When opposition arises, should we run or allow ourselves to suffer?
Christians can have some rather cloudy thinking when it comes to such things as how we are to respond to opposition, persecution and various forms of attack or abuse. Some of them take the view that believers are always to be doormats and simply allow one and all to walk all over us, because that would be what Jesus would do.
Whether this involves others taking advantage of us or wronging us, or remaining in abusive marriage situations, or being ripped off by tradesmen, or bigger ticket items such as government aggression, tyranny and injustice, some Christians think we should just lay down and submit, and never fight back.
Often these Christians will appeal to the passage about turning the other cheek. But as I have argued elsewhere, this is not such a helpful understanding of what Jesus was talking about when he said this in the Sermon on the Mount. See here for more detail on how we are to understand this text: billmuehlenberg.com/2011/04/20/difficult-bible-passages-matthew-539/
So the question remains: are we simply to submit to any and all belligerence or persecution that comes our way? Do we blindly obey and submit to every edict and rule that the authorities dish up? Are we to allow others to run roughshod over us and our beliefs?
As I said in the piece linked to above, it is one thing for individual believers to put up with personal insults and the like, but this does not mean that we must remain silent in the face of injustice and evil. Nor does it mean there is never a place for fleeing hardcore opposition and persecution.
Indeed, simply reread the Gospels and Acts and you will see both instructions and examples of just this: fleeing persecution and moving out of harm’s way. Having just been reading again this part of the New Testament, I kept track of this, and found around 17 such passages.
Sometimes Jesus told his followers quite clearly that when persecution and opposition arises, they should flee. One of the clearest texts on this is Matthew 10:23: “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”
As Daniel Doriani says about this verse: “Fight is not cowardice; it is fidelity to the mission. If necessary, we will die rather than renounce the faith. But it is better to withdraw to fight – by preaching – another day. We must keep moving. The time is short, the workers few. When persecuted, we should change our geography, not our theology.”
A related sort of passage is found in Matthew 10:13-14 (and the parallel passages: Mark 6:10-12; Luke 9:4-6; 10:10-12): “And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town.”
There is no point hanging around if the gospel is spurned and the gospel-carriers are rejected. Move on to where there is better openness and reception to the gospel message. While that specific command has to do with gospel proclamation, a general principle can be drawn from this for other situations. More on that in a moment.
And we also have very specific examples of Jesus and others doing this very thing: fleeing danger and leaving when persecution is upon them. For example, we find five notable examples of this in the Gospel of John:
John 6:15 Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
John 8:59 So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.
John 10:39-40 Again they sought to arrest him, but he escaped from their hands. He went away again across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing at first, and there he remained.
John 11:53-54 So from that day on they made plans to put him to death. Jesus therefore no longer walked openly among the Jews, but went from there to the region near the wilderness, to a town called Ephraim, and there he stayed with the disciples.
John 12:36-37 When Jesus had said these things, he departed and hid himself from them. Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him.
Similar things are found in Matthew 8:18 and 12:14. Of course it should be noted that not everything Jesus did serves as a universal template for us. Jesus was on a unique mission, and he had to avoid anything that would thwart his ultimate aim and purpose: his journey to the cross.
But the principle still applies: we need not just hang around when danger approaches or when people want to cause us harm or put us to death. While there is a time and a place for martyrdom, there is also a time and a place to be wise and not foolish: if you know that danger lies ahead, it is usually prudent to take steps to avoid it.
Indeed, we find others who took flight as well. Consider the cases of the wise men and of Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus. As to the former, see Matthew 2:12: “And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.”
The latter example is this: “Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod” (Matthew 2:13-15).
And we find the early disciples in the book of Acts also avoiding trouble and persecution: “When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night in order to kill him, but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket” (Acts 9:23-25).
And here are two examples of Paul and Barnabas doing similar things:
Acts 13:50-51 But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district. But they shook off the dust from their feet against them and went to Iconium.
Acts 14:5-7 When an attempt was made by both Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to mistreat them and to stone them, they learned of it and fled to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and to the surrounding country, and there they continued to preach the gospel.
So there is nothing amiss in fleeing when danger abounds and fierce opposition lies before you. Sure, sometimes God may call his people to stay and submit, and as I said, we do have times when martyrdom is God’s way of doing things. I just read again the parting words of Jesus to Peter in John 21:18-19:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.)”
So when it comes to the gospel witness, we find both options in Scripture and in church history: sometimes Christians will flee persecution and violent opposition, and sometimes they will stay, come what may. Both can be God’s way of dealing with such things.
And a third way to respond can be to sometimes resist and fight. Paul provides a good example of this. When he gets into trouble with the government authorities, he does not just run and hide, nor does he meekly give in and allow himself to be walked all over. Instead, he stands and resists. As we read in Acts 25:8-12
Paul argued in his defense, “Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar have I committed any offense.” But Festus, wishing to do the Jews a favor, said to Paul, “Do you wish to go up to Jerusalem and there be tried on these charges before me?” But Paul said, “I am standing before Caesar’s tribunal, where I ought to be tried. To the Jews I have done no wrong, as you yourself know very well. If then I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death. But if there is nothing to their charges against me, no one can give me up to them. I appeal to Caesar.” Then Festus, when he had conferred with his council, answered, “To Caesar you have appealed; to Caesar you shall go.”
As I said, a general application of this can be applied to other areas. Sometimes the wise and godly thing to do is to be a voice of opposition to social and political evil. Sometimes we must fight oppression and injustice and reject wicked government dictates.
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously put it in regards to opposing the evil Nazi regime, believers must sometimes be a “spoke in the wheel”. As he had said at various times: “We are not simply to bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”
That conviction even led Bonhoeffer to join in a movement to see Hitler assassinated. And this is part of what is known as ‘resistance theory’. It is the concept that believers have an obligation and a duty to stand against unjust laws, and sometimes to stand against unjust governments as well.
In sum, the point here is this: there is nothing virtuous or godly or spiritual about always acting as a doormat. Yes, sometimes we are to gently and willingly submit to what is coming our way. But often it is wise and prudent to resist, or to flee, and to put oneself out of the place of danger.
Sure, prayer and discernment are needed as to which option we run with in a particular situation. But the good news is, there are options. Simply grinning and bearing it is not our only recourse.