The Christian and Self-Preservation
The viewpoints expressed here are mine and may not represent any given congregation.
I do not believe that the first century Christians were "martyr-happy." I believe they wanted to live out a full life just as much as you and I do. Martyrdom was not their first choice when they faced a crisis; it was their last. Unless or until it got to the point that Stephen got to, they used all the resources they could lay their hands on to (1) be good stewards of the life and health that God had given them (I Corinthians 6: 19, 20) and (2) to proclaim and serve Christ while they were upon the earth (Mark 16: 15).
Stephen in Acts chapter 7 showed us what the Christian does when the choices have narrowed to only two: (A) renounce Christ and live for a little while longer, or (B) confess Him and die today. What a marvelous example Stephen gave us of how to make that decision! Stephen was speaking before the council (this in the New Testament is usually the Sanhedrin), a group of 70 men. Seventy men can throw a lot of rocks. Stephen proclaimed his Lord Jesus until the Sanhedrin drove the last breath of life from his young body. Stephen is someone I respect for his faith, his bravery, and his priorities. If I am ever faced with that two-way-only decision, I hope I make it like Stephen did.
Acts 8 does not begin with "As soon as the church heard that the persecution had commenced, they all paraded down to the local temple, lined up in orderly rows, and waited for their beheadings." Instead it says in the RSV that "And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church which was in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles. . . . Act 8:4 They therefore that were scattered abroad went about preaching the word." It is permissible for Christians to try to escape violence if they can, as long as they don't do it in ways that directly deny the Christ (Matthew 10: 32, 33). Numerous Proverbs speak of diffusing aggression ("A gentle answer turneth away wrath," etc. ).
Much of the remainder of the book of Acts tells how Paul was able to "work the system" and continue his preaching of the Gospel, rather than immediately giving himself over to martyrdom. Briefly:
Acts 9: 23-25, Paul used a rope to get over the walls of the city to escape those who were trying to kill him.
In Acts 16: 37 ff Paul uses his Roman citizenship to accelerate his and Barnabas' release from the Philippian prison.
Near the end of Acts 22, Paul uses his Roman citizenship again in much the same way, while gaining opportunities to preach as he did so.
In Acts 23, Paul called Ananias' hand about a seemingly swift and unjust physical punishment until he learned that Ananias was the high priest; then
immediately Paul divided the Sanhedrin against itself by declaring "Touching the hope of the resurrection I am called in question." This kept the Council from immediately uniting against Paul and arriving at a death penalty, if not a riot (like Stephen).
In Acts 23: 12 and verses following, we read of the plot against Paul by 40 men who had solemnly sworn to neither eat nor drink until Paul was dead. Paul availed himself of a heavily-armed military guard and was escorted to Caeserea in the middle of the night. Those 40 men died because of what Paul had done in self-defense.
In Acts 25: 10 Paul appealed to Caeser, avoiding another death plot from the Jews(Acts 25: 3) . He bought more time rather than to submit immediately to a martyr's death. Paul was being a good steward of his life and health, I Corinthians 6: 19, 20, "Or know ye not that your body is a temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have from God? and ye are not your own; for ye were bought with a price: glorify God therefore in your body. " For the suicidal and/or martyr-happy person, it is difficult to justify their viewpoints with the Biblical teaching about stewardship of the physical body.
Act 26:32 "And Agrippa said unto Festus, This man might have been set at liberty, if he had not appealed unto Caesar. " Paul did not make these moves just because he was afraid to die; he did them to prolong his usefulness to the Lord while he was upon the earth.
Tradition says that the two-way decision finally caught up with Paul on a road near Rome in A. D. 64. He chose beheading rather than to deny his Lord. Until then, he had always been able to generate other alternatives.
Christ described non-life-threatening situations differently than life-threatening ones. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said "Mat 5:38 "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' Mat 5:39 But I tell you not to resist an evildoer. On the contrary, whoever slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other to him as well. Mat 5:40 If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat as well. Mat 5:41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go two with him. Mat 5:42 Give to the person who asks you for something, and do not turn away from the person who wants to borrow something from you."
But He also said in the upper room as recorded in Luke 22, "When I sent you forth without purse, and wallet, and shoes, lacked ye any thing? And they said, Nothing. Luk 22:36 And he said unto them, But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise a wallet: and he that hath none, let him sell his cloke, and buy a sword. . . . Luk 22:38 And they said, Lord, behold, here are two swords. And he said unto them, It is enough."
In Luke 22, this was just before going to Gethsemane. Jesus had a concern for the disciples' physical safely. Jesus did not have his disciples load up with a lot of hardware, but enough to effect their self defense. Two swords were enough, as He said. He did not want His disciples spending an inordinate amount of time being concerned about self-defense (Matthew 26:52, those who take [Greek "live by"] the sword shall die by the sword).
How do we reconcile these two teachings? Has God given us a standard that cannot be lived up to in the real world (I Corinthians 10: 13)? The criminal, life-threatening situations are different from the merely unpleasant and embarrassing ones. Unpleasant as it might be, it is not likely that any of us is going to die from being slapped, from lawsuit, or loaning a coat; these are persecutions that man can bear. From time to time, we will be called upon to suffer these kinds of injustices, sometimes even at the hands of fellow Christians (I Corinthians 6: 1-8). But that is a different situation from the individual who does not represent the arm of the government (Romans 13: 1-7) who comes selfishly to take life. Only God has the right to take innocent life.
It is understood that whatever the Christian does can never be done with revenge as a motive. Rom 12:17 "Render to no man evil for evil. Take thought for things honourable in the sight of all men. Rom 12:18 If it be possible, as much as in you lieth, be at peace with all men. Rom 12:19 Avenge not yourselves, beloved, but give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance belongeth unto me; I will recompense, saith the Lord."
In John 12: 36, 11: 54, 10:39, 8: 59, 8:20, 7: 32 and 44, and 7:1, Jesus plainly knew that the Jews were trying to kill him. But He "hid" or "cloaked" Himself or simply did not go where the harm potentially was, until His time had come. He didn't wait helplessly for the harm to come to Him. The implication in several of these scriptures is that Jesus performed a miracle to keep his adversaries from detecting and killing Him before His time.