There is a tendency for Christians to comfort themselves during persecutions by valourising the redemptive value of martyrdom. While we may justly be inclined to believe that martyrdom does commend the individual martyr to the sight of God, however, by itself it actually means very little in this world. Many do not notice that the church of the Father who said that the blood of martyrs are the seed of the Church has more or less gone extinct. Of one thing that we maybe certain, martyrdom certainly create dead bodies, whether it creates converts is another thing.
Furthermore, the attempt to seek the good out of persecution is mainly cathartic for Christians anxious to lionise persecuted Christians. In the face of imminent defeat and destruction, we seek defiantly in the face of the opposition to raise a courageous battle cry proclaiming that even under persecution we will emerge victorious from our bold witness. This does not take into account the other side of Church persecution: Apostasy. There is a link going round showing a Iraqi Christian renounce his faith and embrace Islam only to be promptly executed. While the debates about whether Christ will forgive him for denying Him before man is interesting, the existential threat which this poses for our persecution narratives remains. Persecutions do not necessarily create martyrs; they may create fearful apostates instead. (I think this by the way goes to show that apostasy is no respecter of Christian tradition and ancient pedigree does not necessarily mean rootedness in the heart.)
The fact remains that church extinction is a very real threat and possibility and attempts to prevent it by even the noblest of human efforts like martyrdom is in vain. The Church exists at the mere pleasure of God, by His grace alone are they sustained. Churches do not have a fail proof immunity from God’s judgement. A persecution, far from creating martyrs to water the soil, may create apostates instead. And even the few martyrs whom it creates do not necessarily lead to the growth of a new church.
Yes, throughout the history of the Church, particular churches have gone extinct. We must therefore fear God upon whose grace alone and good pleasure our lives, never mind our confession of faith and churches, depend and never presume the survival of the church can be secured by romantic self-sacrifice. Let’s not forget the Protestant point that even the pinnacle of human righteousness and works are but filthy rags before Him. If it so pleases God, He can, will, and has, exterminated churches from various lands in this world before. Let us be fearful and tremble before the omnipotence of divine displeasure who is both able and willing to persecute us for our sins.
However, precisely because the grace of God is not tied to human works whereby we must all the more never despair of the divine mercy in the face of human failure, even that of apostasy. As Philip Jenkins has noted, there has been vibrant Nestorian churches in China in the Far East in ancient times before they sank into obscurity after the Mongolian invasion and Ming suppression. Today, about seven centuries after the Mongols converted to Islam and the Ming dynasty suppressed Christianity, Christianity is once more flourishing in China under the radar of watchful nervous communist rulers. God may punish a land, yet his mercy eventually triumphs over his judgement, and His grace cannot be exhausted by his vengeance.