For Lent I want to explore a bit of a darker part of our Christian heritage. Since during Lent we are reminded of our own mortality, sin and need for mercy I thought it would be insightful to look back on a few examples when fellow Christians were killed by other Christians. Exploring the lives of these “martyrs” is not going to fill you with warm fuzzies and that is not the goal. The goal is to help you examine your own heart and see where you may have felt something similar towards other brothers and sisters in the faith. At the heart of this idea is this verse from Jesus:
“You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment. If they say to their brother or sister, ‘You idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. And if they say, ‘You fool,’ they will be in danger of fiery hell.”
Matthew 5:21-22 (CEB)
Jesus says that even being angry with a brother or sister is in danger of being judged similarly to murder. My prayer is that by looking into these examples where Christians were put to death by other Christians we would find areas in our own lives where we may be tempted to hate other believers. Some of the examples you may not agree with, some may have been considered heretics, you may be challenged by their ideas and you may even try to justify their death. Use that disagreement not to judge those who were killed but, in keeping with the theme of Lent, to examine your own heart and thoughts and see where you may need to ask for forgiveness for wanting to call someone an idiot, fool or worse. So, let’s get started…
Our first martyr we’re going to look at is considered the first Christian to have been executed for heresy. His name is Priscillian of Avila and he was a bishop of Avila in Spain around the middle of the fourth century. He was noted for living and preaching an extremely ascetic lifestyle. Inspired by 1 Corinthians 6:19, “Or don’t you know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you? Don’t you know that you have the Holy Spirit from God, and you don’t belong to yourselves?”, he set out live as holy a life as possible in order that his body might be a holy temple for the Holy Spirit to reside in. For Priscillian this involved a renunciation of marriage, very strict ascetic living which included retreats during Lent and Easter with the goal to escape, “far from the noise of this world”. Priscillian also discouraged the accumulation of wealth and goods and encouraged a deep familiarity with Scripture. Because of this rigorous, ascetic lifestyle, Priscillian attracted many followers from all walks of life and both men and women.
Priscillian started attracting some negative attention from other bishops, specifically Hyginus, bishop of Cordoba, and Hydatius, bishop of Mérida. They became suspicious of Priscillian because of his ascetic teachings and very egalitarian following. Also, Priscillian had some associations with people who were connected with studying magic/sorcery in Egypt. Because of his asceticism, reluctance of worldly treasures, renunciation of marriage and apparent connection to sorcerers in Egypt Hyginus, bishop of Cordoba and Hydatius, bishop of Mérida began to be suspect of Priscillian and that he might even be connected with some form of Gnosticism. Because of this suspicion, they sent a complaint to Pope Damasus I and a local synod (meeting/council) was held. At this council (Priscillian and his followers were noticeably absent and some suspect not invited) much of the teachings and practices of Priscillian and his followers were condemned and forbidden. In fact, the decisions of the council were pretty much directed specifically at condemning any practice that was remotely connected to Priscillian. Thus, the conclusion of the council resulted in excommunication of anyone connected with Priscillian in the year 380.
Priscillian appealed to the Pope along with other notable bishops but nobody came to his defense. Priscillian even went so far as to request and audience with the Pope in Rome but his request was not granted. When a new emperor ascended, Priscillian attempted to appeal to him as well. However, this did not go as well as planned. The emperor was hoping to gain favor with the Church and knew that Priscillian was under scrutiny. Even after promising not to punish Priscillian, he had a judge proclaim Priscillian guilty of sorcery/witchcraft along with other crimes and he was executed along with several of his followers. Many in the church were critical of the emperor and civil authorities stepping into a Church issue and executing a bishop.
This can be a challenging story to lead with. Priscillian was accused of heresy, even though some of the evidence against him was circumstantial at best. His extreme asceticism probably did not sit well with many of the church leaders and they obviously took pains to excommunicate Priscillian and his followers. His story, heretic or not, serves as a good example of how far suspicion, hate, gossip and maybe even jealousy can drive people. It’s no wonder that Jesus consider hateful thoughts and angry speech to be practically equal with murder.
I pray that we would examine our hearts to see where we may harbor jealous, angry or gossip driven thoughts about other brothers and sisters in the Church. I pray that we would take the time to get to know, understand and hear their hearts before passing judgement. I pray that we would seek to restore relationships and not let them degrade into hate, anger and death.
Wikipedia – Priscillian of Avila
New Advent – Priscillianism
Christian Classics Ethereal Library – Priscillianus and Priscillianism
Brown University – Priscilian of Ávila and the Tensions Between Bishops