Erik Erickson makes a point this morning that I try to make to my Ancient Church students each year. Words mean things. Some words, spoken in some contexts, mean so much that Christians have been willing to die and have been murdered (martyred) for refusing the speak them. The case to which Erickson points is one that we consider in class, that of Polycarp (c.69–155 AD). He was the leading pastor in Smyrna, in Asia Minor (today Izmir, Turkey). He was a student of Ignatius of Antioch, who was taken to Rome for martyrdom, and he represents an important link between the apostles and early post-apostolic Christianity. He was a faithful, orthodox pastor who, in addition to his regular ministerial duties (preaching the gospel, administering the two sacraments, visiting the ill, and instructing covenant children), also defended the orthodox Christian faith against two of the great heretical movements during his period.
We know with certainty that he wrote a pastoral epistle to the Philippians (120s AD) and Charles E. Hill has argued that it is likely that he wrote the apologetic and explanatory treatise To Diognetus (c. 150s AD).
We have an extensive, if somewhat corrupted, account of his martyrdom for the gospel in 155 AD. By then he was 86. The authorities sent a squad of soldiers to arrest him and much to their embarrassment rather than finding a hardened criminal they found a pious old man. He asked for time to pray, which they granted. He asked the hosts to feed the soldiers, which they did. When he appeared before the officer in charge, the officer tried to persuade Polycarp to say the words that would spare his life. All Polycarp had to do to avoid martyrdom was to renounce Christ and to say, “Caesar is Lord.” Typically Roman authorities also required Christians to perform a ritual of submission to the Roman state religion by pouring out a drink offering to the gods. Out of respect for his old age, the officer in charge exhorted him to submit, to conform, to say the words and pour the offering. The authorities had nothing personal against Polycarp. They respected his obvious piety. As Erickson notes, they even gave him an opportunity to make a defense to the pagan crowd gathered for the spectacle. The exhorted him to dismiss the Christians by saying, “Away with the [Christian] atheists!” He refused to make a defense to the crowd but turned to them and with a wave said to them, “Away with the atheists.”
Now the officer was angry. He demanded that Polycarp submit or face the animals. Just then one of his officers informed him that the animals had been put away and policy required that they stay put. So the officer threatened him with death at the stake, which Polycarp embraced and which finally took his life on this earth.
Why did Polycarp chose to die rather than to speak words which he, the authorities, and the mob all knew he did not actually believe? This is a relevant question since the Phoenix City Council, among other authorities in our day, are effectively asking the same question. They and the courts handling the case of “Brush and Nib v City of Phoenix” have said essentially the same thing: just write the words. No one expects you to believe them. Just submit. Just comply and this will all go away.”
Why did Polycarp refuse? The Martyrdom records: “But when the Pro-Consul pressed him and said: ‘Take the oath and I let you go, revile Christ,’ Polycarp said; ‘For eighty and six years have I been his servant, and he has done me no wrong, and how can I blaspheme my King who saved me?’” (Ch. 9; Lake edition).
Polycarp knew that to “revile Christ” and to “take the oath” to Caesar as a god was to do more than to say mere words. It would be to deny Christ. He knew what Paul had written to the Corinthian congregation, “…no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus is accursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3; ESV). He knew the words of Jesus, “but the one who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God” (Luke 12:9; ESV). Words mean things. There is a relationship between words and things. That relationship is not merely arbitrary and utterly fluid (nominalism). Words are not mere conventions.
When a man says to a woman, “I love you and I pledge to honor, protect, and live with you until death tears us apart,” those words mean something. When a Christian makes a public profession of faith before communion, those words mean something. Thus a Christian may not say, “Caesar is Lord” (in the sense in which the Pro-consul intendedthem) nor may a Christian revile Christ for the sake of conformity to the pagan world.
Being forced out of the business of catering weddings (as the Phoenix courts and authorities are requiring of Brush and Nib) is not martyrdom but there is an analogy. In the various free-speech cases in the USA right now (e.g., Colorado, Washington State, and Phoenix) there is some analogy with Polycarp. In each of these cases civil authorities, who are apparently ignorant of and in the “Masterpiece” case (Colorado) manifestly hostile to Christianity, seek to compel Christians to say things that are contrary to their Christian faith. Unlike Polycarp, in a republican form of government, in which Christians are tax-paying citizens, Christians have the right and perhaps even the duty to contest unconstitutional restrictions of free speech or the imposition of speech that coerces the conscience.
Christians do face the temptation to give in by just saying the words in order to preserve their livelihood. The baker in Colorado has lost 40% of his income. Others have lost their living altogether. That is no small thing. Civil authorities seeking to compel speech against conscience for the sake of conformity might do well to read Polycarp’s story. These sorts of narratives and many others like them from more recent history (e.g., the religious wars and persecutions in the 16th and 17th centuries) were relatively fresh in the minds of the American founders as they adopted the Bill of Rights.
Make no mistake, however, these cases are about the power to compel conformity and public affirmation of homosexuality and latest phase of the sexual revolution. Were it just about cakes and calligraphy we would not have these cases since it is not difficult for homosexual couples to find artists who will affirm them. Thus, Christians will continue to have opportunities to become regarded, as the Romans regarded the Christians, as “haters of humanity” for their refusal to conform to the state religion.