In the wake of the martyrdom of 21 Coptic Christians by ISIS, there have been two recent examples of a phenomenon that has been called a type of Christian takfirism. For those unfamiliar with the term, the Arabic word takfiri refers to a person of a faith (usually Muslim) who accuses another person of the same faith of being a heretic or infidel. While this phenomenon has been pronounced in Islam forming the root of much of the violence in the Middle East, Christianity is not immune to it. Christians who pronounce Christians of their own sect or other sects and denominations to not be true Christians is a takfiri in this regard.
Christian takfirism can be found in almost every Christian sect, including Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and Orthodoxy. I myself was attacked as being “probably unbaptized and lacking sacramental grace” by an Orthodox Facebook user who happened to disagree with my writings about the Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint. In most cases, takfirism results from a (willful) ignorance of theological nuance and historical context in which theology was formulated and ecclesial boundaries established.
Ignorance of Theological Nuance
In the first case, certain Baptists are doubling down on claims that the Coptic martyrs are not Christians, because they (purportedly) believe in a works-based salvation, and because they reject the full humanity and deity of Jesus Christ. The ignorance and rigorism in this case is appalling. Far from advocating salvation by meritorious works, The Coptic Church, like Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, acknowledges the importance of putting faith into action through obedience to Christ’s commandments, without which “faith is dead.” Nonetheless, Coptic Christians profess faith in Christ as the Savior, through whom mankind is freed from sin and justified by faith. There is no sense of “merit” any more than it could be found in the Epistle of St. James.
Secondly, a cursory examination of church history and the state of the Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian dialogue will reveal that Coptic Christians confess the full humanity and deity of Jesus Christ while holding the Christological formula of St. Cyril of Alexandria, which confessed Christ to be in one nature. While Chalcedonian Christianity emphasized the need to avoid the errors of Eutychian monophysitism, which obliterated the distinction between the humanity and deity of Christ, the miaphysite Copts felt that such dyophysitism lead to the Nestorian heresy. The Copts themselves condemned Eutyches and Eutychian monophysitism, though they maintained St. Cyril’s earlier Christology. While the Chalcedonians and non-Chalcedonians differ about the correct way to speak about Christ’s human and divine natures, the confession of the Coptic Church maintains the full divinity and humanity of Christ.
Ignorance of Historical Context
In the second case, a traditionalist Roman Catholic blog, The Josiahs, published a piece challenging the veneration of these 21 Copts as martyrs, for they were members of a “schismatic sect.” After quoting a rather obscure document from the Council of Florence claiming that even schismatics are liable to hell fire, it was cautioned that the eternal destiny of these 21 men should be left to God alone, and Catholics should not venerate them as martyrs. An “editorial note” explained that, due to complaints, the term “schismatic” had been removed from the piece, though the piece itself remains on the site without any further alterations. The note goes on to explain that the ongoing efforts at ecumenical dialogue require a much more respectful and fraternal tone, which is laudable. However, while not everyone who contributes to The Josiahs agrees with position of this article, it remains as an example of a extreme definition of “martyr” to exclude all those who are not in communion with the Pope of Rome. As an example of its rigorism, the article states,
It would follow, therefore, that in order to have the perfection of a martyr, one must die for the very faith Christ has taught. To be separated from the Catholic Church, which is the body of Christ, is to be, as far as external appearance goes, against that very faith to the degree that one lacks both the faith He has taught and membership in His body. Coptic Orthodox most certainly lack the unity which properly belongs to Christ’s Church and cannot be counted as actual members of the same. As non-members of Christ, they cannot therefore be perfect witnesses to the godliness taught by Christ.
It stretches the imagination to claim that Coptic Christians are “non-members” of Christ, especially since Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox generally recognize each other’s baptisms and the genuineness of apostolic succession in each (though, again, rigorist objections can be found). To pull from an obscure document belonging to the Council of Florence ignores the historical context of such a document, which was doubtless composed with the intent of emphasizing the need for union (of the Eastern churches) with the Roman see. Pulling from such a document as an authoritative pronouncement about the state of Coptic Christians is crass and historically ignorant.
In both of these cases rigorist definitions are applied and held without exception or benefit of the doubt. In these definitions, there is little to no room for imperfect knowledge of the situation (such as Coptic beliefs) or, more importantly, there is little attention given to the historical context in which such rigorous definitions were created in the first place. While schism resulted from the Coptic rejection of Chalcedon, ecumenical dialogue and historical research has gone a long way to demonstrating many of the political, linguistic, and conceptual factors that contributed to the schism. Many of these have been resolved to some satisfaction, though some problems remain. Furthermore, while certain pelagian notions of meritorious works have crept in to Christian theology from time to time, the Catholic, Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox churches stand fast in their belief the necessity of grace and the non-meritorious nature of works for “earning” salvation. One would, for example, have to overlook this joint statement of Roman Catholics and Lutherans agreeing upon justification.
Dogma and the purity of the Gospel is important. As St. Paul stated in Galatians, “If anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed” (1:8). Yet the things that divide most of the Christian world do not prevent us from confessing a basic Nicaean orthodoxy, which can be established as a touchstone for what it means to be “a Christian” in a pluralistic world. This is not a basis for eucharistic communion, though it can be the basis for a shared identity of global Christianity united around Trinitarian dogma and the belief in the central tenants of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection.
To be identified as a Christian and to bear witness to Christ and the Gospel in the face of death does not require that one cross all the theological “t’s” and dot all the dogmatic “i’s” even though full communion of the Eucharist does. We can come together in mutual love and respect in the face of persecution. If we cannot do this, then the martyrdom of Christians of different sects than our own will only go to “bear witness” that we do not have love, and if we do not have love, we cannot be Christ’s own no matter how theologically correct we are.