 1952 and 1971 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA. Used by permission.
All non-Biblical quotations are from The Ante-Nicene Fathers; Translations of The Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325, edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. American reprint ed. by A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885-96; continuously reprinted Edinburgh, T & T Clark; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans; Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson), hereafter abbreviated to “ANF”. Note: Volume 10 is numbered Volume 9 in the Hendrickson edition.
[i] Polycarp Letter to the Philippians 2.3 ANF 1.33
[ii] Diatessaron 8.35 ANF 10.56
[iii] Epistle of the Apostles 50
[iv] Diatessaron 9.18 ANF 10.58
[v] Justin Martyr 1 Apology 15 ANF 1.167
[vi] Irenaeus Against Heresies 2.32.1 ANF 1.408
[vii] Irenaeus Against Heresies 4.13.3 ANF 1.477-478
[viii] Tertullian Apology 37 ANF 3.45
[ix] Epistle to Diognetus 6.6-7 ANF 1.27
[x] Didache 1.3 ANF 7.377
[xi] Aristides Apology 17 ANF 10.279
[xii] Polycarp Letter to the Philippians 12.3 ANF 1.36
[xiii] Didache 1.3 ANF 7.377
[xiv] Sentences of Sextus 105
[xv] Sentences of Sextus 213
[xvi] Justin Martyr 1 Apology 15 ANF 1.167
[xvii] Justin Martyr 1 Apology 15 ANF 1.167
[xviii] Diatessaron 9.13 ANF 10.57-58
[xix] Irenaeus Against Heresies 2.32.1 ANF 1.408
[xx] Clement of Alexandria Stromata 2.18 ANF 2.367
[xxi] Clement of Alexandria Stromata. 7.14 ANF 2.548
[xxii] Clement of Alexandria Stromata 7.14 ANF 2.548
[xxiii] Tertullian Against Marcion 4.16 ANF 3.370
[xxiv] Tertullian Against Marcion 4.16 ANF 3.370
[xxv] Aristides Apology 15 ANF 10.276
[xxvi] Diatessaron 9.13 ANF 10.57-58
[xxvii] Diatessaron 18 ANF 10.58
[xxviii] Clement of Alexandria Stromata 7.12 ANF 2.542
[xxix] Theophilus To Autolycus 3.14 ANF 2.115
[xxx] Tertullian Against Marcion 4.16 ANF 3.370
[xxxi] Clement of Alexandria Stromata 7.14 ANF 2.548
[xxxii] Diatessaron 8.36 ANF 10.56
[xxxiii] Tertullian Apology 46 ANF 3.51
[xxxiv] Diatessaron 9.18 ANF 10.58
[xxxv] Clement of Alexandria Stromata 7.14 ANF 2.548
[xxxvi] Justin Martyr 1 Apology 15 ANF 1.167
[xxxvii] Tertullian Apology 37 ANF 3.45
[xxxviii] Clement of Alexandria Stromata 7.12 ANF 2.542
[xxxix] Irenaeus Against Heresies 4.13.3 ANF 1.477-478
[xl] Aristides Apology 17 ANF 10.279
[xli] Justin Dialogue with Trypho 35 ANF 1.212
[xlii] Irenaeus Against Heresies 2.32.1 ANF 1.408
[xliii] Clement of Alexandria Stromata 2.18 ANF 2.367
Article by David W T Brattston
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