I often write about cases of Christians being persecuted, the church coming under attack, and Christianity being targeted. In the West we find cases of this occurring every day. A war has been declared against Christianity, and things are getting worse with each passing year.
Yet often when I have written about these matters, invariably some Christian will write in and say, “Yes but isn’t persecution a good thing? Look at how it has helped strengthen the church in places like China. Maybe we need more persecution in the West to wake up a dead church.”
How does one respond to such thoughts? I believe the short answer is ‘yes and no’. But I need to explain much more fully just what I mean here.
Yes we certainly are well aware of how persecution can so often purify the church and separate the men from the boys. It is a very good way of separating the wheat from the chaff, the sheep from the goats. The early church for example knew all about this.
Consider the act of baptism. For us believers today we approach it in a rather nonchalant manner. It is not such a big deal. It certainly is not something we must seriously wrestle over as to whether we will do it or not as in the early church. That is because back then baptism was a very public and a very subversive action.
Indeed, in the early church – as well as in many parts of the world today – to get baptised was an extremely risky and costly action to take. As James Montgomery Boice explains, “In the ancient world, to be identified with Christ in baptism was a bold and risky declaration. It often put the believer’s life in jeopardy. There was nothing wrong with listening to Christian preaching or propaganda. But when a Christian was baptized, he was saying to the state as well as to his fellow believers that he was now a follower of Jesus Christ and that he was going to be loyal to him regardless of the outcome. It meant ‘Christ before Caesar’.”
So persecution really does help sharply delineate who is a real follower of Jesus Christ. In that sense it can be a good thing. Thus if it happens, God can use it for good. It almost always will toughen up believers. It will harden them up, strain out the frivolous and unimportant things in life, and help Christians get their priorities right. The fires of persecution help weed of the dross and produce fine gold.
But as I have said so many times before, we are nowhere in Scripture encouraged to seek persecution. We are not told to pray for it, to seek it, or to encourage it. It is a bad thing as well – not just a good thing. It is really a mixed blessing in other words.
When Christians are tortured and killed, churches ransacked and destroyed, and the faith heavily persecuted, that is simply not a good thing. It is devilish activity which comes from the pits of hell. As such we have every right to oppose and resist it.
The truth is, religious liberty is a tremendous good. It is always well worth fighting for. We should not be cavalier about it, and simply shrug our shoulders every time more religious liberty is whittled away. Religious freedom is worth fighting for.
Indeed, we should all thank God when genuine religious liberty exists, and we should all seek to work for the preservation of those freedoms. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of conscience are all tremendously important goods which we should not take for granted, and which we should not allow to be stolen away without putting up a good fight.
Of course there will always be a question as to whether a particular act of persecution may somehow be allowed by God and/or may in fact be part of God’s will which we should just quietly submit to it. It may be his purposes, or it may in fact be an attack of the enemy which needs to be resisted. And there can be some overlap here – along with huge theological questions to deal with. How we would discern all this would be difficult indeed.
For example, sometimes we read in the Old Testament about how God raised up foreign pagan nations to chastise, judge or afflict the nation of Israel. If the attack or siege was in fact part of a deliberate move of God to deal with his people, then of course resistance would be futile. And usually God raised up prophets to tell Israel what was going on.
Thus there are times when a Jeremiah or an Isaiah will tell the people that God is bringing his hand of judgment upon them, and he is using this or that foreign nation to accomplish his purposes. We see this for example in Isaiah 10, where God announces that he is using the Assyrians as his means of judging wayward Israel.
Yahweh even calls Assyria “the rod of my anger” and “the club of my wrath”. But if we keep reading this chapter, we see that Assyria does not get off the hook. God then says he will judge Assyria! So even if he uses a pagan nation to accomplish his purposes, he still holds those nations accountable.
So while we need to be discerning here, there certainly is no case to be made that we simply roll over every time our enemies tell us they are going to destroy us. We dare not take a fatalistic approach to all this persecution, claiming it is somehow just to be accepted and not resisted.
Indeed, the logical outcome of the argument which says persecution is always good is to rejoice when Muslims take over a free nation, or secular humanists, or Nazis, or whoever, because the persecution will wake up the church. It means we in effect condone evil, and even become complicit in it.
I am not aware of too many believers who have used that argument and therefore refused to fight Hitler, or the expansion of sharia law, or godless communism, etc. Indeed, by that sort of thinking, Wilberforce was wrong to seek to free the slaves, since all that suffering would do so much good for them and their souls.
There is, in other words, a legitimate place for Christians to resist evil and fight that which is wrong. In fact, not to do so becomes a copout and an act of injustice. When religious freedom is under assault, I see it as our Christian obligation to resist this.
And if we don’t there will be terrible consequences. I have quoted T.S. Eliot before about this, but he is worth citing again here. He rightly reminds us that when the many good things of our society are allowed to go under, this is no small matter. A free and democratic West took centuries to establish, but it can be destroyed in a moment.
We should not be so cavalier about these matters. We should fight for these overwhelmingly important social goods like democracy, rule of law, freedom, pluralism, and so on. They are worth defending, and should not be let go of without a real fight. This is how Eliot put it:
“If Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes. Then you must start painfully again, and you cannot put on a new culture ready made. You must wait for the grass to grow to feed the sheep to give the wool out of which your new coat will be made. You must pass through many centuries of barbarism. We should not live to see the new culture, nor would our great-great-great-grandchildren: and if we did, not one of us would be happy in it.”
So I am not a fatalist here. While I well know that God often does use suffering in general, and persecution in particular, to make his church and individual Christians more like him, we also have a role to play in extending good government and godly culture, while resisting evil.
Should we then embrace persecution, and not get too worried about each new case of anti-Christian bigotry? Yes and no. Yes God can use it, but no we do not necessarily have to put up with it or embrace it.