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.