Martyrdom and Takfirism: Conflicting Christian Witnesses

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.


Tempering Attitudes

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.



  1. Wonderful article. Unfortunately, I’m sure you can find as many Eastern Orthodox who would take the same position as the article in The Josiah’s. Most clergy I know refer to them still as Monophysite and object to the term Coptic Orthodox when discussing Coptic Christians. While I agree with your assessment, I am left with one question: how can we recognize non (Eastern) Orthodox as part of the Body of Christ and not allow Eucharistic communion? Can the Body not be in communion with part of itself?

    1. There are enormous problems, both semantic and historical, with these definitions. It is best that we not press them too far. Historically, the Byzantine Church reached out to the non-Chalcedonians and made hard efforts in the sixth and seventh centuries to reestablish union. By acknowledging that union was desired, there was some acknowledgement that these churches in schism still retained some identity as Christians. Personally, in my own theological formulation (not necessarily officially “Orthodox”), I recognize their Apostolic heritage, we well as that of Rome. They were once a part of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, and, as St. Paul says of the Jews, “The gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.” That these churches were once engrafted into Christ, in my mind, grants them an indelible identity that cannot be wiped away, for the gifts and calling are irrevocable. If they are in heresy or schism, there remains a call to return to the unity of the Church, and there remains the gift of apostolic succession and what remains of the Orthodox faith in them. So, I suppose I want to see a third category between “The Body of Christ” and “Not the Body of Christ” whereby a particular church may stray like a prodigal, yet remain beloved in the eyes of the Father. This is sort of what happened with the Divided Kingdoms of Judah and Israel. The Northern Kingdom was schismatic from the Jerusalem Temple and heretical by introducing the two shrines of the golden calves at Bethel and Dan, yet God still sent prophets to them and treated them as a part of the covenant with Abraham.

      1. Thank-you for the historical Israel reference. I had not thought of it and it reminded me that we considered Arian baptisms valid as well. Personally, I still
        the notion that part the Body cannot be in communion with itself unsound. Also the fact that we have signed agreements of Christology (our entire dispute) and still deny each other communion is equally confusing. And if that was not enough the local agreement between the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch and the Syriac Church which includes guidlines for clergy concelebration and intercommunion makes this even more difficult. I do not think we can sort this all out here.

        1. Break in communion is itself not a grounds for non-inclusion in the Body of Christ. For example, the churches of Antioch and Jerusalem are right now not in communion, so there is a partial schism. It may be counterintuitive, but again, history and nuance. We also have to think about the people in these churches. If the people were at one time a part of the Body of Christ when their bishop was in communion with the greater Church, but then, when their bishop severed communion, do are these people cut off from Christ on the basis of one man? The Eastern Catholic churches experienced similar shifts. In some parts of Eastern Europe, it’s hard to tell the difference between Catholic and Orthodox churches, because their affiliation might be determined by what side of the boarder they fell on at any given time. Their faith didn’t change in any real sense, even though they might have started commemorating the “Patriarch” of Rome at some point or received their bishop from Rome. It would be unwise for us to be so categorical about whether or not these people were or were not members of Christ. In these cases and others like them, the messiness of history obscures our ability to apply rigorist definitions. Sometimes, we just have to acknowledge the political or historical problems and allow for a greater mystery to be present in extending mercy and grace to those who are victims more or less rather than perpetrators of heresy and schism.

    2. Also, we have to ask what constitutes division, if we are to say that there can be no division in the Body of Christ. Historically, bishops and patriarchs were in and out of communion with each other on a constant basis for this or that heresy depending on who occupied the see or who the emperor was at the time. Yet, when one church went into heresy only to return to the unity of the Church later, did they somehow cease to be a part of the Body of Christ only to become so again? Was their baptism invalidated by the schism? Clearly not. So, we are in need of greater nuance when speaking about these issues, and most of our discourse today is far too extreme and rigid. History just won’t allow for such rigidity. The problem with the miaphysite and Roman schisms is not the theological problems per se, but that they have persisted for so long. We became comfortable with the schism, ceased to reach out in love to reestablish communion, and thus we grew apart. This is a sin that must be mutually acknowledged by both sides – that sister churches ceased to reach out to the other when heresy separated them.

      1. A private comment from a friend, Fr. John Hunwicke, about “the Church” and “churches:”

        “I wish someone would find some way of getting through to (***) what the phrase ‘sister churches’ means. It does not mean that ‘The Catholic Church’ and ‘the Orthodox Church’ are sisters; that would quite simply be the old Anglican absurdity of the Branch Theory. There is no such thing as the Catholic Church unless the phrase means the Church of Jesus Christ. I have every respect for Orthodox who make an analogous assertion. I do not see how they could express themselves differently.

        Each particular church, bishop, presbytery, diaconate, laos is a true particular church. They are sister churches. So the diocese of Megara is a sister church of the diocese of Dunkeld. Disunity wounds each (in different ways). All elegantly expressed by Joseph Ratzinger in Communionis notio. That is the only rational basis for Catholic Ecumenism. Ab extra I venture the suggestion that it is the only rational basis for Orthodox Ecumenism.”

        Are you aware of the learned Fr. John Hunwicke’s blog?:

        If you enter a phrase such as “particular churches” or “ecumenism” or “Orthodox(y)” or “Communionis notio” in the search bar at its upper left, many postings along similar lines to the brief excerpt given above will be “dredged up” from the blog’s archives.

        1. Yes, I am familiar with Fr. John’s blog, and I read it regularly. I am also familiar with the concepts that he elaborates in your comment, though I fail to see how this is a criticism of what I wrote in this post. I criticized the Josiah’s statement that the Coptic martyrs were “non-members of Christ.” Fr. John’s comment seems rather to be a good fit as a response to the Josiahs’ article, since it seems as though Fr. John and I would agree, though I used much less precise language. Though, perhaps I am mistaken and someone could enlighten me.

          1. I wasn’t criticizing your statement, but rather supporting it – or, better, suggesting a manner in which one might support it in an ecclesiologically coherent manner.

          2. My apologies. I misinterpreted the tone of “I wish someone would find some way of getting through to (***).” Thank you (both) for your input in this regard, which I did find to be very helpful and will think about further.

          3. Oh, I see. No, the (***) marked my deletion of the name of the learned liturgical scholar who has a certain “bee in his biretta” about Catholic/Orthodox relations.

            I doubt that he wears a biretta, however; perhaps I should have written “kalimavkion.”

  2. Eric,

    As a protestant with a certain affinity for historical-criticism, I often find myself the victim of some rather serious allegations regarding my personal views concerning the Bible and history. I often find that people want to draw the lines of Christian community such that those who “lean liberal” like myself are conveniently outside the bounds of orthodoxy. Knowing that you spent time as a protestant, I wondered if you thought this was a sentiment more commonly found in Protestantism than Orthodoxy? It seems that you’ve received quite a bit of backlash on this issue as well (I’m thinking of your first discussion of OT violence).

    1. It is similar but of a different quality. In Protestantism, the dogmatic boundaries are less clear, so there is greater room for accusation of heresy from different sides. In Orthodoxy, the dogma is quite clearly spelled out in conciliar and creedal statements, so there is less room for such accusations as long as you abide by the dogma of the Church. This may sound counterintuitive, but the clear dogmatic boundaries of Orthodoxy provide a certain freedom within those boundaries. Protestantism is largely about establishing what the boundaries are, i.e. infant baptism vs. believers baptism or Calvinism vs. Arminianism. In Protestantism, the Bible is the touchstone of nearly everything, and allegorical or typological interpretations are less welcome, so any critical views of the Bible are likely to be met with extreme censure. In Orthodoxy, the Bible really is used to serve the already established dogma, so critical views may be met with disdain, but they are not so seriously objected to as long as they do not contradict the dogma of the Church.

  3. I’m not nearly as sanguine as you are about the closeness of Coptic Christological positions to Orthodoxy, but that’s not a discussion for here and in any case is irrelevant to the issue of the status of the Copts killed in Libya as martyrs. There’s plenty of historical precedent for both Orthodox and Catholics commemorating non-Chalcedonian martyrs and this should be uncontroversial. Most famously, the martyr Arethas and his companions in Najran are commemorated on July 27 on the Roman calendar and October 24 on the Orthodox calendar.

    1. Thanks, Samn! I was not necessarily trying to be sanguine or neglect the real problems that still exist between Chalcedonians and non-Chalcedonians. I simply wanted to emphasize, at least from their point of view, that they do in fact believe in the full humanity and deity of Christ, regardless of how they say it all “fits together.” In other words, the Copts have always condemned Eutychian monophosytism.

      1. Yes, but that’s a bit of a red herring, since most of the patristic and medieval writers who considered the non-Chalcedonians to be heretical did not do so on the false notion that they were Eutychians, but because they followed the teachings of Severus of Antioch.

        1. Granted, though we may determine that miaphysitism to be a heresy and this obscures the full humanity and deity of Christ, it still does not take away their own claims to the contrary. I only wish to point that out. The Copts have never said (to my knowledge), “No, we don’t believe Jesus was fully human or divine.” This was the charge that the Baptists made in the link I provided, and that is what I wanted to disabuse them of.

  4. I want to thank you for this article Eric. I am a proponent of full and immediate reconciliation between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, although I recogniE this is for a moment a minority view, but when you look at the benefits the cooperation between the two Patriarchs of Antioch have brought in fighting ISIL, and see the two churches praying for the return of each other’s bishops, and also for that matter the close cooperation that has existed between the two Popes of Alexandria, it does seem to be a position I want to take. I have read, somewhere, that the Coptic and Greek Orthodox Parriarchate of Alexandria wanted to merge in the early 1800s but the Ottoman khedive (divide et impera and all that).

    What seems particularly chilling though about the Baptist article is it would seem to deny that even some high church Protestants are Christians. I would not be surprised to see many Baptists of this type doing what Luther wanted and removing the Epistle of James from their Bible. I recently came across the website of a Southern Baptist preacher who was campaigning for his colleagues to stop reading the adultery pericope from John “because it’s inauthentic” and presumably omitting it would allow a more rigorist morality. But it seems to me when we start down this road there is a real risk of pharisaism, so I’m not going to accuse these Baptists of being infidels.

    In fact, I’ve been trying to think of ways to reach out to Baptists and promote dialogue so they can understand the Orthodox are Christians and are their brothers (the Pen and Pulpit writers would I suspect have classified Eastern Orthodox as non Christian as well, only instead of Chalcedon, they would have resorted to the idolatry canard). My thought is outreach based on the historic friendship and cooperation between Billy Graham and the Moscow Patriarchate, and stressing that the Orthodox are really the only other Christians who are doing full immersion baptism of adults, and perhaps using the example of people bathing in blessed waters on Epiphany as something that relates to Believers Baptism. Because the fact that the SBC is riddled with special interest groups like Pen and Pulpit and 9Marks who hate us makes me very sad. But one can be encouraged by the fact that so many Baptists took the view that outraged the Pen and Pulpit guys.

  5. I’ve come to this piece rather late, having only caught up on the recent Coptic martyrs a few days ago. I managed to find the video of their execution and watch it, not out of prurient curiosity, but to see and hear for myself their marvelous calmness in the face of death and their confession of the Lord Jesus with their final breath. The jihadist spokesman in the video gloated that they died in their idolatry — this is presumably why the cries of “Yeshu'” and “Ya Rabbi” were not edited out — but this was a grave tactical mistake on the part of the fanatics, since the capturing of such steadfast faith on video and audio can only serve to inspire other Christians with wonder and joy.

    My personal response to the Coptic martyrs has been to glorify God for their witness to Christ, although I am hesitant to venerate them. I pray for them among the departed, although probably they do not need my prayers. With this reflection you have raised an important question about ecumenism and polemics in general. I agree with Sam in being more wary of the results of the dialogue with the Non-Chalcedonians as practiced thus far. Some of your statements might be taken to suggest a branch theory, such as your use of “members of Christ” to refer to heterodox Christians. But it’s hard enough to try to articulate our awareness of the remaining ties that bind us with non-Orthodox while also maintaining our belief in the Una Sancta. I think your use of the engrafting metaphor and the irrevocability of the gifts of God may be helpful as a way to interpret a puzzling phrase in the puzzling canonical epistle of St Basil on (re)baptism of heretics, schismatics, and sectarians, where he desribes schismatics as still being “from the Church” (ετι εκ της εκκλησιας οντες, if I recall correctly).

    1. Thanks, Nick. Frankly, I find the “branch theory” to be something of an ecumenical boogey man, an irrational fear that derails a lot of genuine ecumenical effort. On the one hand, we cannot say that they are cut off from Christ, bereft of grace, or something like that, and on the other, we want to acknowledge the real issues that divide us and the problems inherent within miaphysite theology. We have to allow for greater nuance without jumping to “BRANCH THEORY!” I’m glad you recognize that I am indeed trying to find that nuance.

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