Thinking About Persecution

I have been both thinking a lot and writing a lot about persecution lately. Persecution of Christianity that is. And not in far away totalitarian states, but in the “free” West. Every day new cases of anti-Christian bigotry and persecution are appearing throughout the Western world.

So how are followers of Christ to think about persecution? Jesus and the New Testament writers of course made it perfectly clear that the true disciple of Christ would experience persecution. Strong opposition and even violent rejection is the normal lot of the Christian believer.

Indeed, there is a sense in which we can measure our commitment to Christ and our seriousness about being disciples by the amount of persecution we face. As one person quipped, if you do not see bullets flying overhead, you are not taking your faith seriously enough.

Many believers therefore even talk about the value of persecution, and how it can be a good thing, since it weeds out the nominal believers, and reveals those who are truly his. ‘Yes and no’ is my response to this type of thinking.

It is of course perfectly true that when wholesale persecution takes place, it really does separate the men from the boys. Or to use more biblical metaphors, it separates the wheat from the chaff, or the sheep from the goats. Real persecution does in fact show us who the real believers are.

And that can certainly be a good thing. All those nominal, lukewarm followers of Jesus quickly show their true colours when the heat gets turned up. They are quite happy to either renounce their faith, or do everything they can to not rock the boat. That leaves the true, dedicated followers of Christ who will do anything for their Lord, and will go anywhere, even to prison or to the gallows.

Almost all of Jesus’ original disciples met with a cruel martyr’s death. And as the saying goes, the blood of the martyrs is the seedbed of the church. So persecution certainly offers a very real sifting process by which those who are serious about the faith can truly shine for their Lord. Thus in this sense persecution can be said to be a good thing.

But we are nowhere in Scripture ordered to seek persecution, work toward persecution, or delight in persecution. Instead, we are told to seek for a quiet and a peaceful life (1 Timothy 2:2). That is why we are told to pray for rulers and those in authority (v. 1). And Paul could pray that doors would open so that he could freely proclaim the Gospel.

The truth is, religious liberty is a tremendous good. It is a genuine blessing of God, and we should never take it for granted. We dare not be glib or flippant about the genuine blessings of religious freedom. And we need to remind ourselves that such freedoms were in many ways the fruit of the Judeo-Christian worldview in the first place.

Many of the tremendous goods of Western civilisation are the fruit of the biblical worldview. They took centuries to develop, and we should not at all be flippant about seeing them disappear overnight. Many people shed blood so that we might have freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, so we should not be happy to see this taken away from us – at least not without a fight.

That is why I have been standing like a watchman, seeking to warn the church that we are in danger of losing it all. This is not something we should desire or be pleased about. We should see religious liberty for what it is: a tremendous gift of God which we should not treat lightly. It is certainly something worth fighting for.

Sure, if and when we lose these very precious freedoms and move into a season of persecution, then we can rejoice that God is still on the throne, and that he can be glorified in our sufferings as much as in our freedoms and comfort.

But again, we should not think that seeking persecution is a good thing in itself. It is not – it is a very great evil. And none of us will want to have to go through genuine persecution. It will be very costly. It will cost all true believers greatly. Some will lose their lives. Many will be imprisoned or stripped of their resources. Many will be separated from loved ones.

Simply read about the persecuted church around the world today. It is not pleasant reading. Consider for example prison sentences. One might joke about this being one way to engage in prison ministry. But it really is not a laughing matter.

No one will like being imprisoned; it is a horrible place, not just because of regular gang rapes and other atrocious degradations, but the deprivation of liberty and the separation from family and loved ones are terrible things to have to endure. We should wish jail time on no one.

So we need to keep these two matters distinct. If, God forbid, we are to undergo a period of severe persecution, then God can certainly be glorified in it, and the church will be purified and refined as it should be. That is a good thing. Separating the dross from the silver is something the Bible speaks much about. God wants – indeed demands – a holy and spotless church, because he is holy and spotless.

So persecution can and does make the church what it was always intended to be – a pure and spotless bride for the lovely groom, Jesus Christ. But that is a different matter from being cavalier about the religious freedoms which we currently have. Such freedoms are a tremendous gift and a valuable blessing, which have taken centuries to develop, and are certainly worth fighting for.

I for one will fight to my last breath to preserve these very real freedoms. I dare not be cavalier or indifferent to these various assaults on religious liberty. None of us should be. We should take these threats to our faith and the ability to freely proclaim the gospel very seriously indeed.

So if we find ourselves in persecution, God will be with us in it. But we should be doing all we can to preserve the blessing of religious freedom which we currently enjoy.

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14 Replies to “Thinking About Persecution”

  1. Your right Bill, persecution will bring difficult times for believers and it would be a mistake to deliberately bring it on. This has been coming for decades whithout too much protest from the church. I don’t see how it can be avoided now without compromising our faith. It begs the question should the Salvos have backed down as they did from their clear stance on morality? I feel they have taken a step too far back. It would be nice to think the church would come out on mass through civil disobedience in support of the Salvos or anyone who is prepared to make a stand on basic Christian principals but alas history judges otherwise. I can see Christian para organisations and believers being bled dry through the courts and many perhaps will sacrifice their homes without too much mass support. How will those of the Islamic faith chart these waters of political correctness and hate crimes or are people too afraid to bring a complaint against them? I see persecution like medicine. It tastes yuk but gets us back on our feet. God tells us “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness”. I hope I don’t let Him down when it counts.
    Keith Lewis, Ballarat

  2. Just read this in the Age Bill.
    “The Australian Christian Lobby has accused the Federal Government of breaking its election promise to censor the internet after the policy was softened in the face of relentless criticism”
    Why don’t Christian’s relentless criticisms have the the same effect on government? Just shows what soft targets Christians have become.
    Keith Lewis, Ballarat

  3. Those of Islamic faith should supprt the Chrsitians being persecuted instead of persecuting them as well. They are the closest in faith bar the fact of difference lying in the belief as to the status of Jesus. That is in the realm of the hereafter to be resolved. But they should respect and accept the Christian faith as it is interpreted and worshipped by the christians. it is sad any persecution is sad, we are all humans. That until today I told my husnand that Bill has an article pondering about persecution and that i have been too. It is one thing that the moslems do this they are kinda of an obvious “enemy” which they shoudn’t be, but quite another to be persecuted by those who dont believe in God anymore.
    Siti Khatijah

  4. Forgive me I am not trying to equate any teachings or interfaith religion type thing but what I mean is the Moslems believe in God, thats the similarity and therefore shoud not persecute others who do too.
    Siti Khatijah

  5. I take you point, Siti. I know that Islamic apologetics tends to support much of the work by Cjridtian apologists and philosophers as they first logically argue what the two faiths have in common: the belief in an ultimate Designer.

    Yet, given the circumstances taking place in the UK – will the whittling away of Christianity’s (positive) influence – it would seem that Islam is rather enjoying the demise of the Christian presence as it subvertly takes it’s place. In the UK it seems that if you are a Muslim, you are beyond reproach – but it is open season on the Christian faithful.

    Given the out-practice of the Muslim faith, it’s stark differences in core beliefs, and of it’s views towards Christianity in general, I wouldn’t be holding out for any support to come to Christianity’s way.

    Mathew Hamilton, Victoria

  6. it is very sad the state of affairs in the Uk. I studied there and have fond growing up times. Instead of just saying I am British because that is the country that has given them their good life and education , a second chance if you will, from their own dismal oppression back home, they resort to trying to dominate and change and persecute those of different faith. It is pathetic and the Christian Judeo system has thus far worked much better for humanity than theirs. No track record at all only dismal breach of human rights throughout the “moslem world”. They have yet to come to any maturity but want to dominate yet that is not what its about. The very test upon them is their treatment of those whoare different.can we love them regardless and care for them and support them and take them into our homes when they are troubled. What is th epoint of shouting one believes in Gd when in conduct one dsplays nothing dofferent to those who dont.
    Siti Khaitjah

  7. History shows that even in the early Church, when persecution came, many Chrsitians fell away from the Faith to preserve their physical lives and/or the lives of their families.
    This was true from the earliest centuries. There was even a Church dispute over whether or not to take back those who had fallen away due to fear.
    The Church in her mercy determined that mercy would be shown even to these fearful ones and they were readmitted to the Church. Also no second baptism was required because the indelible mark of baptism is never removed, even from those who fall away.
    Economic persecution or phyical threats against families is often par for the course of persecutors as occurred in Egypt, a once Chrsitian nation before the arrival of the Muslims. Similar persecutions occured in the UK for Catholics who refused to attend the new Church of England worship services and religion. This occured in a major way over a period of 150 years through severe fines and jail, loss of property and house.
    In Egypt and the UK it was often the wealthy Catholics who could afford to pay the fines etc that remained Catholic.
    Simialr situation in Egypt with those who could afford to pay money to the new Islamic rulers so as to be left alone( relatively speaking).
    Michael Webb

  8. Islam is probably the most eloquent expression of what the Scriptures call “the angel of light”. It is very similar to Christianity in structure and format and even in vocabulary. The content, or if you will the God they worship, is as different to ours as day is from night. Don Richardson and David Pawson have written books on Islam helping Christians to understand it. Pawson’s “The Challenge of Islam to Christians” was the most helpful book for me not only in order to understand Islam, but in order to deepen my own faith in Jesus Christ and Father God.

    Ursula Bennett

  9. Bill Muehlenberg wrote: ‘But we are nowhere in Scripture ordered to seek persecution, work toward persecution, or delight in persecution.’

    But several scriptures spring to mind that speak of rejoicing in persecution:
    Mt 5:11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
    Lk 6:22-23 Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil,because of the Son of Man. “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their fathers treated the prophets.
    Acts 5:41 The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.
    1 Peter 4:13 But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.
    1 Peter 4:16 However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.

    Bill, many in church history went rejoicing to martyrdom, were they wrong to do so?

    Joel Radford

  10. Thanks Joel

    My point of course was quite simple: we are nowhere told to seek persecution. That God will be with us in our persecution is of course true. And yes we can rejoice as Peter said if we suffer for doing that which is right. But it is not the suffering per se that we rejoice in, but the fact that God is glorified in it. But again, that has nothing to do with going out of our way, looking for persecution, which was the point I was trying to make.

    Again, suffering itself is not good. But God can use suffering for his purposes, as he can use many things which are evil. Suffering has many benefits. It is those benefits which are good, not the suffering itself. These benefits include patience, longsuffering, and Godly character, as passages such as Romans 5:3-4 and James 1:2-4 make so clear.

    So there are two extremes to avoid here. On the one hand, we are not to go looking for suffering (it will come along all by itself, thanks very much!). On the other, we are not to deny the positive value which suffering can bring in our lives, if we turn it over to God and seek his glory in the trial or hardship.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  11. Joel, you don’t have to worry about whether or not you are being persecuted. You don’t have to consciously seek it; all you have to do is to be faithful to the word of God, to live out the Christian life and, baring your living in the middle of no where, you are going to upset people and people will hate you. Easy. William Wiberforce didn’t think that to be a Christian that he had to go and join a slave gang. No he worked to free them. Do we say of those presently being tortured for their faith in places like North Korea, “Keep it up; you are doing just fine”? No we pray for their release, write letters and do what we can to get them out of their suffering. We are no pacifists. And whilst I am on the subject of pacifism, has everyone seen this?

    David Skinner, UK

  12. Persecution of Christians is now well advanced in The West. This is the result of Relativism. Pope Benedict XVI said, shortly before becoming Pope, that relativism is the greatest danger that The Church is facing today. Christian teachings about what is right and what is wrong (sinful) is anathema to modern relativists.Their philosophy is that what is right for one might be wrong for another, ie all is “relative”. This undermines Christian teaching. So that’s why Christianity is being persecuted and will continue to be in modern “Western” countries, which have basically lost their faith and now believe in nothing in particular except that all is relative and so nothing is “wrong” per se.
    Jerry Gonzalez

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